In areas across Britain horse ambulances continued in daily use until the year following the First World War. They would be called out for a multitude of ailments including highly infectious diseases such as scarlet fever or diphtheria. Not only of fatal potential but capable of spreading like wild fire, these diseases were particularly threatening because of the overcrowding in factories and mills and the cramped and unventilated living conditions that the workers commonly inhabited.
In his position as a clerk and rent collector for the Pall Mall Property Company, Lowry called on tenants in some of the poorer districts of Manchester and would have encountered horse ambulances fairly frequently. This remnant of a pre-war urban life would have captured his imagination. Although dated 1941, the painting harks back to an earlier period, without motor cars, a nostalgic past of Lowry's imagining.
Lowry was also drawn to dramatic incidents. He said: 'Accidents interest me - I have a very queer mind you know. What fascinates me is the people they attract. The patterns those people form, an atmosphere of tension when something's happened ... Where there's a quarrel there's always a crowd ... It's a great draw, A quarrel or A body' (see exhibition catalogue, L.S. Lowry, London, Barbican Art Gallery, 1988, p. 53). Paintings such as Fever Van (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), A Fight (The Lowry, Salford), The Hawker's Cart (Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh), and The Arrest (Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Nottingham), all focus on a small crowd caught by the artist in a dramatic moment. Lowry's characters often take on the role of observers or onlookers unprepared to step in and assist each other, reinforcing the anonymity of the existence of people living in a large industrial city, where individuals are at the mercy of forces beyond their own control.
In the current painting the spectacle itself is not actually depicted, although the densely packed crowd of people hovering around the end of terrace, to the left of the composition, indicates its position. As one moves outwards from this point towards the foreground the figures become more dispersed. This masterly distribution of the onlookers is set against one of Lowry's iconic industrial landscapes, with church spires, terraced houses and factory chimneys billowing smoke. The resulting composition is an iconic painting within the artist's oeuvre which has not been offered at auction for nearly forty five years and which has not been publicly exhibited since 1944, shortly after it was painted.