Violet Farmer was born in Melbourne in 1904. It is said that she was a restless baby at night and so her father devised a novel way to solve the problem. Harry Farmer, a Caulfield horse trainer, would take her out to the stables. Put on a horse’s back she would go to sleep.
Violet loved horses so much that she was given her own black pony at the age of 7. By the time she was in her teens she was riding her father’s horses in track work at Caulfield. She competed in a fund-raising event held by the Red Cross at Caulfield in 1918. At the young age of 14, Violet won an open event against the men. She was an early pioneer of animal rights and joined the Purple Cross Society. This was an organization which raised money for the welfare of horses involved in the Great War. Violet made her financial contribution by offering pony rides to children. At the age of 16 she left school to become a full-time stable worker.
The Superb Horse Woman
Violet Farmer soon made an impression as a competent horsewoman. 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. In the mid 1920 she won 17 races from 18 starts. Special permission was required to ride in these country meetings and she also competed at country shows and gymkhanas. Violet was acknowledged as the best equestrienne in Victoria and probably Australia given her successes at the Sydney Royal Show.
Despite all her successes, Violet Farmer remained dissatisfied with her career. She was prohibited from competing at the city racecourses in Melbourne such as Flemington, Caulfield, Moonee Valley, Mentone, Epsom and Williamstown. In 1927 she married a well-known jumps jockey Bill Murrell. Bill strongly supported his wife’s efforts to be able to ride in city races. In 1929, Violet was given a special horse, Garryowen, and in the next 5 years the two of them won over 200 prizes at shows and gymkhanas. Her successes included first place at the Royal Melbourne Show three years in a row-1931-3.
The Murrells continued with their equestrian pursuits until tragedy struck on Friday 23rd March 1934. The Murrells were awakened about 2.00am by the screams of horses. Violet rushed outside to see the stables on fire. She ran into the inferno trying to pull Garryowen out, but her nightclothes caught on fire and she was badly burned. Bill attempted to rescue his wife and dragged Violet back to the house. But he was also suffered serious burns. The horses had to be put down and both Bill and Violet died at the Royal Melbourne Hospital within a week. Violet was only 29 years old.
Since 1934, the Royal Society has presented the Garryowen award to the best equestrian at the Royal Melbourne Show. This perpetuates the memory of a great horse and wonderful rider.
During her short life, Violet did not succeed in her campaign for women to be accepted as jockeys at city race meetings. However, there is no doubt she was one of the greats and probably the equal of the best of her male counterparts. Certainly better than most.