Robin Longbottom examines the early days of vehicle hire, when road transport relied on horses

VEHICLE hire – either self-drive or with a driver – is today readily available to people from all walks of life and includes private cars, vans, minibuses, stretch limousines and wedding and funeral cars.

The origins of vehicle hire go back to the 19th century and beyond when all road transport relied on horse power.

For those wishing to hire a horse, for personal transport, or a vehicle in Keighley the first port of call would have been one of the town's many livery rooms. One of the best known and longest established was the Town Hall Livery Stables. The business was run by Joseph Smith and his sons. He had started as a cab proprietor and then expanded into carriage hire from new premises in North Street.

The improvement of highways, particularly with the development of the Macadam surface in the 1820s, together with better sprung and designed vehicles presented an opportunity for the hire of livery vehicles on a large scale. The Town Hall Livery Stables advertised that they could “supply horses, cabs and carriages of every description upon the shortest of notice and at all hours...for business or for pleasure”. Their vehicles included “all kinds of wagonettes, gigs, first-class wedding carriages, hearse and mourning carriages” and they boasted that they “conducted funerals in any part of the country”.

An individual might hire a horse, or a gig, for his own personal transport, but for a large family or group excursion a wagonette was more suitable. These were a four-wheeled vehicle and came with a driver, who sat at the front. The passengers were seated at the rear, either facing one another or on benches, normally facing towards the driver. However, in some wagonettes the backs of the seats were reversible, and passengers could face towards the rear, if they desired. Many seated only six or eight passengers, but larger ones could accommodate a dozen or more.

Day excursions by wagonette were very popular, with trips to beauty spots such as Shipley Glen, Bolton Abbey and Malham to visit Malham Cove and Gordale Scar. Tours would often include a stop at an inn en-route for refreshments and perhaps a meal. One popular local destination was the Fleece Inn, on Otley Road above Eldwick, better known as Dick Hudson’s. Richard Hudson had been the proprietor for over 20 years until his death in 1880. He had become well known for serving excellent ham and eggs and the tradition was continued by his son John. After John’s death the inn was purchased by Joshua Tetley’s brewery of Leeds which rebuilt it and continued the long-established tradition.

For the less privileged who wished to take an excursion, commercial wagons fitted with temporary seats were often available and school children were treated to days out sitting on the wagon floor with the sides and backboards up for safety.

Open landaus were preferred for weddings, by those wealthy enough to afford them, to convey the bride and groom and their guests. However, funerals with magnificent hearse and enclosed mourning coaches often provided the grandest spectacles. After Sir Isaac Holden died at his house in Oakworth in 1897 the funeral cortege travelled 12 miles to his place of internment at Undercliffe Cemetery in Bradford. It was led by four mounted police officers followed by two carriages containing the deceased’s household servants. Then came the hearse pulled by black horses resplendent with plumes of black ostrich feathers. Behind the hearse came four carriages laden with wreaths and then 19 coaches carrying the mourners and family friends. Thousands lined the route along the way to pay their respects.

The age of the livery stable came to an end towards the close of the Edwardian period when motorised vehicles began to replace the horse.