Everything I Don’t Know About Selika Lazevski

Everything I Don’t Know About Selika Lazevski

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This blog post is about the research behind an essay I published on Paris Review Daily on 9 February 2018 (accessible here).

I first blogged about Selika when her image went viral in 2012. The best source of information was a commenter called Marie (her profile has since been deleted), who pointed out the source of the six images we have of Ms Lazevski: the French Ministry of Culture’s Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine. I dug around a bit and found out about L’Africaine, the Meyerbeer opera that was likely the source of Selika’s first name. A book about photographer Félix Nadar was published in 2015, and I excitedly assumed that he had taken the images of Selika. First lesson of research: check your sources. I was wrong, but by the time I realised that, people had copied the error and it even turned up in the publicity material for a fictional short film about her, The Adventures of Selika (2017).

So at the beginning of 2017, I decided to research Selika properly. This is a pretty detailed account of where I looked. I had a tremendous amount of fun – for all the long boring slogs through identical newspaper small ads, there were sudden surges of adrenalin as I’d think I’d made a breakthrough. If you, too, want to have fun with archives, Selika and adrenalin, I’ve marked opportunities for further research. Here’s the Culture Ministry’s records and the photographs.

I was informed by an archivist that the information with the photographs of Selika in the dark habit is as follows:

date: 1891
Mlle Lavzeski (Selika), écuyère
Mlle Lavzeski, Nouveau Cirque
Mlle Lavezeski
Mlle Lavzeski

and in the light habit as:

date : 1891
Mlle Selika Larzewski, écuyère de Haute-Ecole
Mlle Selika Laszewski, écuyère
Mlle Lasvezski

And that’s it! So, on with the hunt.

Who photographed Selika?

So, not Félix Nadar but “Studio Nadar”. Félix was no longer working in the Paris studio in 1891. His son Paul was in charge. Dr Jillian Lerner of the University of British Columbia told me that it was likely that “Studio Nadar” meant the images were shot by an anonymous photographer working within the studio. I went to the Bibliothèque Nationale and ordered Paul Nadar’s visitor book, but although it was full of visiting cards featuring names like Monet, Dreyfus, Rothschild, Dumas, Zola and the Comtesse Greffulhe, it was too late for the photographs of Selika. I didn’t order the handwritten letters between Paul and Félix because I didn’t have the time nor the ability to decipher that much nineteenth-century French cursive [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY HERE]
I wasn’t aware of any other collections of the Nadars’ paperwork but I did check Paul Nadar’s photographic journal, Paris-Photographe, first published in 1891, and there was no sign of Selika.

Where does her name come from?

Selika is the name of the heroine of L’Africaine, an opera partially completed by Giacomo Meyerbeer (who is buried in a cemetery near my home in Berlin) at the time of his death in 1864. Meyerbeer had intended to call the finished work Vasco de Gama, and it tells the story of a Hindu princess who is first enslaved by Vasco da Gama and then becomes the mistress of his fate. She frees him to be with his love and kills herself nobly by inhaling poisonous blossom. Somehow the Hindu princess became an African princess when Meyerbeer’s friend, François-Joseph Fétis, repackaged the unfinished opera as L’Africaine for its first performance in Paris in 1865.

L’Africaine was a huge hit. I know this because I typed the name Selika into Gallica, the BNF’s digitised collection, and got 442 hits. I trawled through them all. Not one is a reference to Selika Lazevski, but they did testify to the popularity of Meyerbeer’s heroine. I found not just mentions of performances of L’Africaine, but also a dog, a ship, a horse, a scarf colour, some (white) anti-heroines (a lady lion tamer in 1890’s Papa la Vertu by Réné Maizeroy, Le Pays du Mal: Palotte by Emile de Molènes, and a character in Le Sphinx aux Perles by Gustave Haller), a camel in Aristide Bruant’s Les Bas-Fonds de Paris, and an ice cream bombe all named after her. In another book, L’Enfance de Georges Aymeris, a child has a black doll from America called Selika. I also learned that the first African-American soprano to perform in the White House, Marie Selika Williams, had adopted the name.

So I started to think of Selika as a stage name, chosen either for its exoticism or as resonant of a noble Black woman (depending on who chose the name). I used lots of different search terms to try to find this missing Black horsewoman, and nothing turned up. I also discovered that Félix Nadar photographed Meyerbeer, but this is just the sort of tantalising coincidence that doesn’t necessarily mean a thing and makes one long to write fiction.

(Selika is also a village near Lake Malawi, another name for Seleucia in Iraq and a Hebrew name for a woman; a bellydancer at the Jardin de Paris in 1893, and a few other things I managed to stop myself adding here).

Who were the Lazevskis?

At last count, I’d uncovered twelve different spellings of the name Lazewski: Lazevski, Lazevski, Lavzeski, Lavezewski, Larzewski, Laszewski, Lauzevski, Laszewski, Laschewsky, Lasjewski and Laczewski.

Imagine the fun! Well, there was a Lazewski associated with circus horsemanship. Better still, there were three. One was found for me by the Winkler Circus Archive in Berlin. He’s a gentleman amateur mentioned in Oskar Justinus’ Vom Cirkus (published 1888) riding a full-blood Arab from the empress’ stable. I’ve focused on the French circus scene in my research but, my goodness, the German scene is more than its equal. Who knows what I could have found if I’d expanded my research? I was very lucky that the Winklers looked this up for me. And that the librarian at the Spandau circus collection instantly located more information for me in “Signor Saltarino’s” lexicon of circus artistes:

“Laszewski, Lucian von, haute-école rider and trainer, born on 9 May 1864 in Riga, died young on 20 March 1888 in Riga from consumption.”

So he was dead three years before Selika was photographed.

Now, here’s where you realise that circus research is like the crack of research. So good, so tempting, but it will break you. Names change. People adopt new ones. Dates and places get tricky. Because it turns out there’s another Lazewski, and he’s a much better bet for us. Valli di Lazewski was working at the Nouveau Cirque in the same period that the Ministry of Culture notes said Selika was there.

Here’s Valli, I believe, from a photograph album in the Fonds Soury at the French Ministry of Culture. He’s spelled “Laschewsky”.

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According to circus historian Paul Haynon’s notes, Valli was born in Poland on 29 August 1864 (a few months after Lucian so I guess they’re not brothers) and married on 16 February 1888 in Riga (a month before Lucian died). He was trained by E Wulff and made his Paris debut at a hippodrome in 1887. Were he and Lucian related? Were they, as Dominique Jando, the circus historian who runs Circopedia, suggested to me, the same person (the more work you do with nineteenth-century sources, the more you see how errors creep in and slip ups are made)? Again, the dates and locations are tantalisingly close, but I can’t afford to go to Riga to hunt for whatever records might have survived the twentieth century. [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY]

I have more material on Valli though. He crops up in the papers at Olympia in London and tracking down a runaway horse on a Paris street. For Paul Haynon, he answered a brief questionnaire about his career, which I was enchanted to find in the Paris archives. Haynon also collected the notes of his wife, who was called Laure/Laura/Lara (forgive my bad reading of the handwriting). She was clearly not Selika although she was an écuyère of haute école. A librarian at Bibliothèque Nationale told me she had found a “Mlle Lazewski” in Gallica and I thought for one glorious moment that it was Selika. Then, mindful of my mistake with Félix, I cross-checked it. The Mademoiselle Lazewski was “Madame Lazewski” in other papers that day. It was Laure, not Selika.

Here she is, also from a photograph album in the Fonds Soury at the French Ministry of Culture. She’s spelled “Lasjewski”.

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I wildly wondered whether Selika could have been adopted by them, but there’s a strike through the query about them having children in Paul Haynon’s notes. But there was something: Dominique Jando told me that it was common for performers to take the surname of their teacher – so perhaps Valli taught Selika.

Much of this could have been answered if I had been able to find an article called “Valli de Laszewski et son Epoque” by Paul Haynon from 6 March 1937 in L’Inter-Forain. There should be a copy in the Fonds Paul Haynon in the Paris Archives, but after spending a couple of days checking every dusty box in the collection on two separate trips to Paris, I couldn’t find it. I contacted the current publishers of L’Inter-Forain and they don’t have it, and neither do the Théâtrothèque Gaston Baty or the National Fairground and Circus Archive at the University of Sheffield. I would love to get my mitts on it. [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY]

Did Selika perform at the Nouveau Cirque?

The Nouveau Cirque opened in February 1886 at 251 rue St Honoré in the heart of Paris. It was originally intended to have a dual purpose: from October to May it would be a very grand circus indeed. From May to October it would be a swimming pool. The ring sat on top of the 25m-diameter pool, and sometimes the carpet was peeled back and the cover removed so that circus performers could frolic about in the pool as part of their act or the pantomimes that made up the last half of each show. Here’s a poster for the Nouveau Cirque in its summer incarnation:

Selika swimming at the Nouveau Cirque

Yes, as you can see, it mainly seems to be about white men getting massages from Black men. So here’s a thing: there does seem to be a theme of sorts connecting the Nouveau Cirque to Black performers. Joseph Oller, who founded the circus, was an early adopter: in the 1870s he ran a café-concert venue that featured a series of Black animal tamers, starting with a man called Delmonico. In 1891, three years after Oller departed, one of the Nouveau Cirque’s stars was Rafael Padilla, aka Chocolat, a Black clown. Padilla was probably born a slave in Cuba and travelled with his “owner” to Spain where he was freed, later working for a clown who brought him to Paris and the Nouveau Cirque, where he teamed up with the English clown George Foottit as a hit double act. He also starred in Nouveau Cirque pantomimes which seem to have been written as vehicles for him, albeit massively racist vehicles. If you want to know more about Chocolat, the French historian Gérard Noiriel has written a biography which was adapted into a film (see trailer here). Here’s some footage of the real Chocolat and Footit in action:

In the Fonds Paul Haynon I found a hand-drawn plan of the circus at this time, with a note made even of the horses’ names in some of the individual stables. I went through all the advertisements for the circus in Gallica in 1891 and found no trace of Selika. Both the Fonds Paul Haynon and the Bibliothèque Nationale’s Département des Arts du Spectacle have handwritten lists of some performers in the shows, but I couldn’t find Selika, unless she was there under another name. Nor does she appear on a poster, although I did see an advert for a horse-riding seal at the Nouveau Cirque which was worth the trip in itself.

Maybe Selika performed there under another name? I couldn’t find any references to Black women performing there until the twentieth century, and then as dancers. I made some lists of the names of the Nouveau Cirque’s “clownesses” but there are few pictures and none of them look like Selika.

Selected sources

Chocolat: La véritable histoire d’un homme sans nom (Gérard Noiriel)
Le Cheval à Paris de 1850 à 1914 (Ghislaine Bouchet)
“Le Reve de Chocolat” (Sylvia Chalaye) in Africultures, 2013/2 (n° 92-93)
“‘Race’ As Spectacle in Late-Nineteenth-Century French Art and Popular Culture” (James Smalls) in French Historical Studies 26.2 (2003)

Was Selika a haute-école écuyère?

If Selika ever did ride haute école in the circus, she had no impact on critics, writers or artists. Several other Black circus performers of the nineteenth century did, and I had some wonderful sidetracks into their life stories. There was the strongwoman Miss Lala (dizzyingly painted by Edgar Degas), British horseman Pablo Fanque, horseback acrobat Sara l’Africaine (whom I’m currently writing about), Chocolat, and Delmonico to name a handful. But there’s nothing in the press or in the books I’ve checked about Selika.
This doesn’t mean she didn’t ride in the ring, however, as plenty of écuyères performed in quadrilles of twelve or more riders where they were as good as nameless – again, I have a small collections of names that appear once and never again. Perhaps Selika did this, but the surviving lists of performers at the Nouveau Cirque are scant and she’s not mentioned – by that name – on any of them. She didn’t need to be especially talented for this. While some écuyères trained their own horses, others with less riding skill were simply bundled onto a very highly prepared horse and had to do little more than stay on board and give their mounts the right cues.
I did find one reference to a Sélika riding haute école, but it’s fiction and she’s described as Basque, blonde and blue-eyed. It’s a story or extract called “Les Baisers” by J H Rosny, published on 11 January 1908 in Comoedia.

Was Selika American?

Miss Lala and, very possibly, Sara L’Africaine were from America. A careful combing of circus records in the USA might reveal some results. [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY HERE]

Was Selika an artist’s model?

Nigel Gosling’s Nadar (1976) captioned Selika as “Mlle Lauzeski, model” (she appears on the same page as another Nouveau Cirque écuyère of the period, about whom I’m also currently writing). This suggests she was posed as a circus écuyère rather than actually being one – something I think is a very real possibility given the nature of her “nom d’écuyère”. I did some digging into the world of artists’ models and found nothing, although I’m sure someone with more familiarity with the terrain could perform a better search [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY]. Félix Nadar and Paul both photographed a Black woman known as Maria “l’Antillaise”, a servant in their household from the Antilles. Félix photographed her bare breasted, and I’ve seen some claim she was his mistress. For Paul, she posed fully dressed. But she is not Selika.

Selected sources

Dictionary of Artists’ Models (Jill Berk Jiminez)
The Black Female Body: a Photographic History (Deborah Willis)

Selika Dahomey Amazons rifle drill

Selika Dahomey behind the scenes

What about the Dahomey “Amazons” and Paris’ human zoos?

There is absolutely nothing to link Selika as an individual to what was going on in the Jardin d’Acclimatation but the contrast between her image and the portrayal of the Dahomey women just struck me. There were in fact troupes of Black women performing in European and Russian circuses as Dahomey Amazons (whether they actually were or not I don’t know). I didn’t manage to fit them in the essay, but you can read about them in Irina Novikova’s article, listed here.

Selected sources

La France Noire (Pascal Blanchard)
“Imagining Africa and blackness in the Russian empire: from extra-textual arapka and distant cannibals to Dahmoey amazon shows – live in Moscow and Riga” (Irina Novikova) in Social Identities, September 2013, vol 19, issue 5
Guerrières et guerriers du Dahomey au Jardin zoologique d’acclimatation (Fulbert Dumonteil) February 1891
Le Monde Illustré, 21 February 1891
Le Voleur Illustré, 26 February 1891
Le Figaro, 8 February 1891
Dances with Darwin 1875-1910, Vernacular Modernity in France (Rae Beth Gordon)


Well, there are still many threads to pursue. Selika was real. She existed. I’ve flagged opportunities for further research. If I can pursue them (time and finances willing) I will, but meanwhile, if you are able to research any of these leads, please do get in touch with me. Perhaps she never performed, either because she lost interest, couldn’t ride well enough or met some other mishap or better adventure. Perhaps the circus owners lost their nerve – it was one thing to have a Black clown, acrobat-strongwoman or animal tamer, but another to have a Black woman dressed in the ultra-respectable riding habit, performing the highest equestrian art and wearing a Jockey Club top hat not, like Chocolat, as a joke, but with dignity and aplomb.

Archives and Records Considered

I received incredible kindness and help from archivists on this quest. They let me walk in off the streets and into their stacks, rolled out trolleys full of goodies and searched collections to give me armsful of print outs. They were peerless. So huge thanks to:

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, especially the Département des Arts du Spectacle
Paris Archives/Fonds Paul Haynon
Sammlung Variété, Zirkus, Kabarett at the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin
Bibliothèque Musée de l’Opéra, Paris
Théâtrothèque Gaston Baty, Université Paris 3
Zirkusarchiv Winkler, Berlin
National Fairground and Circus Archive, University of Sheffield

One small boo to the Archives de la Préfecture de Paris, whose receptionist told me emphatically that they had no circus records. I was back in Berlin before I realised that they housed part of Tristan Rémy’s archive [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY].

Thank you also to circus historians alive and dead, from Paul Haynon to Tristan Rémy and Dominique Jando. You’re a unique and dogged breed of scholars. My (top) hat goes off to you.

Quotations in the Paris Review Daily piece:

– “two great seductions, woman and the horse,” is Baron d’Etreillis but I’ve temporarily lost my notes re the source and translator.
– “the troubling beauty of a woman on a horse, this plastic coupling of two curvilinears that are the most perfect creation: the stallion, aggrandizing woman in all her majesty; woman on the creature she rides, posed audaciously like a wing” is Hugues le Rouxin Les Jeux du Cirque et la Vie Foraine (1889) translated by Hilda Nelson in The Écuyère of the Nineteenth Century in the Circus.

Rapunzel Horses – the hot accessory of Early Modern Europe?

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I’ve been reading beautifully illustrated books about horses all my life and in the last twelve years I’ve trawled all sorts of academic articles and image libraries, so it’s always delightful to find an image I’ve never seen before. The Palazzo Pitti in Florence just opened an exhibit called Leopoldo de’ Medici: Prince of the Collectors to celebrate what would have been the cardinal’s 400th birthday. Someone shared this image of the young Leopoldo in a Facebook group for Lipizzaner fans, and I was smitten. The 1624-1625 painting is by Justus Sustermans, a Flemish court painter to the infamous Medici clan. Look at the detail: the flecks of foam on the paving under the horse’s mouth, the way it’s patiently resting one hind hoof. What I’d give for a huge poster of it!
But of course the really striking thing is that MANE. ALL OF IT. Has anyone written about the meaning (if any?) of the turnout of court horses in the Early Modern era? I’ve seen great articles on baroque bits and read about the costumes worn in carrousels, but do we know anything about this commitment to hair? It’s not mentioned in the rather beautiful part of Guerinière’s The School of Horsemanship that describes exotic coat colours and the significance of whorls (read an earlier post about that here). But it does feature in other images, like those in the Certamen Equestre (Gallica has a facsimile online for extended tea-break consideration and these screengrabs are sourced there):

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This book records a carrousel and procession that took place in Stockholm on 18 December 1672 to celebrate the coming of age of Karl XI at 17. It was illustrated by the court painter, David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl, and these plates were later engraved by Georg Christoph Eimmart in Nuremberg. Lena Rangström has written the most detailed account in volume II of Mulryne, Watanbe-O’Kelly and Shewring’s Europa Triumphans, a collection of studies of European court and civic festivals in the period.
Rangström describes the decking out of Stockholm with triumphal arches, tapestries, a firework display and even a wine fountain. The 560-strong procession, which included 100 nobles on horseback and 80 more horses led in hand, culminated at the tilt yard in the riding school at the Hay Market or Hötorget. It was meant to depict the young Karl as a force for unity in Europe against the Turk, and so he led the “Roman” quadrille, Field Marshall Gustaf Banér the “Turks” in their caftans, Count Bengt Oxenstierna led the “Poles” (see their “winged horses” below) and Privy Councillor Krister Horn was captain of the “European States” in modern dress. Here are images of the quadrilles:

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Karl as a Roman. Certamen Equestre, via Gallica.

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The “Turkish” horses in the Certamen Equestre, via Gallica. It looks as though all the Black grooms in Stockholm were drafted in to add extra “exotica” (oof).

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“Polish” horses, Certamen Equestre, via Gallica.

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“Europe” in the Certamen Equestre, via Gallica.

It was – of course – spectacular. “On knights and horses everything shimmered: gold, precious stones, and rich pearls,” says one account, and, “On the horses, one saw different ornaments on their heads, different ones on their feet, and different ones on the other parts of their bodies.” Pine branches hung from the ceiling and the riding school was lit by thousands of candles on hundreds of chandeliers against the dark Stockholm winter.
There was only one game – running at the ring – and the King won, for:

“None deserved it more, none knew how to control and turn his horse with such gentleness; nobody bore off the ring with such pleasing gestures and such grace of the whole body.”

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For other long-haired horses stories, I present the eighteenth century Swan of Arnstadt and a nineteenth-century freak, The Wild King of Oregon Wonder Horses.

Sidesaddle in a Hot Air Balloon (and other adventures)

American lady riding sidesaddle in nineteenth-century Japan, as viewed by artist Yoshitori Utagawa in 1860. Care of the US Library of Congress.

American lady riding sidesaddle in nineteenth-century Japan, as viewed by artist Yoshitori Utagawa in 1860. Care of the US Library of Congress.

If you’ve come here after reading the Washington Post piece on the revival of sidesaddle in America (now going a little viral on Jezebel.com), here’s a selection from the archives – a little bit of everything from balloonists to tragic heroines, scandalous females and zebras ridden sidesaddle. I also wrote in detail about women and girls who rode in Britain and Ireland in If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of Equine Obsession. Photos of the Mrs. George C. Everhart Memorial Invitational Side Saddle Race – the first sidesaddle race to take place in the US since the 1930s are here.
If you’d love to read some primary sources on women and riding in America in the nineteenth century, get thee to Archive.org to read Elizabeth Karr’s American Horsewoman and Theo Stephenson Brown’s hilarious In the Riding-School: Chats with Esmeralda. If you want to see what’s under the side saddle apron, well, here’s Eadweard Muybridge – perhaps NSFW.
As someone with a hip or two that are threatening to be arthritic, I’m glad of the sidesaddle revival as in the future it might be the only way I can ride a horse. Barbara Minneci of Belgium has been flying the flag for sidesaddle in paralympic dressage with her beautiful coloured cob, Barilla. There’s more about earlier para-sidesaddle riders in the list below.

War Horses Week: Russley Park Remount Depot, World War One, Women, Horses and Sources

“You are doing a man’s work and so you’re dressed rather like a man, but remember just because you wear a smock and breeches you should take care to behave like a British girl who expects chivalry and respect from everyone she meets. … See to it that [a Land Army Girl] means … a steady, pure-minded, hard-working, yes, and attractive girl.”

Hon Mrs Alfred Lyttleton DBE at a Women’s Land Army Rally, January 1918 edition of The Landswoman Magazine.

This blog post is a sequel to Women, Horses and World War One, which I wrote in 2012 after Fran Jurga, who was running the official War Horse blog, tipped me off. The centenary of the Great War has renewed interest in women’s role both on the front and at home, and lots of people were curious to learn about the uppercrust and middle class young women who turned out to work for the organisations that became the Women’s Land Army. The first blog post concentrated on the women who worked in remount depots for the army, rehabbing or training horses that would go back to the front. This post was inspired by the chance I had to take part in a BBCWest/BBC 4 documentary on horses in Britain during the war, and brings together some of the sources I discovered when doing my research. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, start here, with the original essay!

Two things need to be borne in mind when we talk about how great it was that women were freed up to do men’s work and get all empowered in quite a glamorous fashion, etc., etc. Firstly, though there were several remount depots run solely or partly by women, most of the Women’s Land Army worked in agriculture, forestry or forage production. If they got near a horse, it was probably a big carter, not an officer’s charger. They are the women writing cheerily about chilblains or the joys of pig keeping in the Landswoman Magazine, struggling against the prejudice of the cash-strapped farmers, who were both sceptical about their ability to do the work and worried about the relatively high wages they were awarded. To get a little flavour of the times (and their propaganda), I recommend spending hours at the excellent Women’s Land Army website, where you’ll find a collection of scans of this hearty publication, complete with advertisements for Royal Vinolia face cream (“Beauty on duty has a duty to beauty”).

The second aspect you need to bear in mind is that only some 20,000 or so women were recruited into the organisations that became the Women’s Land Army, a total which is not insignificant, but is dwarfed by the 180,000-odd “village women” who were also working in the fields, farmyards and forests. In other words, rural working women for whom the labour was not a patriotic novelty, but a familiar part of the day-to-day grind. Class! I found Kate Adie’s Fighting on the Home Front a really excellent overview of all the women, from duchesses downwards, who were involved in the World War One workplace. She doesn’t mention the remount depots, but does dedicate a chapter to the women who made all the haynets required by the British Army – not glam, but utterly essential.

But anyway – we’re here for Russley, which was in many ways the most prestigious of the Women’s Land Army postings. Not only did the twenty or so young women work with horses, but officers’ chargers. Not only was the stable run by women, but the superintendent was the wife of the Director of Army Remounts, Lord Birkbeck. No wonder they were photographed, filmed and even painted (see the first part for a little about Lucy Kemp Welch’s beautiful pictures).


This row of stables at Russley Park dates from the late nineteenth century and has been beautifully restored by the current owners. From the paintwork to the brick floors, porcelain feed troughs and drain traps, it’s a labour of love and a gem of its original era. The only current resident is a chestnut shetland pony called George (see below). They were built by Russley Park’s owner in the late nineteenth century to house his racehorses (the park was originally a hunting estate dating from 1700). The estate is a hop, skip and a jump from Lambourn – still a hub for trainers of both flat and national hunt horses.

In 1907 it was purchased by Colonel William Hall Walker, the eccentric third son of a brewery magnate, who bred and trained horses both at Russley and in County Kildare in Ireland. Obsessed with horoscopes, Walker had charts drawn up for all of the foals he bred, and chose lantern-roofs for the stallion block in Tully, Ireland, so that the studs could be influenced by the sun and stars. In 1915 he sold both stables to the Secretary of State for War and handed over two stallions, 30 broodmares, 10 yearling fillies and 8 horses in training. The idea was that the government would be able to breed half or three-quarter thoroughbred horses for the cavalry.

Of course, by this stage it was rapidly becoming clear that there would not be much call for cavalry horses in the British Army’s future. If you click through to this extract from Hansard, you can see the March 1916 parliamentary discussion over what on earth the nation was supposed to do with Russley Park and Tully. One side is arguing that the racehorses will be loaned to Lords Lonsdale, and that the top-class stallions will contribute to a better class of cavalry horse. The other side is pointing out that what’s really needed is light draught horses to haul artillery and provisions.

In the end, Russley Park was used to care for officers’ chargers and new horses from Ireland and elsewhere. There were a couple of broodmares there, but the plan to turn it into a military stud didn’t materialise. Walker was made Baron Wavertree, and Tully became the Irish National Stud.



What about life for the young women at Russley Park? It was a tight ship. A contemporary army report (possibly with a somewhat propagandist purpose) gave some details – repeated from my original post:

“…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.”

Each woman had three horses in her care – a far cry from her pre-war horsey experiences with a groom or two to do the hard work for her. There was, of course, some anxiety about young women doing man’s work. The fragant Mrs Hamilton Osgood visited America in June 1917 to impress these patriotic achievements upon young women on the other side of the pond, and, well, you can read the Philadelphia Evening Ledger’s headline for yourself—


Screengrab from the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America archive.

Mrs Hamilton Osgood – very much of another generation – was desperate to stress how genteel these gentlewomen had remained:

“It’s a divineness of spirit that’s making little frail-handed girls groom cart horses and marchionesses wait on table in little restaurants – all so that England may give her men… English women are doing marvellous work on farms, and mind you they don’t dress up in absurd pantalettes to do it. They wear neat khakhi skirts. … Well-to-do girls who have never soiled their hands before are doing– well, almost unbelievable work. … Let me read you the letter of one little girl who, with either other women, is managing the only all-women remount depot in England. … ‘This morning,’ she read, ‘I was grooming an eighteen-hand-high cart horse, of whose character I knew nothing. We get one pound a week here and get ordered around like everything; no fancy get-ups, either. But we don’t care. We’re just glad to be serving.’”

What I love most about this extract is turning immediately to the Imperial War Museum’s photos and footage of the “frail-handed girls” at Russley Park – not a khaki skirt to be seen, and they don’t look like they’re bothered about having lily-white mitts either. What about the girls themselves? In 1916 the Daily Mail ran a piece by S. R. Church called a “Women’s Remount Depot somewhere in England,” which seems to my eye to draw upon the army report I mentioned earlier. I’m not sure how authentic it is (was it by a woman working at a depot or was it nudged along by the authorities?), and of course it’s unclear which location it’s talking about, but perhaps it’s Russley:

“Women grooms. How we look after the horses. … I am very sorry for the girl who tries to deceive our ‘boss’ about her knowledge of horses.
On your first morning, to arrive in the cold, grey dawn, after rising at the unusual hour of 6 o’clock – to pass through the door into the blackness of the riding school, where 60 horses are tethered in a double line–to look around for someone with authority in the few glaring spots of light that throw strange monster horse shadows onto the gaunt walls–and then to be told, ‘start watering from that end.’
It is disconcerting enough in any case, as you slip by a pair of possibly tactless heels to where you get some horse may own a head and headstall, and then to lead him to the trough, where other dim figures are holding other animals, tramping, snorting, biting, kicking. You are not nervous (absurd idea!) But the effect is weird, grotesque in the darkness, and, as I said before, I am sorry for the girl who comes as a pretender.
But, then, nobody could deceive our ‘boss’ unless with pen and ink; never face-to-face. I would wager that, is losing meant eating our hundred horses one by one, with their shoes thrown in! A wonderful woman she is, with the keenest green eyes in the world and straight brows, almost startlingly black, against her pale face and soft grey hair. She has voice so deep and powerful and clear that you shut your eyes and almost say it is a man’s voice, and then you realise a tender tone in it that no man could have, and you just say to yourself, as I say 100 times a day, ‘what an absolute topper she is!’
It would be a pleasure to go on writing about her, but perhaps you have said all when you have said that she can do anything with any horse and that there is not a girl in the place who does not enjoy obeying her. She is a born commander. And it is so rare an instinct in woman that I doubt if there be one in a thousand who could command such absolute, unwavering confidence.

Fearless horsewomen.

And it is her personality backed up by her knowledge that has made our depot the successful concern it is. The more you know of horses, and especially of the raw, rough brutes, many of them thoroughly vicious, which are bound to be among any lot picked out at random from the army type of animal, the more wonderful it seems that we should run them without a man on the premises. Wonderful. Why, it comes near to being incredible! And without her it would be incredible. Some of our girls are fine, fearless horsewomen, and before they have been here long we’re all fairly competent grooms; but it is she who tackles the dangerous horse first, she who is always on the spot in every emergency, and she, too, who organises everything from ordering the tons of hay, oats, bedding etc, to noticing that are stray cats get a saucer of milk in the harness room at teatime. Nothing escapes her vigilant eye nor ever seems to perturb the humour in her face.
With a savage horse she is a marvel, and so calm about it into the bargain. She tamed one who came to us with the cheerful reputation of having half-killed six men running till nobody dared go into his box. Only the other day I was absolutely defeated by a black fellow we called the Snorter or the Warhorse. He bit, he kicked , he struck at me with his forelegs. … He seemed as supple as indiarubber, and his wicked hoofs came crashing around within an inch of me time after time, till at last I went limping off on one foot and a half to say I couldn’t get near him. Well, she came and talked to him and showed him (only showed him) a little short thick stick, and he stood like a lamb after the first five seconds.

No picnic

For the Remount Depot is not a picnic. Now that we have roused the curiosity of a larger public than the small boys who came tumbling out of the cottages and the grinning motorists in passing cars, to whom our string of horses ridden at exercise by ladies on cross saddles was an object of amusement, we’re always seeing ourselves in illustrated papers labelled ‘Smiling Dianas,’ or something equally foolish.
If we are Dianas, we get far hotter, dirtier, and more tired than would be at all dignified in a goddess. Of course it looks very jolly to see us all going out for a pleasant ride in the country. ‘Those girls are having the time of their lives,’ people probably say when they see us. So we are. I cannot deny it. But I think some of our friends who last saw us, say, in a London ball-room would realise the other side of the picture if they could look in one morning at a time when they are generally in bed and see the erstwhile fine lady in her riding breeches and shirt, with the sleeves rolled up over her elbows, busily engaged in cleaning a dirty old carthorse, or a charger back from the front with filthy coat, or raking refuse out of the stalls. Our ‘boss’ has no room for the type of applicant who ‘loves riding, don’t you know, but couldn’t possibly do stable work.’
Love of the horse
We are doing men’s work, as much of it as men could do and considerably more than men would have done in those dim, distant days before the war had taught most of us to put our backs into a job of work and keep them there. It seems a long, long while since one strolled out after breakfast in well-cut habit and shiny boots to where our well-mannered hunter awaited us in the yard with a stud groom and a helper or so in attendance.
But everytime our back aches under a truss of hay or a sack of oats we are braced up by the thought that we (and we hail from New Zealand, Ireland, the North country, as well as England proper) are taking our share in the work that they are doing across the sea – there where our hearts are. And in that thought we go on cheerfully as before.
For we are a very merry crew, mostly under twenty-five I should imagine, and we get to love the horses as if they were our own. There is beautiful Venus, the chestnut mare, for whom I always steal a few minutes from my other charges to make her coat glow in the sunlight. And old Pasha, who looks like a cross between a camel and a clotheshorse, and he knows at least seventeen methods of either nipping or kicking you, even he has his genial moments – at the drinking trough, for instance. And Satan, who never goes out except with our rough rider; it takes several of us to hold him like a rising balloon till she jumps into the saddle, and then away they go in the maddest series of rushes across the paddock. And Baby, how our young carthorse, who weighs 15cwt or so and comes bounding down the riding school to her morning drink in charge of a wee wisp of a girl you could almost pick up in your hand.
Yes, when all is said and done, I suppose it is mainly our love of horses for their own sakes that brings us and keeps us here, although –– ‘I shall be late for the evening feed if I write another word.’
But it is the love of the horse.”

Lastly, here from the April 1919 edition of Landswoman Magazine is a list of women from Wiltshire who were awarded Good Service Ribbons for their efforts in 1914–1918. Could some of them have worked at Russley Park? Over to you.

Part one of this post.

Alicia Thornton: A Regency Lady Jockey

This is an out-take from If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of Equine Obsession. I’ve just found an image of her in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection: click here and again on the picture to enlarge.

Twenty-two year-old Mrs Alicia Thornton, the daughter of a Norwich watchmaker and wife of a Colonel Thornton, pitted her horse, Old Vingarillo against her brother-in-law Captain Flint on Thornville over four miles at York in 1804. More than £200,000 was wagered on the race by one hundred thousand spectators,  “nearly ten times the number appeared on the Knavesmire than did on the day when Bay Malton ran, or when Eclipse went over the course,” as Thomas Brown noted in his Anecdotes of Horses.  She wore a blue jockey’s cap over her fair hair and, above her voluminous skirts which, in an engraving of the match, are blown against her thighs, a man’s silks with a “leopard-coloured body, with blue sleeves, the vest buff.”

She started the favourite among the menfolk on the course, who’d been impressed by an earlier exercise ride she’d turned in, and for the first three miles of the race, “the oldest sportsmen on the stand thought she must have won,” only for her horse to go lame and her to pull him up. “Never, surely,” wrote Brown, “did a woman ride in better style. It was difficult to say whether her horsemanship, her dress, or her beauty, were most admired – the tout ensemble was unique … She flew along the course with an astonishing swiftness, conscious of her own superior skill.”   In 1805 she matched top jockey Francis Buckle over two miles, and – sporting embroidered stockings and a purple waistcoat – trounced him by half a neck to the ecstasy of the crowd.

Here’s a poem by a contemporary spectator:

See the course throng’d with gazers, and lots of ‘Old rakes’,

To view the ‘beautiful Heroine’ start for the stakes;

With handkerchiefs waving, the spectators all clap,

Half dressed like a jockey, with her whip and her cap.

With spirits like fire, behold her mount the gay prad,

And the cheers and the smiles make her heart light and glad;

And Mrs Thornton’s ‘the favourite’ through thick and through thin,

And the swell and the jockeys all bet that she’ll win.

A (Not So) Short History of Women Riding Astride

IWWH covers I enjoyed talking about the history of sidesaddle on Countryfile – it was my first experience of TV and everyone was incredibly friendly and easygoing. We did a few takes of different parts of the interview and it was hard to know whether to embellish what I’d said each time or to say the same thing again. There’s so much material to use but you only have seconds in which to say it, and the entire segment on sidesaddle was six minutes long. This slot had to include the presenter, Ellie, having a sidesaddle lesson, a display by the Legover Ladies and interviews with saddler Laura Dempsey and Roger Philpot. The result is that you simplify as colourfully as you can and make a mental note to do a blog post which clarifies a thing or two. I haven’t seen the programme yet as I can’t watch it on iPlayer here in Berlin, but I’ve been told that it stressed the fact that women didn’t begin to ride cross-saddle or astride until after the First World War. This isn’t really true.

I’ve written about the role that the women working in WWI remount depots played in making cross-saddle respectable and even patriotic but of course they weren’t the pioneers. The true picture is very different: it’s not that women didn’t ride astride before 1914. In fact, they never gave up the cross-saddle, not least because until the side-saddle made sufficient technological advances in the Renaissance and later in the 1830s, it was very impractical to use. Even princesses and goddesses sometimes rode cross-saddle when they wanted to gallop and jump. It was often rare and considered eccentric or even indecent (as you’ll see from the first-hand accounts below), but it did happen. Here then is my extended and nonexhaustive breakdown of ladies with a leg on each side, some of whom may be familiar from If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of Equine Obsession. Feel free to tell me about more rebels and rodeo riders! I may add more as I go along and have time. Giddy up cowgirls!

First up, Amazons! Short-hand for “women from the Eurasian Steppes who rode astride and went into battle.” Depicted throughout Antiquity as trouser-wearing, man-slaying, horse-riding troublemakers.

The Gallo-Roman pony goddess Epona rode both side and astride.

Eighth century AD: Women polo players in Tang Dynasty China.

A hundred years on, Charlemagne’s six daughters hunted astride.

Nicetas Choniates, O City of Byzantium, Annals of Nicetas Choniates, trans.Harry J. Magoulias (c.1150–1213):

“Females were numbered among them, riding horseback in the manner of men, not on coverlets sidesaddle but unashamedly astride, and bearing lances and weapons as men do; dressed in masculine garb, they conveyed a wholly martial appearance, more mannish than the Amazons. One stood out from the rest as another Penthesilea and from the embroidered gold which ran around the hem and fringes of her garment was called Goldfoot.”

Chaucer’s Wife of Bath wears two spurs and must, unlike the Prioress, have been riding with a leg on each side. Most illustrators pick up that cue. End of fourteenth century.

Fynes Moryson, (early 1600s):

“Also I have seen honourable Women, as well married as Virgines, ride by the high way in Princes traines, apparrelled like Men, in a doublet close to the body, and large breeches open at the knees, after the Spanish fashion, both of carnation silk or satten, and likewise riding astride like men upon Horses and Mules, but their heads were attired like Women, with bare haires knotted, or else covered with gold netted cawles, and a hat with a feather.” [Source, Women and Horses by Gillian Newsum]

Merry Passages and Jeasts by Sir Nicholas L’Estrange (1603-1655) of Hunstanton, Norfolk. article 354:

“The Bury Ladyes that usd Hawking and Hunting, were once in a great vaine of wearing Breeches; and some of them being at dinner one day at Sir Edward Lewkenors, there was one Mr Zephory, a very precise and silenc’t Minister … and … he fell upon this and declaimd much against it; Rob: Heighem … undertooke to vindicate the Ladyes, and their fashion, as decent to such as might cover their shame: for sayes he, ‘if an Horse throwes them, or by any mischance they gett a fall, had you not better see them in their Breeches than Naked?’ sayes the over-zealous man, in detestation of Breeches, ‘O no, by no meanes:’ ‘By my Troth Parson,’ sayes Rob: Heighem, ‘and I commend the for’t, for I am of they mind too.’”

A New Method and Extraordinary Invention to dress Horses, And work them according to Nature; As also, to perfect NATURE by the Subtilty of ART; Which was never found out, but by the Thrice Noble, High and puissant PRINCE William Cavendishe (1657):

“I wonder how Men are so Presumptuous to think they can ride as Horse-men, because they can ride forward from Barnet to London, which every Body can do; and I have seen Women ride astride as well as they; They do not think of any Art or Trade, as they do of Horse-manship, where they are all Masters; Which doth not prove so, when they Ride.”

Morning Post, (3rd March 1778):

“a German Lady who dresses, and rides, en cavalier, has for several days past attracted the attenion of the beaux and belles in Hyde-park. She is well mounted, takes her morning rides without any attendant, and leaps over the different bars in the park with all imaginable coolness and resolution.”

Marie Antoinette astride in leopardskin (she switched to a sidesaddle when she became queen of France). Not everyone thought cross-saddle was a dignified pursuit for a lady:

English engraving c. 1800 - 1810 as reproduced in one of the early 20thC Eduard Fuchs Karikatur books. Wikimedia Commons.

English engraving c. 1800 – 1810 as reproduced in one of the early 20thC Eduard Fuchs Karikatur books. Wikimedia Commons.

The Sporting Magazine vol. 18 (April 1801) contains a comment that in 1382 Queen Anne of Bohemia managed “to abolish, even in defiance of France, the safe, commodious, and natural mode of riding hitherto practised by the women of England, and to introduce the sidesaddle.” Lorna Gibb pointed out that adventurer Lady Hesther Stanhope was riding astride on her travels in the first decades of the nineteenth century.

Unprotected Females in Norway (1857) by Emily Lowe:

“Two beautiful little ponies with black stripes on their legs like zebras, and two tall farmers in fur caps, came to the door in the course of the morning… only one lady’s saddle secured for my mother… Now the non-talkaboutable [her loose or ‘Zouave’ trousers] proved their usefulness: bagging all my clothes in their ample folds, I at once mounted à la Zouave and can assure every one that for a long journey this attitude has double comforts; whilst mamma sat twisted sideways on a saddle which would not keep its balance, I was easy and independent, with a foot in each stirrup.”

Letters to Mrs Power O’Donoghue, (1880) From “Hersilie”:

“Oh, no woman would ever be twisted and packed onto a sidesaddle again if she could help it, after once enjoying the ease and freedom, as well as complete control of her horse that a man’s seat gives… when shall we cease to prostrate ourselves before the Juggernaut of fashion?… It is a new existence on horseback, and nothing indelicate about it… leaping is, oh, so easy; in fact your power seems doubled in every way. In case of conflict with your horse, you feel a veritable centaur compared with the side seat… I think I could not be thrown.”

Times, (September 10th 1890), report on a meeting of the British Association:

“Wild cats, bears, and wolves exist in the Carpathians, but there were no other obstacles, said Miss Dowie, to a girl travelling alone from London to the Russian frontier. Miss Dowie met with no inconvenience. She wore an easily-detachable skirt over knickerbockers; she carried a knife and a revolver, and when riding she rode cross-saddle and bareback… Miss Dowie said that she had met with several accidents, such as being nearly drowned while bathing in strange rivers, and dislocating her shoulder by a fall, but she regretted that she had never met a bear face to face.”

Punch (1890):

Ride a cock-horse To Banbury Cross To see a young-lady A-straddle o’course!


Isabelle Chinon regularly performed astride in the great Parisian circuses in the 1890s. Here she is in a poster screengrabbed from the Franch national library’s excellent Gallica site:

Screen Shot 2017-07-14 at 10.23.50

The Horsewoman, Mrs Hayes (1893):

“A lady who is well known with the Devon and Somerset Staghounds asked my husband’s advice about a suitable saddle, as she desired to ride astride, and he helped her to procure one with large knee pads, made on the principle of Australian buck-jumping saddles, which appears to have answered her purpose very well; but I do not know how she would get on in Leicestershire…”

Times, (November 3rd 1908):

“Perhaps the greatest change that has come over the hunting field in my time is the enormous increase of lady riders … the number of ladies must have doubled, and some of them are taking to ride astride.”

Times, (March 17th 1914):

“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. The fact that it comes so soon after King George’s refusal to witness any exhibition of riding astride at Olympia is regarded as significant.”

S. R. Church, a Remount depot “somewhere in England”, World War One (thank you to Fran Jurga):

“… The remount depot is not a picnic. Now that we have roused the curiosity of a larger public than the small boys who came tumbling out of the cottages and the grinning motorists in passing cars, to whom our string of horses ridden at exercise by ladies on cross saddles was an object of amusement, we are always seeing ourselves in illustrated papers labelled ‘Smiling Dianas’ or something equally foolish. If we are Dianas, we get far hotter, dirtier, and more tired than would be at all dignified in a goddess. Of course it looks very jolly to see us all going out for a pleasant ride in the country. ‘Those girls are having the time of their lives,’ people probably say when they see us. So we are. I cannot deny it. But I think some of our friends who last saw us, say, in a London ball-room would realise the other side of the picture if they could look in one morning at a time when they are generally in bed and see the erstwhile fine lady in her riding breeches and shirt, with the sleeves rolled up over her elbows, busily engaged in cleaning a dirty old carthorse, or a charger back from the front with filthy coat, or raking refuse out of the stalls.”

Click here for a longer blog piece on women, horses and World War One which is a bit of a “missing chapter” from If Wishes Were Horses.

Times, (August 5th 1919):

“It must be quite twenty years ago that the wife of a well-known R.A. electrified Exmoor by appearing astride at a meet of the Devon and Somerset, an innovation which furnished the illustrated papers with material for many criticisms and witticisms. Other days, other ways, and after five years of war it would take something very startling in the way of feminine costume to arouse comment even on Exmoor … When we remember that riding astride has been made obligatory in all ladies’ remount depôts during the war we may expect to see a very strong cross-saddle contingent with the Devon and Somerset this winter.”

Olga E Lockley, Nannie Power O’Donoghue’s biographer:

“In 1921 the question of side saddle versus cross saddle arose again. Mrs O’Donoghue , no doubt bowing to the inevitability of it, commented grudgingly that riding astride might be alright for the very young with very good figures.”

Riding Astride for Girls (1923) by Ivy Maddison:

“Twenty years ago a girl who rode astride was looked on as a hoydenish creature with a shocking lack of modesty whose only reason for adopting this style must be a desire to ape masculine ways and make herself duly conspicuous.”

Times advertisements (November 30th 1928):

“The Owner of one of the most successful stables for jumpers in Germany requires an English Lady Assistant of good social position, no professional, age between 20 and 24, weight 8-9st., to ride cross-saddle in and help train for the show ring… Apply, with photo, by letter to Graf R. Von Gürtz, Brunkensen, bei Hannover.”

The Young Rider by Golden Gorse (1928):

“I do not propose to discuss side-saddle riding. Girls almost without exception learn to ride astride nowadays.”

Times, Report from Royal International Horse Show at Olympia (June 23rd 1931):

“Yesterday … there were several other competitions, two of them for riding horses, one for ladies’ hunters, and the other for ladies’ riding horses, the ladies in each case to ride side-saddle. How much better it looked, and how much safer, than the astride method which, however it may appeal to some people, can never make a lady on a horse look like a lady on a horse.”

To Whom the Goddess by Lady Diana Shedden and Lady Viola Apsley (1932):

“At present time it is a moot point whether a woman should ride side-saddle or astride.”

Lord Brabazon of Tara, News Review (19th June 1947):

“That the world is out of balance and lop-sided we know without being reminded of it by the side-saddle.”

If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of Equine Obsession