Information As it was in the beginning

In the beginning...... there were horse-drawn vehicles. And no history of the commercial vehicle would be complete without a trip down those memory-lanes where the horse-drawn cart was king.

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Most of the vehicles in the Transport Museum collection are self-propelled with steam, electricity or an internal combustion engine providing the motive power. There is, however, a small number of horse-drawn vehicles - fortuitous survivors that remind us of where and how transport began. Appropriately, the first item in this compilation is a horse-drawn vehicle which needs little focus on its technical evolution but is very important in the general scheme of things. Lack of technical detail, however, affords an opportunity of looking not only at an individual horse-drawn milk float but also at the wider social and industrial milieu in which this vehicle worked. It also serves to illustrate how preserved vehicles are such a unique repository of social history.

In the late nineteenth century, urban milk supplies were surrounded by every kind of uncertainty. Small family-operated dairies kept a few cows in urban yards, often in horrifically insanitary conditions. The milk was sold loose, either over the counter or by a roundsman who called on his customers twice a day - there were no domestic fridges in those days and even if there were, very few people could afford one. The milk float carried one or two large containers or churns with taps at the bottom from which a large can (similar to those used for engine oil) was filled. Carried on the spout of this can were pint and half-pint measures employed to decant the milk into the customer's jug.

There were two serious problems inherent in the arrangement just described. First was public health: milk was untested, unpasteurised and liable to all sorts of external contamination; hygiene was not a concern in those days. Second, and regularly reported in the newspapers, was the practice of adulterating the milk with water. Unscrupulous dairies indulged in this practice and were frequently hauled before the courts, stiff penalties being invariably imposed. In time, various laws and regulations wiped out the malpractices and health risks, though it didn’t improve the fragmentation in what would in time become a major industry.

Starting in a small way during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, professional dairies producing milk to the highest standards began to develop. During the 1920s, their operations became even more sophisticated and eliminated many of the more chaotic small operators. One of these large concerns was the Merville Dairy at Finglas, owned by the Craigie family.

Merville arranged bulk milk collection rounds from farmers, processed it and made wholesome deliveries to their customers. Horse drawn cars were the order of the day and in time Merville built up a large fleet of distinctive green-liveried vehicles. Vans were used for bottled milk and small tankers for bulk deliveries and buttermilk.

During the thirties, the delivery horse was increasingly challenged by battery electric vehicles. The electrics made great inroads, especially after the War when several previously horse-minded firms changed over. An exception was Merville, the Craigie family being famous for their love of horses. The result was that, between 1949 and 1956, the last great fleet of horse-drawn commercials to be built in Ireland was constructed in their workshops in Finglas, contrasting dramatically with the company's new AEC Monarch collection lorries. The new horse cars were light and elegant, with rubber tyres and a driver's cab.

In time, corporate amalgamations and the total domination of the electrics saw off the last ex-Merville horse-drawn float, by then based at Premier's Killester depot. Sean McKeown, Transport Manager at Finglas, ensured that this very historic vehicle, No. 107, built in 1952 and withdrawn in 1978, was given to the Transport Museum. It was gratefully accepted and underwent a full restoration in 1986 before going on display in Howth.

Today, there are very few people alive who are able to recall loose milk deliveries and nobody under the age of about twenty-five can remember seeing a horse-drawn float in service. No. 107 is now a memorial to numerous ways of life which become more remote every day, and absolutely fascinates the younger generation who come into contact with it.

A hundred years ago, in the first urban transport battle between animals and mechanisation, the horse lost out to the electric tram. Fifty years later, his final, thirty-year decline began when No. 107 and its companions took to the road, an anachronism in many people's eyes even when they were new. Today, this vehicle is a potent reminder of how transport has changed all our lives.

Over time, Merville built up a considerable fleet of distinctive green-liveried vehicles. Vans were used for bottled milk while small tankers were used for bulk deliveries and buttermilk.
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