Weymouth 1866. A Cruel Life for Victorian Beach Donkeys

Donkeys on Weymouth beach can boast a long history, they are an iconic image of traditional seaside holidays dating right back to the mid 19th century when sea bathing and beach holidays became a booming trade.

Weymouth beach CCO DCM(image © Channel Coast Observatory)

Small children (and many adults) adore them, love to stroke them, and if  lucky, have a ride. I have very fond memories of enjoying a donkey ride as a special treat, that of course was many moons ago.

During my childhood it was a common sight in Weymouth to see a string of donkeys being led through town towards the beach, ready for their days work. The Downton name being synonymous with equine beach rides for nearly a century, until John Dowton’s retirement in 2000.

donkey rides II on Weymouth beach

For 5 long years, not a single hoof print was to be seen on the sands, parents and offspring would stare forlornly at an empty spot where donkeys once stood.

But in 2005, Maggie Aldridge started up the donkey rides again, in exactly the same spot where generations before had stood patiently for their turn.




Today’s Weymouth beach donkeys are well cared for and much loved. They have their own umbrellas for shade, a proper lunch break, lots of cuddles and snacks.

But sadly life hadn’t always been kind to these gentle souls of the sands.

Victorian papers contained numerous reports of cruelty by their owners and many  young lads who were left in charge of these beach rides.

victorian beach

On Tuesday 24th July 1866 an article appeared in the Sherbourne Mercury about a major archery contest that was taking place in Weymouth. Right in the middle of said piece, which spoke of Weymouth and its inhabitants in somewhat scathing terms was this paragraph…

‘The donkey boys have got new sticks wherewith to thrash their half-starved over-wrought beasts, which, by-the-bye, sadly need the assistance of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals…’

(The Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was formed in 1824.)

With that unfavourable article still ringing in his ears, Weymouth’s magistrate (who as custom dictated was town mayor at the time)  was so frustrated that any warnings given to the donkey’s owners and his boys regarding cruelty went unheeded, so this time they were determined to make an example of the miscreant as a warning to others.
Consequently, in September 1866, 14-year-old Samuel Vincent of Franchaise Court, found himself stood before the bench accused of cruelly mistreating his donkey.
donkeys weymouth
After having received a complaint about the way the young lads were looking after the donkeys in their care, police Inspector Superintendant Lidbury had been stood surreptitiously observing from the esplanade opposite the Gloucester hotel.
This is where the donkeys were originally stationed, that is until numerous complaints from nearby  hotels about their distinctive aroma and good for garden roses ‘offerings’ made the council move them further down the beach near the pier, where they are still to this day.
Inspector Lidbury had been carefully watching young Samuel leading a group of 4 donkeys along the beach with their female riders.
donkeys on the beach
One of his donkeys was lagging behind the rest of the group.
Samuel, armed with his large stick, was seen repeatedly beating the struggling donkey on it’s hocks as hard as he could.
Still not satisfied that his donkey was moving fast enough, Samuel proceeded to pick up a large pebble from the beach, repeatedly throwing it at the donkey’s hocks, causing the poor beast to go lame.
It seems that this wasn’t the first time Samuel had been observed mistreating the animals, nor was it just Samuel who was guilty of doing so.
Many of boys who worked for the donkey proprietor were guilty of cruelty towards these gentle beasts of the sands and found themselves before the courts.
The proprietor  himself had been warned numerous times about cruelty observed towards his animals.
Even goats which were used to pull the carts along the promenade didn’t escape these beatings.
Determined to make a statement that Weymouth wouldn’t tolerate animal cruelty, Samuel Vincent was fined 20s for his crime, with the warning that if he didn’t pay this fine he would be in line for a 14 day stretch inside.
There was no way of course that 14-year-old Samuel would have that sum of money consequently…
…he was taken below.’
Maybe for the next 14 days he got to appreciate how his poor old donkey felt.
weymouth donkeys and beach
Sadly though, it seems things didn’t improve, as a letter from Weymouth resident known simply as Fabian was printed in the Southern Times and Dorset County Herald, Saturday 11th August 1877 reveals
I am no advocate for corporal punishment, but strongly advise at present some infliction upon the boys who so cruelly beat and torment the helpless donkeys. Let them feel a few strokes every time they are so lavish with them. Surely there are magistrates here who ought to prevent such barbarity, as Mr Arthur Kinglake has prevented it in Weston-Super-Mare. It deeply pains me and many other visitors to see it.’
Fabian’s letter obviously touched a chord with concerned residents and visitors, as next Saturday’s edition was filled with missives re their plight
‘The cruelty at Weymouth inflicted on the donkeys and bathing horses and on some of the fly horses is perfectly revolting.’
responded ‘A Friend of Helpless Animals.’
weymouth donkeys 1920
Another  visitor, ‘Friends To all Animals,’ wrote of the goat carriage rides
‘One morning we saw a lady walking besides the carriage  which contained her four children, looking highly gratified at the treat she was giving her darlings; the poor little goat staggering along under the heavy burden, its head being pulled from side to side by the boy in charge, using the animal’s horns for that purpose. Such sights have made us during out two month and a half stay in Weymouth avoid the esplanade as much as possible.’
Again, this flurry of adverse reporting got a swift response from the council and courts.
This time it was 19-year-old James Chick of Brick Kiln Cottages hauled before the magistrate, with Supt. Vickery providing the evidence, the prosecution brought by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
During this case it was suggested that the donkey’s owner, Jonathan Cook,  should be stood before them, not young James Chick.
But it was Chick who was found guilty…
‘of very gross and unnecessary cruelty towards a poor dumb animal’ 
and committed to one month’s hard labour at Dorchester gaol.
Interestingly, Dorchester Prison Admission and Discharge Registers gives is a tantalising glimpse of this lad.
He was 5ft 4ins tall, with dark brown hair and dark hazel eyes, his complexion sallow. The Marks column reveals yet more, he had a…
‘scar on his left arm, a dimpled chin, keeps his mouth open. Left eye turns in’,
James was also described as described as ‘simple in manner and speech.’
Donkey owner Jonathan Cook merely received  a warning shot across the bow…
‘The Mayor addressing Cook, said on him rested the responsibility of employing fit and proper lads to drive donkeys and goats, and if any cases of ill treatment came before the magistrates he would be regarded as accessory to the acts of cruelty.’
Though Supt. Vickery’s response to that comment maybe gave a measure of the man…
‘Cook gave the police a great deal of trouble.’
In fact, Cook came from a reputable Weymouth family of coach builders with premises in Crescent street, a couple of doors down from the Sun Inn. He later himself became a cab proprietor, though this didn’t deter him from numerous brushes with the law, court appearances, and the ensuing newspaper reports, mainly to do with his business and the dubious way he conducted it.
In February of 1888, so horrendous were the charges of neglect and  starvation of his donkeys and goats held at Wyke, he made national news…
‘Perhaps there is no citizen of the animal world who has a rougher time of it, in some ways, than the seaside donkey. True, he always spends his summer in the sea air, and he is occasionally privileged to bear on his back the modern successors of Aphrodite Aradyomeen. But his lot is hard for all that. When, therefore, one finds that his master starves him until he dies or actually gnaws a wooden fence through as a substitute for hay, one feels that six month’s hard labour is not too severe a punishment for the tyrant, Jonathan Cook of Weymouth, who has just been sentenced to that punishment, richly deserves what he has got.’
Upon inspection of his premises, the remain of numerous animal carcasses were found discarded beneath dung heaps.
It was after this court case held at the Dorchester sessions, that the Bench suggested that maybe Cook ‘was not a proper person for such a license,’ and that Weymouth council should no longer grant him that license to run his donkeys or goat cart rides on the beach.’
Sm Donkeys on Weymouth beach in the Edwardian era
Sadly, further court appearances right up until the year of his death in 1917, suggest that  his numerous prison sentences had little effect.
Aged 66 Jonathan Cook served his last sentence of one month’s hard labour.
Thankfully nowadays these gentle  beach donkeys lives are far more regulated, and the majority are well cared for and well loved by those who own or work with them.
Volunteers 1906 2_2
 Long may the traditional seaside last and these gentle souls of the sands with it.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Can you believe that in America there’s still something called donkey basketball? Grown people (no matter the weight or temperament) ride scared and abused donkeys playing basketball–kicking them, shouting etc–for a school fundraiser.


    1. cannasue says:

      You,re kidding! That is unbelievable in this day and age. Poor donkeys. At least here in Weymouth, even kids have to be under a certain weight before they,re allowed to sit on the donkeys, let alone fully grown adults!


  2. I sent a note to the school saying I thought the kids were being taught that it’s fun to abuse animals and they canceled what had been a long tradition. Some of the teachers were really angry with me 😦 haha


    1. cannasue says:

      Good on you, bet your name was mud thought 😉


      1. Yes, the teachers had a few choice words. 🙂


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