Thursday, August 21, 2008
The Murrells of Mentone
I came across this a few weeks back and it intrigued me.
Who were they? Why did they inspire such a dedication?
Newspaper files of the time show stable fires - with horse and human deaths - weren't uncommon, so what made this couple special?
Turns out William and Violet Murrell were the Brad and Angelina, the Nicole and Keith, the Mary and Fred of the racing world in their day.
Violet was the daughter of racehorse trainer Harry Farmer; she was on horses almost before she could walk, developing a deep love and affinity with these animals.
Violet rode many of her father's, and other trainers', horses in both flat gallops and hurdles races.
At the time female jockeys weren't allowed to compete in the metropolitan races, which frustrated her no end, but Violet won many country races in Victoria and NSW, beating the same jockeys who were undefeated in the metropolitan races.
One mini-biography states she was also the first female jockey to race at Randwick, NSW.
Violet also competed in numerous point-to-points, riding to hounds with hunts clubs, schooling some of her father's future champion race horses over the fences and ditches, to win several seasons.
Many newspaper reports state that at least one champion racehorse, Agricolo, had been greatly improved by her riding him to hounds.
William Murrell was no slouch in the racing department himself, having grown up on horses at his birthplace of Corryong; he was the Australian Cross Country champion several times, one of those times being on the champion hurdles racehorse Mosstrooper. He'd also won the Commonwealth Steeplechase,the Grand National Steeplechase, the Australian Steeplechase and Australian Hurdles amongst many other races, riding Mosstrooper, Roisel and other great jumps horses to victory.
William rode interstate and overseas, racing for 2 years in India, returning in 1923 to resume his winning career in Melbourne.
William and Violet married in 1927, he handsome and fresh faced while she was quite beautiful, the stunning couple clad in their racing colours in the studio portraits shine out clearly even after all these years.
Violet was given her champion hack Garryowen in 1931.
Violet and Garryowen quickly developed a deep affection for one another, with the pair winning more than 200 championships in both the Royal Melbourne and Sydney Shows.
When she talked to the horse, he'd nod or shake his head in appropriate reply. He was a beautiful bay colour with a lovely nature; completely reliable they photographed him trotting in the driveway of their home in Mentone with no rider or bridle, such was his calm temperament.
Violet often referred to him as her pet and good friend.
William and Violet had stables with 6 stalls at the back of their Latrobe St, Mentone home which was not far from the popular Mentone Race Course.
In early 1933 William decided to retire from racing as a jockey and became both a racehorse trainer and Violet's coach. The continued wins for both prove the great combination they made.
March 24, 1934 at 2am both William and Violet were suddenly woken by a horse's screams and a neighbour banging on their door - the stables, only 50 yards from their house, were aflame.
Violet ran into the burning stables, in just her flimsy nightdress, in a vain attempt to rescue Garryowen.
William's racehorse, Piquant, and the family dog, Billy, were also caught in the inferno.
Although he was momentarily knocked out by a falling timber, William ran into the burning building to rescue Violet; finding her collapsed in front of Garryowen's stall and unable to free the animals, William carried Violet out of the stables only to collapse outside himself.
Neighbours did their best for them, one of them a doctor, while the Cheltenham and Mentone fire brigades were hard pressed to contain the fire just to the stables.
Faulty wiring was later found to have been the cause.
Both Murrells were taken to the Royal Melbourne Hospital where Violet was immediately operated on and given a blood transfusion but she died in the early hours of March 25, aged 28.
William was also fighting for his life, with extensive burns to his face and hands, but he was not told of his wife's death.
The whole of Mentone and the racing fraternity were in shock at the death of Violet Murrell.
The large number of floral tributes and visitors, in the midst of the Great Depression, shows how deeply respected she was by many people. 2 cars were needed to carry the many wreaths while the funeral cortege stretched for more than half a mile.
Hundreds of people lined the funeral route to the Cheltenham cemetery while past champion jockey's acted as pall bearers.
William Murrell passed away in the early hours of April 4, 1934, aged 42, never having known his beloved Violet had died.
His death again shocked and deeply saddened the Mentone and racing communities.
His funeral was equally as large as his wife's had been ; many jockeys, trainers, racehorse owners and hundreds of local residents came to pay tribute to a successful man they'd known as a friend and neighbour.
Such was the depth of sadness at this couple's sudden death that the Purple Cross dedicated the horse trough to the couple for the people of Mentone while the Royal Melbourne Show Committee established the Garryowen Trophy Event later that same year, in 1934, to commemorate the respect and love Violet held for both Garryowen and all horses.
*With thanks to Jahteh and Andrew for their assistence in research.