The Littleport Society’s Roger Rudderham tells us about the Great Shire Horses of Littleport

The English Shire Horse is not a native breed to this country, it was imported by the Normans after their conquest of England in 1066. Its massive size and strength made it an ideal war horse for the steel-clad knights, as well as for pulling heavily laden carts and wagons. This huge horse was, primarily black in colour, was a distinct European breed and was generally referred to as the “old black horse,” a name favoured by many owners of wayside taverns, and still a common name of public houses all over the country.
Over the centuries this mighty work horse developed into what became known as the Shire Horse, particularly in the Midlands and East Anglia, and its colour, by the early 19th century was by no means restricted to black. Bays, browns, chestnuts, and roans became distinctive of the breed, and the Fens in particular became noted for the fine animals bred by the farmers of the area.
It was said, according to Frederick Street, the author of The History of the Shire Horse, published in 1883, that “more good horses were bred within a radius of twenty miles of the City of Ely than in the rest of the kingdom.” The Isle of Ely was a vast agricultural area, its rich peat soil was some of the most fertile in the country, and the farmers required thousands of horses to work the highly productive land. There was therefore a great demand for fine strong horses. Among the farmers of Littleport were some of the most notable breeders of prize winning shires.
It was reckoned that Mr. Joseph Martin, of Highfield House, a member of the English Cart Society, had “a stud of shire horses admitted to be one of the best in the district.” One of his finest horses was Hercules, described as “a beautiful chestnut” standing 18 hands high, and weighing 1 ton 1cwt 4 stone, his sire was Mr. Thacker’s Heart of Oak, by a mare owned by Mr. T.J. Mott, and was soon after purchased by Mr. Martin. Hercules won prizes at the Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely Show in 1873 at Chatteris, and in 1874 at Newmarket where he took the Treasurer’s Cup in a class open to all England. He also won prizes at the Norfolk Show at Fakenham in 1875.Hercules was in great demand as a stud serving 100 mares a year at £2 5 shillings each, and Mr. Martin had many offers to purchase the horse, one for £400 in 1871, but he refused them all. Tragedy, however, struck Hercules on the 14th November 1876. He had been returned to his stable and was fed, but when the ostler returned a little later Hercules was on the floor struggling to get up. It appeared that somehow he had injured himself internally and he died three days later. Hercules was a great loss to Mr. Martin, but he did have several of his progeny to maintain the high reputation of his stud, including Hercules II, foaled in 1873, and a chestnut like his sire. Other son’s of Hercules were Ajax and Hector, foaled in 1874, Achilles foaled in 1876, and Goliath foaled in 1876. Achilles was a chestnut, the image of his sire, who won 3rd prize in the Cart Stallion Class at the Cambridge Horse Show in 1879. Hector, a dark bay with black legs was a fine stallion, but somewhat a disappointment when it came to winning prizes. He was often highly commended, but missed out when in competition with others sons of Hercules. When Ajax won the best cart stallion for under 2year old at the Cambridge Horse Show in 1876, Hector only received a “reserve.”
Another well known breeder of prize winning shires was Mr. T. J. Mott, of Dairy Houses Farm. Mr. Mott was a prominent agriculturist, farming a large acreage of land in the Littleport -Little Downham area, and together with his brother, William Mott, a veterinary chemist, established a business manufacturing and selling horse and cattle medicines.
Mr. Mott’s most famous shire was Samson, foaled in 1861, he became a credit to his mighty sire, Mr. Saberton’s Old Samson. A bay, Young Samson as he was sometimes called, grew to “elephantine proportions,” attaining the weight of 1 ton 8 cwt., and was considered to be one of largest horse of his day. Samson was a celebrity whose services at stud were sort after by farmers all over the country, earning his master a small fortune. When Samson died, Mr. Mott kept one of his enormous hoof’s, which he exhibited on his Show stand. Samson left many mighty sons, including Mr. Mott’s Samson III, and Samson V who won 2nd at the Ely Agricultural Show in 1881, and was soon after sold to Mr. Attrill, of the Isle of Wight, for 83 guineas.
Another son of Samson was Lincoln, a bay like his sire, and owned by Mr. Miller of Lancashire. Lincoln was described as having “enormous muscular power,” and stood 17 hands two inches, and won first prize at Derby Horse Show in 1876, a contest open to all England. It was reported that Lincoln “cannot be equalled in England.”
Honest Tom was another of Mr. Mott’s mighty shires, foaled in 1884, he was a son of Wonder of the West. He was a draught horse of great strength and fine proportions, and won many prizes at shows. He was also in great demand as a stud, at one time being let to the Vale of Aylesbury Association for a season for the sum of £300. In August 1890 he won the Championship prize at the Cambridge Agricultural Show. A month later Mr. Mott sold him for “a considerable sum” to Mr. James Forshaw, of Carlton-on-Trent, at whose stud farm he continued to sire great prize-winners until his death in 1896.The notable shire Marquis was also a son of Mr. Thacker’s Heart of Oak. Marquis was foaled in 1874 by a mare owned by Mr. Jones, of Apeshall, shortly after selling the young stallion to William Little, who farmed the Westlands estate for his uncle William Luddington. Mr. Little was a member of the English Cart Horse Society, and had an eye for a good horse. He often acted as a steward at their shows all over England and was regularly called upon to judge the horses at many of their local shows. It was said “his opinion carried great weight.”
Marquis was a beautiful black stallion, typical of the great war horses of a few centuries earlier. At three years old, in 1877, he was awarded the Reserve Riband at the Cambridge Horse Show. He went on to win many prizes, including three firsts and four seconds, and in 1882 he judged best cart stallion at Cambridge winning the Treasurer’s Cup. Shortly after the Cambridge Show in 1883, Mr. Little retired from farming and all his shire horses, which numbered 23, including the great marquis, were all sold by auction.
William Little was also instrumental in establishing the Whitehall Farm stud for Mr. W. R. Gamul Farmer, of Nonsuch Park, Surrey, whose family had owned the Littleport farm for several generations. Mr. Little built up one of the finest studs in the area, comprising mostly mares known for their fine characteristics and breeding. Many of mares were given names that were all preceded by the word Welcome, one of which was the splendid bay, Welcome Lady, a daughter of Mr. Little’s famous black stallion Marquis.
In 1887 Mr. Gamul Farmer let the Whitehall farm he put all his shires, which comprised 55 mares, 10 stallions, 8 geldings, 11 foals, and 1 nag mare, up for sale by auction. The sale was held on the 7th October and attracted many well-known farmers from around the East of England, and due to stiff competition some high prices were realised. The beautiful Welcome Lady fetched for 96 guineas, and was purchased by HRH The Prince of Wales.
The fame of the Isle of Ely shires had spread far and wide. When Mr. I. H. Truman, of the stock yards, Chicago, visited England in 1882 to acquire shires of great strength to improve the breed in the United States, he ensured the Isle of Ely was on his itinerary. In Littleport he purchased horses from both Mr. Martin and Mr. Little, and eventually returned to the USA with 50 of the purest bred shires to be found in England.

Leave a Comment