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. [photo 4] The back chain should be hooked onto the shafts at both ends, and the belly band can be left on the off side shaft. The harnessed horse is led round under the shafts or backed underneath, and the shafts are carefully lowered over the horse and the back chain is laid in the groove in the saddle. If a halter is used under the bridle (as it is in my native county of Yorkshire) the waggoner [teamster] can keep hold of the halter rope whilst hitching, particularly if the horse is not used to what is happening. Then, starting on the nearside, the shoulder chain is hooked on to the hame hook. The waggoner then walks round the horse and hooks on the off side shoulder chain, then the off side britchen chain before walking back round to the nearside. He hooks up the near britchen chain and reaches under the horse for the belly band,and buckles it round the shaft. The waggoner is then in the correct position to tie up the halter rope and take the lines down from the top of the hame. For safety reasons the shoulder chains are always hooked up first and unhooked last so if the horse moves forward, the cart goes with him.To check that the shafts are in the correct position, the back chain should be vertical when the shoulder chains are tight. This can be adjusted by not using one or more links of the shoulder chains. [photo 5] The shoulder chains should be the same length to equalize pressure on the collar and the horse’s shoulders. The height of the shafts is adjusted by dropping links of the back chain so that the top of the shafts is about four inches below the hame.This allows the line of draught to pass from the hame, along the shoulder chain in a straight line through the centre of the wheel. The britchen chains should be made tight enough, by dropping links, so that the cart doesn’t run forward much before being held back by the britchen. The belly band should be loose under the belly so that a flat hand can be put under it, but not enough that a horse could get it’s back foot over it, if kicking at a fly.
Unhitching is the exact reverse procedure, making sure that the britchen chains hang inside the shafts and the shoulder chains, if left on the cart, are outside the shafts, so they don’t get caught on anything, before pushing the shafts up in the air. Avoid letting the back of the cart bang on the ground. It is a good idea to keep the horse where he is for a moment before walking him forward so he learns to wait while you check everything is clear.The second method of hitching up; and the only method with some smaller carts, is when the shafts are on the ground. [photo 6] In this case the back chain is left hooked to the off side shaft only and all the other hooks should be turned outwards, out of the way of the horses feet. The horse is carefully backed between the shafts, making sure he doesn’t stand on them. If there are two of you, each person lifts a shaft, the back chain is passed over the cart saddle and hooked on the near shaft by the other person. If you are working on your own you can hook up the off shoulder chain to keep the shafts up, pass the back chain over the saddle and hook it on, but I find the chain tends to slide back out of the groove in the saddle before I can get to the other side of the horse, which is why I prefer to start with the shafts up in the air. The shafts can be held up by looping the shoulder chain round the off shaft and hooking both ends on the hame hook, until the back chain is fastened. Alternatively, if the shafts have prop sticks one of them can be let down to hold the shafts while the back chain is hooked on. The procedure is then the same as before, shoulder chains first, then the britchen chains and the belly band.
Un-hitching is the same as when the shafts were in the air, except the back chain is unhooked at the near side before lowering the shafts to the ground, without dropping them and frightening the horse. Check all is clear from the horses feet before leading him forward.