If Wishes Were Horses: Mary Breese

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If you know any more about Mary Breese, I’d love to know. I tried contacting the holders of Sarah Josepha Hale’s  library to find out if they could think of her source for writing about Mary (a very long shot) and also perused British sporting magazines and Norfolk papers from the time of her death. Any further leads merrily followed.
I turned up this from the Observer, October 6th 1799:
“Lately died at Lynn, in her 78th year, Miss Mary Breese; she never lived out of the parish she was born in; was a remarkable sportswoman, regularly took out her shooting licence, kept as good grey-hounds, and was as sure a shot as was in the county. At her desire her dogs and favourite mare were killed at her death, and buried in one grave.” (looks as though it wasn’t necessarily Mary’s grave, but still). The same report appears in the Sun on the 7th October, 1799 and the Oracle and Daily Advertiser on the 8th October 1799. Presumably this was serialised to US papers also as a curio and that’s how Sarah Josepha Hale picked it up.

A lovely blog post on Lady Salisbury or Old Sarum. And a snippet about a ferocious huntress from my notes.

This chapter included an out-take that I think deserves reproducing here. I’m still not sure if I regret not adding her to the early-nineteenth-century Amazons, especially as she had a Norfolk connection:

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.

UPDATE: no Mary, but the Taverham poem features in Jane Bevan’s PhD on Foxhunting and Landscape from 1700 – 1900, available at the UEA website.


This post relates to a chapter of the book If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of an Equine Obsession. If you have any questions to ask about the content, please fire away in the comments. The main online index for the book is here.

Published by Susanna Forrest

Writer Amazons of Paris, The Age of the Horse and If Wishes Were Horses.

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