The history of horse brasses is a long one stretching back more than 2000 years and having its roots in superstition and fear of the unknown. Horses were very important and their owners believed that the early amulet designs of the brasses kept evil spirits from harming the horses that were unable to protect themselves.
 
Horse Team Ploughing 
 
A close up of the bells and brasses on a heavy horse harness. Many of the traditional designs were born of superstition and were intended to guard against evil spirits, the modern ones mark events in which the owner has participated
 
 
 
Explorers in the Altai Mountains found the grave of a Siberian chief, who was over 2000 years old, where the mummified bodies of seven horses were preserved in perfect condition by the extreme cold temperatures. These horses had complete bronze trappings with designs similar to those worn today by the modern heavy horse.

Gideon from biblical times collected ornaments from the necks of the camels he captured from his enemies. This is perhaps the beginning of the use of amulets to bring either good luck or to ward off the effects of the “evil eye” from the cattle and beasts of burden.

The belief in the evil eye and a fear of its hidden powers was practically universal. It is also believed that the Roman horses were dressed with harness decorations. The harness decorations were called “amulets” and date back to the Emperor Justinian 527 to 565 AD, with the average size of the Roman amulets being around 1.0 to 2.5 cm
 
 Bronze Amulet 300 AD Bronze Amulet 600 AD
 
 
                                                   Bronze Amulet 300 AD                          Bronze Amulet 600 AD
 
 
 
Scottish Bronze Amulet 1000 AD
 
 
 
Scottish Bronze Amulet 1000 AD
 
 
An amulet is a charm or object worn as a protection against evil, whilst a modern horse brass is a decorative brass ornament originally attached to the harness of a horse.

The Crusaders returned from their journeys and exploits with decorative horse trappings as part of the spoils of war or early souvenirs. In Medieval times, horses wore plumes for tournament and into battle as signs of recognition and banners around which to rally during the confusion of warfare. In more modern times these have evolved into regimental insignia, national flags and similar.

It is not known whether it was the Crusaders or the gypsies who first brought the brasses to Britain since the first early patterns have a strong Romany influence – sun, moon, stars, crescents and hearts. Evil was associated with darkness, and light was regarded as the antidote. Thus the classic designs were related to sun worship.

Old paintings dating back to 1685 show horses adorned with brasses.
 
Decorated Horse Ear Covers

The wives of ploughmen and carters made ear-covers decorated with stitch patterns and wool tufts for their husbands` team of horses.
 
 
After World War II mechanization and the use of tractors took over the roles performed by horses to such an extent that the heavy horse was in danger of extinction. In Britain, Heavy Horse Societies were established organizing ploughing matches, thus preserving the heavy horse and a traditional rural way of life that was once so familiar.

The earliest harness decorations were bronze, lead or tin, then coated brass or other metals. A few of the earliest brasses are metal plated over copper, a process which came into common use towards the end of the 1700´s and was credited to Mr. T. Bolsover of Sheffield in 1743. Brass was not cast in Britain until the early 1800`s, so all the early horse brasses were hand made. In the coastal areas of Scotland, horse brasses were often made of nickel as the salt air affected the brass.

The use of horse brasses, as distinct from horse amulets, appears to have started in the West Country in the United Kingdom, after the Napoleonic Wars and gradually spread. During the reign of the Queen Victoria they were very much in evidence on the fair days and other local festivities. Casting made the largest amounts of horse brasses from 1860 up to 1914. The brasses began to portray more obvious designs and represent current subjects and events, often grouped together on leather straps to tell a story about the owner or his trade, along with beautifully decorating the horse.

Most people will recognize a horse brass when they see one, although deciding whether or not it is old or new may present them with a little more difficulty. Anyone who begins to take a deeper interest in the subject will soon master the various methods of manufacturer, recognize the symbolism of the many designs, and come to differentiate between the rare, unusual and mere commonplace.
 Souvenir Cast Brass c. 1950´s
 
 
Souvenir cast brass circa 1950´s.This is not strictly a horse brass.
Note the hanger at the top is shaped for use as a bottle opener
 
 

Among the earliest motifs seen on brasses are many designs from nature, the sun and the moon, hearts and stars, animals and sheaves of corn. Trappings for the horses that pulled royal coaches and the conveyances of the nobility often carried decorations of heraldic arms, crests and ciphers in silver gilt, silver, or silver plate. It may well be that such a practice further encouraged humbler folk to make similar ornaments in a more base metal with designs of their own imagination.

Horse brasses such as those listed below might easily produce a combined weight of 4.5kg or more, according to the number of loin straps.
Basic Compliment Of Brasses For A Heavy Horse
 
 
The basic complement of brasses for a heavy horse is as follows:

Face Brasses
One or more brasses over the forehead and sometimes hanging between the eyes.
 
Face Horse Brasses
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Ear Brasses
Simple brasses behind each ear.

Breast Piece or Martingale Brasses
The strap fastened from the collar to the girth may carry up to ten brasses. This strap frequently carries the finest brasses.

Runner Brasses
Three brasses at each shoulder

Loin Brasses
Seldom used on a working harness, but a series of short straps used to carry extra decoration on special occasions.

Fly Head Terret or Swinger
One of the best-known heavy horse decorations aside from those known as face pieces, or hanging brasses, are terrets. These are also are known by several names, such as Flyers, Swingers, or Terrets of course but their proper name according to most of the late 1800´s manufacturers catalogues is, Fly Head Terret. From photographic evidence we can see that these are not only worn on the head, but on other parts of the harness such as the cart saddle or even on rump straps for instance.

A terret consists of a flat miniature disc or bell, plain or decorated, swinging in a frame. The frame screwed into the leather of the lead strap. As the disc or bell swung with the movement of the animal it also had the effect of helping to discourage flies. Some of the best examples are fitted with small brush like plumes in red, white and blue.

As the fashion for decorating the working horse harness progressed, these terrets, especially those that contained bells, became fairly complex creations with multiple centres attached (bells or otherwise) but where this fashion first occurred or at what time, remains something of a mystery. Terrets are thought by some collectors to be a later type of decoration, but this it seems, is not the case. In detail from the drawing below, we can plainly see that this Lincolnshire team displays bell terrets and plumes though the publication is in fact a relatively early one from 1870.
 
 
Bell Terrets & Plumes
 
 
The above is a detail from an engraving that was published in the Illustrated London News – 6th August 1870 entitled Meeting of the Lincolnshire Agricultural Society at Sleaford; First Prize Winning Team of Horses. It depicts the victorious team belonging to William Pilkington of Brauncewell Lodge, at the Sleaford showground in the first year the show was held outside Lincoln. Note the use of bell terrets and plumes on the first pair, and face-pieces on the second pair yet no martingales are apparent on any part of the harness.
 
 
 
Single Centre Terret
Horse Brass CataloguePerhaps the most encountered examples of terrets or swingers are of the single centred variety, which are fairly numerous. A collector might easily build up a nice collection of these quite quickly and it is a subject area that attracts specialist collectors, who sometimes like to focus on swingers more than other areas of horse brass collecting. Even then, there are further specialist subject areas such as Bell types, Royalty, Figure Subject, and Pattern types for instance, although those that advertise trades such as the Saddler type on the left or Brewery, or Railway types for instance, are quite rare and as usual, command fairly high prices not only because of rarity but the crossing over of interests from brewery or railway collectors for instance.
 
By the late 1800´s manufacturers such as Hampson & Scott and the other specialist manufacturers in Birmingham or Walsall had a page or two of their catalogues dedicated to terrets. The page illustrated however, is one of those rare exceptions and is taken from the pattern book of Shattock & Hunter, which were a Bristol firm. This splendid colour illustration from their catalogue shows a good selection of the many designs available to the working horseman circa 1890's. Depicted here are a good cross-section of single centre terrets, several bell types, pattern types, and even one or two rarities such as the two at extreme right and left at the bottom of the page. Note also the two smaller types at the bottom of the page that were made for pony or "vanner" harness. These diminutive types are also hard to come by these days and are highly sought after by collectors.
 
 
Also apparent here are several examples of the terrets known as "Tumblers" with their double-centred designs, which did exactly that and tumbled over and over in their frames, rather than merely swing back and forth, which is of course how those decorations came to be so-called. Being more expensive than the cheaper swinger, tumblers are also fairly hard to come by and, as such, are avidly sought after.

Many collectors often comment that there are rarely any royalty or commemorative types in these catalogues but this is because these were often subject to specialist production and were not advertised in the catalogues. These were often seen in coloured pullouts in publications like Saddler & Harness magazine, which contained such illustrations as those on the Birmingham and Walsall pattern books page, which depicts three rare royalty types.

Below are four royalty swingers. Note how the George V type allowed a space within the crown to facilitate a piece of coloured worsted or ribbon to add colour. Examples like these command a steady price and are avidly sought by collectors.
 
Royalty Swingers
 
Horse Brasses
 
Hand Made Brasses
The first horse brasses were made from hand-hammered sheets of brass known as latten. Using the latten brass, the early makers of horse brasses worked out patterns of their choice and cut, filed and hammered the brass to get the desired shape. The hammer marks show clearly on the back of the brasses. The designs were simple and small. The men, who worked the horses, cutting the brasses by hand from sheets of flat brass, could have made many horse brasses. Punch, hammer, chisel and file would have been the tools used but again hammer marks may be added to a brass at any period by the unscrupulous. Designs stamped from sheet brass can be old, for machinery was introduced for such work in about 1880. Cast brass was a production technique used from about 1825. Casting had the advantages of cheapness and the ability to produce any number of a required design quickly. The creation of more intricate patterns also made casting popular and this method of production being cheaper is still in use today.
 
 
 Horse Brass 13
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Hammered Brass 1810-1820
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Cast Brasses
Cast brasses were first seen about 1825. As demand grew, specialist workers in metal started to produce finely made brasses. Many were made to order.

Brass varies considerably in quality depending upon the proportions of ingredients used, copper and zinc forming the major part. Other metals that might be added include lead, tin and iron. For casting it is necessary to have a mould, the patterns of which were carved in close grain pear wood.

Brasses are cast by, first, pressing a wood pattern into foundry sand in groups. The impressions are joined by short cavities to allow the molten metal to reach each impression. The piece of metal joining each brass is called a "get". These are often at the hanger and are trimmed off in the finishing process. Cast into the back of the brasses are two stubs, one on each side of the brass, which allowed for the brasses to be held in a vice during finishing. These are normally filed off; otherwise, they would damage the harness, but even so some trace of them can usually be felt or seen.
 
 
        Cast Horse BrassCast Horse Brass
 
 
Cast Brewery Brass circa 1880 to 1890 Not To Be Beaten
Note the two stubs on the rear at 3 o´clock and 9 o´clock
 
 
 
The mould was then pressed into the foundry sand in groups. The impressions were joined by short cavities to allow the molten metal to reach impression. The brass was then fettled or cleaned off by hand, taking off any rough edges and giving the brass a polish before dispatch.

The city of Walsall, Staffordshire situated N.W. of Birmingham, had many small brass foundries which cast buckles and harness fittings as well. Stanley Bros. of Walsall, was established in 1832 and still remains. In the beginning, manufacturers borrowed each other’s designs. It wasn’t until 1842 that a diamond shape registration mark appeared to guard their designs.
 
Ceramic Centred Horse Brasses
 
Ceramic Centred Horse Brasses from the current catalogue of B.B. Stanley Brothers (Walsall) Ltd.
 
 
 
Stamped Brasses
The stamping of brasses started about 1880. This required the production of a metal die that was quite expensive and only done by a few manufacturers. Stamping of brasses ceased about the end of World War I.
 
 Early Stamped Horse Brass
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Early Stamped Brass
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Bell Horse Brasses
In the mid to late 1800´s, bell brasses started to be produced. At that time these bell brasses were two to three times more expensive than any other ordinary horse brass. In consequence today, none can be said to be common and most can only be described as very rare. Most bell brasses have a small lug that has been drilled, a pin is inserted on from which the bell swings. The frame of the brass may be cast or stamped. There is only one design for a stamped bell brass as shown. The bell within the frame is cast. The National horse Brass Society produced a bell for its annual brass in 1981. Bell brasses were made as single, double and triple bells.
 
 Bell Horse Brasses
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The second bell is the only stamped frame design ever made 1870 to 1910. The other two bell brasses are cast
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Traders Motifs and Private Brasses
Brasses with estate crests are also well worth seeking, as are all those associated with trade and industry. Anchors, capstans and sailing ships were much favoured by carters working among the docks, just as the railway carters were proud to display brasses with engines. The butcher’s brass was an ox, the miller’s a windmill, the brewery drays sported brass barrels. Brood mares frequently wore Peacock brasses for this splendid bird was the sacred symbol of Hera, the Greek goddess of fertility.
 
Individual professional groups had their own designs:
 
  • Timber Traders - crossed saws, tree, acorn design 
  • Dock Traders - anchors, capstans, sailing ships
  • Millers - wheat sheaf, windmill, and sack 
  • Breweries - barrels, their own designs 
  • Railway Companies - engines, their own designs
  • Butcher - ox
  • Brood Mares peacock
 
RSPCA Award Brasses
Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals award brasses was believed to have been the first award brasses for showing horses. In 1886 the first London Cart Horse RSPCA parade was performed. Is it believe very soon after, the first RSPCA awards were awarded. There is record of RSPCA award brasses from 1896 onwards. Badges were presented for Van Horse Parade and Cart Horse Parade Merit Badges. Later a circular badge was issued as a general award. Some war era badges were cast in aluminium.

Now much collected, the R.S.P.C.A. merit brasses were once awarded at ploughing matches and shows. Not surprisingly it is such documentary brasses as these that are among the most interesting, bearing as they do the dates and names of horse shows, and the once common parades of van and cart horses.
 
RSPCA Van & Cart Awards

RSPCA Van & Cart Award Badges
 
 
 
 
                                                             Aluminium General Award  Brass General Award
 

                                                Aluminium General Award                  Brass General Award
 
 
 
 
Portrait Brasses
Portrait brasses ranging from royalty and generals to sportsmen, poets and politicians tend to be modern but not at all unworthy of collecting. Above all, it is perhaps the brasses that portray the horse that have a permanent place in the affections of most. So too are all the designs associated with the soil and harvest, the wheat sheaves and acorns. Among the most common, yet important to any collection of horse brasses are the crescents and the sun discs, constant reminders of the origin of horse brasses steeped in superstition and the reality of the rhythm of the passing of the months of the seasons.
 
Modern Horse Brass
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Modern horse brass showing a horse head within a horse shoe.
Brasses depicting the horse remain the most popular design.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Ceramic Centre Horse Brasses
Ceramic centre horse brasses were produced from 1870 to 1950’s. These beautiful brasses come in many colours, red, blue, white, black, navy and many of them are striped red, white, and blue. The back of a ceramic can provide identification of the age of the brass. The older ones have two metal prongs soldered on the back, holding the ceramic centre in place. The newer ones, 1930 to early 1950, have a bolt and screw, holding the ceramic in place.

Almost all ceramic brasses were stamped. Only a few of the later ones, 1940's to 1950's are cast brasses. Their extreme rareness is obviously a product of the fragility of the ceramic itself.
 
Ceramic Centred Horse Brasses
 
 
Ceramic Centred Horse Brasses
 
Note the two soldered metal prongs to secure the central ceramic
 
 
 
Commemorative Brasses
The collector today can still find horse brasses dating back to the early years of the reign of Queen Victoria but they do grow increasingly scarce. The Golden and Diamond Jubilees of Queen Victoria were occasions that produced many commemorative brasses, as too did her death in 1901. As invariably happens when any class of object becomes popular, copies are made. Dates on brasses should not be taken at face value, and many copies were manufactured after World War II when brass again became readily available. It has been estimated that some two dozen different designs of horse brass were made to mark Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee in 1977, and collectors should certainly not ignore this type of modern brass.
 
Commemorative brasses were very popular, especially those celebrating Queen Victoria’s reign. Brasses were also struck for Churchill and Victory 1939-1945.
             Charles & Diana 1981 Commemorative Horse Brass    Queen Victoria Jubilee 1870 Commemorative Horse Brass
                                                      Charles & Diana 1981                Queen Victoria Jubilee 1870
 
 
Newly Manufactured Brasses
Newly manufactured brasses are usually a result of casting because of the lower production cost. Nickel and German silver (brass with a little silver added) has also been used for making decorative pieces on harness. Modern brasses copying old designs are seldom so well finished as their earlier counterparts; neither does modern brass tend to hold its polish for so long. Although fakes do exist it would be true to say that most modern brasses do not pretend to be anything other than what they are.
                                                        Horse Brass 38   Modern Cast Horse Brass    Modern Cast Horse Brass
 
 
 
Manufacturers
  • Thomas Crosbie had a catalogue, The Birmingham Pattern Book of Harness and Carriage Mountings circa 1885
  • Mathew Harvey, Walsall
  • Thomas Newton, Walsall
  • William Overton, Walsall, (W.O.W. cast in the back of his brasses)
  • Stanley Bros, Walsall
  • Hampton & Scott
  • Shuttock & Hunter, Bristol
 
Designs
 
Circle
These were the easiest to start with. They, frequently, had a raised area in the centre and were often regarded as representing the sun.
 
 Circle Horse Brass
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Crescent
This is one of the oldest designs seen. It was used with the points upwards or downwards or as a triple design (three crescents with points in three directions). The crescent was also used to frame other designs.
 
 Crescent Horse Brass
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Heart
The heart is a common design, either plain or with a Staffordshire Knot. The Knot is associated with the badge of the City of Walsall.
 
Heart Horse Brass
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Star
Star-shaped brasses are relatively uncommon. In North Wales, the 5-point star was most common but 6 and 7-point stars were also found.
 
Star Horse Brass
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Heraldic Designs
Heraldic brasses include those that depict a lion, horse, stag, eagle, owl, martin, partridge, cockerel, phoenix, swan, dog, fox, ram, anchor or sailing ship.
 
Heraldic Horse Brass
 
 
 
Card Pattern
Brasses fall into a number of categories. It was the Romany Gipsy who introduced the ´card patterns` of clubs and diamonds that are occasionally seen. Travelling tinkers frequently turned their skills to brasses and were responsible for producing that one group of brasses that have moving parts. A brass star with another that revolves superimposed is typical of this type
 
Card Pattern Horse Brass 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Horse Brasses For A Heavy Horse