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Basel and its hackney cabs: Before exhaust fumes, the problem was horse droppings

Horse dung was the biggest environmental problem facing cities in the 19th century. At the turn of the century the dangers to hygiene caused by horse dung were immense.

The first electric tram circulating Basel's streets started on 6th May, 1895. The rails connected the SBB railway station with the former German train station which stood where the exhibition halls are today. The line crossed the Mittlere Brücke. In the decades to follow the network was constantly widened. For the cab drivers, the opening of the first electric tram line was the beginning of the end.

Horse power

It was the end of an era where the circulation of people and cargo was reliant on horse power. Of course this was always the case before the 19th century however at the start of the century the population grew enormously. In 1815, the population was at 17,000 and by 1888 it reached 70,000, swelling in 1900 up to 110,000, and reaching 130,000 in 1920.

A special sort of people

Together with the population the city grew, and also the public transport network. Hundreds of Hackney cabs were underway every week to transport cargo and people. The drivers of these carriages who cared about the horses were a special sort of people.

Favourite drink: red wine

They cared for the horses, shoed them regularly, and mostly lived at the stables. Their weekly pay in the 19th century was generally 5 Swiss francs per week. Their favourite drink was red wine from the region. Drivers and their cabs were under strict regulation. They had to be well reputed, and cabs had to be impeccable. Only those which fulfilled the requirements were granted an official licence. There were special restrictions on drivers, for example not to use the whip in residential areas at night time or when people were nearby.

Most of them were unmarried

The hackney cab drivers who were called «Droschkiers» were a special branch among the cab drivers. They could be called on day and night for the transportation of passengers. At junctions there were cab stands, just like taxi stands today. Due to their irregular working times – they had to be available day and night, and dressed smartly – most cab drivers were unmarried. In the city they had their own pubs which offered good wine and nourishing meals.

Thundering horse shoes

Those who complain about motorised traffic must imagine the noise of cabs drawn by several horses which were on their way day and night, transporting cargo and people, or driving the waste out of town. Horse shoes were thundering along the streets, wheels were screeching, and chassis and cargo were clattering.

And the dung

The biggest problem in the fast growing cities of the 19th century was horse dung lying everywhere, attracting flies and other insects. Many diseases and infections were spread through them, e.g. typhoid fever. Numerous people died as a consequence of pollution caused by dung.

20,000 deaths

A study about the dangers of dung pollution conducted in 1900 in New York showed that every year 20,000 people died as a result. The London Times calculated in 1894 that in 1950 streets would be covered in a 3-metre-thick layer of horse dung if nothing changed concerning dung pollution.

Ministerial conference about horse dung

In 1889 an international ministerial conference took place in New York in which dung pollution was the main topic. However, no solution could be found, and the conference was cancelled after three days. Also Basel was covered in horse dung, and people were scared about the quality of groundwater and of infection.


Every night dozens of cabs carried dung out of town, entire fields in the outskirts were used as a dung disposal and turned into muddy, stinking places. If it had continued this way, the city would have suffocated in horse dung. On this background the appearance of the electric tram and of the petrol engine was a relief. However one which brought about completely new problems and questions. 

Humanity will also solve this problem, while governments will declare it as their own success.