It is only from the 1970’s that women jockeys are permitted to participate in professional horseracing in Australia. The first official women jockey licenses were conferred in Australia only from 1979. Today, thoroughbred racing is one among the few sports codes, where men and women can compete on equal footing. In the 1920’s and 30’s, a young female horse jockey, who proved her worth whenever she could, wished to have that privilege but never granted one and her name was Violet Murrell nee Farmer. During her time, the VRC rules prohibited female riders from competing in the metropolitan race meetings of Melbourne, at Flemington, Caulfield, Moonee Valley, Mentone, Epsom and Williamstown.
Born to Caulfield horse trainer Harry Farmer, Violet was attracted to horses from a very young age. By the time she reached her teens, she already proved her prowess, competing in a fund-raising event held by Red Cross at Caulfield at the age of 14, winning an open event against men. She was also an active volunteer of Purple Cross Society, an organisation which raised money for the benefit of horses. At the age of 16, Violet bid adieu to formal education to become a full-time stable worker.
Women were not permitted to compete against professional jockeys, but if the club concerned permitted, they could ride at amateur race meetings. Violet’s victories of this kind exceeded twenty and she rode at Yarra Glen, Pakenham, Clyde, Lara and in Albury. In 1921 she rode against the professionals at Pakenham and the following year rode 4 winners and 2 seconds in one day at the Clyde picnic race meeting. She also gained a ribbon at the Royal Show in Sydney for the best woman rider over hurdles. With her daring and fearless riding style, in one season during the mid-twenties she won 17 events from 19 starts. Violet displayed her masterclass as female rider with success at Show Jumping, Steeplechasing, Point to Point, Hunting and Hacking.
In 1927, Violet Farmer married a jumps jockey and an aspiring horse trainer, Bill Murrell. The couple moved to a house with provision for stables in Latrobe Street in Mentone, where Bill eventually setup as a trainer. Bill supported her efforts to compete in city races and helped her hone up her skills as a jockey.
In 1929, a family friend and the owner of a horse export business, William Jones gave her a bay gelding called Garryowen which came from a stable north of Albury in NSW. It looked like Violet and Garryowen were made for each other as them both won over 200 prizes at shows and gymkhanas. Garryowen came first at the Melbourne Royal Show equestrian event in a row from 1931 to 1933.
The dream run came to an end on 24th March 1934. Awakened by the frantic, barking of her dog about 2.30 a.m. The stable was on fire with two racehorses and a dog inside. Violet Murrell dashed to the stables, about 50metres away, in her night attire. Wrenching away the heavy stable doors she fought her way inside. Rushing to rescue his wife, Bill Murrell was struck by one of the maddened, animals, but managed to drag Violet, whose nightdress and hair were alight, to safety. Wrapping her in a blanket, he carried her to the house. Bill also had half his clothes and body burned in the fire. Both were admitted to Melbourne Hospital. Violet Murrell died on the following day at the age of 26 and Bill Murrell died on 3rd April 1934 at the age of 32 at the hospital. Both were buried at the New Cheltenham Cemetery.
The horses, Garryowen and a two-year-old racehorse, Piquant along with her family dog were burned to death in the stable fire.
Violet Murrell’s coffin was draped with a pall consisting of the championship ribbons which she had won at various shows with her horses, the ribbons having been stitched together by her to form a rug for her horse Garryowen. Her riding cap and whip were placed on the coffin.
In 1934, a committee formed to honour her put a proposal to the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria to establish an annual trophy to be awarded in memory of Violet Murrell and her horse Garryowen to the best equestrienne at Royal Melbourne Show. Soundness, manners and paces of mounts, equipment, costume and riding ability decides the winner of the event. The Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria established the Garryowen Perpetual Trophy Equestrienne Turnout event to honour the memory of Violet and her horse, the first being held in September 1934. A trophy with a bronze statuette of Garryowen was sculpted by German Sculpture Reinhold Kubart, a replica of which is awarded every year. The trophy was funded by public subscription through the Sporting Globe Newspaper.
As a tribute to her heroism, Purple Cross Society of Victoria unveiled a drinking trough at the corner of Balcombe Road and Swanston Street in Mentone on 24th February 1935. Violet’s mother cut the ribbon which released the valve controlling the water supply. Brandy, one of Violet’s favourite pony was the first horse to drink from the trough.
a drinking trough, built by the Purple Cross Service of Victoria, was unveiled at the corner of Balcombe Road and Swanston Street, Mentone on the afternoon of Sunday, February 24. Violet’s mother cut the ribbon, which released the valve controlling the water supply.
In the 1960’s when the road was widened the trough was removed and taken to the Showgrounds at Ascot Vale. It was back at the Mentone Railway Station gardens in March 1994.
Sport (Adelaide, SA : 1911 – 1948) Thu 7 Feb 1929 Page 5 MRS. MURRELL—JOCKEYESS, accessed from Trove on 6th November 2021
The Herald (Melbourne, Vic. : 1861 – 1954) Tue 29 Jan 1929 Page 4 WOMAN JOCKEY RIDES TWO WINNERS, accessed from Trove on 6th November 2021
The Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954) Thu 12 Apr 1934 Page 23 FOR HORSES, accessed from Trove on 6th November 2021
Singleton Argus (NSW : 1880 – 1954) Mon 26 Mar 1934 Page 4 VALUABLE HORSES INCINERATED, accessed from Trove on 6th November 2021
Weekly Times (Melbourne, Vic. : 1869 – 1954) View title info Sat 2 Feb 1929 Page 59 Woman Jockey Wins, accessed from Trove on 6th November 2021
Weekly Times (Melbourne, Vic. : 1869 – 1954) View title info Sat 23 Feb 1929 Page 64 WINS FOR WOMAN RIDER
The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957) Wed 28 Mar 1934 Page 7 FUNERAL OF MRS, MURRELL
The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957) Fri 28 Dec 1934 Page 6 LOST LIVES TRYING TO SAVE HORSES
Frankston and Somerville Standard (Vic. : 1921 – 1939) View title info Fri 21 Dec 1934 Page 8 PURPLE CROSS MEMORIAL.