Norah Wilmot (1889-1980)

Born: Norah Eleanor Wilmot

Sector: Travel & Leisure

In 1966, 77-year old Norah Wilmot became the first woman in Britain to train a winning racehorse. Officially. By then she had been involved in training horses for more than fifty years and had managed a stable for thirty-five. She had already trained plenty of winners but in the record books her victories were all attributed to men. Why?

Norah Wilmot c.1962

To understand, we have to go back more than 200 years to The Star and Garter pub in Pall Mall. There, in 1750, a group of men who loved racing formalised their gang as The Jockey Club. Keen to find somewhere they could meet and chat, drink and bet, in 1752, they decided that Newmarket was a good option. They leased some land in the town of Newmarket where they built a Coffee Room, which still exists today within the Jockey Club building on Newmarket High Street and started racing on the Heath.

The men established some rules for these races and gradually these became the rules for all racecourses across the country. The Jockey Club did not set out to make a land grab for control of British racing but over time this private members club slowly became the defacto governing body of the national sport of racing. In 1997, it had 112 members: 89% were men and 44% had a title, so it is fair to assume that its composition in earlier decades was even less diverse, and this small elite group devised and enforced the Rules of Racing until 2006.

Our story now moves to 4th February 1889 when Sir Robert and Lady Eleanor Wilmot welcomed Norah, their first child. Another daughter, Kathleen, followed. Sir Robert was a racehorse trainer and breeder, based at Binfield Grove in Berkshire. Both girls were both thrown into the saddle as infants and their riding exploits were reported in sports-focused papers in 1907, the teenagers mounted ‘astride…with long-skirted coats reaching to the tops of their high boots and everyone.. saying how neat and smart and easy they looked.’

The outbreak of war in 1914 meant that men were lost from a wide range of industries, including racing. In July 1915, Norah and Kathleen appeared on the front page of the Daily Mirror: ‘Baronet’s daughters who are helping their father carry on his training establishment’ blared the not-very-snappy headline. The girls were filling in as jockeys and were pictured racing along in a trial gallop. One trainer’s wife, Cicely Lambton, recalled Robert Wilmot arriving in Newmarket during the war with a small string of horses and his two daughters. ‘They were, I think, the first girls to ride and “do” their own horses, certainly the first I had ever seen, and I well remember the small sensation they created when they first rode out on Newmarket Heath in very neat breeches and tweed coats like a couple of boys..’

Norah was not just riding for her father, she was helping him train the horses. In 1926 a newspaper article about Women in Sport described her as ‘A Lady Assistant Trainer’ who ‘for some years past has actively assisted her father in his duties’. Three years later the Sporting Times published a big feature on Binfield Grove. The author ‘had the pleasure of being piloted over the training establishment and the stud by Miss Norah Wilmot’. Training stables are complex businesses: they are employers for jockeys, stablemen and stable lads and draw on the products and services of feed merchants, vets, saddlers and blacksmiths. Trainers have to determine the best dietary and training regime for each horse and which races offer it the best chance of securing some prize money if owners are going to continue to feel it is worthwhile paying their fees. By then Sir Robert was 76 and more or less retired so Norah was in charge of the whole operation, as this visitor soon realised. ‘It is no exaggeration to say [she] is the heart and soul of the place, and I should think she has greater knowledge of horses than any woman in the country.’

The journalist concluded that Norah was ‘in all respects, except the possession of the licence itself, a remarkable trainer.’ Here she is in October 1930, tackling a yearling colt by Spion Kop a winner of the Derby.

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In 1931, Sir Robert Wilmot died. Norah, now widely known as a skilled horsewoman and generally acknowledged as a very capable trainer, made her application for a trainer’s licence. It was denied.

‘According to Jockey Club ruling, a woman is not a “person” and this debars Miss Norah Wilmot from holding a trainer’s licence’, The Sketch helpfully explained to readers who were still puzzling over her situation six years later. Other reasons were given: if women were trainers, it would mean women would be able to go into the ‘sacred precincts’ of the weighing room; women were more likely to fall prey to criminals who could force them to do something bad; once they were trainers, what was to stop them becoming (heaven forbid) jockeys? These were all poor disguises for the real reason: the men who ruled racing didn’t want women to join their club and they didn’t have to let them in so they weren’t going to. They couldn’t stop women owning horses: as far back as 1900 Weatherbys listed 81 women as owners in their own right, but they could refuse to let them train and ride horses on their racecourses. The huge success of ‘National Velvet’, Enid Bagnold’s stirring 1935 book about a girl who wins the Grand National, and the subsequent smash-hit film that launched the career of Elizabeth Taylor in 1944 did nothing to convince them that there was room in the world of racing for women.

What they were prepared to do was issue a training licence to a man, even when they knew full well he was not actually doing the training. So Norah applied for a licence for her head lad, who had day to day management of the stable yard. And so when Haulfryn won the Doncaster Cup in 1937 and Summertime pulled off a shock win at Lincoln, at odds of 100-8 in 1949, those wins among many others, were recorded as being by Metcalfe and Swash, not Wilmot.

Some journalists didn’t bother to honour the official version of events. ‘The Only Woman Trainer’ was the caption in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News in August 1937, showing a picture of Norah speaking to Gordon Richards, who at that stage had the first nine of his 26 Champion Jockey titles and often rode for her. Others found phrases that were factually accurate like ‘the stable controlled by Miss Norah Wilmot’. Everyone knew what was happening, many people thought it was ridiculous, nothing changed. Meanwhile, Norah continued to buy and train winners. She could be seen at the races and bloodstock sales, usually smartly turned out in a fur coat.

In October 1961, rather than moving with the times, the Jockey Club decided to dig in their heels and informed Norah that now only trainers, owners and jockeys were allowed to supervise the saddling and unsaddling of their horses on the race course or superintend horses in the stable blocks. They did not want to see her in any of those places. Norah was deeply upset: ‘In the eyes of the Jockey Club I am nothing after all these years in the stable.’ Such petty-minded behaviour only served to draw attention to their regressive attitude. More journalists started to get involved. On 27th October, in his sports column for the Daily Herald, Lionel Cureton called for a change in policy. ‘We all know women have been training for years. There has been no secret about it. The names of Norah Wilmot and Florence Nagle are..well known.. but to satisfy ostrich-like Jockey Club officialdom, licences for stables run by women are held by the head lad. I can see no valid reason why the women who are doing such a good job should not be recognised officially.’

It was not just the press where there was criticism. There was clearly dissension within the Jockey Club ranks, too. That same day Norah’s horse, No Fiddling, won the Windsor Castle Handicap and Captain Charles Moore, the Queen’s racing manager and the acting senior Steward, decided to escort Norah into the winner’s unsaddling enclosure in direct contravention of the rule made earlier that month. This gesture was reported as ‘appreciated by everyone present.. left nobody in doubt as to a change in Jockey Club policy coming before long.’ But still nothing happened.

In 1963, the Queen threw in a nicely judged curveball. In 1957 Norah had taken charge of the Queen Mother’s most (in)famous horse, Devon Loch, after the horse grasped defeat from the jaws of victory in the 1956 Grand National. Now the Queen sent Norah one of her horses, Night Watch, to train. ‘The Queen has defied the Jockey Club and included a WOMAN (sic) among her trainers for the coming flat-racing season’ ran the story in the Daily Herald on 8th March. The following year Norah gave the Queen a winner with another horse, appropriately called Don’t Tell, at Folkestone. ‘This is one of the greatest moments of my career’, Norah declared. Her unofficial career, obviously..

It took the determination and resources of another woman, Florence Nagle, née Watson (1894-1988), to bring this farcical situation to an end. Florence was initially more focused on racehorse breeding than training and her operation was smaller than Norah’s but in 1932 she had applied for a training licence in the name of her head lad, Alfred Stickley, and slowly started racking up the winners. In her youth she had been a suffragette and as a prominent and successful breeder of dogs, she had already butted heads with the Kennel Club over their refusal to allow women to be full members.

In January 1964, she and Norah both made new applications to the Jockey Club for training licences. They were refused. The following year, Florence secured the backing of the Fawcett Society, who put her in touch with legal experts. In May 1965, she issued a writ against two Jockey Club stewards that refusing her a licence on the grounds of her gender was unlawful, in restraint of trade and contrary to public policy. Her case was struck out in January 1966 but the Court of Appeal almost immediately gave her leave to continue. As the court case approached in July 1966, the Jockey Club decided to accept the inevitable and settle.

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On the 28th July 1966, Florence, aged 72, and Norah, aged 77, became the first women to be granted licences to train horses for flat racing. A week later, on Wednesday 3rd August, one of Norah’s horses won at Brighton, her first win in her own name and the first official victory by a woman trainer. Within a few weeks, licences had been issued to Auriol Sinclair, Louise Dingwall and Gladys Lewis.

In 1972, women were also allowed to race as jockeys. Back in 1950, Cicely Lambton thought that the Turf would remain the ‘last ditch’ for feminism, but it lost out to the floor of the Stock Exchange (1973) and countless other male bastions.

Norah carried on as a trainer until October 1979 and died the following January, just short of her 91st birthday. The decades-long delay in acknowledging the role of Norah and many other women in racing also meant that for a long time they were written out of the sport’s history. Wray Vamplew’s book ‘The Turf: A Social and Economic History of Horse Racing’, was considered a landmark publication in the study of horseracing when it appeared in 1976. It included a section on ‘Participation: The Men of Racing’, covering jockeys, trainers, owners and breeders where there was no acknowledgment of women’s involvement in any aspect of racing. The Jockey Club makes no reference to the barriers it placed in the way of women in its telling of its own history and so gives no credit to the women who fought to overcome them. The National Museum of Horseracing in Newmarket does a much better job of including the stories of women (and also has an excellent on-site bakery!).

Firsts are great and firsts achieved by people in under-represented groups should always be celebrated. They continue to come for women from all backgrounds across all areas of leadership. Examples in the sport and leisure sector in 2021 include Megan Swann, elected as the first female President of the Magic Circle in September and Clare Connor, who became the first female President of the Marylebone Cricket Club in October. Yet each time an organisation celebrates a first, it should also be asking itself some questions. Why has it taken until now? What have we learned in getting here? How can we ensure this person is successful? And if we want ‘first’ is to be ‘first of many’, what does the talent pipeline look like?

The Fawcett Society is still active today, campaigning for equality and providing advice and support on issues ranging from equal pay to increasing the representation of women in politics.

Sources include: Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 27/4/1907; Daily Mirror 31/7/1915; Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 26/6/1926; The Sketch 22/9/1937; Birmingham Daily Post 14/10/1961; Daily Herald 26/10/1961; 27/10/1961; 8/3/1963; Birmingham Daily Post 8/9/1964

‘Newmarket’ by Laura Thompson (2000); ‘The Sport of Kings: Kinship, Class and Thoroughbred Breeding in Newmarket’ by Rebecca Cassidy (2002); ‘Horseracing and the British 1919-1939’ by Mike Huggins (2003); The Cambridge Companion to Horseracing ed. Rebecca Cassidy (2013)

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