Weymouth 1866. A cruel life for Victorian beach donkeys

The little donkeys on Weymouth beach are an iconic image.


Small children (and many adults) love to see them, stroke them, and if they’re lucky, have a ride, as I did myself as a child many moons ago.

It used to be a common sight in Weymouth to see the string of donkeys being led through the busy town towards the beach ready for their days work, the Downton name being synonymous with equine beach fun for nearly a century, until John Dowton’s retirement in 2000.

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

In 2005, Maggie Aldridge started up the donkey rides again in exactly the same spot where generations before had stood patiently for their turn to climb onto the little work fellows back.


The donkeys on Weymouth sands are well cared for and much loved, they have their own umberellas for shade, a proper lunch break, lots of cuddles and snacks.

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

In the Victorian local papers were numerous cases of cruelty by the owners and many of the young lads who used to  be in charge of the rides on the beach.

One of the cases in 1866 concerned 14 year old Samuel Vincent, who was hauled before the local magistrates for cruelly mistreating a donkey.
Young Samuel lived with his family at no 4 Franchaise Court, which was just off Franchaise street .
donkeys weymouth
Local police Inspector, Superintendant Lidbury had been stood on the esplande opposite the Gloucester hotel (this is where the donkeys were originally positioned  until numerous complaints about the smell from them made the council move them further down the beach near the pier, where they still are to this day).
weymouth donkeys and beach
After having received a complaint about the way the young lads treated the donkeys in their care, the Inspector had been stood watching young  Samuel leading a  group of 4 donkeys along the beach with little girls riding them.
donkeys on the beach
One of the donkey’s was dragging his heels  that day,  lagging behind the rest of the group.
The lad, carrying a large stick with him, was seen repeatedly beating the donkey on it’s hocks as hard as he could.
That still not achieving what he wanted, he then proceeded to pick up large pebbles from the beach, throwing them at the donkeys legs, hitting them hard, causing the donkey to go lame.
It seems that this wasn’t the first time Samuel had been observed beating the donkeys, nor was it just Samuel who was guilty of doing so.
Many of other boys who worked for the donkey proprietor were guilty of cruelty towards these gentle beasts of the sands and found themselves hauled before the courts.
The proprietor  himself had been warned numerous times  about the cases of cruelty observed towards his herd of little donkeys.
Even the goats which were used to pull the carts along the promenade didn’t escape the beatings.
weymouth donkeys 1920
Samuel Vincent was fined 20s for his cruelty,  if he didn’t pay his fine  he would be in line for a 14 day stretch inside.
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 the little gentle souls of the sands with it.
*****************************************************************************************************************************************************Writing a book, blog, short stories or your own family history, then why not make them jump off the page, bring them to life with historical graphics.
I have a huge collection that cover illustrations from numerous Victorian articles about travel, prisons, children’s homes, poverty, philanthropy…
Check out my Etsy site for Victorian illustrations, many more, including local ones being added all the time from my own personal collection.


5 comments on “Weymouth 1866. A cruel life for Victorian beach donkeys

  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.


    • 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


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