British Mules in the News, Vol. 1

Another collection of historical mule stories from the UK. I have endeavoured to reproduce the text as faithfully as possible, including the odd way of capitalising random words and the excessive, Shatner imitating, use of, commas. Articles towards the latter end of the 18th century seemed to carry less of this random capitalisation – I couldn’t really figure out why it was done this way, other than to highlight important information such as price or subject.

Unlike my perusal through the historical Welsh newspapers, these ones – from England, Scotland, and Ireland – dwell less on narratives and are mainly one sentence mentions or records of mules found or for sale. I still found these useful as it was interesting to see that mules were being deliberately bred and sought after, and it was particularly interesting that sale adverts for mules suddenly started appearing once I passed 1750. The earliest newspaper adverts appeared in the latter half of the 17th century, so there’s no reason why they couldn’t be advertised earlier. Was it an increased demand for mules after seeing their usefulness in various European wars? The majority of pre-1750 mentions I came across, which I did not include here, were war reports with mules being drafted in from countries such as Spain and Italy.

I’m speculating wildly, of course.

There were a lot of red herrings to sift through as well, mainly due to the use of the medial S often being picked up by the computer software as an L; people in the 18th century really loved to write poems about muses, apparently. Towards the end of the late 18th century the ‘spinning mule’, a machine used to spin cotton and fibres, started to see regular use and also added to my list of false hopes.

Still, here are some intriguing snapshots into the life of the British mule over two hundred years ago.


18th century

Monday, 7th January 1716
Newcastle Courant
From an untitled snippet: “They are busy making Pontons [sic] at Leith, and this Forenoon 5 Mules and some Horses with a Guard, went hence to Stirling, with General Cadogan’s Baggage.”

Thursday, 28th September 1732
Derby Mercury
“We hear from Calais, that Monsieur Chavigny came there on Thursday last, on his way to the court of Great Britain; that he intended to rest there til the Arrival of the Marquis de Montijo, who was to come in as last night; that he had a very splendid Equipage; that he had six Coaches and six fine Mules to each…”

I couldn’t find any further mention of whether the splendid carriages and mules came over to England as well.

Thursday, 4th October 1733
Derby Mercury
“On the 20th Instant*, at Midnight, Mr. Ellys, Riding-Officer at Dartford, assisted by Mr. Waite, Supervisor of Excise at Sevenoaks, and another Excise Officer, attack’d a Gang of Smugglers (upon Cox-Heath near Maidstone) with nine Horses and a Mule laden with Brandy; seven of which they seize’d, with the Mule, an 27 Half-Anchors of Brandy, and next morning convey’d the same(?) to the Excise-Office in Town-Malling.”

* ‘Instant’, here, means ‘in this month’.

Saturday, 27th April 1728
Newcastle Courant
The following standalone line is not a UK story, but it was such a curiosity that I had to include it: “Hague, April 28. They write from Rome, That the Pope going to mount a Mule in order to try him, had the Misfortune to be thrown off.”

The Pope often rode white mules, but I’d never really thought about the process of selecting such a mule for the pontiff. On 24th April 1729, the Caldedonian mentions the Pope passing through Rome in his coach drawn by two mules. Seems like a safer way to travel! Incidentally, the Pope at the time was Benedict XIII and he would have been 79 years old when he was thrown from the mule.

Thursday, 14 February 1745
Derby Mercury
From a passage containing recent news from Newcastle: “Last Monday the Duke of Cumberland’s Baggage, carried on Mules, richly caparisoned, went thro’ this town for Scotland.”

Wednesday, 12th March 1746
Stamford Mercury
From a passage talking about events in London on March 7th: “On Wednesday the Mules with the Baggage belonging to his Royal Highness the Duke of Cumberland, guarded by Hussars, passed through the City for Gravesend.”

Up to a hundred horses belonging to those in the Duke’s retinue also passed through London that day. It would appear that they were heading out to Flanders.

Saturday, 11th February 1749
The Ipswich Journal
“On Thursday night all the mules, Baggage-Horses, and Domestics, belonging to his Royal Highness the Duke of Cumberland, arrived at St. James’ from Holland.”

Tuesday, 13th June 1749
Caledonian Mercury
“We are assured that a Present is intended to be made to the Prince Stadtholder of a set of fine Dun Horses and several Mules bred in England.”

Google tells me that ‘Stadtholder’ was an office of steward. Around the time of this newspaper article it had become a hereditary role – the Prince Stadtholder referred to here is, I think, William IV. As there were many mules available on the continent, and I came across mention of a lot of Austrian and Prussian princes owning fine examples of them, it is gratifying to know that we were apparently breeding such nice mules here that they made a worthy gift for a Dutch prince.

Saturday, 29th September 1770
Kentish Gazette
“Stolen or Strayed: out of the Ground of Mr. Crispe, at Loufe Court, near Maidstone. A Grey Mule, about Eleven Hands high, with cropt Ears, cut Mane, a long Tail, and a small Scar on the right Shoulder.”

Oh yuck. Cropped ears, also known as ‘foxing’, was fashionable for improving the look of a fine-headed horse (or, in this case, mule). If you have a look at George Stubbs’ 1786 painting, ‘A Saddled Bay Hunter’, on this page you will see an example of cropped ears. I hope that little grey mule ran far, far away!

Monday, 3rd May 1773
Reading Mercury
“To cover this season, at Wokingham, Berks.: A large English Ass. At only 7s. 6d. a mare: he is very remarkable for getting fine mules. Enquire of John Willats, Mule-Dealer and Corn-Chandler, in the Market-Place, Wokingham. N.B. Any person that has any mules to sell, may by applying to the aforesaid John Willats, have a good Price for them.”

Ho ho ho, you know who else is a large English ass? It’s me. I’m a large English ass.

Friday, 13th October 1775
Saunders’ News-Letter [Dublin]
“Swords Races, 1775. On Wedneday the [illegible] of November, will be run for over the Course of Swords, for a Purse of 20 Guineas, by Mules carrying 8 stones, Saddle and Bridle included; the best of 3 Heats, 4 Rounds to each Heat. On Thursday the 2d [sic] will be run for, the Collection of Sweepstakes and Entrance Money, by Hacks carrying Six Stones, Saddle and Bridle included, that never won the Value of five Guineas at any one Time; the best of three Heats, four Rounds to each Heat. All mules are to be entered with Richard Ligate, Clerk of the Course, three days before the first Day of Running, or pay double Entrance at the Post. Each Mule that enters to pay half a Guinea; the winning Mule to pay 10 Guineas and half for Scales and Straw. To start at the hour of 12 o’clock.”

Tuesday, 13th July 1779
Dublin Evening Post
“To be sold by Public Auction, on the 26th Instant, at Dunleer, a Score of Mules, in excellent Order, and good Condition. They will be set up in single Lots of one each. The Mules are all Geldings.”

Wednesday, 16th May 1781
Saunders’ News-Letter [Dublin]
“To Be Sold: A small mule, about thirteen Hands high, trained to Draft and Saddle, Price six Guineas.”

According to an historical currency converter I used, that’s about £1,200 in today’s money.

Saturday, 29th June 1782
Saunders’ News-Letter [Dublin]
“A young Mule, just come from the Country, well-trained; a two-wheel Chaise, covered, with good Harness; and a Bridle and Saddle, to be sold. Inquire of the Printer. N.B. If the Mule is not sold in a Day or two, it will be sent back to the Country.”

Saturday, 2nd November 1782
Dublin Evening Post
“Travellers who are under the necessity of crossing that vast chain of mountains called the Andes, in South America, provide themselves with mules for that purpose, as being more sure footed than any animal; yet even they sometimes make a false step, by which both they and their riders are precipitated down to the horrid rocks, and inevitably dashed to pieces. The conduct of the travelling mules, when they come to these dangerous passes, is truly surprising: they make a full stop, nor is it in the power of either whip or spur to make them move an inch til they have reconnoitered the whole descent; which they do with the minutest attention, and frequently tremble at the impending danger: they then put themselves in a proper position, and so does the rider; fixing himself securely in the saddle, and leaving the rest to the care and sagacity of his beast: the mule having fixed his body and legs properly, slides down the precipice with the most amazing rapidity; and should his rider give him the slightest check, during this rapid motion, the instantaneous death of both would be the unavoidable consequence.”

Not British mules, but interesting nonetheless and worth including.

Saturday, 23rd July 1785
Dublin Evening Post
A stray mare and mule, presumed stolen, were found near Rathfarnham with the mule described as “a black mule, well grown, with a long tail, and the mark of an old sore on his far hind leg.”

Wednesday, 27th July 1785
Saunders’ News-Letter [Dublin]
“Mules to be sold at the Bull Inn, Capel-street. Three large Mules, from three to eight Years old, warranted sound, bred by Mr. Gregory Archbold by his remarkable Spanish Ass.”

You know who else has a remarkable Spanish ass? Antonio Banderas. Mm-mmm.

Tuesday, 30th January 1787
Saunders’ News-Letter [Dublin]
“Three good Draft Mules to be sold, with Cars, &c.* they are well sized, young, gentle, very good tempered, and draw well; two of them ride remarkably well. Inquire at No.16, Bolton-street.”

* ‘&c.’ is another form of ‘etc’.

Monday, 19th January 1789
Saunders’ News-Letter [Dublin]
“Four gentle, well tempered, very good Draft or Messuage* Mules. Inquire at the Printer’s. They must not be sold separately.”

* The ink had bled on the middle section of this word, so I can’t be certain what it said although the first letter after e was definitely a medial S. The next letter was either the same, or an l. I could find no related term for ‘mesluage’, but ‘messuage’ is defined as ‘a dwelling house with outbuildings and land assigned to its use’ – so a small-holding, essentially.

Wednesday, 5th August 1789
Hereford Journal
“On Monday an inquisition was taken at Ewyas Harold, in the county, on the body of James Perrot, who, on Friday last, driving some mules loaded with charcoal thro’ a brook, in that parish, which was much swelled from the rain that had fallen that day, one of the mules getting into the deep water, the man, in endeavouring to save him, unfortunately fell in, and was drowned. Verdict, Accidental Death. Several persons heard the cries of the poor man, but no assistance was procured until it was to [sic] late to be effectual. The mule was also drowned.”

Tuesday, 10th May 1791
Leeds Intelligencer
“A curious match was a few days since determined on the road from York to Craike, a distance of 13 miles, betwixt a mule, the property of Mr. Severs, and a blood mare, the property of Mr. Brotherton, both of Craike, for a bet of 5l.* each, which was won by the former. The odds were 3 to 1 at matching, 2 to 1 at starting, and 5 to 1 in running, on the mare, but changed to 2 to 1 on the mule at Sutton, and again to 2 to 1 at Huby; however, when they came within a mile of Craike, the mare gave up. The whole afforded much diversion to those who attended – and was run in 45 minutes – the mule was not mounted, but led by a boy on horseback, and whipped on by another.”

* l. was sometimes used instead of the pound sign.

Monday, 25th July 1791
Hampshire Chronicle
“Downton, Wiltshire. To be sold, a fine true bred English Mule, thirteen and a half hands, not 3 years old, temperate and gentle; and the best judges of these animals say it is one of the best ever known.”


A few words and phrases I came across that were of more interest than the articles they resided in, and which called for further research.

Sumpter mule: I came across the word sumpter regularly in reports from conflicts overseas, usually in front of horses, but sometimes in front of mules as well. I hadn’t heard the term before so I looked it up and it’s another word for a pack animal.

Thales’ Mule: Thales of Miletus, the ‘Father of Geometry’, was a Greek mathematician living 625-547 BC. He was also a merchant, and a famous story related by Aesop tells how he outwitted one of his pack mules. While delivering sacks of salt, one of Thales’ mules slipped while crossing a river and fell in (other versions of the story say it rolled while being led down to the water to drink). The load, being salt, dissolved in the water and immediately lightened. The canny mule then deliberately submerged itself on subsequent trips at every river crossing in order to rid itself of its burden. Thales needed to change this behaviour, so on their next trip he filled the mules pack with sponges. The mule discovered that its trick now resulted in a heavier load rather than a lighter on, and from that day learnt to keep its packs clear of the water.

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