Our latest blog takes us back to 'The Match' in August 1804 when Mrs Alicia Thornton raced against Captain Flint. The Match on the Knavesmire at York took place on 25 August 1804.
‘About four o’clock Mrs Thornton appeared on the ground, full of spirit, her horse led by Colonel Thornton and followed by Mr Baker & Mr Boynton. Afterwards Mr Flint appeared.’ (Stamford Mercury 31 August 1804)
The above article refers to a horserace or match that took place on 25 August 1804 between Mrs Thornton and Mr or Capt. Flint on the Knavesmire at York. ‘Mrs’ Alicia Thornton, as she was known was a young woman aged in her early twenties, thought to be the wife of Colonel Thomas Thornton - a flamboyant 18th/19th century sportsman and patron of the arts – a man child – he hunts, he shoots, he hawks, he fishes, he parties and he drinks.
The match was the result of a hack around the Yorkshire countryside which had taken place some weeks before. At some point, one challenged the other to a race – Alicia on Vinagrillo easily beat Captain Flint on Brown Thornville not once but twice (according to some accounts). Capt. Flint was so rattled that he challenged ‘Mrs’ Thornton to a match for a 1000 gns. The challenge was accepted and the date of the match set for 25 August 1804 on the Knavesmire at York – the distance 4 miles.
As soon as the match was made - it became the talk of ‘a greater part of sporting Yorkshire’. What would Mrs Thornton wear? how would she ride - side saddle? – as the match drew near Alicia emerged as the favourite to win.
Reports in the ‘York Herald’ said that never in the history of York races had so many people attended; at least 100,000 people were at the races that day; ten times the number that witnessed Bay Malton or Eclipse run. Extra men were employed to keep the course clear including a detachment of the 6th light dragoons.
Imagine the noise of a 100,000 people anticipating the race. What a sight Mrs Thornton must have been riding onto the course side saddle dressed in a leopard print tunic with buff skirt and a blue cap with Capt. Flint following dressed all in white. Some sources suggest that more than £200,000 was gambled on the race.
At 4pm the race started - Alicia immediately went in front and kept there for 3 miles – Capt. Flint then pushed forward on Brown Thornville and took the lead. Despite Alicia’s best efforts she had to pull up 500 yards from the finish – her horse fell lame – so here the race ended and the bet of a 1000 gns went to Capt. Flint which Colonel Thornton refused to settle. The crowd fell silent but then roared their disapproval at Capt. Flint and their sympathy for Alicia.
Many people at the time considered it ‘ungallant’ of Capt. Flint to use the power of his young horse to snatch victory from his fair competitor - he should have known better, behaved like a gentleman, remained last throughout the race and lost a 1000gns!
Both parties criticised each other’s behaviour during the race – letters to the York Herald accused each of bad conduct. There was even talk of a rematch but that came to nothing.
But because of the success of the race, York racecourse invited Alicia to ride in another match the following year. This time she rode the mare Louisa against the celebrated Newmarket Jockey Frank Buckle. Alicia dressed in a purple cap and waistcoat, Nankeen coloured skirts, purple shoes and embroidered stockings – particularly striking! - won by ½ length. Everyone cheered as she crossed the line this time her opponent behaved like a gentleman and lost!
After the race Capt. Flint appeared in the stand. Colonel Thornton was chatting to some ladies, Capt. Flint moved towards him, flexing a new horsewhip. Capt. Flint then challenged him over the non-payment of the bet for a 1000gns. The Colonel ignored him, so he struck Colonel Thornton’s shoulders with the horsewhip, the ladies gasped in horror at this most ungentlemanly behaviour - all the gentlemen present ‘hissed and hooted’ at Capt. Flint.
Captain Flint was arrested, Colonel Thornton was detained and told to prosecute him for assault. It is clear Capt. Flint was more sinned against that sinner and that Colonel Thornton used what he perceived to be ungallant behaviour as an excuse not to pay the wager. The relationship between the two degenerated into acrimony and feud.
Over the next two years there were various court actions and by February 1806 the quarrel came to the Court of the King’s Bench only to be returned to the local York Assizes. The judge directed the jury to find a verdict for Colonel Thornton damages of £500.
By 1814 Colonel Thornton left England for France after which many facts came to light about him and especially Mrs Thornton.
Mrs Alicia Thornton in truth was a ‘cherie amie’ of Colonel Thornton who assumed the name of Mrs Thornton. Her real name was Alicia Meynell and she was said to be the daughter of a ‘respectable’ watchmaker from Norwich. However, another source suggested her name was Massingham and that she was known as the ‘Norwich Nymph’. At the time of the match against Capt. Flint she was described as – ‘of fair complexion, light hair, blue eyes and ‘very fascinating’’
We have painting of Colonel Thomas Thornton by Philip Reinagle and Sawrey Gilpin on the first floor of Palace House. In the museum there is a print of Alicia before she rode in a match against the legendary Frank Buckle, who she beat in August 1805.
Blog by Jenny Barley, Visitor Services Staff.
If you enjoyed this blog and would like to learn more about the fascinating history of horse racing, why not visit Palace House, Newmarket. Tickets here