“When I first came to London, Piccadilly still had its goat. I remember meeting it on the pavement one day in 1892”
My relatives in Islington once saw a horse collapse in the street. It was in distress, writhing on its side and whinnying, but the carter had his job to do.
He jumped down, shouting and kicking at the beast to get up. It died. The cartman delivered one last side-swipe then threw his cap down in disgust and marched away.
One of the neighbours strode out and placed a blanket over it, preserving its dignity, should that ever have been a commodity its sorry life possessed.
I mention this because it was not an event from the Victorian era. It happened relatively recently, some time in the late 1950s. And in Islington, infamously the London borough with the fewest green spaces.
Two centuries earlier cattle could have overnighted here before the slaughter of Smithfield. Now those fields were developed for housing, roads and industry.
Even in my lifetime (begun December 1960, not over at time of going to press) animals were quite a common sight on London’s roads. Rag and bone men drove horses, police rode them. Tethered donkeys sometimes chewed grass in the odd field or verdant traffic island. Today virtually the only animals seen in public are pets; even the glimpse of the country — rabbit, hare, pheasant, pigeon, deer — hung like furry bunting outside butchers is a thing of a bygone century.
And in the late c19th, an animal such as The Piccadilly Goat could even become famous.
The Piccadilly Goat was not William Douglas, the amorous gadabout of the Hell-Fire Club, though that was his nickname.
No, we are concerned with that other ‘lounger of marked individuality and leisured independence’, a herbivore that grazed the pavements of London’s golden triangle at the end of the Victorian era.
No one seems certain how the Piccadilly Goat arrived at his concrete pastures, between Grosvenor Square, Regent’s Street and Piccadilly
Harper’s magazine describe the demon-eyed beast as ‘proud and haughty’. Perhaps they were being unfair: the authors of the book ‘Great Streets Of The World’ (1892) celebrated him as a veritable wonder of the capital.
‘To be sure,’ they wrote, ‘we have what Paris does not, the Piccadilly Goat, who lives in, or often at, the door of a large corner house.’ (The goat is actually supposed to have lived around Stafford Street, where the Goat Tavern stands.)
Owner-less, horned and bearded, the goat toured the streets as free as a bird. He was especially renowned for grazing the restaurants of the West End with the alacrity of an Alan Brazil or a Jay Rayner, though his ‘table’ of preference was the door at the back, where kindly chefs would break off from their cigarette break to proffer a box of cabbage or turnip.
London was yet to be choked and cowed by the car, but the clatter of steel coach wheel and shod hooves, deafening to many, appears to have left him unmoved. Over time he became an intriguing and much-loved character.
‘When I first came to London,’ wrote Edward Verrall Lucas in 1913, ‘Piccadilly still had its goat. I remember meeting it on the pavement one day in 1892, opposite Hamilton Terrace, and wondering how it got there and why the people, usually so curious about the unusual, were taking so little notice of such a phenomenon, as it seemed to me. It must have been soon after then that it died and, with true London carelessness, was not replaced.’
No one seems to know the goat’s ‘roots’. Perhaps he had fallen off the back of a lorry, or had escaped from the chore of tugging a lady around on one of those small ‘one-gal’ carts called Alexandras.
“He was a large, handsome creature, with great intelligence in his amber eyes”
Whatever his background he appears to have charmed most people he met. Max Beerbohm, in his autobiographical ‘Mainly On The Air,’ (1958) wrote of the beast as an empathetic life companion. ‘I don’t know much about him, though I often saw him and liked him so much.’
The famous wit imagined the animal as a fellow observer of late Victorian London life and its crescendo of absurdity.
‘[The goat] lived in a large mews in a side street, opposite to Gloucester House, the home of the venerable Duke of Cambridge. At about ten o’clock in the morning he would come treading forth with a delicately clumsy gait down the side-street — come very slowly, as though not quite sure there mightn’t be some grass for him to nibble at between the paving-stones.
‘Then he would pause at the corner of Piccadilly and flop down against the railings of the nearest house. He would remain there till luncheon-time and return in the early afternoon. He was a large, handsome creature, with great intelligence in his amber eyes. He never slept. He was always interested in the passing scene. I think nothing escaped him.
‘I wish he could have written his memoirs when he finally retired. He had seen, day by day, much that was worth seeing. He had seen a constant procession of the best-built vehicles in the world, drawn by very beautifully bred and beautifully groomed and beautifully harnessed horses, and containing very ornate people.
‘And all these vehicles went by with a cheerful briskness; there was hardly ever a block for them in the traffic. And their occupants were very visible and were looking their best.
‘The occupants of those low-roofed machines which are so pitifully blocked nowadays all along Piccadilly may, for aught one knows, be looking their best. But they aren’t on view. The students of humanity must be content to observe the pedestrians. These, I fear, would pain my old friend the goat.’
Eventually the sad passing of London’s most famous goat was noted in December 1893 by Punch. Which was fitting, because it was the same periodical’s article by E.T. Reed that had propelled him from cult hero to wider celebrity three years earlier. How his remains were disposed is not recorded; perhaps for the best.
‘I have no idea what became of the Piccadilly Goat,’ wrote Norman Douglas in 1994. ‘Though I know pretty well what would become of him now, were he alive at this moment. Mutton-chops.’
It’s sad to think that the same busy corner of the capital – more violent, over-sanitised, and less tolerant – would consider the old goat lunch. And not someone with whom to share the daily delights and nonsense of the West End.