The Tip Cart
by William Castle of Yorkshire, England
This most excellent article on the operation of the English tip-cart features some terminology which may be challenging to a few of us North Americans but I am confident that a careful reading will answer questions. We are grateful to Mr. Castle, who is a subscriber to SFJ, and once again reminded of how vast and vital our readership is. LRM
When horses were the main source of power on every farm, in the British Isles it was the tip-cart, rather than the wagon which was the most common vehicle, and for anyone farming with horses, it is still an extremely useful and versatile piece of equipment. The farm cart was used all over the country, indeed in some places, in hilly areas and in the north, wagons were scarcely used at all, and many small farms in other areas only used carts. In his recommendations for equipping a farm, Primrose McConnel writes in his “Agricultural Notebook “(first published in 1883) that a mixed farm of 100 acres needed 3 carts, and it was only when a farm got to be 150 acres or more did he add a wagon to the list.
The reasons for the cart’s popularity were many. On practical grounds, it was simple in construction and therefore cheap, it can tip its load on to the ground, saving time in handling and it is very maneuverable in narrow lanes and farm yards. In the last century there was much debate about the relative merits of the cart versus the wagon and studies were made to compare their efficiency. Primrose McConnel again, quoting an 1873 study by the Royal Agricultural Society of England, states that a cart required 51.4 lbs to move a ton on a good road; whereas a wagon required 68.1 lbs per ton. On arable land this increased to 201 lbs against 295.2 lbs, an efficiency in favour of the cart of between 24 and 31%. Of course the practical farmer wouldn’t throw away his wagon after reading a study. The wagon had its place, particularly in the hay field and at harvest. The value of having a four wheeled vehicle at those times but a 2 wheeled tipping vehicle for the rest of the year is demonstrated by the invention and widespread use of the hermaphrodite. The hermaphrodite or “morphry” was a normal tip cart, which when required for hay or sheaves, had a fore carriage and loading platform which fitted in front of the body of the cart where the shafts used to be, to turn it temporarily into a wagon, the shafts then being attached to the fore carriage. But after harvest it returned to its main function as a cart.
The geography and economy of the country also tended to favour the cart. Compared to the N. American situation of abundant land, a plentiful supply of horses and relatively little available labour, land in Britain was expensive and farms were small, horses were expensive but labour was plentiful and cheap. Farms were therefore worked with the minimum number of horses and they had to earn their keep, and the men were expected to walk. These facts, combined with smaller fields and an open climate allowing cultivations to be continued throughout much of the winter were also reasons why large teams of horses were not employed on British farms.
The tip cart varied in size to suit the local terrain and was known by different names in different parts of the country – muck cart, scotch cart, tumbrel or putt, amongst others, some names belonging to particular styles of construction; but they were all similar in their basic design; two wheels, a tipping body and shafts.
The shafts and the harness for the tip cart differ from that used for lighter vehicles, intended for road use, because of the greater forces exerted upon them. So the shafts are thicker and the harness is stronger, using steel chains where necessary. The shafts are held up by the back chain (or ridger), which lies in a groove in the cart saddle, and is attached at each end to the hooks on the shafts. These hooks slide along a long staple which is bolted through the shaft. The front of the staple has another hook to attach the shoulder chain (or tug), with a third hook at the back to attach the britchen chain.
The cart saddle rests on the horse’s back, where a riding saddle would sit. It consists of a saddle tree, two boards of beech or elm wood, joined by the wooden bridge, which has a metal-lined groove for the back chain to lie in. The boards need to be far enough apart to prevent pinching the horses spine and the cart saddle is wide enough to keep the chains away from the horses sides. The boards have pads underneath of cloth filled with straw, and these rest on the horses back. The top of the boards are covered in leather and the girth strap is nailed to the boards. There is a strap at the back to buckle onto the britchen and buckles at the front for the meeter straps, which come from the collar. These prevent the collar sliding forward if the horse puts his head down.
The britchen consists of a breech band, 3-4 inches wide, made of two or three thicknesses of leather and hip and loin straps to keep it at the right height. Joining hip and loin straps and lying above the horses spine, is the crupper, the front end of which buckles onto the cart saddle. Although it is called a crupper it does not go round the horses tail, having only a very small loop at the end which has no practical purpose except maybe hanging it up. At the ends of the breech band are chains to hook onto the shaft hooks. The cart saddle and britchen are usually left buckled together when not in use.
The bridle and collar are the same as usual, the hames being provided with hooks for the shoulder chains. The final item of harness is the belly band, a double thickness strap, 2″ wide, which buckles round each shaft. It only comes into operation when the shafts lift up when backing, tipping or when there is too much weight on the back of the vehicle.
When putting on harness, the collar and hames go on first. The bridle can be put on now, or later, if you like the horse to see the harness going on or if he is still eating. When picking up the cart saddle and britchen, I put my left arm under the centre of the saddle with the long end of the girth pulled back over the top, towards my body; and put the crupper, between hip and loin straps, over my right shoulder. Walking up to the near side of the horse, I put the cart saddle on the horses back with both hands, then leaving my left hand to steady the saddle, centre the britchen over the back of the horse with my right hand. Then with both hands I lift the saddle up and forwards and slide it back into position with the lie of the horses hair, push over the girth, reach underneath and buckle it up. The meeter straps are buckled up and the tail is pulled out of the breech band. After the bridle is on, leather reins or rope cords (lines) are passed through the hame rings and tied, buckled or snapped into the bit rings, and the rest of the cords are neatly coiled over the top of the near side hame. With the hame rein (bearing rein) hooked over the top of the offside hame and making sure to bring a belly band and shoulder chains, if they are not already on the vehicle, the horse is ready to be hitched up.
There are two ways of hitching to an empty cart. The easiest way, especially when working on your own is when the shafts are left up in the air.