As I get older, I fall deeper in love with the Isle of Man.
That love grows stronger as I begin to unearth the treasure from its golden past. Something that often leaves me day dreaming of how the Island once shone as a tourist jewel in the middle of the Irish Sea.
I enjoy trawling through the archives of photographs and footage of how it once was. The beaches that were packed from shore to promenade, the largest ballroom in Europe that could boast hosting the Rolling Stones and the plethora of attractions that meant the Steam Packet needed a fleet of ships to fulfil the demand of people looking to visit the Isle of Man.
However, all that remains of those days is the stories of our parents and grandparents put to photographs in their albums and the rich collages of Manx nostalgia preserved online. Many of the remnants from these times have now disappeared or are disappearing in front us, as the Isle of Man moves on.
Whether that be the beach front hotels that would have once been booked up for the summer, now sadly laying derelict with boarded windows. The hotel rooms once graced with giddy British families, are now filled with dog sh!t as the police use them as training venues for drug sniffing, and a generation of children that now wouldn’t flinch at the thought of a day out at White City.
The identity of the Isle of Man is shifting.
A recent article by The Times described the Isle of Man as a “New Silicon Valley”, given the fact the island is now host to the global headquarters of the online gaming industry with new tech start-ups popping up around every corner.
The ‘California of the Irish Sea’ is an extraordinary description when comparing it to Palo Alto, the hotbed for tech giants like Facebook, Apple, Google, Tesla to name drop a few. Leading the world in enterprise, technology and getting you to your office in an autonomous electric vehicle!
Is this really where the Isle of Man is heading?
Manx relics of yore are rightfully being championed in the museums and archives as we look to newfound strengths. We’re making way for innovation, technology and appealing to revolutionary entrepreneurship to come and take us into a new economic age.
But while the government claims to pioneer and embrace of the future, there still remains a facet of our heritage that they fruitlessly cling on to. It is a point of contention that almost certainly puts a divide between the generations; The Horse Trams.
The Douglas Bay Horse Tramway celebrated its 142nd birthday on August 6th 2018. The clip-clop relic of Victorian Isle of Man has operated every day when in season and only stopped for the breakout of WWII. Incredible.
It is a living legacy which has spanned over three centuries, featuring at the fore or in the background, of hundreds of thousands of Islanders’ lives. A constant for generations.
But it is only in recent times that one factor has truly threatened its existence. And perhaps it is most telling of all.
Douglas Borough Council ran the horse trams until they famously declared that they were no longer financially viable. It was a sale they said, that was in the interest of the ratepayer. And as plans for the promenade were being drawn up, the Department of Infrastructure stepped with a saviour’s solution to the failing tramway: taxpayer money.
In the last year the council ran the horse trams, they were running at a loss of £263,000.
£110,000 was initially spent by the DoI for the rolling stock and the horses for the first season of operation. Government then went on to spend £600,000 on buying the stables on Queens Promenade, a transaction which apparently forms the ‘vision’ for the future of the prom.
Revenue generated by the trams in the last year was £143,000. But the government is still buying extra fixtures and fittings from the council, adding to the running costs of £626,000. So in the last horse tram season, the operation cost the entire Isle of Man nearly half a million pounds.
That’s not to mention the £1.5 million that’s recently been splashed out for a facelift of the Strathallan depot.
It’s been an incredibly costly purchase. Obviously initial losses from buying a business has its upfront costs, but the men with money usually go in to the deal with a plan to recoup them, later on down the line. However since his department’s acquisition in 2016, Minister Ray Harmer said the Horse Trams ‘could’ break even. A tenacious, visionary remark that will surely instil the Manx public with a jubilant sense of confidence.
Question is, do the horse trams have the longevity to make back its losses? Or perhaps another way of looking at the situation is, could the money being ploughed into it’s preservation be used better elsewhere?
Could we bring back tuition fees with that kind of money?
I was blessed to have had my University tuition fees fully covered, but how can the Government now justify cuts that stop a large percentage of Manx students pursuing a higher education, whilst they continue to fund a 140 year old timepiece that has been passed around because it is no longer financially viable?
Are the relics of our questionable past more valuable than the education of our future CEOs?
The Horse Tram is one of the sadder sides of the Isle of Man Government’s vanity project. Growing up here through the 90s and 00s, we see a changing face on the Island.
We hear stories of beaches filled with so many people that we can’t see sand. If there was a genuine, desperate need to get people up and down the prom without any other alternative mode of transport available, then perhaps the horse trams had their place. And it was in fact in the 19th century.
Justifying the horse trams by saying it’s our ‘tradition’ can be dismantled by one fact: Morality.
Human interpretation of what’s right and wrong has been obscured by our desire to keep things as they once were. The fact that the Isle of Man Government pays for the operation of a horse-drawn cart along Douglas promenade, sets a precedent that exposes a stark of hypocrisy.
In the developing world, countries like Nepal, India and Indonesia to name a few, they use mules for as vehicles on a construction site. Animals carry breeze blocks and rubble on their backs, often in sweltering conditions, as a means of transporting heavy loads of material on and off site.
Like the people who labour, these animals are exploited for their ability – people work because they have to – and animals are used to carry the burden.
Sadly, construction workers do not have the access to industrial machinery like HGVs and cranes that make the job easy. With the west’s economic strength, we claim to have advanced from such medieval practices and as a result, we hold this moral snobbery that distances ourselves from such exploitation.
However, the horse tram are no different.
Now, they are not a welfare issue. I do not doubt for one minute that the staff of the heritage attraction deprive the animals of care. I am almost certain that they have that job because they are in fact a lover of the animal.
But, if they truly care about the horses they drive to slog it up and down Douglas promenade for hours, if they care that frustrated drivers beep and rev past only to complain about the traffic and the inconsiderate drivers, then perhaps they’re not understanding ‘welfare’.
It is also important to consider that ‘working animals’ have not consented to be put in that position. Humans do not speak ass or horse for that matter, and therefore we cannot ask for the animal’s permission. So anyone that says, ‘but the horses like it’ is terribly misinformed.
“Hey William, fancy pulling this empty tram along the prom on this fine record breaking June day of 28 degrees?”
I’m pretty sure William, who actually had Percy’s name on yesterday, would reply;
If we’re happy to see horses work trams, then surely we’re happy to see the hiring of a couple of donkeys to take rubble to the skips at the rebuild of St Mary’s Primary school. But of course, this would spark outrage.
If the yellow-helmed labourers were directing donkeys with a bamboo stick on the site of a Department of Education, Sport and Culture operation, we, the Manx public, would be up in arms, edifying the builders with banners and placards.
I go back to the animal’s welfare. If the people who help to operate the trams care so much about the wellbeing of the animal, then they are probably in the wrong job.
Having a contingent of horses at your disposal to pull an archaic form of transport along the seafront for no necessary reason other than novelty, is not truly grasping the meaning of welfare.
I think it’s fair to accept that all animals have an interest to live. If I was a horse, I’d want a life spent in a massive field with a lifetime’s supply of grass and a couple of mates to chase around all day long, forever.
The same way we humans desire a life where we aren’t subject to something, when there is absolutely no need for it. Again, if the Isle of Man Government funds the horse trams in the name of tradition, then perhaps we should have a state-run chimney sweep company, nationalise the Punch and Judy stalls or have some young men renting deck chairs on the promenade once again while we’re at it.
Just because something has become a part of our tradition doesn’t make it moral. Right here on the Isle of Man, as recent as the 90s, homosexuals were outcast and sent to prison for ‘buggery’.
Any tradition that exploits a victim will quite rightly be made redundant by our prevailing morality. It’s an abuse of our dominion over animals. If we were intelligent beings, we would ensure the animal saw out its life free of exploitation.
However, our projection of humanity leads us to exploit them for our pleasure. Perhaps there is no visible suffering from the horses. But they are voiceless in this situation. Just because they don’t struggle and shake their heads as if to say no, doesn’t mean they consent.
It is therefore not subjective of me to say that the Douglas horse trams are cruel.
— Katie Banks (@Katiiiie_B) July 18, 2018
I hope this piece is acknowledged as a love letter. A letter of love for Manx nostalgia, for the love of a bigger and brighter Isle of Man and for the love of the horses. I believe we should seriously consider alternatives for the Isle of Man Horse Trams.
So what is an alternative?
I’ve often heard people suggest that “They are just in the wrong place!” but I would be equally troubled by a horse tram on the promenade sea front, as has been suggested.
With children riding their stabiliser assisted bicycles, teenagers practising skateboard tricks and not to mention an area which is subject to wet and wild weather that literally tore apart the foundations of the promenades structure. I’m afraid to say that this doesn’t sound like a suitable alternative for a horse drawn cart to me.
Perhaps the Isle of Man, like the many ways it has in the past, could lead the initiative in what can be achieved by a small island nation.
Why couldn’t we have a modern fully electric tram system that helps Pokerstars staff get a sandwich from Strand Street and also takes cruise ship passengers from the Sea Terminal to the Terminus Tavern for a bite to eat?
Surely the ‘New Silicon Valley’ could round up some of the new talent and new money that has come to the island and draw up some neat ideas? Whatever they may be!
Finally and interestingly, did you know that Groudle Glen once had a zoo? Did you know that zoo brought over eleven sea lions from California? Did you know that zoo once also housed Polar Bears?
To think about this happening on the Isle of Man at one point and these animals being so far removed from their natural habitat, is a dark and shameful stain on the Island’s golden past, but we accept that this was simply a sign of the times.
We moved on, accepted a collective change in attitudes over time, but more importantly we still wince at the thought of what was once acceptable a century ago.
And for those very reasons, and the reasons discussed above, we now recognise that this behaviour is no longer tolerable in modern a society.