Two mid-19th century publications by South Australian police commissioner George Hamilton help to reveal the early history of animal welfare in Australia.
His books, published in the 1860s, used compelling narrative and graphic images to argue for better conditions for horses, years before any formal organisation dedicated to animal care was established in Australia.
Cover of Treatment of the Horse in Australia by George Hamilton. This album of photographs is believed to have been made prior to the publication of The Horse: Its Treament in Australia, for reference or use in reproduction work. It is now part of the National Museum’s collection
He is taken from his native world! The horse in his wild state, before the iron has entered either his mouth or his ‘soul’; he has been running at large, and his youthful days have been full of happiness; but now, poor fellow, he gazes on two horsemen who are approaching him for a purpose that he little dreams of. From Treatment of the Horse in Australia by George Hamilton
He is driven to the stockyard. The two horsemen are driving him at full gallop to the stockyard, where he arrives, like the grapes at the vintage, with shouting and rejoicings, and also with a salute of stockwhips. Unfortunately for him the simile of the grapes does not cease here, for he has to undergo a smart process of bruising, squeezing, and treading under foot before he is allowed to pass out of his confinement. From Treatment of the Horse in Australia by George Hamilton
He is roped. Once down, subdued, and conquered, he undergoes tortures that must be imagined, not described; his flowing tail is cut off, why, heaven only knows! In this country where flies are more abundant than pleasant companions, and quite as disagreeable though not so venomous as scandal mongers; the tail of the horse is especially required to sweep away these nuisances ... From Treatment of the Horse in Australia by George Hamilton
He is branded and has his tail cut off. After the tail has been cut off, the brand of hot iron is applied to the skin…. By this time the animal … has had so many ‘surprises’ that he has exhausted his stock of astonishment and ‘shut up shop,’ and he now lies quietly submitting to whatever man may please to do with him. After he is branded, his legs are loosened, and he is directed to ‘get up’; this direction is generally accompanied with a kick on the stomach, and flavoured with an oath or two, roared out at the top of the civilized man’s voice to the savage untutored dumb animal on the ground. The horse having risen and shaken himself, looks round in an amazed and muddle brained way at his tormentors ... From Treatment of the Horse in Australia by George Hamilton
He is lounged. ... he is then led out and ‘lounged’ or ‘lunged’ ... , that is to say, he is driven round in a circle, one man holding a long line attached to one of the rings of the cavesson, another driving the animal by means of a whip, every now and then applied to his flanks. After the lounging is over, the roller and side reins are put on, and the iron bit is put into the horse’s mouth for the first time; in due course the saddle is put on, and advances are made towards the next step of mounting on his back; as this movement is sometimes fraught with considerable danger to the breaker, precautions are taken to avert any serious catastrophe. From Treatment of the Horse in Australia by George Hamilton
He is mounted and he bucks his rider off. The exertions the honest horse is making to repay the obligations he is under to his breaker, and from all appearances accounts will soon be settled, for the seat of the man can hardly be termed very firm, and another buckjump will most probably complete the last installment in the liquidation of the debt and interest. From Treatment of the Horse in Australia by George Hamilton
He is thoroughly broken in The man remounted, and armed with a ‘waddie,’ which is the colonial word for a bludgeon; he is using it as a drummer does his drumstick, and beating a prolonged tattoo on his horse’s sides ... This process is termed ‘thoroughly breaking in,’ and as it is followed by the horsebreakers whom I have represented in an earlier page of these remarks as persons who should be regarded with a wholesome hatred. From Treatment of the Horse in Australia by George Hamiton
He is raced and lamed. And so the horse is trained and entered for the ‘hurdles’. ... In the words of that sporting phraseology with which the English language has been so much enriched and adorned, the horse and jock in this sketch have ‘come to grief,’ ‘experienced a cropper,’ and are both ‘grassed,’... His master however, is more seriously affected by the event, as he has the mortification to find that the ‘harse’ did not ‘jomp’ as was expected, and that he is ‘dead lame’ after his fall. ... The lameness has now to be looked to; at first it is supposed to be in the shoulder, then in the leg, and afterwards in the hoof. The leg is blistered and fired, the hoof is pared down until there is hardly enough horny substance left to protect the sensitive flesh within; but all these remedies have the effect of only torturing the animal, without removing the disorder, and it is finally decided that the lameness is in the shoulder and incurable. From Treatment of the Horse in Australia by George Hamilton
He is put to stock driving. The poor fellow is then sold to a stockholder for a stockhorse ... that a good gallop over a rocky country is the treatment the master considers suitable to an incurably lame animal. This treatment has the effect however, of speedily laming the horse in such a manner that there no longer remains any doubt as to what limb is affected. ... as he is no longer ‘safe to ride,’ he may be made to go in ‘harness.’ This involves the necessity of sending him back to the breaker, to renew an intimacy which has left such an indelible impression on his memory; but now the terrors of the stockyard, and the cruelty of man are so familiar to him, that he submits patiently to the process of harnessing, and with stoical indifference allows the collar to be passed, in a somewhat rough manner, over his head, and placed on his neck; he also without any display of emotion, permits the blinkers to blind his eyes; From Treatment of the Horse in Australia by George Hamilton
He is tried in harness. The harness on, he is generally put into a break by the side of an old, steady horse, and then the first trial of his stoicism is put to the test, for when he endeavours in obedience to the voice and whip of the driver, to move forward, he feels himself dragged back by the collar, and then pushed forward by the breeching ... he rears, kicks, and plunges, but the harness is strong, and the pole tough, every now and then he feels the thong of the whip on his flank, or ribs, or head; hoodwinked, and tied to some roaring, rumbling monster, that seems to have the power of flogging him, the poor devil makes fruitless efforts to get free, and it is not until after he has become exhausted by his struggles, and somewhat reconciled to the music of the axletree and wheels, that he subsides into a quiet trot, and being an honest horse he feels that man is thrusting on him obligations that must in due time be paid off. From Treatment of the Horse in Australia by George Hamilton
He descends to a jaunting car. [O]ur hero is seen in a ‘hackney car.’ Constant work and hard fare have sadly reduced him in body and spirit; he droops his head in a meditative manner, possibly thoughts occupy his mind (if he has one) that are not at all complimentary to the aristocrats of nature, who have shewn humanity in its dirtiest state to him; the reins now hang down, like a slattern’s stockings, about his heels; the ‘poetry of motion’ has lost its charms for him. ... Hard work, hard fare, neglect, and ill usage, are poor pensions for a life of faithful toil. From Treatment of the Horse in Australia by George Hamilton
Who was George Hamilton?
George Hamilton was born in Hertfordshire, England in 1812, and went to Harrow School. He served in the navy as a midshipman before his arrival in Sydney sometime before 1837. He worked his way south overlanding sheep and cattle, settling in Adelaide in 1839.
Hamilton initially ventured into commerce and lithography, as well as forming a farming partnership with Arthur Hardy. In 1847, he helped with the organisation of South Australia’s first art exhibition, which included some of his own works.
Police career and links to explorers
In 1848 Hamilton joined the public service as a clerk within the Treasury. Four years later, he took on a position as Inspector of Mounted Police.
A succession of more senior positions followed, and he eventually became a police commissioner. He was involved in establishing the South Australian detective unit and pioneering the use of camels in the colony’s far north.
Hamilton travelled into the Northern Territory in his duties as inspector of mounted police, and was involved in the fit out of several exploring expeditions, including those of John McDouall Stuart. He contributed illustrations to the published expedition journals of George Grey and Edward Eyre.
While Hamilton was inspector he raised the standard of the mounted police to a more respected and attractive career for young men.
Artist and writer
In addition to his employment, Hamilton was active in artistic and literary circles and published short stories, essays, reminiscences and poetry, as well as his books on horses. Many were illustrated with lithographs or photographic prints of his own artworks.
Hamilton was a founding member of the South Australian Society of the Arts in 1856. An active member of the Acclimatisation Society, in 1881 he was called to advise a parliamentary committee on the impact of sparrows on farmers. Hamilton died in 1883.
Hamilton and horses
George Hamilton published his horse-related books at a time when horses were heavily relied upon for everyday activities, including both private and public transport, working the land, racing, hunting and various forms of entertainment.
Hamilton’s work with horses, through droving livestock, the mounted police and the organisation of exploration expeditions, gave him considerable expertise in the management and care of the animals.
Hamilton published three books on horse subjects, aimed at denouncing the cruel methods commonly used for breaking them in: The Horse: Its Treatment in Australia (1864), An Appeal for the Horse (1866) and A Treatise on Myles’s Side-Nail System of Shoeing Horses (1877).
An Appeal for the Horse and The Horse: Its Treatment in Australia were later released as a combined edition due to their popularity. The books were illustrated with lithographs and photographic prints from his own drawings.
Hamilton also published Experiences of a Colonist Forty Years Ago, which told the story of a droving expedition in 1879.
While written retrospectively, it suggests Hamilton’s concern for animals dated from his earliest days in Australia. In its pages, he reprimands one of his team for taking out his aggression on his horse and describes in great detail the effort they went to find water for the sheep.
He describes watching a country blacksmith make a hoof fit a shoe, rather than the other way round, and he reflects on how this must be detrimental to the horse.
Hamilton’s horse illustrations
Hamilton prepared the sketches in the photographic prints on sale for his first publication, The Horse: Its Treatment in Australia. In the preface to that publication, Hamilton thanked his friend Colonel Biggs 'for the clever and artistic way in which the gallant Colonel has converted rough sketches into exquisitely finished pictures.'
While the 26-page publication covered numerous aspects of horse mistreatment, Hamilton gave a special introduction to his images which he felt clearly illustrated his key arguments.
‘The treatment of the horse in Australia’ he wrote, 'is illustrated in eleven sketches in which are represented some—not by any means all—of the trials a horse has to go through, from the time he is taken from his native woods until he is reduced to the drudgery of a hackney car.'
It appears that the album of photographs of Hamilton’s drawings now in the Museum’s collection was made prior to the publication of The Horse: Its Treatment in Australia, for reference or use in reproduction work.
An article in The South Australian Advertiser of 11 March 1864, describes this album, reviewing the quality of his artwork separate to Hamilton’s forthcoming publication:
We had an opportunity yesterday of examining photographs of a series of eleven sketches in Indian ink by Mr. Geo. Hamilton, illustrating the treatment of the Horse in Australia. Mr. Hamilton’s skill in painting animals has been long established, and to the power of delineating the forms exactly he adds that which is the characteristic of true genius — a life like expression to each figure, so that persons looking at any sketch of his would have the feeling that they had seen the very animal he paints. This remark peculiarly applies to the set of sketches of which we are now speaking, every one of which is distinguished by perfect fidelity to nature, and they form together a true and interesting history of a horse’s career in these colonies.
The final published version of The Horse contains four mounted album photographs of Hamilton’s drawings (the other seven were not reproduced photographically), and is considered to be one of the two earliest Australian printed works to use original photographs as illustrations.
The book received generally favourable reviews, both in South Australia and in other colonies. The SA Register quoting the Argus said that ‘It is so well done and so pregnant with facts and good advice that the only fault we can find with it is that it is not longer.’
The SA Weekly Chronicle said ‘It deserves wide circulation, whether regarded as a literary and artistic circulation, or as the plea of humanity for the poor South Australian horse.’
The Horse: Its Treatment in Australia
In The Horse: Its Treatment in Australia Hamilton wrote that 'in this country the horse is liable to very few diseases, and if it were not for that prevalent epidemic the horse-breaker, the poor animal would enjoy a very comfortable existence.' Hamilton’s views on the welfare of horses were informed by his work for the mounted police, where, he observed:
It was but a short time ago that I had to examine a horse, sent to the Police Barracks for sale; on looking at the poor creatures hoofs, which bore an extraordinary appearance, I found the frog reduced (by the practice of cutting away the sides) to a thin groove in the hoof, so cracked and withered, that not a particle of its delicate texture remained; its heart shape had entirely disappeared, and as a certain consequence the heel had contracted so much as to interfere considerably with the action of the crippled animal. What the poor brute had suffered, or was then suffering, from the effects of the ignorance of his shoer, no one can tell; but those who know something of the delicate structure of the hoof, can imagine the dreadful pain the poor uncomplaining creature had to endure.
He describes the average horse breaker as ‘unfitted by temper, education or habits, to have the control over any animal whose skin is thinner than that of a hippotamus, or whose temper is milder than that of a wild boar’. ‘In the name of humanity’, he wrote, ‘let us prevent that class of swaggering, dirty, disreputable looking men, whose habitat is a public house, and whose occupation is drinking and smoking, from torturing our horses.
An Appeal for the Horse
In An Appeal for the Horse, Hamilton describes the plight of the horse in South Australia and the English notion of horse ‘breaking’ which was carried on in Australia.
The book begins by explaining to horse owners and grooms the impossible living conditions most horses have in the stables and why the ill-conceived and often cruel methods of training these horses will leave them timid and lame.
Hamilton illustrates to these breeders why horses that do not respond to the ‘conventional’ techniques of training will begin to get better when kept in a more natural environment, outside, where the dark, cold, tiny stables full of cobwebs and dust can’t break the horses spirit and impede their breathing.
Hamilton goes on to compare the treatment of horses in other cultures, what has worked and what has not, and appeals to horse owners, breeders and grooms to treat their horses with kindness. The best example Hamilton describes is that of the ‘Arabs of the desert’, whose fair but firm kindness in dealing with the horse is repaid with respect and years of steady work and companionship.
He addresses the book to South Australia, but urges the rest of Australia to abandon the ways of Britain and as a ‘new young’ colony embrace a more humane approach: ‘I can state most positively that in very few instances has kindness failed to improve the horse, and in no instance has harshness succeeded in doing so’.
Jordan Curnutt, Animals and the Law: A Source Book, ABC-Clio, Santa Barbara, 2001.
George Hamilton, Experiences of a Colonist Forty Years Ago: A Journey from Port Phillip to South Australia in 1839; and A Voyage from Port Phillip to Adelaide in 1846 by an Old Hand, Libraries Board of South Australia, Adelaide, 1974.
B Harrison, 'Animals and the state in nineteenth-century England', in The English Historical Review, vol. 88, no. 349, Oct 1973, pp. 786–820.
K Symes, ‘Notes on the History of Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (South Australia) Incorporated', 1875–1975.