THE picture shows a familiar place - Newport railway station but it captures an unfamiliar scene. MARTIN WADE tells of the last day parcels would be delivered to Newport by horse and cart and how the horse was a familiar sight on the streets of Gwent.

THEY were the Amazon vans of their day - delivering parcels and goods to residents and businesses.

The boy in the picture on the left is Malcolm Thomas. Now 85, he was then a raw youth of 16 when this picture was taken by an Argus photographer in 1952.

South Wales Argus: LAST DAY: Malcolm Thomas and Albert Tanner on the last horse and cart to deliver parcels from Newport station

LAST DAY: Malcolm Thomas and Albert Tanner on the last horse and cart to deliver parcels from Newport station

The horse was the last used to deliver parcels in Newport and its passing would mark the closing of an era.

Born in 1936, Malcolm started work on the cart when he was 15. “I used to get paid 19 shillings and sixpence a week as a van boy”.

The horse was called Ben, Malcolm says. “We had stables just by where the taxi office was later, next to the main station building.”

“Ben was about eight years old when this picture was taken” says Malcolm. Standing at 14 and a half hands high, he was a capable animal.

“Before he worked on the deliveries he was owned by a hunt and then he was a police horse.

But this was no place for the horse - faithful but fragile, made of flesh and bone. Newport was becoming more and more congested with traffic as car ownership grew. The Old Green and Commercial Street would regularly be choked with cars and vans belching fumes. It must have been unpleasant to sit in the cab of the waggon.

Malcolm recalls one incident which showed how these two worlds literally clashed.

“We were coming back from Maindee along Chepstow Road. A fire engine came out of the fire station with its sirens blaring and at the same time a train went over the bridge and the noise of the two startled the horse and it bolted and smashed into a car.”

The car’s roof was badly damaged but Ben escaped serious injury “he had some cuts and grazes but he was all right” Malcolm said.

But after this, the streets of Newport would soon no longer resound with the clip-clop of hooves as the car’s takeover of the roads was complete.

Once, our streets had been full of them. Horses made our towns and cities tick. If there were loads to be hauled, it would be done by horsepower.

Railway companies had long provided a door-to-door parcel service. Packages or luggage sent in advance were collected in waggons like this, transferred to stations to be transported by rail, and then delivered by road to their final destination. The railway companies were beginning to use motor lorries by the start of the twentieth century, but horse drawn vehicles were still the main form of road transport before the First World War and persisted until the early 1950s.

In Wales and the West, the Great Western Railway company operated an extensive system of road-vehicles alongside its rail services.

This network numerous horse-drawn carts and flat-bed trucks. The horse-drawn vehicles, like the one in Malcolm’s picture, were usually built at the company’s Swindon works and continued to be used until the 40s and 50s.

Before the Second World War they were a familiar sight on the streets of Gwent. Malcom tells how his patch used to cover the main business district of Newport. “We used to deliver to Commercial Street, Cambrian Road, Bridge Street.” Such were the number of businesses in those days they were kept very busy. “We used to do two rounds every day.”

Much of their deliveries went to shops whose names are familiar but some are long gone: “There was C&A Mode, Meeks, Evans and Allen, Dolcis and, of course Wildings.”

Often they would have to haul the cart up Stow Hill “that was often a struggle” Malcolm remembers “especially when it was icy.”

When they weren’t delivering stock to high street shops, they kept former railway workers supplied with firewood. Like a workers’ winter fuel scheme, former staff of British Railways were given wood cut from old railway sleepers. Malcolm would take the cart across Newport and beyond to deliver to the ageing former railwaymen.

“We’d chop them up on the corner of Caerleon Road” he recalls “and then take them to the retired workers, mostly around Newport.” There were occasional runs out from the confines of the town into the countryside. "We often went as far as Llandevaud” Malcolm says.

The van was of a type used across the country by railway companies for delivering parcels. It entered service in the 1880s and by the time the picture was taken it had probably been in service for more than half a century. With its solid wheels it looks emphatically from another age.

Its driver was of that age too. He was Albert Tanner and was in his 70s when this picture was taken. “He served in mounted artillery during the First World War” Malcolm says “so he was used to handling horses”. Those skills, utterly commonplace when Albert was young would become rarer still after horses like Ben were pensioned off.

Curiously, many other horses across the county were being put out to grass at the time that Ben was retired.

Trevor Jones delivered milk to homes in Tredegar from a horse and cart until 1952.

After he was demobbed from the Army in 1949 he started working a milk round then as his father and his father before them had done. 

“I always remember the women who would follow the cart and scoop up the muck to put on their rhubarb. It was powerful stuff, the ammonia in it used to burn the tarmac.”

But eventually things had to change. “We got our first van in 1952. The van was easier. You didn’t have to start work at 7 o’ clock in the morning to muck it out and feed it. With a van, you pressed a button and it all worked: much better until the bills came in.” He says ”It was more expensive to run a van than a horse.”

It could be hard work. They delivered the milk in pails which were 10, 12 or 17 gallon and these had to be carried to people’s houses.

He still looks back at the work fondly: “It makes me proud of the work me and my brother used to do, working on our horse and cart in our town.”

Both the pictures, from the two ends of Gwent, tell of a gentler time when things were delivered at a gentler pace.