The Carters’ Ploy

Samuel Smiles of Haddington, of whom I wrote in my last article, worked at his Autobiography intermittently over many years. An important memory is of what Samuel Smiles called “The Carters’ Ploy”. It was a great event in early summertime Haddington in those days, when Smiles was ten, just after the Napoleonic Wars.

The matter is also examined in Riot, Revelry and Rout, John Burnett’s account of public sport in pre-1860’s Scotland, published in 2000. John Burnett refers to “The Carters’ Play” in his book. I prefer Samuel Smiles’ rendering, firstly because he was closer in time to the event, secondly because “Ploy” is a Scottish usage which the young Samuel Smiles would have been familiar with and more accurately translates the spirit of the event: “an amusement, a frolic, a scheme for amusement.” Something extended over time, in other words.

“The Carters’ Ploys, or “Plays,” were races run by ordinary farm horses, not by thoroughbreds. Their jockeys didn’t own them, in most cases, but borrowed the horse from the farmer or carter who employed them.

The geographical distribution of the nineteen “Carters’ Plays” were centred around Leith, whose races on the Sands were their inspiration, according to Burnett. They were mostly in East- and Mid- Lothian, with none in West Lothian, at places like Haddington and Dalkeith. Aberlady, Haddington’s port in those days, had its own. Three were outliers to the main group, at Biggar in Lanarkshire, West Linton and Peebles in Peebleshire. These last were called “Whipmans’ Plays,” after the Scottish word for a carter. The West Linton Play still goes on. At least the name’s the same, but the event has greatly changed in nature.

“Carters’ or Whipmans’ Plays” were run by local Friendly Societies, especially those whose membership included workers with horses, although others could join. In Haddington membership was open to anyone “from the labouring and trading part of the community” if they were between eighteen and forty. Each “Play” was conducted in a manner broadly similar to the rest.

Friendly Societies were an important bulwark against unexpected death or unemployment in industrial Britain, in the days before state benefits. They paid a small weekly sum to members, if they should be unlucky and were thrown out of work, or they paid out a lump sum on death.  Some were strictly for workers in one industry, others, as at Haddington, open to all.

Friendly Societies became increasingly popular as the nineteenth century progressed. “The International Order of Rechabites”, “The Oddfellows” and many others had a mass and country-wide membership. As the population increased, many prudently insured against the disaster of unemployment.

This was in the future. In the East Lothian which Samuel Smiles was remembering the societies were small and local.

The Agricultural Revolution was well underway by the time of which Smiles was writing, the 1820’s. Crops were improved, fields drained and enlarged. East Lothian was a prime site for the reforming landlords, given its (relatively) good climate and tractability of its land.

Only a few years before, most ploughs were still drawn by oxen. Horses were too small and puny, except for the lightest soil. But by 1820 most farmers had changed over to horses as draught animals, and employed ploughmen, who paid their membership fee to the new Friendly Society.

The reason for this change was the spread of the proto-Clydesdale and Shire horse blood throughout Scotland, although things hadn’t yet been formalised into breed societies with stud books. Even if a farmer couldn’t afford a fully improved animal, and many around Haddington could, the transfusion of new blood into the equine population meant a horse could drag much more weight.

Haddington was close enough to Edinburgh, which meant that, before the railways came, there were many carters who ran grain and other goods to the city. They, like the ploughmen, paid their annual fees to the parish Friendly Society, and could act as riders at the Carters’ Play.

Samuel Smiles remembers the Carters’ Ploy as a holiday from school. “One of the carters was elected to preside over the Ploy, and was hailed as “My Lord.” Each had sent his hat to his girlfriend, who was generally a servant- maid (a great many people were in service then) who covered it with ribbons. “My Lord” had a velveteen jacket decorated in the same way. The Carters’ Friendly Society then joined a procession mounted on their cart horses, and stopped at the burgh school. “My Lord” begged a holiday for the pupils to watch the race.

“This was always granted,” said Smiles. After the race was the dance, which was opened by “My Lord” dancing with “My Lady,” who had decorated his hat and jacket. Samuel Smiles remembered one of his mother’s servants being “My Lady” for that year.

The race was held on the public road. Smiles says that “frightful accidents sometimes happened. A cart-horse was quite unfitted for galloping on a macadamised road.” They had heavy hooves and legs, and were bred for slow pulling, not for speed. A horse could fall and have to be shot. The jockeys sometimes broke their arms or legs.

Once the railway arrived, in 1849, the fate of the Carters’ Ploy was sealed.  The last race was in 1859, because what carter could compete with a train on price and speed?

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