How many times have you been reading a novel set in the Regency and come upon characters who ride in or discuss riding in a dog-cart? I have run across a great many over the years, and the descriptions of these vehicles varied widely. So much so I could never get a clear mental picture of a dog-cart. I decided to do some research to learn more about the appearance, use and construction of dog-carts during the Regency. The more I read about them, the more I realized they were often used rather like the SUV of today.
There are two types of dog-carts, those pulled by horses for the purpose of transporting dogs and people, and those pulled by dogs, most often for the purpose of transporting milk. The former, the vehicle built to carry dogs and drawn by horses, was first introduced in the early years of the nineteenth century, and came into its own during the sporting-mad years of the Regency. Gun dogs and coursing dogs were the two types of dogs most commonly transported in a dog-cart. Gentlemen going out for a shoot in an area at some distance would not want to tire their dogs before the hunt began. Nor would those gentlemen going out to match their coursing dogs want them to arrive at the coursing meeting fatigued before it began.
The main feature of the dog-cart was the boot in which the dogs rode. This was a sturdy, box-like structure, typically centered over the rear wheels. The sides and front of this boot were fitted with overlapping louvers, which would provide plenty of ventilation to the dogs, but could be adjusted to protect them from inclement weather. The rear wall of the dog boot, usually called the "tail-door," was typically hinged along the lower edge so that it could be opened and lowered down, like the tail-gate of a pick-up truck, giving easy access to the dogs. In most dog-carts, seats were placed over the dog boot for the transport of the humans who were accompanying the dogs to the hunt or the course meeting. Depending on their size and design, a dog-cart could carry between two and six human passengers. The majority of dog-carts were painted in at least two colors. Black with red, black with yellow and yellow with green were very popular color combinations. In most cases, the wheels and louvers were painted a different color than the main body of the cart.
There were basically two different variations of the dog-cart in the Regency, the two-wheeled and the four-wheeled versions. The design of the two-wheeled dog-carts were based on the gig and were most commonly drawn by two horses harnessed in tandem, that is, one in front of the other. The design of the four-wheeled dog-cart was based on the phaeton and could be drawn by a pair of horses, that is, harnessed side by side. A unicorn-hitch was also often used for a four-wheeled dog-cart, that is, a pair of wheelers, the horses closest to the vehicle, with a single lead horse in front of the pair. Or, a four-horse or even a six-horse hitch might be used with a four-wheeled dog-cart.
Dog-carts were seldom seen in town, they were primarily country vehicles, built for function, not elegance. Yet they quickly attained great popularity among sporting men, and soon every young blade wanted one. Almost as quickly it was discovered that when these vehicles were not in use transporting dogs to and from sporting events, they could be used on the estate to transport a great many other things. They might carry passengers and luggage to or from the local inn or posting house. They might be used to carry food and clothing to the poor of the neighborhood. They were also very handy for a quick run into the village for a bit of shopping on a fine day.
Dog-carts were relatively light-weight, well-sprung, and the two-wheeled variety could be pulled by a single horse, if need be, making them easy for even a novice driver to handle. Surprisingly, the two-wheeled dog-cart was also less likely to be overturned taking a sharp corner, since its center of gravity was a bit lower, and, if one wheel came off the ground, the other would usually pivot while remaining in contact with the road. It would take an expert driver to keep all the wheels of a four-wheeled vehicle on the road in a sharp turn, or at least be able to bring them back down without overturning if the vehicle tipped into the turn.
From the Regency until nearly the end of the reign of Victoria, the dog-cart was a reliable utility vehicle on most country estates, even when it was no longer used for the transport of sporting dogs. This popularity ensured that when the automobile was invented, a motorized version of the dog-cart was one of the first automobile types to be introduced. The gas-powered dog-cart remained popular for several more decades, particularly in England, where, as had its horse-drawn predecessor, it served very much the same purpose as the sport utility vehicle of today.
There were a number of variations in the Regency dog-cart, even between the two- and four-wheeled varieties, but they tended to be differences in the size of the boot to carry the dogs, the number of seats available for the human passengers, the size of the wheels and the colors of the paint. The general structure and use of the dog-cart was fairly consistent. The next time a dog-cart makes an appearence in a Regency novel you are reading, you will have a better idea of how it looked and how it was used. And if you drive an SUV, you will know you are driving a vehicle which is essentially a descendant of a Regency dog-cart. But if you decide to daydream about driving a dog-cart through the Regency countryside, be sure to pull off the road first!