A day at the races 1840

Cross posted from my other blog BanyuleHomestead.   Years ago when this blog was young, I also wrote about early Melbourne racing here.

Well, it’s Cup Day today and there is, perhaps, a tangential connection between Banyule Homestead (which is in Heidelberg after all) and the Sport of Kings.

The first races in Melbourne were held on the grassy flat at the base of Batman’s Hill, now the site of Docklands, I suppose, in March 1838 in a three day carnival.  The course was marked out with stakes and saplings, commencing at what is now North Melbourne station, sweeping down through West Melbourne and finishing at what is now Southern Cross station.  Two bullock drays were lashed together to make a grandstand.

Two years later the venue switched to Flemington. The grandstand was a rough scaffolding near the river side, close to the winning post.  The run home was staked and roped.  Between the stand and the river were the “refreshment” tents.  The Grand Stand Refreshment Mart was described by Garryowen as

a sort of bower of Bacchus, fabricated out of ti-tree with the foliage left on

There were two other smaller tents, but the grandest of them all was Thomas Halfpenny’s establishment

a substantial, commodious, weatherboard three-roomed structure, partitioned with Chinese curtains.

It was obviously lucrative for its publican, taking 80 pounds on the first day of the races. There was a large attendance from Melbourne, although patrons grumbled at the change of venue.  Numbers rowed from town, while others arrived on dog-carts and bullock drays.

Again, it was a three-day carnival and the first at which the riders wore colours. The Heidelberg Cup was held on the third day with the purse of fifty guineas raised by private subscription.

Because I don’t even start to know how to describe a race, I’ll let Garryowen do it for me:

THE HEIDELBERG CUP, 3 miles, gentlemen riders, 50 sovs., and 5 guineas entrance. Town Plate Weights.

Mr Wood’s br g. Will-If-I-Can, aged -, red and black, 1.

Mr Highett’s b m Music, 6 yrs- crimson and black cap. 2.

Mr Powlett’s br h Sir Charles, 5 yrs- green and blue 3.

Mr Baillie’s br h Duke of Argyle, 6 yrs

Mr Yaldwyn’s b h Blacklegs, 4 yrs- black, pink and white; withdrawn

Mr Russell’s b g Freedom, 6 yrs- green and gold, black cap; withdrawn.

The four that came to the post made a capital start, and kept well together until half round the course, when Blacklegs bolted, and so lost all chance of the race.  Coming to the distance, Will-if-I-Can shot ahead, and won by several lengths, Music and Sir Charles working hard for second place.  The winner’s condition rendered it an easy victory.

The first Flemington racing carnival was, according to the Sydney Gazette of 26 March 1840

…very numerously attended, all the elite of the settlement were there; the weather, the animation, and the hilarity were alike delightful, and in unison with the excellence of the running.


Robyn Annear, Bearbrass

Edmund Finn (Garryowen) The Chronicles of Early Melbourne p. 719


3 responses to “A day at the races 1840

  1. Bearbrass. One of my all time favourite books about Melbourne. Robyn Annear is tops – have you read her other books?

    • Yes- I really enjoyed it- one of the reasons I’m doing the topic I am!! I also read ‘The Man Who Lost Himself’ about the Tichborne Claimant, and I’ve browsed through her Whelan the Wrecker book as well.

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