Unsung Heroines - Biographies of Christchurch Women written to commemorate Women's Suffrage Year, 1993

Bella Button

PhotoIsabel, youngest daughter and fifth child of Anna Mary Pymar and her husband, Robert Button, was born at Kaiapoi in 1863. Soon after the family moved to the Rangitata district in South Canterbury where Robert prospered as a sawmiller.

Robert gave his daughter a white jack donkey, she mastered the beast, and, for the child, the proud father installed a training track on the family property. Thus it was that Isabel grew up a skilled and versatile horsewoman, hunting, and training trotters and gallopers sometimes for herself and sometimes for other owners. She was famed for her skill at breaking in horses that men avoided. A rider and driver at Agricultural and Pastoral Association shows, she gained fame as 'Miss Bella Button'.

Bella owned 'Star', the horse which won the first race of the Ashburton Trotting Club's initial meeting in 1890. She did not drive him at this event, but competed against men on many other occasions. She drove The Fiddler to a number of wins and when her triumphs were far from home she sent the news to her family via carrier pigeon. In 1896 the South Island Trotting Assocation resolved that only men would be allowed to drive horses at meetings and this aspect of Bella's career was at an end.

Eventually Robert bought his family to Christchurch, and purchased for his daughter Brooklyn Lodge, which had the New Brighton Trotting Club as tenant; today the property is Queen Elizabeth II Park. In 1903 Robert ensured the family's place among the elite of the colony by paying for an entry in a who's who-type work, the Cyclopaedia of New Zealand. An equestrian photograph of Bella was included, but without biographical details. However, the high point of Bella's career as a social butterfly had already come and gone. In South Canterbury she had driven the Governor and his wife, Lord and Lady Ranfurly, in 'coach and six' to her establishment. Not surprisingly, she treasured her gifts of autographed photographs of their Excellencies, and the letters expressing the pleasure which the outing had afforded them.

Bella was at O'Neill's buck-jumping show at the 1906-07 International Exhibition, winning the 'Champion Lady Rider Cup'. Truth described her as a 'tallish woman, approaching middle age, with a touch of masculinity ' who was 'perfectly fearless when handling the biggest outlaw they bring along', and able to 'build a trap or nail a shoe on a horse as necessity requires'. For a time she owned and trained steeplechasers, sometimes working them out in the sea at New Brighton, and occasionally finding on the beach a frostfish, which delicacy she brought back for her family. Bella's steeplechasers included Rattlesnake and the inappropriately named Slow Tom which demonstrated to a later owner how well he had been managed by winning the Grand National Steeplechase at Riccarton. The horsewoman's last public appearance was at the 1918 patriotic trotting meeting at Addington.

PhotoIn 1911, the year of her father's death, Bella, 48 but claiming to be 46, married 31 year old farmer Augustus (Gus) Moore. Gus's main interest was his wife's money. Bella had to fend off the bailiffs with a stock whip, separate from her spouse and cut him from her will. She consoled herself with her horses and cats.

In February 1921 Bella took the normally quiet Patience from her house onto Bexley Road. She planned to ride the mount at the Dunedin Show's ladies' race. The horse reared, the famed horsewoman fell, struck her head, and died instantly.

Bella was buried with her parents in the Linwood Cemetery. In 1979 the New Zealand Society of Genealogists transcribed the monuments in the cemetery and commented on Bella's 'broken loose stone'.


Special thanks are due to Mary Mountier, Paraparaumu

Other resources - Christchurch City Libraries