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Shakespeare & Beyond

Glimpses of women athletes in 18th-century England

A woman runner
A woman runner

Racing, fighting, playing cricket, riding horses—women athletes were no stranger to these sports in 18th-century England. Describing 18th-century women as “athletes” is, of course, anachronistic since no women from that time period were ever described that way by their contemporaries, but neither were the men. Nevertheless, “athletic” seems the best way to describe women who competed in hard, physical competitions.

Take for example the race advertised in London in September 1730, when a best-of-three series was organized from Buckingham Gate (near what is now Buckingham Palace) to the new bridge at Fulham—so new, it hadn’t even opened yet—and back. It was to be run by six “young Women or Maidens, one of them a black Girl,” and the there-and-back distance was 8 miles. The best-of-three system describes itself – the women ran three of these 8-mile races. Even with an hour between the races “to rest or rub,” this was a significant athletic challenge. If one runner won the first and second races, then the contest was over (i.e. she would have won 2 out of 3), and it was the task of the others to ensure that didn’t happen, and so force a third. These women weren’t just runners; they were athletes and competitive head-to-head athletes too.

In 1770, John Collett created this image of a young woman running bare-footed in a best-of-three competition:

A woman runner

John Collett, 1770. Detail from An HOLLAND SMOCK to be run for, by any Woman born in this COUNTY: The best Woman in three Heats.

We cannot doubt that the women fighters were athletes too. Elizabeth Wilkinson (later, Stokes) fought with swords, knives, quarter-staff, and her fists, for at least nine years in the amphitheaters of London. One eyewitness describes how these fighting women took the stage with a surgeon present to sew up their cuts as the fight progressed, to allow them to continue. Elizabeth Wilkinson/Stokes was the star, and in 1723 was described as the City Championess, but by 1726 she had progressed to Championess of England, and in 1728 to European Championess. Her adversaries described her as bold, celebrated, famous, victorious, and, an impregnable fortress, and commented on her resoluteness. Others said that she had been train’d from her Cradle to the Toils of War. She wasn’t reticent about her own ability either, and said of herself that she was invincible, and that she had always come off with victory, and was an Orb above her Sex; so, an undefeated champion. Does William Hogarth give us a glimpse of her in the top-left corner of the advertising card that he produced for James Figg and his amphitheater? We know that she fought there in the early 1720s before moving on, with her second husband, to appear in their own amphitheater.

An advertising card showing a fighter
James Figg’s advertising card, engraved by William Hogarth, author’s collection.
An advertising card showing a fighter
(detail) James Figg’s advertising card, engraved by William Hogarth, author’s collection

There were many such fighters who fought long and bravely in this demanding world: Hannah Hyfield, Joanna Heyfield, Mary Welch, Ann Field, Sarah Barret, Mary Garvin, Mary Barker, Moll Buck, and others. Sarah Barret claimed to have had over 40 fights.

Women’s athleticism was on view in a variety of sports, and the women were celebrated and admired for it. In 1745, a cricket match took place between two teams of “maids” and was described as “the greatest Cricket Match that ever was played in the South Part of England.” The players were reported to have “bowled, batted, ran, and catched as well as any Men could do.” This claim that women in general, or some women in particular, were as good as any man, was repeatedly made in the 18th century. Women cricketers representing their hamlet, parish, village, city, or county issued challenges and accepted them, loudly and defiantly. In 1756, Sarah Chase and Mary Coote, two such cricketers, were described as “the two most famous Women in the Kingdom.”

At every level, the women cricketers attracted large crowds who admired their skill and athleticism. In 1792, the players in a match between Rotherby and Hoby, two hamlets in Leicestershire, were said to have performed “astonishing feats of skill and agility”, and after the match, the bowlers of the winning side were “immediately placed in a sort of triumphal car, preceded by music and flying streamers, and this conducted home by the youths of Rotherby, amidst the acclamation of a numerous group of pleased spectators.”

The largest crowd to be drawn by the promise of a woman’s athletic performance, however, was in August 1804 when it was estimated that 100,000 people went to Knavesmire in York, to see the greatest gendered showdown that anyone could remember – Mrs. Thornton (aka Alicia Meynall) riding her mare, Vinagrillo, took on a Mr. Flint riding a hunter named Thornville, over four miles. Signs reading “PETTICOATS FOREVER” were carried among the vast crowd, but many of them went home disappointed when Vinagrillo pulled up lame after leading for three miles.

A woman winning a horse race

Alicia Thornton defeats Francis Buckle, 1805. Anonymous, engraving, Pierce Egan’s Book of Sports, 1844

The following year, however, Alicia Thornton raced again at Knavesmire, this time against Francis Buckle, the winner of 11 Classics (including The Derby, three times), and who was the most successful jockey in Britain. In front of a mere 30,000 spectators she caught him and in a storming finish beat him by half-a-neck, and immediately took her place in horse-racing history – and she had ridden side-saddle!

Francis Buckle went on to win another 16 Classics in his racing career, and was the most successful British jockey throughout the next 150 years, but Mrs. Thornton seems never to have raced again. Nevertheless, her place in racing history, and in the history of sport, is secure.