The Grammarphobia Blog

On dogs and dogcarts

Q: In reading The Last Chronicle of Barset, I noticed several references to “dogcart,’’ a term I often see in 19th-century fiction. My dictionary defines “dogcart” as a horse-drawn cart, but I’ve always wondered whether these carts were ever pulled by dogs in England.

A: Yes, “dogcarts” were once pulled by dogs in England, but the use of dogs to draw carts was prohibited during the Victorian era.

The Metropolitan Police Act of 1839 barred the use of “any Dog for the Purpose of drawing or helping to draw any Cart, Carriage, Truck, or Barrow” in London. And an 1854 statute prohibited the practice “by any person on any public highway” in England.

By the time Trollope published his last Barsetshire novel in 1865, the light two-wheeled carriages known as “dogcarts” were pulled by horses, not dogs, as the context of the novel makes clear.

At one point, for example, Mrs. Grantly finds her son “settling himself in his dog-cart, while the servant who was to accompany him was still at the horse’s head.”

However, dogs were still pulling carts in much of Europe well into the 20th century. We came across a webpage with photos of dogs pulling carts carrying people, milk cans, artillery pieces, and so on.

In fact, dogs pull carts today in the US and the UK—as a competitive activity. Bernese Mountain Dog clubs, for example, consider carting and drafting canine sports.

When the term “dogcart” first showed up in the 17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to “a small cart drawn by a dog or dogs.” However, that sense of the word is now considered historical.

The earliest OED example of the usage is from a June 13, 1668, entry in The Diary of Samuel Pepys that describes the city of Bristol: “No carts, it standing generally on vaults, only dog carts.”

The latest example of the term used when canine dogcarts were still a common sight in England comes from the July 8, 1854, issue of the Illustrated London News: “The dog-cart nuisance … the use of carts drawn by dogs.”

The OED has a couple of recent examples, but they use the term in historical references.

In the late 18th century, according to the dictionary’s citations, the term “dogcart” took on the sense of a horse-drawn cart with a box under the seat for a hunter’s dogs.

The OED’s earliest example for the new usage is from an Oct. 15, 1799, advertisement in the Times of London: “A neat modern built Chariot, by Hatchett, with patent wheels; a Gig, and a Market Cart, a Dog Cart.”

In later use, the dictionary says, the term referred to “an open carriage with two transverse seats back to back, the rear seat originally converting into a box for dogs.”

Here’s an example from The Romance of a Dull Life, an 1861 novel by Anne Judith Penny: “The closed carriage being better than the dog-cart, for the weather had changed, and it was cold.”

Finally, this is a contemporary example from a website that sells dogcarts to “exercise your pet and have fun with the entire family”:

“The K-9 Dog Cart is for you! Crafted with super-strong tubular steel framing and three-wheel construction for superior balance and ease of use. Your dog will love it!”

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