Monday, February 17, 2014
Horse Racing - Women as jockeys on public race courses in 1804 England
1804 - Horse racing in England wasn't new in 1804, and neither were women in riding habits. In his diary for June 12, 1666, Samuel Pepys wrote: "Walking in the galleries at White Hall, I find the Ladies of Honour dressed in their riding garbs, with coats and doublets with deep skirts, just, for all the world, like mine; and buttoned their doublets up to the breast, with periwigs under their hats; so that, only for a long petticoat dragging under their men's coats, nobody could take them for women in any point whatever; which was an odde sight, and a sight did not please me."
However, the first known woman jockey was Alicia Meynell of England. In 1804, she first competed at a public 4-mile race in York, England.
As I was doing research on Alicia Meynell, I came upon the English blog Nineteen Teen & a great story of Alicia written by Regina Scott in 2010. Regina Scott has written 25 historical romances in the last 15 years, and there is no way I could tell the story like she did. I was hoping to show the riding habits of the late 18C & the early 19C along with a biography of Alicia. And so, I will share much of the story written by Regina Scott along with a few riding costumes of the period.
Regina Scott writes, "Alicia Meynell was born in 1782, the daughter of a watchmaker from Norwich. She was lovely, with blond hair, blue eyes, and a winning manner. We know that she had at least one sister, very likely older than her, who married William Flint of Yorkshire, a gentleman very keen for horses. Perhaps through the Flints, Alicia met & fell madly in love with their neighbor, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Thornton of the Second Regiment of the York Militia."
1801 Riding Habit, engraved plate from ''The Gallery of Fashion''
Thornton was 60 & Alicia was 18. She became the latest in his long list of mistresses.
"One of the things she & Thornton had in common was the ability to ride & ride well. Remember that this was a time when women were at least partly judged by their “seat” - how well they could handle a horse. Alicia was a dynamo. She too knew her horseflesh, & she owned no less than 3 hunters. She was pleased to ride to hounds, something that was still rather rare for a woman because of the difficulty in thundering over rough, unpredictable terrain in a side saddle."
"One day while she was visiting her sister, Alicia & her brother-in-law went riding. She was on Thornton's favorite horse, a brute named Vingarillo. Flint was riding his favorite, a brown hunter named Thornville. As they argued good naturedly about which horse was better, they decided to race to prove the point."
"Alicia won. Twice."
"Nettled, Flint challenged her to a real race, at the Newmarket Race Track, & named a princely prize of 1,000 guineas (which would be equivalent to over $30,000 today!). I’m betting he thought she’d decline. Alicia accepted."
"Immediately word spread far & wide. A woman? Racing? Who wouldn’t want to see that! They met on the last day of the York meet in August 1804. The York Herald reported that 100,000 people crowded the race track to watch, more than ten times the number that had assembled for the last “big” race between more famous horses. Even the military in the form of the 6th Light Dragoons was called in for crowd control. The total amount betted ran over 200,000 pounds (over $6M)! "
"Alicia was in rare form. She wore a dress spotted like leopard skin, with a buff waistcoat & blue sleeves & cap. The crowd adored her. She must have been quite a contrast to Flint, who rode all in white. But his heavenly apparel didn’t reflect his attitude. He refused anyone to ride alongside Alicia to help her if her side-saddle slipped (a common courtesy for women riders), & he ordered her to ride on a side of the track that deprived her of her whip hand."
"Neither trip handicapped Alicia. She was ahead from the start & stayed that way for nearly 3/4 of the 4-mile circuit. Reported the Herald, “Never surely did a woman ride in better style. It is difficult to say whether her horsemanship, her dress, or her beauty were more admired.” But something happened to Vingarillo in the last mile, causing him to falter, & Flint nipped ahead & won."
"Alicia wasn’t pleased. After hearing people go on & on about how gentlemanly Flint had been to race with a woman to begin with, she wrote a letter to the editor of the Herald denouncing him & demanding a rematch. But it was a Mr. Bromford who next challenged her to ride the following year, with the prize a 2,000 pounds & a great quantity of French wine. She agreed, but on the day of the race Bromford decamped & the lady won by default."
"Alicia, in a new outfit with purple cap & waistcoat, buff-colored skirts, & purple shoes with embroidered stockings (I shudder to think how the reporter figured that out!), was not about to be sent to the sidelines. That same day, she raced 2 miles on a mare named Louisa against Buckle, one of the premier paid jockeys of the day. The Annual Register records that “Mrs. Thornton, by the most excellent horsemanship, pushed forward & came in in a style far superior to anything of the kind we have ever witnessed, gaining her race by half a neck.”
"Unfortunately...Colonel Thornton turned out to be something of a scoundrel. When Flint won the first race, the colonel refused to honor the bet he & Alicia had made, insisting it had all been a joke. An outraged Flint showed up at the second race & literally horsewhipped the colonel in public before being confined to jail for assault. Several years of court battles led to a decision for the colonel."
Thornton left Alicia in 1814, headed for France, where he took a new mistress. Alicia had a son Thomas to raise alone. When Thornton died 1823, he left the bulk of his estate to his most recent French mistress, Priscilla Duins & his natural daughter by her. He left nothing to Alicia, although their son Thomas received a bequest of 100 pounds. "But in the end it was Alicia who triumphed. Until 1943, she was the only woman listed in the records of England’s Jockey Club as having raced & won against a man."