Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The pillion - Part 1

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Illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne.

Part 2


Amongst the various changes which have passed upon our social habits within the last halfcentury, there are none which astonish us more, on looking back, than those which belong to our modes of travelling. That men must occasionally travel in the way of their business, must pass from market to market, or from town to town, and sometimes even from one country to another, has long been recognised as a necessity of their modes of existence; but with women the case was formerly very different, and once in a life time to have seen the metropolis of their own country, was to respectable women of the middle ranks of society residing in the northern or midland counties of England, about as much as their locomotive propensities aspired to; while to visit the lake districts of Westmoreland and Cumberland was a romance reserved for that culminating point of happiness—the wedding tour.

The wonder is now what the dear, restless souls actually did with themselves when home became a little dull, and they wanted to be off somewhere, and the kind physician of the family thought a little change would do them good, and they thought so too.

Pondering upon this question the other day, and stretching my thoughts backward into the past, scarcely even so far as to half a century, I was forcibly and somewhat amusingly reminded of that now forgotten, though once important, accessory to locomotion—the pillion. I thought also, that while there is so much worth recording in the “folk lore” of the people amongst whom our forefathers dwelt, it might not be uninteresting to know how our grandmothers were safely and comfortably conveyed from place to place; yes—and how they were sometimes wooed and won.

To the north of England, and the remote dales of Yorkshire, and, indeed, wherever the population has longest retained its agricultural character, we must go to find the habits of the people genuine, and true to old customs, and institutions: and here it is not necessary to look so far back as half a century for some of the scenes which I am about to describe, as connected with that truly dignified apparatus for travelling called the pillion.

As it is often a cause of astonishment, in reading of the exploits of knights and warriors of old, how their horses could, not only carry them and all their armour and accoutrements, but could also prance, and rear, and curvette, as they are represented in painting and sculpture to be doing; so it might become a matter of curiosity to know what kind of horses our grandfathers and grandmothers rode, seeing that the animal had so often to do double duty by carrying two instead of only one. Hence the terms riding double, and riding single, were in constant use; though from the greater rarity of the latter in the experience of most women, it was especially distinguished by the word single, the mere act of riding being more generally supposed to be on a pillion.

But what is a pillion? some fair dweller in our modern cities may be disposed to ask, if indeed she can spend even a passing thought upon a thing so obsolete, and forgotten. The thing in itself, however, does not deserve to be forgotten, as I will endeavour to show. In the first place it was very comfortable (to those who liked it), and enabled many a timid matron, and gentle maid, who would have been afraid to ride alone, to pass, under cover of her cloak and hood, many a long mile through the country, without ever being ruffled by wind or weather, and all the while in the safe and close protection of a man—perhaps the man she liked best in the world; and was that nothing?

In the joint partnership of this mode of travelling, a man to ride first was almost indispensable; and this, no doubt, to many female minds imparted a zest, as well as a sense of security. Such things have been known as two women riding double; but this can only be regarded as a spurious, and very inferior mode of conducting the concern.

The pillion itself was a thick, firm, well-stuffed, wide and level cushion, extending quite across the broadest part of the horse, with two deep flaps, one on either side. It was covered on the outside with the finest cloth, generally drab, and cut and stitched as carefully as the best made saddle. Seated on this firm, substantial seat, the lady had at her feet a comfortable footstool, consisting of a long, narrow stirrup, so swung on one side as to afford support even if she should choose to raise or adjust her person on the seat; while at her side, over the tail of the horse, was a leather handle, also exceedingly firm, which not only helped to keep her from slipping off, but even supported her like the arm of a chair. Beyond this, if the lady chose, she might insist upon a leather girdle being worn by the man before her, so as to afford safe hold for her other hand; or, dispensing with the girdle, she might, in extreme danger, draw her own arm around the person of the man; but this resource our grandmothers, no doubt, reserved for cases very extreme indeed.

No arm-chair ever invented could be more comfortable, or feel more safe, than the actual seat of the pillion. But as all comforts are in a measure dependent on their accessories, and liable to be damaged by relative circumstances, so the comfort of the woman on the pillion was affected to an extent altogether beyond her control by the pace, and even by the form of the animal on which she rode. Rosa Bonheur’s horses in the fair would have been admirable for this purpose, scarcely requiring a pillion at all. High-bred, narrow-shaped horses had to be altogether eschewed. They must have broad, comfortable backs, and the flatter the better, towards the tail. They must not go with a long launching pace, or the poor woman would roll like a boat in a rough sea. A quiet, regular, jig-jog, never lifting the feet high from the ground, was the pace required—just the next degree in swiftness to a walk—a pace into which horses naturally fall, and which, when their spirits are not too high, they seem to prefer to any other. Provided then the horse was strong enough for the weight of two persons, and provided its natural constitution comprehended a little touch of blood, as well as a vast amount of bone, which many Yorkshire horses did, it would travel in this jig-jog way for an immense distance without apparently suffering from fatigue. Pushed beyond this pace—spurred into a brisk trot, or worse, into a gallop—both horse and riders presented a spectacle more grotesque than it is easy to imagine, the poor woman having no power whatever to accommodate herself to such extraordinary circumstances.

Indeed, nothing could exceed the entire helplessness and utter dependence of this situation to a woman. Hence it agreed better with our grandmothers, than it would with us. All which the poor woman could do with the horse, let it behave as it might, would be to pull its tail—a mode of proceeding seldom found either soothing or salutary; and as to the man, her human companion, she could not even look him in the face. Let her disposition to coquetry be ever so strong, she might ogle, or smile, she might frown, or do anything she liked with her expressive features, he could not see them; and if he had not perceived that she was beautiful before he mounted into the saddle, he could never find it out there. Still, it is not to be doubted, but there might be sighs, or other sounds of peculiar meaning made intelligible even under these difficult circumstances; only that the bump, bump of the woman’s form on the pillion, must have rather impeded the musical utterance of any long continued speech. Altogether, we are left to suppose that sound sense, rather than tender sentiment, characterised the intercourse of our ancestors when riding together two on one horse.

In proof of the entire absence of all independence of action on the part of the woman when riding in this style, many amusing facts might he told; such, for instance, as the sudden giving way of the straps, one on each side, by which alone the pillion was secured to the saddle, and so kept in its place. I recollect an instance of this occurring to a lady who was riding behind her brother up Lincoln Hill, and who suddenly found herself seated on the road, the pillion and its occupant having slipped over the tail of the horse, and reached the ground without much disturbance. Many stories used also to be told of men evidently not much interested in their partners, who arrived at the end of their journey minus the lady, yet all unconscious of having dropped her by the way.

There is at present sitting in parliament—or there was a little while ago—a very wealthy and influential gentleman of whom it was said that he obtained his first gold watch in the following manner. His mother, a widow, kept the purse, and she held the strings so tightly, that her son, even on attaining to years bordering upon manhood, after repeated efforts, was unable to prevail upon her to grant him the boon of a gold watch. So, one day, he took his mother out for a ride. They kept no carriage then, and indeed a carriage would have been of little use in places where the roads were often barely passable for horses. In the neighbourhood where they lived there was a long lane, remarkable for its depth of stiff, wet clay, abounding in holes and pools of mud. The son made choice of this lane for his ride with his mother behind him on her pillion; and having picked his way with many plunges, half the length of the lane, so that the difficulty of returning would be as great as that of going forward, he came to a dead halt, and deliberately stated his case to his mother, declaring that if she did not promise him the gold watch, he would then and there set her down in the lane, leaving her to get out of it as she could. The poor lady having no power to help herself, made the promise, which, there can be no doubt, would be faithfully kept; but whether she ever ventured upon a pillion behind her son again, the story does not say.