In the 17th and 18th centuries, the men of England were assaulted by a new and uncomfortable sight: women in masculine clothing! Even worse, these were upper class ladies, and they had donned cavalry-inspired costume to invade the male-dominated pastimes of riding and foxhunting. These daring women were often called ‘Amazons’ and were sometimes ridiculed for their riding habits. In 1666 Samuel Pepys lamented that, if not for their long skirts, these ladies wouldn’t be recognized as women at all! About fifty years later, Richard Steele satirically suggested that Amazons should “complete their triumph over us, by wearing breeches.”

James Seymour (British, 1702 – 1752), A Lady and a Gentleman Riding Out, c. 1740, gouache on paper, 5 5/8 x 7 1/8 inches, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Riding habits first emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries as women’s clothing became increasingly restrictive. They needed specific garments- riding habits- in order to sit a horse comfortably and safely. In the 18th century, skilled horsemanship was the domain of the cavalry, and upper class-women adopted the waistcoat, cutaway coat, and simple trims for equestrian pursuit. Ladies were able to wear lightly boned stays which allowed greater range of motion for riding sidesaddle, and durable wool took the place of flowing silk.

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Thomas Gooch (British, 1750 – 1802), Marcia Pitt and Her Brother George Pitt, Later second Baron Rivers, Riding in the Park at Stratfield Saye House, Hampshire, 1782, oil on canvas, 27 1/8 x 25 1/8 inches, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Despite the lamentations of their male contemporaries, riding habits grew to be popular attire throughout the 1700’s. In fact, Ladies began wearing their habits and other equestrian-inspired fashion as informal gowns, no longer restricted to the hunt field. Ladies made this masculine fashion distinctly feminine, expanding the feminine sphere to include historically unwomanly interests.

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Francis Wheatley (British 1747–1801), Mrs. Stevens, c. 1795, oil on canvas, 26 x 18 ½ inches. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

For example, in the image above, Mrs. Stevens wears a simply cut cavalry coat in fashionable dove gray. We can see that it is tailored to fit tightly, and it is not worn over a masculine style waistcoat. Instead it is pinned to a stomacher, or decorative panel worn over the front of the stays (18th century corset). Likewise, she is sitting serenely in a grove of trees, complete with a stag running in the background. This portrait takes the typical salon portrait of young women day dreaming on padded chairs and wrapped in billowing ruffles and frills, and completely turns it on its head. Here is a new kind of woman, feminine but unafraid of the world around her.

Women in western history have broken rules and changed norms for centuries, and sidesaddle riding and fashion are just one example of that social evolution.

Want to learn more? Visit Sidesaddle, 1690-1935 at NSLM or join us for these programs:

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Thousands of spectators thronged the race meet at Knavesmire in York on August 25, 1804. The crowd was much larger than usual and curious onlookers strained for a view of the upcoming race. The reason for all the commotion was simple: a woman was challenging a man in a horse race. It was a staggering event, both derided as a pure novelty by some and lauded as step toward equality by others. For many of the day’s spectators, it meant drama and entertainment, and they turned out in droves to see it.

The race was a family affair. Mrs. Alicia Thornton (1782-18??) of Thornville Royal had challenged her neighbor and brother-in-law, Captain Flint to a race. Her husband, Colonel Thomas Thornton (1757–1823) was the original sporting gentleman of the 18th Century. He was an expert rider, went shooting, hawking and fishing, could leap his own height, and had a voracious appetite for gambling. Col. Thornton had placed a bet of 1,000 guineas on his wife in this contest, and both he and Flint were intent on victory.

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“Celebrated Race Between Mrs. Thornton and Mr. Flint at the York August Meeting, 1804.” Published October 1804 by J. Wheble, Warwick Square. The Sporting Magazine for September 1804, National Sporting Library & Museum.

Alicia rode on her husband’s horse Old Vingarillo. Flint rode his prized horse Thornville. Mrs. Thornton’s riding prowess was well-known as she regularly rode to hounds with her husband. In fact, it appears that her equestrian skills might have pressured Flint into some less-than-gallant behavior. He insisted on barring Alicia from being accompanied to the start of the race by an attendant. When she arrived at the start, Flint claimed the side of the course that helped him most. Since Alicia rode sidesaddle, she was prevented from using her usual whip hand without fear of interfering with her opponent.

To the racegoers, Alicia was the popular wager: betting began at 5 and 6 to 4 “on the petticoat,” and over the first three miles, betting ran to 7 to 4 then 2 to 1 on a Alicia’s victory. By all accounts, she was by far the superior rider during the race before disaster struck. In the final mile of the race, Old Vingarillo’s saddle-girths loosened and Alicia’s saddle slid sideways on the horse. She pulled up immediately to avoid a dangerous fall. Flint would later receive criticism for ignoring Alicia’s plight and riding hard the whole way to the finish to win by the maximum distance.

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Alicia Thornton by Mackenzie, after unknown artist stipple engraving, published 1805. NPG D8248 © National Portrait Gallery, London

It was the Thornton side’s turn for less-than-gallant behavior. Col. Thornton refused to pay his wager for the loss, claiming that the bet had been nothing more than a friendly joke. Following her loss, Mrs. Thornton wrote a scathing complaint against Flint in the newspaper and issued a challenge to repeat the race again the following year. Flint refused to race again, likely prompted in part by Col. Thornton’s failure to pay.

Alicia would go on to race again in the next two years, becoming the first woman to win a match race in 1805 against Frank Buckle (1766-1832). At that race, Flint confronted Col. Thornton in the grandstands for payment of the prior year’s bet. Upon Col. Thornton’s continued refusal, Flint beat Thornton with a horse whip and had to be restrained by the other racegoers. The incident led to arrests, lawsuits, and a deep bitterness between the Flints and the Thorntons, who before the race had been on very friendly terms.

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“The Gallant and Spirited Race at Knavesmire, in Yorkshire for 500gs. and 1000gs. bye — 4 miles — between The Late Col. Thornton’s Lady and Mr. Flint.” Pierce Egan’s Book Of Sports, No. IX. National Sporting Library & Museum.

As for Alicia, her relationship with Col. Thornton began to sour in 1806 as Thornton’s fortune dried up. In the end, he was obliged to sell his massive Thornville royal estate. By the end of 1806, she and her husband parted ways and she eventually remarried a naval officer before disappearing from the pages of history. She would be remembered as the first female jockey in England, and was the only woman victor listed by the Jockey Club until 1943.


Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Head Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2014. He is responsible for the care of the Library collections, including books, magazines, photographs, diaries, letters, and much more. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact John by e-mail