Helen Vernet (1875/6-1956)

Born: Helen Monica Mabel Brydon; also known as Mrs Armine Thornton; Mrs Robert Vernet

Sector: Travel & Leisure

‘What does the average woman know about racing? Absolutely nothing; and when most women air their opinions on the Sport of Kings, hot air is the inevitable result.’ So wrote Quintin Gilbey in The Bystander in 1934.  He did, however, manage to find, ‘God be praised’, a number of exceptions. First was Norah Wilmot ‘the most wonderful woman with horses I have ever met’ and last on his (short) list was Britain’s only licensed woman bookmaker, Helen Vernet. ‘Far too well known to need any introduction from me [she is] a remarkable woman and a gold mine to Ladbroke’s.’ 

Helen started her book-making career when she was in her mid-30s. Relatively little is known about her life before that.  Her birth certificate has not yet been tracked down so it is not known exactly when she was born but a probable date, based on her age in the 1881 census and the date of birth recorded in the 1939 Register, is 12th June 1875.  Her mother, Rosa Cunningham Fairlie, was the daughter of a Scottish baronet and her father, Arthur Bryden was a solicitor.  In 1891 her family was living in Beauchamp Place and so it is fair to assume she grew up in fairly smart circles. 

On 2nd November 1896, aged 21, she married a 46-year old stockbroker, Armine Thornton but the marriage was annulled in January 1905, when Helen was 29.  Ten months later, dressed in white velvet and ermine, she married Robert Vernet, also a stockbroker, in a very quiet ceremony at St. George’s, Hanover Square.  From the small number of reports in which Helen features between 1906 and 1913, her life was, superficially at least, of little note.  She took part in a fund-raising event in 1910 where she re-created Romney’s painting of Emma, Lady Hamilton.  She donated to the suffrage cause.  She holidayed with her husband in Brighton and without him in Monte Carlo. 

Making her move
Then on 28th June 1913, Sporting Life ran a story: ‘Amateur Bookmakers:  A Lady Layer in the Ring at Sandown Park’.  The executives of the Sandown Park racecourse in Esher had decided to take a firm stance against people acting as bookmakers within the club enclosure and these ‘amateurs’ had therefore all congregated on the rails at the lower end of the enclosure. ‘Amongst them was a lady whose appearance in such a capacity caused much astonishment to many of the general public.  She is Mrs Robert Vernet, who has been laying S.P. [starting price] odds in the members’ enclosure for a year or two.’

Helen Vernet, the first lady bookmaker in Britain
A photograph of Helen Vernet by Dorothy Wilding included in ‘This Age of Beauty’ (1935)

What set Helen off on this particular career path at this point in her life?  Although she didn’t start divorce proceedings against Robert Vernet until November 1923, they were living separately when the 1911 census was taken and in a 1934 interview with the Sunday Graphic newspaper she said her a decision was made from necessity: by then she was practically penniless.   

Why bookmaking? One story was that she was drawn to it because she had experienced the dark side of betting, gambling away a fortune of £8,000 left her when her father died in 1897.  In the late 1940s she was reported as saying that ‘many years ago’ she had owned racehorses, but that ‘taught me a lesson’.  Another version was that after an illness, possibly TB, she was told by doctors to spend more time in the open air and chose the racecourse rather than the more traditional seaside. Whatever the trigger, in around 1911 or 1912, she quietly developed a practice of wandering around in the members’ enclosure at race meetings, initially collecting small bets from other women friends.  (She later said she liked women clients because they tended to bet regularly but be less likely to bet more than they could afford to lose.)  Highly numerate and with a strong commercial streak, she had had time to scope out the opportunity. So when faced on that June day in 1913 with a choice of stopping or turning professional, the decision for Helen was a straightforward one.  

Arthur Bendir, who had founded Ladbrokes in 1902, was quick to spot Helen’s potential. Helen was 5ft 4” tall with a striking combination of white hair (she went grey at the age of 24), blue eyes and a youthful complexion.  With a slim build and great dress sense, her appearance always attracted attention and was certainly no handicap in growing her client base. He realised that she could be both a brand ambassador and an income generator and in ‘a stroke of genius’ asked her to represent the firm in an official capacity.  

Helen’s nascent career was interrupted by the First World War.  While racing continued during the war it was on a much more limited basis. Stables emptied as jockeys and grooms signed up; racecourses were requisitioned by the army for training and tank testing.  Helen re-directed her energies.  In November 1914 the Volunteer Motor Mobilization Corporation (VMMC) was established, organising motorcades to take wounded soldiers into the countryside or to convalescent hospitals.  It played a similar role to the Motor Squadron of the London Volunteer Rifles in which Ethel Wilson was involved.  Helen became the VMMC’s honorary secretary, sourcing cars that could be borrowed for these outings, operating out of the Ladbrokes offices on Old Burlington Street.  High-profile patrons included King Edward VII and it its first six months the organisation helped over 26,000 men.

By 1919, the number of Flat and National Hunt courses in operation had shot back up from 16 to 77 and Helen, now 44, was soon back at work, full of self-confidence. She later told a newspaper that ‘it may sound conceited but I just say to myself “Helen, what someone else can do, you can do” and I go ahead with the job whatever it may be and somehow or other I get through.’   Betting came second only to cinema-going as the leading leisure spending activity during the interwar years and Helen, smart, socially connected and hard-working, quickly carved out a profitable career.  A full-page splash in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News in 1923 featuring the country’s only lady bookmaker’ shows her wearing an evening dress, her hair elegantly coiffured, holding a cup of tea.  Occasionally another woman ventured into the field for a short period and some developed successful off-course betting businesses but Helen reigned supreme on the rails for the next thirty years. 

Mrs Helen Vernet. Mr Punch’s Personalities. Punch cartoons by George Belcher
(c) Punch and included here with kind permission

At the end of 1927 Helen featured on a list of the ten most remarkable women in the country, alongside Nancy Astor, Tallulah Bankhead, Lady Diana Cooper and Edith Sitwell and in May 1928, she made the headlines when she became a director of Ladbrokes, ‘the most important firm of turf commission agents in the world’.   What really fascinated everyone was the amount of money she was said to be earning.  It was initially reported simply that her salary would make ‘a Cabinet Minister green with envy’ but soon a five-figure income was mentioned and later still it was reported that during racing’s heyday between the wars she earned £20,000 a year from a combination of salary, commission and own betting, the equivalent of over £1.2m now.   The commission element was a critical component and meant that Helen decided what meetings wanted to go to, She mainly focused on the racecourses in the south of the country, only venturing north for big meetings like Grand National week at Aintree. 

Some of her earnings clearly went on her wardrobe: ‘If it is fine she will be wearing a floppy black hat and a pale green and white chiffon frock.  If it is wet, you can bet your boots she will be in a tailor-made, with a white mackintosh and a red hat.’ She was regularly described as the best-dressed woman on the race-course, against some pretty stiff competition.  One racing columnists joked that his betting record meant that he was turning Helen into the best-dressed woman in the country rather than his wife.  

Embed from Getty Images

Helen’s fashion competition at Ascot

Building her business
Helen may have been raking in the cash but she worked hard for it.  She was at the racecourse five or six days a week during the season, setting out early and returning late or spending nights away from home.  She ‘stands in snow and rain, biting winds and baking sun’ and whatever the weather, was likely to be extremely busy, taking up to 2,500 bets in an afternoon.  She had to manage her own risk, hedging her book with neighbouring bookmakers and presumably offering the same service to them.  She employed two clerks who in the last five to ten minutes before a race worked under particularly intense pressure, taking down bets at the rate of sixty a minute.  One also acted as her ‘social secretary’, also tasking him with making her hotel reservations, arranging train tickets and hiring cars.

Helen was renowned for her wit, cheerfulness, calm demeanour and superb manners. ‘She smiles alike on all clients, from the debutantes and young graduates, handing in their cards with their five-shilling bets to the knowledgeable or sometimes otherwise exponents of racing who bet in ponies and even monkeys.’     She built a large and hugely loyal client base who valued the fact that ‘win, lose, tie or wrangle, Mrs Vernet is always the same, the soul of efficiency and courtesy’.  Her account management was described as by one man who had laid ‘tens of thousands of bets’ with her as ‘flawless’. 

She used to say a good client only lasted three years – after that he had either gone broke, seen wisdom and stopped betting or had become very clever and had started winning – but with Ladbrokes estimating that in the 1920s around 12.5% of credits were bad debts, it was in her long-term interests to stop clients from taking risks the couldn’t afford.  In 1973, Sir David Llewellyn, a Tory MP, wrote a column giving advice on credit betting and shared that decades earlier when, as a young man, he had tried to place a big bet with Helen on the last race of the day to re-coup his day’s losses.  She encouraged him to reduce his stake: ‘Never try to get out on the last race’, was her advice.

The portrait of Helen that for many years hung in the Ladbrokes offices.
From The Ladbroke Story by Richard Kaye

Some races obviously went better than others and though she tended not to talk shop, ‘if you press her she may confide that the last race cost her a couple of thousand, adding “wasn’t that tiresome” in much the same way most women would deplore a laddered stocking.’   She sometimes had to deal with difficult situations and when needed, could give as good as she got. One day a man near her began to be abusive. When he had finished she retaliated with ‘amazing eloquence’ and turning round to find him open-mouthed with astonishment, serenely remarked: ‘And I can say it all over again in French, if you want any more.’

Living in style
Helen applied the same energy to her social life as she did her work life and spent freely. During the winter months she holidayed in places like Monte Carlo, Palm Springs and Cairo.  She was generous both privately, supporting her mother, and publicly, supporting various charities.  She kept up a flat in London and bought a large house in Hove where she had champagne parties.  

One of Helen’s great friends was Marian Pritchard (1869-1945), a fashion journalist who moved in the same circles as Lucy Duff Gordon.  As Mrs Eric Pritchard she wrote The Cult of Chiffon in 1902, a landmark style manual dedicated to Daisy, Countess of Warwick.  She re-married in 1913 and her subsequent books were written under the name of Mrs C.W. Forester.  In ‘This Age of Beauty’, published in 1935, she devoted several pages to Helen and her ‘meteoric success’ which exemplified the ‘ultra-modern age’ of the Thirties. 

As she headed into her sixties, Helen’s joie de vivre was undimmed. A gossip columnist in 1935 noted that ‘for gaiety, vitality and social success, few debutantes could compete with Mrs Vernet. Silver-haired and rosy-cheeked, this indefatigable lady is the life and soul of every party.  “Dancing intoxicates me!” she was heard to exclaim at a dance in the Shires the other night.  After a hard day on the rails, she was dancing unceasingly, partners waiting three deep for a chance to cut in.  How many girls, having started the evening in white satin, would, after a desperate encounter with some lobster mayonnaise at supper, have the heart to change into green chiffon and continue the party with unabated enthusiasm?’  Men of her own age struggled to keep up and she found a practical solution: ‘we all have at least one failing…mine is gigolos’.  She converted the large garage of her Hove house into a dance hall and paid a stream of young men whisked her across the floor.  

During the Second World War, her home in Hove was requisitioned: the dancing might have stopped but Helen carried on working.  She became more cautious in her later years, declining to take on large bets but continued to represent the firm until 1955, pushed around the racecourse in a wheelchair by a loyal assistant, Alf Simmons.  Even when she got older, she never wore spectacles but instead had an ‘enormous magnifying glass in her capacious handbag.’   Helen died on 30th March 1956 at her London home, 49 Eaton Place. Much of her wealth was spent and her death received almost no coverage. 

Of the many ‘isms’ discussed in relation to workplace discrimination, ageism gets relatively little attention.  Helen started her career in her 30s, generated most money for herself and her employer in between her mid-40s and mid-60s and carried on working until she was 80. 

A World Health Organisation report from 2021 revealed that every other person holds ageist attitudes.  Various studies show that women bear the brunt of ageism at work and start suffering from this form of discrimination at around the age of 40, five years earlier than men.  So next time you are in a conversation where doubts are cast on the ability of an older woman to do her job, think of Helen Vernet, smile and challenge with eloquence.

With grateful thanks to Punch for the cartoon of Helen Vernet.

Sources include:

The Queen 28/10/1905; Votes for Women 5/8/1910; Sporting Life 28/6/1913; The Sketch 9/7/1913;  Reynolds Newspaper 3/1/1915; Gentlewoman 16/1/1915; The Sketch 7/7/1915; Halifax Evening Courier 19/6/1919; The Sporting Times 21/2/1920; Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 21/4/1923; Daily Mirror 3/3/1925; The Sphere 31/12/1927; Belfast Telegraph 17/5/1928; Sunday Post 27/5/1928; Gloucester Citizen 26/4/1929; Derby Daily Telegraph 3/2/1931; The Sphere 20/6/1931;  Aberdeen Press and Journal 17/3/1934; The Bystander 14/6/1933; 4/9/1934;  The Tatler 26/12/1934; The Bystander 29/5/1935; The Yorkshire Post 27/8/1947; New York Times 10/5/1964; Reading Evening Post 6/4/1973;  Daily Mirror 1/4/1974;

‘This Age of Beauty’ by the Hon Mrs C.W. Forester (1935); ‘The Ladbroke Story’ by Richard Kaye (1969); ‘Horseracing and the British 1919-39’ by Mike Huggins (2003)

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