Friday, March 19, 2010
Nineteenth Century Heroines: First Place Always
I love research. Yes, I’ve said it before. But I adore finding golden nuggets among the millions of bits of data carried forward from the past. When I was preparing for my blog post a few weeks ago on Gentleman Jackson’s, I stumbled across a mention of Alicia Meynell, the first woman jockey in England. So, of course, I had to learn more!
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 and fell madly in love with their neighbor, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Thornton of the Second Regiment of the York Militia. He was a man of some property and respect in the area, and he cut a dashing figure. They were married before she was 22.
One of the things she and Thornton had in common was the ability to ride and 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, and she owned no less than three 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 and her brother-in-law went riding. She was on her husband’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, and 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 and 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 and blue sleeves and 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), and 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 and stayed that way for nearly three quarters of the four-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, and Flint nipped ahead and won.
Alicia wasn’t pleased. After hearing people go on and 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 and 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 and a great quantity of French wine. She agreed, but on the day of the race Bromford decamped and the lady won by default. Alicia, in a new outfit with purple cap and waistcoat, buff-colored skirts, and 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 and came in in a style far superior to anything of the kind we have ever witnessed, gaining her race by half a neck.”
Unfortunately, she was not so good at choosing husbands. Colonel Thornton turned out to be something of a scoundrel. When Flint won the first race, the colonel refused to honor the bet he and Alicia had made, insisting it had all been a joke. An outraged Flint showed up at the second race and 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. Even worse, however, is his treatment of Alicia in later years. In 1814, Thornton went off to visit France and never returned, leaving Alicia to raise their son alone. When he died 1823, he left the bulk of his estates to a woman named Priscilla Duins and his natural daughter by her (Thornvillia Diana Rockingham Thornton—so he named her after his ex-friend’s horse!). He left nothing to Alicia, although their son Thomas received a bequest of 100 pounds.
But in the end it was Alicia who triumphed. While Thornton is barely remembered as lacking honor, her name that would go down in history. Until 1943, she was the only woman listed in the records of England’s Jockey Club as having raced and won against a man.