Cruelty – What do you think?

Donkey rides
Donkey rides

Malvern’s donkeys were usually driven by boys between 6 and 13 years old; at 14 they were old enough to have a job suitable for a man. The donkey boys were rough, coarse, unkempt, and often beat their donkeys with ash sticks and whips made of gutta percha (a hard rubber). During the 19th century adult donkey drivers often appeared in court for cruelty. Sometimes, as in one case in August 1859, a man was sentenced to a month’s hard labour for cruelty to his donkey. In January 1869 a man appeared at Malvern police court for the fifth time, charged with cruelty to a donkey and was fined 5 shillings, with 15/6d costs (15 shillings and sixpence), which in 2013 equates to £73.80. Cruelty usually involved beating or letting very overweight people ride on the donkeys.

Donkey children leading the donkeys in Malvern
Riding up to the Beacon

In 1894 Henry Peerless brought his wife Millie (Mill) and two-year-old son Cuthbert to Malvern for a holiday. On Tuesday 7th August he wrote in his diary:

We charter three asses – Cuthbert’s has a special one fitted with a basketwork pannier, and is strapped in. We are accompanied by a little boy, William Coombs. His age is ten. He tells me he has been four years driving the donkeys up and down, so he began at the mature age of six.

            I don’t hardly like going up on a donkey – it seems cruel – but when I talk to the boy he pooh-poohs it altogether. “Carri yer! I should think so, w’y he’s tuk up over 20 stun.”

“Over 20 stones? Never. Man or woman?”

“ooman, Zir.”

            About half way up [to the Worcestershire Beacon]the young rascal met another donkey-boy, and stopped to talk to him, and let Cuthbert’s donkey go on alone. Mill was in front, I was next and Cuthbert last and it was nearly five minutes before I discovered he was not there. It seems rather dangerous for a child barely over two years of age to be strapped on a donkey’s back up a precipitous hillside, without an attendant.’

Malvern donkeys carrying their Victorian passengers
Edwardians on donkey back


Water cure practitioner and teetotaller Dr R.B Grindrod held annual teas on his lawn for donkey boys, and encouraged kindness to animals. The Malvern Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was set up in 1875, and the donkey’s lot improved. By 1891 cash prizes were given every year for the best-kept donkeys used on the hills.