World Horse Welfare Founder, Ada Cole, sitting at a desk reading from a paper

Our Founder

Our founder, Ada Cole, continues to be a source of inspiration for everyone at World Horse Welfare.

Our founder, Ada Cole, continues to be a source of inspiration for everyone at World Horse Welfare.

The Charity’s Origins

World Horse Welfare began its life as the International League for the Protection of Horses, which in turn began with the remarkable story of our founder, Ada Cole.

Though much has changed since Ada was alive, her values and her approach still beat at the heart of the charity, directing our work on the whole spectrum of equine welfare. While there has been great progress, Ada’s concerns around humankind’s duty of care and fair treatment of horses remain central issues that still resonate today.

She heard their cry, and with far-seeing eyes
Undimmed by useless tears, with love aflame,
Challenged the world to end such cruelties.

From a sonnet on Ada Cole by Sir George Cockerill

An incredible life

The story of Ada Cole’s incredible life has rarely been told. Small and often frail, yet unfailing in her dedication to speak up for the thousands of horses transported on horrific, exhausting journeys to slaughter in continental Europe, Ada is a truly inspirational woman. 

Here’s just a summary of her amazing story.

Ada Merrett Frances Cole was born on 1st January 1860 as one of ten children. She grew up at her family home of Croxton Hall Farm in Norfolk surrounded by countryside and animals, including horses and a pet donkey.

Ada was a tomboy and was educated at home by her mother, as was common at the time, and whilst Ada loved to read she hated any form of needlework – largely considered the only appropriate activity for young ladies.

Old black and white image of World Horse Welfare founder Ada Cole and her family
Ada with her family (Ada on far left)

Working in the hospitals

Ada moved to London to study nursing, as she wanted to serve a purpose by helping people. She very quickly found a job at the London Fever Hospital, impressing the Matron with her intelligence, neat appearance and ability to speak well.

Taking action for animals while helping people

Ada was shocked and angered with the widespread ill-treatment of animals in London at this time. Whether it was the overworked, underfed cab horses that were known to regularly collapse from exhaustion and ill-health or the starving stray cats and dogs which roamed the streets and were often captured for use in scientific experiments. Ada felt great compassion for these animals and was determined to help, so she became a firm supporter of the early anti-vivisectionists and a confirmed vegetarian.

Old black and white image of collapsed horse hitched to a stage coach being helped by policemen
Ada was unafraid to take action to help animals in need wherever she was, from chastising sellers at the livestock markets in Norwich to calling for better conditions for overworked cab horses in London

In the 1890s, Ada moved around the UK and Europe undertaking private nursing jobs. Ada had a natural aptitude to nursing and greatly enjoyed the work, however she couldn’t ignore the fact that her own health was deteriorating and so in 1900, she moved back to Norwich – taking up a job as a district nurse in the St Georges area of the city.

Whilst in Norwich, Ada continued her dedication to animal welfare, regularly visiting the weekly Cattle Market, where she would admonish the cattle handlers for the violent techniques they used in handling the frightened animals.

Unfortunately, Ada’s health had continued to deteriorate and in 1910 she was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis. As a result, she gave up nursing and moved to a fishermen’s cottage in the North Norfolk Coastal village of Cley-next-the-sea. 

Old black and white image of World Horse Welfare founder Ada Cole as a child in bed surrounded by her family
Having battled ill health herself all her life, Ada’s compassion drew her to a nursing career

The sea air restored Ada’s health and in the spring of 1911, she was finally well enough to join one of her sisters in Antwerp. Whilst there, the pair attended some private nursing jobs and it was on one of these errands that they were to encounter a sight which was to change Ada’s life.

For there, upon the quayside, stood line upon line of worn-out English horses,  feeble, lame and pitifully old, some of them partially or wholly blind as, roped three abreast they staggered to a dreadful end in the local abattoirs over four miles ahead. Behind them, creaked a string of conveyances, waiting to pick up those too infirm, or too injured, to continue walking. Those that had not survived the brutal conditions of their voyage lay crumpled in horrifying stillness on the ground.

(She heard their cry by Joyce Rushen)

Ada’s call

From that moment on, Ada vowed to do whatever she could for these forlorn and forgotten animals. Ada laid in bed that night unable to sleep from the horror of what she had witnessed. At the age of 51, Ada had found her calling.

Old black and white image of collapsed grey horse lying next to a black horse with a dropped head
Ada was haunted by the sights she saw at the docks

Influenced by her upbringing on the farm, Ada believed that people had a duty to treat animals with compassion and respect.  She recognised that the horses transported in terrible conditions from Britain to the continent for slaughter had been working animals – pulling the carriages, ploughs and carts which kept people and goods moving in the days before motorised transport – who served people their whole lives. She believed that it was distinctly unfair and unjust for them to be discarded at the end of their useful lives and subjected to brutal journeys and inhumane treatment at distant slaughterhouses, where they met their end by poleaxes, hammers and knives.  

To work

Crucially, Ada did not object to the eating of horses or their slaughter for meat. What she fought for was their welfare: improved conditions during transport, an end to the needless long-distance export of horses for slaughter and for better, more humane conditions for horses at slaughterhouses. This practical approach to improving welfare still guides World Horse Welfare’s work today. 

Ada set to work doing her research on the trade, gathering evidence and information, She enlisted informants at ports and on ships. She studied shipping data and she regularly visited ports, keeping a close eye on the drivers of export for slaughter. 

With no equine slaughterhouses in Britain to take British horses, in 1928 she helped to establish the Klondike Horse Sanctuary, ‘A little model horse abattoir’ in Lincolnshire, which is designed to demonstrate that horses could be slaughtered humanely. Until its closure in 1973, this humane equine abattoir was a place where horses could be entrusted to be given a dignified, humane death after a period of rest and with a mouthful of carrots. 

She made partnerships with other organisations and people to help her drive change.  Ada worked closely with the RSPCA, the Belgian SPCA, port authorities and governments to inform practical approaches to improving conditions and identify where policy, legislation, enforcement or education needed to be improved.

Ada also appealed to others with a close connection to horses to support the cause, and forged strong relationships with key individuals in politics, horseracing and the media to advance the campaign. 

In 1914 this work paid off with the passing of the first Exportation of Horses Act through Parliament – however this law only limited export to five ports, and prevented only those horses in very poor health and fitness from being exported. The job was not done. 

Outbreak of war

At the outbreak of WW1, Ada joined her sister Effie in Belgium where she worked as a nurse and became part of the allied resistance.  She treated soldiers on both sides, but helped allied soldiers escape through underground networks and distributed resistance newspapers.  Despite keeping their resistance activities secret, they were eventually caught and Ada spent three months in solitary confinement under threat of execution. However, the end of the war brought her reprieve and she returned to Britain in 1919, now suffering from the flu in addition to TB. 

The following year Ada received the Decoration Civique from the king of Belgium for her bravery and humanitarian actions during the war.

The charity is born

The 1920s were the age of jazz and feminism, and although 60 years old, Ada followed the new fashions.

Horse trafficking from Britain continued after the war, and Ada rigorously campaigned along with other organisations to stop it and hold government inspectors to account. 

In 1927 she founded her own society – what became the International League for the Protection of Horses (ILPH), which also continued to work to improve slaughter conditions in France and Belgium.

After years of ill health and tireless work, Ada died in 1930 in her bedroom in the charity’s new London office, having dedicated all of her time to the cause.  Moments before she died, Ada said ‘the work must go on’ to her assistant Anne Colvin, who then took up the mantle of the charity.

The charity expands

Anne and the charity’s other key supporters dedicated themselves to this work, championing her efforts to ensure fairer treatment for horses at all stages of their lives. 

Ada’s work continues, but it has also expanded in scope to cover the full spectrum of welfare for horses globally, from pet ponies to elite sport horses, working horses that sustain livelihoods and those used as a source of food.

In Ada’s spirit, the charity works to pursue fairness in all aspects of the horse-human partnership with a focus on using evidence to change attitudes, policies and practices. 

The charity today

Just as Ada did, World Horse Welfare partners with other organisations to improve welfare standards for horses. We work with owners, communities, NGOs, institutions, governments, horse sport regulators, veterinary medicine, development organisations and many others to achieve the best welfare outcomes for horses whether they are pets, in sport, working animals or perform any other role in society.

Ada’s compassionate but pragmatic approach remains central to the charity’s work and is particularly relevant to our support for the involvement of horses in sport. In Ada’s time, and for thousands of years before, horses have been woven deeply into the fabric of our societies, living and working alongside us. We celebrate this horse-human relationship, knowing that it is founded on a sense of camaraderie and respect, but recognise we must also take action to combat any abuse of this relationship. 

Although the horse-human relationship has expanded beyond work towards enjoyment through sport, leisure and even therapy in many countries, protecting equine welfare and maintaining fairness in all aspects of the horse-human relationship is vital if it is to remain ethical and deserving of public support.

We are proud to carry Ada’s work and vision for equine welfare forwards. As we work to understand and address the welfare issues of our time, which continue to be a source of ongoing development and fierce debate as scientific knowledge and societal expectations evolve, we invite you to be part of Ada Cole’s continuing legacy and to give your support to World Horse Welfare, which will reach its first centenary in 2027.

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