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All the Pretty Horsebreakers

By Jeremy James


         High society and la bella figura – a posturing in the Park. No-one but the upper crust dared appear. No tradesmen, no trades vehicles were allowed. The crest of the wave in Victorian England was in full plunge. It was the roaring 1860’s and Rotten Row was where you went if you wanted to go and glitter in the limelight. Fine looking young men on glossy steeds went clattering past young ladies with their parasols and lace – it’s where you got a wife – if you were looking for one – or not, if you weren’t. It’s certainly where you got something that passed for a wife, even if it was just for the night - at a price. Horses were superlatively turned out, with red brow bands for Royal stock. Men in frock coats and top hats, strode past in heroic posture. Rich young ladies wafted by in stunning costume. It was all part of the London Season. A display of coquetry, a trysting place, a place to show off. Etiquette was strict and deportment mattered. Appearance was all. And those young bucks without the wherewithal to go cantering by on a million quid’s worth of horseflesh hung onto the rails and dreamily ogled the passing form.

Women of the demi monde were not to be seen although there was no actual law prohibiting the hopeful young odalisque from catching the eye of a well-breeched young man, preferably sporting a title. If you wanted a fine house, wine on the table, jewels and all that went with it, this was the place to go get it. Here was the potential of security, and it was tough at the bottom, particularly in a land where the ratio of women to men was 60: 40. If you had no education, were pretty, had a good figure, you stood a chance, but not on foot. No way.

You needed a horse.

But which of these capricious little beauties – these ‘fallen sisters,’ these ‘soiled doves,’ these ‘anonyma’ - which of these could afford the kind of horse that this place demanded? There were no hacks here: no feather-footed jades. No cobs, onagers or clapped-out Hackney horses with a shambles of a rider hanging onto a coarse-leathered rein. No, no. This was the world of dash and sparkle: spanking horses ridden by spanking riders.

A shrewd livery stable owner in Bruton Mews, off Berkeley Square, came up with a novel idea. As a tradesman he couldn’t enter this arena. The ‘lower classes’ knew their place. And he had some very glitzy horses to sell at some very glitzy prices. Then he met Catherine Walters. Catherine Walters a drop-dead gorgeous belle from Liverpool;  even if she had no education, had a barrack-room vocabulary, Birkenhead brogue, she was a hornet-waisted beauty, with smouldering eyes and the kind of luminous appeal that turned men to custard from the hat down. Moreover, she was a horsewoman, and as a horsewoman, was second to none. She could not only sit and handle a horse - any horse - but looked not just a little good on one: she was Venus Adorned on one. Mr Livery Stable owner spotted her straight off.  ‘If,’ he said to her ‘you ride my best horses up and down Rotten Row, I’ll buy you the best outfit money can buy. Deal?’ Shuffled off to the smartest seamstress in London, she was stitched into a Princess costume so tightly she had to be naked to get in it. A fine hat – hats at the time were la pièce – with that figure, that allure, that command of horse power and the job was on. Up she sprang onto the kind of horse that would set any gent back half his inheritance and off she trotted down Rotten Row.

And did she cause a stir? She brought London to a standstill. Everyone – everyone - not only noticed her but every young buck from all everywhere fell hopelessly in love with her. What a combination! Imagine! All these young gallantes – and the not-so- young ones - eyeing up the paces of the horse advertising the girl on its back advertising the horse between her legs. What?? And did the horses sell? Do dogs pee on lamp-posts? And herself? Catherine wound up with a house in Mayfair with a Maharini’s income to boot. She became the most celebrated hooker on horseback not just in England but in Europe as well. She even plied her trade in the Bois du Boulogne in Paris when she bored of the top drawers of English society.

She was copied of course. Rotten Row became the ‘Human Tattersalls’, the place where these ‘pretty horsebreakers’ as they were termed, ruined many a young man’s fortune and made plenty of their own. One wonders these days how much of our landed gentry sprung from the loins of these rapid unions – but by the time Catherine was thinking of retiring, she could count as her friends Bertie Prince of Wales, Gladstone – the Prime Minister - Lord Hartington – later to become 8th Duke of Devonshire – to name just a very few, never mind a couple of dozen French Dukes, Marquises and Counts - and of course, who else but William Blunt, who fell so desperately in love with her she haunted him for the rest of his life. His best poem Esther, was based on her. Five novels were written about her. Sir Edward Landseer painted her, exhibiting The Taming of the Shrew, in the RA in 1861, in which picture a beautiful young woman controls a rearing stallion.

Born into squalor in Liverpool in the 1840s and winding up with the kind of chums Catherine Walters ended up with, one even wonders, casually, what influence she might have had in the running of the land? Which adds up to a triumph of human achievement however you look at it. She broke the icons not in spite of what she did for a living but because of it, and that’s truly staggering for poor little girl with no education and no future but with a really outstanding knowledge of a couple of vital things: how to master high spirited and powerful men and more pertinently, how to master high spirited and powerful horses.   

Jeremy James is the author of The Byerley Turk, published by Merlin Unwin Books, and Saddletramp and Vagabond, published by The Long Riders' Guild Press.

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