(Look on this as a kind of missing chapter from If Wishes Were Horses.)
Part two of this post will be available here from 2nd June 2014.
When I wrote If Wishes Were Horses I tried to take the story of girls and ponies from Lascaux to My Little Pony as neatly as I could. I had to cover ground, but I wanted to linger on a few characters too: the teenage girls buried with weapons and riding gear in the Bronze Age Kazakh steppes, a medieval pagan queen who danced with horses in the New Forest, a courtesan who rose from the slums of Liverpool to mingle with the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister thanks to her beauty and her horse riding skills. I narrowed my focus to the UK, but much was lost on the cutting room floor. I couldn’t squeeze in the spirited Alicia Thornton, who was the only woman to take part in horse races in the nineteenth century (she lost one match over four miles but won another over two, exposing her embroidered stockings to the admiration of all). I had to skip over Celia Fiennes, who rode side-saddle to every county in England in the seventeenth century in order, she wrote, “to regain my health by variety and change of aire and exercise”. These women were eccentrics and outliers all, but there was one group I really regret mentioning so briefly: the women who kept the horses of Britain’s Great War army fighting fit.
They were middle- and upper-class ladies who volunteered to muck in by mucking out at army remount depôts and proved that they could do their bit for the war effort without waving white feathers or knitting comforters. Over two hundred women in total were drafted into the Land Army when it was founded in 1915 and employed as grooms and stable managers for remount centers at repurposed studs and racing stables. They were the real life Lady Maries, Ediths and Sybils, swapping their pampered Downton Abbey lives for hard work that would help change the status of all British women. They were also a key part of the unstoppable momentum of British women’s equestrian advance which would by the mid-twentieth century see lady riders representing their country as equals of men and branching out into every area of horsemanship from farrier work to ploughing and polo.
Under the headlines “Sick Horses” and “Useful Work by Hunting Women”, The Times reported on December 6th, 1915, that “there are three large remount depôts, under the War Office, which are unique in this, that for the first time in the history of the British Army, not one man is on any of the staffs, and that all the work of attending to the horses is being done by gentlewomen.” It went on, “Some of the ladies have been brought up on Australian and Canadian horse ranches, but most of them are hunting women.” They dressed like men in caps and breeches, shedding the corsets and long, heavy skirts of Edwardian Britain. “I have seen a number of them, riding astride, exercising a long string of horses like the trainers of the racing stable,” said the journalist. The press were fascinated by this turn of events. They ran photographs of the young women lugging wicker hampers for fodder or schooling hogged and clipped horses to draw heavy artillery. It was newsworthy that these “gentlewomen” collected the horses from the night train and did everything – including mucking out, “strapping”, grooming and hoofcare – that their grooms had done before the war. “The inspectors of remounts who periodically visit the depôts say they have never known horses to be so well attended to by men,” went on The Times, noting that these previously cosseted ladies were up at 6.3oam and worked solidly till they could fall into a hot evening bath at their digs in a nearby farmhouse. It was a far cry from their pre-war existences (when, as one Nancy Mitford heroine put it, they simply handed their horses to waiting grooms, “had eggs for tea and were made to rest for hours”).
The initial idea of hiring women to do men’s work was coined by the MFH and popular sporting artist, Cecil Aldin (whose work as an illustrator included an edition of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty). As the war drew more and more able-bodied men away from the farms, it was necessary to replace them with grooms who could competently care for horses that were recuperating after stints in veterinary hospitals or prepare new chargers and draft horses for the front-line. His first thought was to call up girls from the local hunt who had sufficient equine know-how to learn on the job. The War Office paid a set weekly sum for the maintenance of each horse out of which came their fodder, tack expenses, standard veterinary treatment and the cost of their grooms, who received 15/ to 30/ a week, depending on whether they had to find their own accomodation or not. Aldin eventually oversaw three such yards, two in Bradfield and one in Holyport near Maidenhead – all of them superintended by women.
“The horses sent him were mostly convalescents from the large veterinary hospitals in the vicinity of Aldershot, and a very mixed lot they were, but the ladies proved to be excellent nurses, and the equine convalescents quickly regained their health and vigour,” according to a contemporary army document now stored in the Imperial War Museum. When the need for convalescent care for the Aldershot horses dropped away, the stables closed, and the women who had worked there were deployed to other remount establishments around the country. Mrs Rigby, a Cheshire-based Shetland pony breeder in peacetime, transformed her own property into a reception for recuperating horses and also staffed it with the young girls who’d been cutting a dash over the Cheshire hedges before the war. “Mrs Rigby’s devoted and excellent work have earned her the unqualified praise of all who have seen her establishment,” commented the army report.
The largest depôt staffed by women was Russley Park in Wiltshire. It transformed horses fresh off the boat from Ireland into chargers for service on the front line. It was overseen by Lady Mabel Birkbeck, the wife of Major General Sir William Henry Birkbeck, who was Director of Remounts from 1912 to 1920. Another illustrator of Black Beauty, Lucy Kemp-Welch, visited and painted the young women at work. In “The Straw Ride: Russley Park Remount Depôt, Wiltshire,” three young women grooms ride and lead pairs of high spirited horses round a covered exercise ground in a whirl of milling legs and tossed heads. In “The Ladies’ Army Remount Depôt, Russley Park, Wiltshire, 1918,” the “gentlewomen’s” shirtsleeves are rolled up and scarves cover their hair. Their horses step out two-by-two along a farm track in a long file that disappears off the edge of the painting, some obedient, others fighting, all full of animation.
The doughtily-named Mrs Ironside was head groom at Russley Park and each of her girls was responsible for three horses at a time. The only man involved was the vet who visited once a week. The routine was as follows:
“…early morning stables 6 to 7.30, when the boxes are thoroughly washed out and the horses rubbed down, watered and fed. Breakfast follows, and the string then turns out to exercise on the downs. Midday stables on return from exercise and dinner at one o’clock. At two, horses that require special schooling are taken out and clipping and singeing and other odd jobs are taken in hand which occupy all hands till tea at 4.30.
Evening stables 5 to 6, and then the cleaning of saddles. Supper is at eight and the whole establishment is in bed by nine. … Mrs Ironside’s work is that of a responsible and very competent stud groom the care and feeding of some 70 horses is [sic] stables and at grass, the care of foaling mares, the dressing of wounds and contusions, the dressing of ringworm spots, the giving of balls and drenches, taking of temperatures, rasping of teeth, poulticing, bandaging, fomentation etc. etc. are all in her hands and no man ever did it better or with sounder judgment. …
The standard of efficiency of this establishment is that of a first-class hunting stable – attention is paid to every detail, horses clean and bright, stables spotless, windows clean, no cobwebs, brass shining and even pitchforks burnished.”
Special establishments near Chester and at Elsenham Hall Paddocks in Essex catered for horses and mules suspended from service as “incurably vicious“. Here again, the Land Army girls showed “determination and quiet pluck” to “send the animals back to the Army not only cured but fool proof.”
There seems to have been little question that women were up to the job: during the Victorian Era British women had been gradually established as both excellent riders and all-round horsewomen with a working knowledge of stable management, even if few of them had a chance to get their hands dirty before 1915. “Women’s emancipation, it could be argued, to the horror of modern liberators, began in the hunting field,” wrote Raymond Carr in English Fox Hunting. The nineteenth century saw an explosion of feminine interest in riding and riding hard and well. Few women hunted in the Georgian period, but by the 1890s ladies were in hot pursuit of hounds, and the ability to ride elegantly was seen as a social asset like piano playing or conversational Italian. When no less a figure than the glamorous Empress Elisabeth of Austria hunted in Ireland and Leicestershire so boldly that she overran the hounds and needed one of the country’s finest horsemen and jockeys, Bay Middleton, as a pilot, it was impossible to argue that a lady was too delicate to take her place alongside men. By the twentieth century, no chauvinist could feel safe in proclaiming that women could not or should not ride, for the bluffest colonel would bring up the example of his mother, who had once beaten three officers and an Indian prince in a paperchase over mud banks four and a half feet high on the maidan outside Calcutta etc etc, or of a certain Irishwoman who raced clear round the three largest steeplechase courses in Ireland just to prove how good her horse was. Small wonder Cecil Aldin and Major General Birkbeck knew they’d find women who could ride untrained or mettlesome horses in the ranks of the county hunts.
As the nineteenth century wore on, not only did more riding manuals address women’s riding specifically, but they were also increasingly written by women themselves. These books held horsewomen to higher and higher standards: by the 1880s it wasn’t enough for a woman to be a “front-door rider” who received her horse from her groom fully tacked and didn’t know the difference between hay and straw. She also had to know enough about horsecare to keep tabs on that groom and to make knowledgeable comments in the stable. Black Beauty‘s author, Anna Sewell, proved so expert that some critics could not believe the author of “the autobiography of a horse” was a woman: “it is written by a veterinary surgeon, by a coachman, by a groom … How could a lady know so much about horses?” asked equestrian Edward Fordham Flower. Mrs Power O’Donoghue’s 1887 Riding for Ladies included chapters on shoeing, feeding, stabling and “doctoring” as well as correct riding dress and etiquette. Mrs Alice Hayes was the author of The Horsewoman and the wife of army vet Captain Horace Hayes. She was perhaps the pioneer of the land army girls, having acted as a rough rider for the toughest, most difficult Walers and Arabs that her husband procured when his military career took them from India, Ceylon, Egypt and China to South Africa.
However, neither the Empress, Mrs Power O’Donoghue or Mrs Hayes would have condoned the way that the new Land Army recruits rode in their trousers and jaunty caps .The side-saddle was abandoned in a wink in 1915: there was, of course, no point in putting an old fashioned contraption on horses that would be chargers, not ladies’ hacks. A few pioneer British women had begun to ride like men in the 1890s to the horror of Mrs Hayes and Power O’Dononoghue, and pre-war letter columns buzzed with arguments from both sides of the debate. The Times reported on March 17th 1914 that “The Kaiser’s order expressing his desire that the wives of German Army officers shall immediately discontinue the practice of riding astride is being very widely and keenly discussed by horsewomen all over the country,” adding, “The fact that it comes so soon after King George’s refusal to witness any exhibition of riding astride at Olympia [horse show] is regarded as significant.” Kaiser Bill missed a trick: a little feminine help might have nudged the German war effort along. The Land Army girls made cross-saddle socially acceptable for British women by being both uppercrust and patriotic in their desire to help the boys at the front, and after the war few of them returned to riding aside. By 1922 George V was in his box at Olympia once more and had to watch as Mrs Marjorie Bullows (later the impeccably respectable Lady Wright) competed in a leaping competition in breeches and with her boots firmly in two stirrups, rather than one.
“Though Remount Depot life is healthy and interesting, the work is very hard and there is a rough side to it,” wrote the author of Work at a Ladies Remount Depot, “Fortunately there have been few serious accidents or broken bones, but kicks and awkward falls are not unusual.” The hunting girls rose to a new challenge and did so with no fuss or fanfare, perhaps without realising what an impact their pioneering efforts would have. “The ladies are out to do a man’s work and release him to join a fighting unit,” the report’s author explained, before adding with British self-effacement, “It is all in the day’s work … and they ask for no favours.”
For more on the ladies’ remount work, click here for part two.