The National School of Equitation

Every now and then I like to write about riding schools: principally I think because it’s where the bulk of my equine experience lies, and I’m fascinated by what the riding school means to other people, and what the riding schools themselves were like.

With this particular riding school, I found a story I wasn’t expecting: one about the exclusion of women from equestrian sport, and the part the National School of Equitation (NSE) in Roehampton played in enabling women to get past it. (Its part in the development of polocrosse I wrote about earlier, and I have another article brewing on that.)

The National School of Equitation (NSE) was situated opposite the Robin Hood gate of Richmond Park, at 139 Roehampton Vale, London SW15. I think that it’s now been replaced by an extension to the Kingston bypass, but in the 1920s and 1930s it was one of the larger riding schools in London. The picture below shows an aerial view of it that appeared in Riding Magazine in 1936. You can see what looks to be an indoor school to the back of the complex, and presumably the stables were at the front. Note also the handy bit of roof-top advertising for those wealthy enough to be able to fly across London.

Riding Magazine, 1936

The NSE was founded by Captain Waldene Edgar Bredin: whether he bought or leased the stables as they were, or built them from scratch I do not know. Bredin was one of the very many military men who settled on horses as a career after their army service: I can’t imagine that his army gratuity would have allowed him to buy an expensive piece of land near London. Certainly Captain J E Hance, who started up a riding school in slightly cheaper Malvern at around the same time, had to borrow heavily to do so.

Bredin, who was born in Ireland in 1892, went to Dublin University, and was gazetted from there into the Royal Irish Regiment, 4th Bn. as a cadet. And in 1914, he went to war.

The Royal Irish Regiment had a particularly tough time. After the brutal experiences of Mons, Le Cateau, the retreat to Paris, Marne and Aisne, the battalion was redeployed north, and fought at Le Pilly on 20 October 1914. It was a catastrophe. Of the entire battalion, only 136 escaped death, wounds or imprisonment. Bredin was taken prisoner, and served out his war in a succession of prisoner of war camps. He was repatriated on 18 November 1918 from the Holzminden POW Camp in Lower Saxony.

After the war, he stayed in the army, being promoted to Captain, retiring with a gratuity on 26 March 1926, and presumably the question of what to do with the rest of his life.

It wasn’t just himself he had to consider: on 10 May 1922, he had married Norah Kathleen Mediora East (b. 1895), who at the time was possibly a nurse. They had a smart society wedding at a smart society church, St Paul’s, Knightsbridge, but unless their daughter was very premature indeed, Norah was already pregnant when they married. Norah Elizabeth was born on 14 November 1922. If Norah Kathleen was indeed pregnant when they married, this was not then acceptable in any sector of society, whether you were from the Irish landed gentry, as Waldene was, or the professional and bohemian classes that Norah came from. Her father, Dr Charles East, was a doctor (one of Elgar’s doctors, in fact), and her great uncle was the artist and Royal Academician, Sir Alfred East.

How much this difficult beginning coloured the marriage is impossible to say.

But they had horses in common. In 1926, Sabretache, writing in the October 27 edition of The Tatler, reported on the construction of the National School of Equitation. By March 1927, it was completed, and the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News reported the opening of a new school of equitation by Captain Waldene Bredin, who was described as the manager. The attractions included a high-class jumping course, first class loose boxes and stalls for liveries, and direct access to Wimbledon Common. There were dressing rooms for ladies, artificial lighting for evening riding, and hot and cold running water and showers. The article was illustrated with pictures of both Captain and Mrs Bredin, with Norah holding the reins of a horse next to a brush fence. She’s described as introducing the horse to the jump.

And Norah after this seems to simply vanish. She didn’t appear to compete, or to play polo. She may not even have lived at the school: it’s unclear if there was any living accommodation, and what there was might presumably have been needed by grooms.

It’s unlikely that a woman of her class would have been at home, looking after her child. Whether she had anything to do with the development of the school, or of women’s sport I do not know: I think it’s more likely that other, wealthier and therefore more independent women were responsible.

In its glory days during the 1920s and 1930s, the school was instrumental in two things: the introduction of the game of polocrosse, and the enabling of women to play polo.

Polocrosse at the National School of Equitation (1934)

Bredin himself was a polo player, and used this to generate custom for his school – it appears to have been its unique selling point. Indoor polo was played in the vast indoor school. Polo ponies were bought and sold from the school. American polo stars boarded their ponies there when they came to England to play. Bredin succeeded in making the NSE a mecca for society, and for society that played polo in particular. He bought and sold polo ponies (sending ten over to Lt Col Harold St Clair Smallwood in France in the early 1930s). The crack American player Mr Schwarz used the school as his headquarters for the season in 1931, with another well-known American player, Earl Hopping, reported as practising at the school. The NSE developed polocrosse as an aid to practise polo.

But what is particularly interesting about the NSE at this period is that it had women’s polo teams.

The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News of December 1930, whilst acknowledging that women’s polo teams played the ‘real soldiers’ game’ said ‘there is no denying that the speed and strain of the serious game makes it unsuitable for women.’ Similarly to the Football Association, the polo authorities were not impressed by the large crowds women’s games drew. The Hurlingham Polo Committee decreed that women would not play in tournaments. Not only that, they were only allowed the occasional game on their hallowed grounds, and were not allowed to be handicapped at all.

But play at the NSE they could, and did.  The women denied their chance to play went to the NES, and joined the men in their Saturday afternoon games. They played too on mixed teams at indoor polo.

The large indoor school at the school was ideal for indoor polo, which the NSE was plugging in its advertisements in the Bystander. A typical one, on Wednesday 2 April 1930 advertised ‘Riding, Jumping and Polo lessons in Immense Covered School. Indoor Polo Games.’

Indoor polo was much played in America, but the only place it was played in England was the NSE. It was tremendously popular. Gilbert Holiday, the well-known sporting artist, painted a picture in 1930 of three-a-side indoor polo played by girls in the NSE. The Sketch, who reproduced this picture, reported that players included Lady Furnival, Lord Newborough’s daughter Miss Stella Wynn, and Miss Marjorie Leigh (‘who is well known in the Shires, and goes so hard across country’).

The NSE ladies team included the cream of society: Lady Violet Pakenham and Lady Priscilla Willoughby, whom Horace A Laffaye in his Polo in Britain: a History says was considered the best female player of the inter-war period.

Despite being banned from playing on the top grounds, Lady Patricia Willoughby had done well enough at the NSE to take two trophies in 1936 at Harrogate Polo Club as number two on two separate men’s teams, Boston Sap and the Stray Lambs. Was she given a handicap? She was not. Both the County Polo Association and the Hurlingham Polo Committee denied her a handicap.

The Ladies’ Polo Association was started in 1938, and included as one of its objectives the publication of the first ever ladies’ handicap list.

The Hurlingham and the County Polo Association had climbed down somewhat by this point, and supported the Association, whose executive committee consisted of eleven leading women players. It’s interesting that the job of producing the much hoped for handicap list was an exclusively male preserve. Joan Lanyon, writing in Riding Magazine in July 1939, reported that ‘the expert job of handicapping has been placed in experienced and unbiased hands by appointing an all-male handicapping committee, composed of the three London polo managers.’

Did Joan Lanyon consider her own sex irredeemably biased? It is more likely she knew full well the only way women’s handicaps would be respected would be if they had been handed down on high from the masculine gods of polo.

And although the handicap list duly appeared in August 1939, the advent of World War II meant all polo of any sort was suspended. But the point had been made.

Both Bredins had vanished from the scene before the Ladies’ Polo Association started. Waldene had left London in 1936 to serve in the Albanian gendarmerie under General Sir Jocelyn Percy, where he appears to have remained until the outbreak of World War II. The marriage appears not to have survived: by 1939, Norah was living alone, staying at a hotel in Bayswater, and working in the nursing service. She and Waldene never lived together again. After the war, he lived with his mother in Putney, and she appears to have lived alone in a succession of boarding houses before settling in a flat near Shepherd’s Bush.

The NES, like many other riding schools, did not appear to survive the war. It moved premises, but stopped advertising early in the war. Neither Bredin ever appeared to return to it, and the NES company was finally wound up in 1952 (London Gazette, 15 August 1952).

World War II meant the end of much, but Captain Bredin had done women’s polo an immense service by providing them with the facilities to play and to develop their game. Was he tempted to knuckle down to the edicts of the polo authorities? Or did he have a firm commercial sense that told him the wealthy women who played polo would spend their money with him if he gave them the chance? Society women playing polo certainly generated column inches, and I assume, priceless publicity. Perhaps Captain Bredin simply didn’t see why women shouldn’t play. Whatever his motivation, the end result was a shot in the arm for women’s sport.


Resources and extras

Pictures

1930/1: Polo ponies receiving early morning exercise at the National School of Equitation (Gilbert Holiday)

1931: Ladies playing indoor polo at the National School of Equitation (Gilbert Holiday)

1933: The National School of Equitation ladies’ polo team playing Southdown Ladies.

1934: Arthur Rolfe giving polo lessons with a dummy horse at the NSE

There’s an illustrated article here, if you can access it, showing pictures of the school (and the life-size model horse on the roof), and pictures of both Waldene and Norah. (Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, Saturday 5 March 1927)

Texts

Hance, Captain J E, Riding Master, 1960
Laffaye, Horace A, The Evolution of Polo, 2009
Laffaye, Horace A , Polo in Britain: A History, 2012
Laffaye, Horace A , The Polo Encyclopedia, 2nd edn, 2015

Bredin and polo at the London Coliseum

Bredin certainly had an eye for promotion. In 1928, the London Coliseum, having previously produced the unlikely entertainments of a rodeo and terrier racing, put on a game of polo. John Harding’s Aero Polo Team was made up of six officers of the British Army, led by Captain Bredin. The stage covered in grass matting, giving an arena of 75 yards in circumference, and they played with special sticks and an 18-inch wide ball made of aeroplane fabric. (The Stage, 13 September 1928)

Other

Excellent research on the IWM Lives of the First World War Project on Captain Bredin

A house in Oxmanton Mall, Co. Offaly. Captain Bredin lived in Oxmanton Mall in early childhood.

Note:

The Bunny Hill Riding School took the name the National School of Equitation in the 1960s.

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