Story: Button, Isabel

Page 1: Biography

Button, Isabel

1863–1921

Horse driver and trainer, equestrian

This biography, written by Mary Mountier, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Registered at birth and at marriage as Isabel and at death as Isabella, the youngest daughter and fifth child of Robert Thomas Button and his wife, Anna Mary Pymar, was known throughout her life as Bella. She was born at Kaiapoi, Canterbury, New Zealand, on 9 October 1863. Her parents emigrated to New Zealand from Norfolk, England, arriving in 1852 and settling in Taranaki, where several of their six children were born. The family moved to Kaiapoi in 1859, and Robert Button found employment as a carpenter. Soon after Bella's birth they moved further south, eventually settling in the Rangitata district in South Canterbury, around 1870. Here Robert Button bought 800 acres of Peel Forest bush, and prospered from milling the totara and farming the cleared land.

It was at Peel Forest that Bella acquired her love of horses. Her father gave her a white jack donkey which she learned to train and ride, despite that animal's reputation for stubbornness. When the family moved to the nearby village of Arundel, Robert Button laid out a training track on the property for his daughter. Bella's equestrian skills developed and she became a well-known figure in the district driving her team of four or six ponies.

Bella Button had a special talent for breaking in difficult horses: it was claimed that she 'broke in animals that men who were used to dealing with horses almost all their lives, failed to control.' She trained horses for trotting and steeplechase races, and one of her earliest successes was a trotter named Star, which won the first race at the inaugural meeting of the Ashburton Trotting Club on 16 October 1890. Bella was not the driver on that occasion, but in 1895 the trotting reporter for the Weekly Press wrote, 'Miss Button is getting quite used to finding her way to the front, her trusty pony, The Fiddler, drawing her to victory at Timaru last week.'

Because she owned the horses she raced, Bella Button was automatically eligible to train and drive or ride them under the racing rules of the day. But in April 1896, having brought The Fiddler 80 miles by rail to compete at a Christchurch trotting meeting, she was told she would not be allowed to drive the pony herself. The Fiddler went home without racing.

Two weeks later, however, Bella Button drove the same pony into second place at a meeting of the Geraldine Trotting Club. That proved to be her final official race. In September of that year, the newly formed South Island Trotting Association resolved that 'the rules…do not contemplate the riding or driving of ladies'. The rule remained in force until 1979.

Apparently undaunted, Bella Button continued to break in and train her own and other people's horses. She also hunted and competed in shows and exhibitions – activities she enjoyed for the rest of her life – taking many prizes in the hurdling and buck-jumping events. In 1903 Robert Button bought Brooklyn Lodge, an extensive Christchurch property which incorporated the New Brighton Trotting Club's racecourse. Bella Button made full use of the facilities, becoming an accomplished trainer of steeplechasers. Two of her horses, Rattlesnake and Slow Tom, were particularly successful; ironically the latter won the New Zealand Grand National Steeplechase at Riccarton less than a year after Bella Button had sold him.

On 8 February 1911 at Christchurch, against the advice of her family, the usually sensible Bella Button married Augustus Frederick Lipscombe Moore, a man 16 years her junior and with a reputation for indebtedness. The marriage did not last, and a considerable portion of Bella's wealth vanished when Augustus left. There were no children. By a strange quirk of fate Bella was killed when thrown from a horse outside her New Brighton home on the eve of her 10th wedding anniversary, 7 February 1921.

This tall, thin, rather stately woman was widely respected for her extraordinary equestrian skills. She was one of very few women to achieve success in the male-dominated racing world of her time. An obituary summed up her character: 'Mrs Moore, where feats of horsemanship were concerned, had the heart of a lion.'

How to cite this page:

Mary Mountier. 'Button, Isabel', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2b54/button-isabel (accessed 22 November 2019)