Saturday, 8 December 2012

Vintage Hand carts, Billy carts and Goat Carts

At my children’s school concert the other night the grade sevens performed a little skit about billycarts, taken from the ‘Unreliable Memoirs’ of Clive James. At about age 10 in 1949 Clive’s exploits at going down ‘Billy Cart Hill’ were hilarious, and got me thinking about billy carts, how they came to be and how we don’t really have them any more.

Australian 'billycarts' were used as early as the 1880s. They were either literally drawn by a billygoat - hence the Australian name 'billycart'- or small two wheeled hand carts for which the name billycart had already become a generic term.

Australian Child's chair cart, 'mail cart' c.1890-1930 
Billycart, c. 1950-1970. source

Billycart is also an Australian variation of the English goat cart which, like the dog cart, was originally an 18th and 19th century form of animal propelled cart. A later development - the mail cart - was a two wheeled vehicle designed to be pulled by children as a play thing. The British firm Simpson, Fawcett and Co   advertised these in the 1870s emphasising their exercise value.  Here is an invoice on headed paper from Simpson, Fawcett & Co. to Leeds Pail and Perambulator Works from 1879 with illustrations of 'Hammock woodenette' patent number 56, and 'Royal Mail cart' .

ad cart

Here is an actual mail delivery cart from about 1900.


. The mail cart, which could hold a young child, was also a precursor to the modern pram.

Victorian mail cart pram, c,1898 source

Ad from 1900 source
In his 1952 memoir, Sydney bookseller James Tyrrell remembered as a boy using a 'billycart', or what was probably a form of mailcart/goat cart without the goat, to deliver books for Angus and Robertson.   Similar carts were used by bakers to deliver bread, such as this one in England c. 1903.


One small boy pulling another in an early billy cart. They are on a path in a back yard, c. 1915 source.

Later billy carts had four wheels and steering ropes, and were a home-made versions of commercially produced - and hence relatively expensive - pedal cars. like this one from about 1922.
pedal car c. 1922
Of course they didn’t have pedals or hand cranks and were pushed or ridden down hill. They didn’t really have breaks either. Anthony Hordern and Sons Ltd, Australia’s largest department store at the time, was advertising billycarts in the 1920s - these were essentially the two wheeled mail carts of the late 19th century. However it was around this time or a little later that the 'modern' billycart developed as a fruit box with wheels or the more sophisticated H-shaped frame with rope controlled steering.

Harnessed goats were also used in a variation of this two wheeled cart - again using the term goat cart or 'go-cart'. Here are two boys playing with a small two-wheeled home-made goat-drawn cart, made from a wooden fruit box or crate marked 'J.T. MORTON' on the side.

goat cart australian

Billy cart racing(with goats) became a popular pastime for Australian children in the 1920s and thirties.  Here is a still from a 1920s  featuring boys riding on the back of goats and children in billycarts on the streets of Rockhampton, Queensland.


And Goat racing in 1926 at Ariah Park Sports Day - Ariah Park, NSW

goat racing aust

This goat cart, pulled by the champion goat "Coongal", gets privileged service from a Queensland Police officer as it crosses Queen Street in Brisbane, c. 1930.


Billy cart or goat racing is still a sport in Australian, although it has been condemned over the last few years for being harsh to both goats and children, as poorly trained feral goats have been used. Goats were usually well trained to pull carts in days gone past, and they were a re part of the family.
Billy carts, or goat carts were also popular in the US. with families from all walks of life.

Scout troop goat cart c 1920s source

Children with a goat cart in North Dakota c. 1930 source
The Harrison children, c. 1891 source
I think this is a great way to get around, don't you?! I can't imagine children now having this freedom though, although I do think goats are the perfect pets - they are vegetarian, could eat the prunings and vegie scraps, trim the grass and maybe even give milk. 

Of course pigs and dogs were also used to pull carts, and when dogs carts were outlawed in the UK in about 1840 as cruel, many dogs were killed as their owners could no longer afford to feed them.  Dog carts did continue in Belgium and some other European countries until the 1930s, and in WWI instead of pulling children, milk or bread they were used to carry guns or rolls of barbed wire for barricades.
Some large dog breeds would appear very suitable for pulling carts - they were bred for it after all. Like this Bernese Mountain Dog.


Today,although dog carts aren't used for commercial purposes, they are used as means of entertainment in a sport called carting, dryland mushing or sulky driving.  Just like sledding without snow, and it is done also by sled dog owners in the off season to keep them fit.

My eldest son used to walk the dog by letting him pull him on a skateboard, and my staffy now loves to pull me when I'm on my bike.  You'd think that if a dog is capable of pulling a human, it could pull a small cart of bread or ice cream.   Imagine a dog, or goat, drawn ice cream cart at the park or beach. My kids would love it - what a novelty, especially in this day and age when so many families cannot afford or have the space to have a pet.  And my dogs would think they'd died and gone to heaven if they could hang out with me outside all day and be petted by kids.  Maybe with regulations to prevent cruelty dog carts could become popular.......what do you think?

Deb xxx

As usual, more cart photos on tumblr.


  1. I have enjoyed reading this, so thank you for putting it together. I have two goats destined to become harness goats for my son (he's only just walking, so we have a while for training yet!)
    I really want to learn more about the history of children riding goats, but get stuck on the same half doz. or so pictures from Google. Are these staged photos? Did the children train, break and ride them regularly, or were they just caught as a one-off, ridden for half hour, pose for a photo, let go..?
    They look like quite big children on pretty average sized goats, so it's hard to believe they could have gone far - it's got me intrigued, I'll keep looking!

    1. My dad grew up on a farm in NSW in the 40s and says goat carts were a real thing - kids had quite a lot of freedom on the school holidays and dad would spend hours building carts (although he didn't personally have a goat) and going rabbit shooting.....ah the joys of the past! Good luck with your quest


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