Information The cart before the horse

Here we look at three hand carts that between them represent an era, attitudes and lifestyles that are long gone — but still well worth a study.

Museum tokens
Why preserve
A bread delivery box cart that came from the famous and very historic Johnston, Mooney and O’Brien bakery at Ballsbridge. Its exact date of building is probably before 1930
The collection
About the museum
A constant source of wonder to anybody interested in social history is the widespread view that life as we know it has always been as it is now. This is especially true of conditions in the workplace and I often wonder how many people ever pause to think of how hard life was a hundred – or even fewer – years ago. Two experiences I had recently on consecutive days brought this home very forcibly. In the city centre on the first day, I heard a loud altercation between a Garda and a van driver who had parked on double lines. The van had both a tail lift and a pallet truck and the Garda was saying that the van could have parked just around the corner on a side street but the driver would have none of it. I do not know how the argument ended and I forgot about the incident until the following morning when I was conducting a group of students around the Transport Museum.

Among the more primitive vehicles in the museum there are handcarts that I was endeavouring to interpret for the visitors who were clearly and understandably sceptical that people ever had to work with such equipment. This particular episode coincided with one of the regular outbursts of rage at the perceived exaggeration of the living conditions portrayed in the film Angela’s Ashes and it struck me that people today find it difficult to believe that their antecedents routinely accepted hardship as part of their lot. While much of this hardship predated mechanical transport, ordinary people were expected to work in the old hard ways long after motor vehicles had become relatively sophisticated.

The oldest of the carts in Howth is of indeterminate age but probably dates from the 1870s. It lay for many years in a shed at Howth Harbour and when displaced in March 1991 it was given to the Museum. The exact origins of this vehicle, both source and date, are unknown but fascinating. Later identified as a hermaphrodite cart, it is about the size of a small donkey cart, but with two important differences. The first is that is a primordial tipper, the second that it has a third wheel, the axle of which has plain bearings in trunnions fixed to the shafts. This means that it can be used either as a manhandled cart using three wheels or conventionally animal-hauled with the front wheel and trunnions removed.

There is at least one picture in the Lawrence showing a cart of this type is use during railway construction in the west of Ireland and some examples exist in British museums. The Howth vehicle was probably used to move materials required for the maintenance of the harbour and is very worn. When it came into the collection it was examined and a decision was made to preserve it is acquired; restoring it with new timber and ironwork would be a straightforward process but this process would destroy the cart’s authentic character and ambience. This strange atmosphere was somehow evoked by its very short journey to the museum when it was manhandled by three museum members: the photograph on the left of Paschal Boland and Jim Crosland pausing to talk to a walker at the West Pier convey the idea very well. One can but remember the unfortunate labourers who slaved with this and similar equipment all over the industrial and transport industries a hundred years ago. Perhaps It should also make us all grateful for the ease with which we can do things today – including the tail lift and pallet truck of the driver who was arguing with the Garda.

Another item in our collection and currently awaiting restoration is a tool cart presented by the transport firm of F.V. Mulligan. This eloquently reflects past attitudes to “artisans, mechanics and daily labourers”, a phrase I have borrowed from the Tramway Acts of a century and a quarter ago, and to which I hope to return in the future. This iron-wheeled cart is one of the earlier survivors from a species regularly seen on the streets of Dublin until about twenty years ago and used to transport tools and materials to the Dublin Gas Company’s work sites. Such vehicles were to be found throughout the public utilities until fairly recent times, but latterly served as secure storage adjacent to work sites. But here again it is an era we seem to be keen on airbrushing from history. This Gas Company cart lacks its tool locker but a new one is to be fabricated with the aid of a rather poor photograph.

The third cart in this offering bridges very neatly the chasm between the world of the artisans, mechanics and daily labourers and that of the upper classes. It is a bread delivery box cart that came from the famous and very historic Johnston, Mooney and O’Brien bakery at Ballsbridge. The company had several carts of this type, which were used to bring a selection of bread and confectionery from the bakery or local branch shops to large houses or institutions in the vicinity. A beautifully crafted item, it has a lead covered hinged roof, an end door and a tray underneath the body. Its exact date of building is probably before 1930 and the builder is, unfortunately, also unknown at this stage.

Representing an era, attitudes and lifestyles long gone but well worthy of study – if only to show us just how far we have come in the last half century – these three carts portray whole chapters of social history. Regrettably, due to our severe shortage of space at the museum only one (the JM&O’B cart) is currently on show. They will probably be joined in the future by other examples of their type – as for instance, the humble flat handcart. Still found occasionally on railway station platforms, this vehicle immediately conjures up pictures of an early form of entrepreneur. A fleet of these amazingly adaptable vehicles available for hire from a premises in Granby Row, at one time for 6d (2.5p) per day, and this business certainly continued into the 1960s. Some adventurous hirers undertook the transport of furniture and other items for third parties, making a small profit on the day’s activities. One can but wonder at how a modern accountant or other financial guru would look at the costs of such an operation.

A hermaphrodite cart from the 1870's with Paschal Boland and Jim Crosland pausing to talk to a walker at the West Pier, Howth
Musaem Náishínta Iompar na hÉireann