End of an era

End of an era

When I was nearing the time of my demob from the army, I was summoned to appear before the Colonel to discuss my future career.  When I said I hoped to become a vet, he observed that he did not think there was such prospect there since there were now very few horses.  He could not have been more wrong, but in vet college the horse was still, by tradition, the prime subject. Luckily, I was to see the last days of the heavy horse.

Just along the road from the Camden Town College, 200 heavy hoses were stabled under the arches at King’s Cross Station, Shires, Clydesdales, Percheron and Suffolk Punch.  In Stygian gloom they rested thankfully overnight, four to every arch, lit by oil lamps: and in the half-light their shoes shot sparks as they trudged in from a hard day’s graft delivering goods to the railway’s customers.  Then one morning they were gone, to be replaced by smelly, noisy, dangerous lorries.

Everything was on the change in farming. Until then it was a way of life, but after the war, business stepped in.  There were some big farms, but the majority were small.  It was possible to live off 30-50 acres, with a few cows, pigs and some sheep. Some lived shambolic lives and dressed accordingly, but others wore immaculate tweed suits which they then covered with a brown drill coat – it was basically all the same. The flat cap of the poor farmer might be contorted into a twisted shape and redolent of many house pressed against the yielding flanks of generations of cows, but it was still the same as worn by the richer farmer. The brown coat, where had it gone? Worn by all, from the warehouseman to the managing director touring his factory. Yet remember that everyone wore a suit and tie, no matter how tattered and greasy. Many wore celluloid collars fixed by stud front and back.

I always wore a white shirt, with separate Van Heusen collar. As I spent much of my day with one or other arm up to the shoulder in a cow’s rear end, my wife cut my shirt sleeves off flush with the shoulder. Even then my shirt was often stained. Latex gloves weren’t available then, so my fellow assistant in Sidmouth, as he was allergic to bovine fluid tests, had to buy his own rubber gloves. I never found it necessary to even loosen my tie, let alone remove it. Put my jacket back on and I was fit to enter the lounge of a lord. The jacket! In it’s many pockets I could carry all the instruments I needed for the average consultation plus money, pen, notebook etc.  Take modern man with his sweater and tight jeans and his wallet projecting enticingly from his back pocket. He takes half the consultation time to gather his tools together.

Don’t get the impression all was genteel and sedate. As a student, I did visits with a young vet who later rose to the top of the profession.  He wore a pin stripe suit and worked so fast that I had to run to keep up with his frenzied pace.  He would leave a house, jump into his car and be off, and I had to leap into the moving car or be left behind.  No sea belts.  A few years later I would learn the art of jumping into the car and driving off before even closing the door, using the car’s momentum to close it. You could do this because there were few other cars on the road, and also hurtle around country lanes, but if you did meet someone, the brakes of those days meant you rarely stopped in the same direction you intended.  I always thought that Honiton High Street resembled a Wild West cowboy town with it’s wide vista and emptiness.  There were even horse carts, and I sometimes saw a horse hitched up outside a shop.

Such antics were needed because of the heavy workload we carried, on a five and a half day week, plus nights.  This was a result of the absurdly low fees we charged, but also the macho attitude in the profession at that time.  The veterinary journals were full of how many miles the writer had driven in a year, leading one wag to calculate that one such had driven into every farmer’s yard, thrown a pack of antibiotics through the shippon door and out again. Half of my college year migrated to MAAF or industry for a quieter life, but I loved every minute of it.

These were the last days of the universal wearing of hats.  My father wore a bowler to work.  Many vet students, in an effort to look the part, would wear a flat cap.  Ringing a bull would be a rite of passage for many a student. When it came to the delicate business of inserting the tiny brass screw to secure the ring, a hat was often held under the bull’s nose to avoid losing the screw in the bedding straw. “Lend me your hat boy”, the vet would say, and the hat was duly held under the nose while it was first punched, the ring inserted and secured.  Then the hat was returned to it’s owner redolent of bull blood and snot amidst straight faces all around.  Me? I never wore a hat! 

K. Watson

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Ken Watson's career as a vet started many moons ago, after he'd attended Royal Veterinary College at Camden Town. Ken came to work at Sidmouth in 1953 at Steele & Wardrop (now Ikin & Oxenham). Subsequently Ken set up his own practice at Plymouth in 1961 before retiring in 1992. His pieces graphically map out the changes that have taken place in the veterinary business over the years and also allow great insight into human behaviour.