With Melbourne in the middle of Spring Racing season, tomorrow thousands of people will be flocking to Flemington Racecourse for a day at the Melbourne Cup. Located on the banks of the Maribyrnong River to the north-west of the CBD, the course has been used for horse racing since 1840 (photo nicked from the VRC website).
However a short distance to the north there was once another racecourse, which has been all but forgotten by Melburnians. Known as “Ascot Racecourse” and located across the road from the Melbourne Showgrounds, photos of the course are hard to come by, but these aerial photographs taken in 1945 for the Victorian Department of Lands and Survey show the two courses clearly: Flemington in Green and Ascot in Red. (the massive full sized image is here)
Named after the famous English racecourse, Melbourne’s namesake was built on a site covering 77 acres between Union Road and Ascot Vale Road, with a track seven furlongs round (1,408 metres) and with separate circuits laid out for flat racing, trotting and steeplechasing. The track was the brainchild of a single person, a Mr. Riley, who had previously operated the Oakleigh Park track on Melbourne’s south eastern outskirts.
The racecourse proposal was not popular with 122 Ascot Vale residents, who presented a petition of signatures to the Essendon Council in September 1893. They argued that because of the large number of existing racecourses in the area (Moonee Valley and Flemington) no more should be allowed to open, and believed that the new racecourse would encourage the attendance of undesirable characters and depreciate the value of property in the immediate vicinity, and the small size of the track would endanger the lives of riders.
Despite the petition the objections of locals appears to have come to nothing, with the first race meeting at Ascot Racecourse being held on Wednesday October 25, 1893 with around 3000 punters in attendance. £300 was distributed in prize money, with £100 and a handsome trophy going to the winner of the principal event: the Ascot Cup. During the early years at Ascot the fortunes for owner Mr. Riley did not turn out well: with Melbourne’s land boom having just turned to bust, the track closed for an unknown period of time, before reopening in September 1899 under new management.
The biggest difference between Ascot and the famous neighbour down the road was the operation of race meetings: instead of being run by a racing club that reinvested their profits in racing and their members facilities, Ascot was a “proprietary racecourse” that was run by the private owner as a profit making business. With race meetings significantly more downmarket than those held by the racing clubs, Melbourne’s collection of proprietary racecourses were popular with the working class in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, until they were closed by the State Government in 1931.
Back at Ascot, another chapter opened in 1906 when notorious entrepreneur John Wren purchased the track. Today known as being the basis of the character “John West” in the 1950 novel Power Without Glory, Wren made his fortune in the late 1890s with his business of totalisator betting system that challenged the traditional ontrack bookmakers, but drew the ire of the state governing body of racing, the Victoria Racing Club, who pressured the State Government into banning the practice in 1906. It was Wren’s purchase of the Ascot Racecourse, along with other proprietary tracks at Richmond and Fitzroy, that enabled him to run his own pony races targeted at working class gamblers, as opposed to the thoroughbreds racing at the elite clubs.
Over the next decade Wren’s enemies continued in their attempts to bring down his racing empire: in July 1915 he offered the his track to the Defence Department to assist the cause of World War I, when a few days later an unnamed deputation called for the Government to cancel the license of the Ascot Racecourse for good. The request was refused by Chief Secretary John Murray, who stated that the abolition of proprietary racecourses was a question to be answered after the war. Seeing the end of his business, Wren sold his Victorian interests in 1920 to the Victorian Racing and Trotting Association, allowing the Ascot Racecourse to remain open when the State Government closed the Sandown Park, Fitzroy, Aspendale and Richmond racecourses in 1931.
It took the intensification of World War II in 1942 to place further restrictions on race meetings throughout Australia. Ascot was not spared, with a short newspaper article in September 1942 advised that the racecourse was “required for other purposes” and not be available for race meetings during the war (code for defence related matters). During this period Flemington, Moonee Valley, and Mentone were the remaining racing venues in the metropolitan area, and by end of the war in 1945 Caulfield Racecourse was allowed to reopen, but for Ascot it was the end of the line as the remaining Victorian racing venues was consolidated.
On August 18, 1945 the State Premier Mr. Dunstan announced that the Government had decided against the resumption of racing at the Ascot Racecourse, with the Victorian Racing and Trotting Association to be relocated to a new venue at Sandown Park, and the land in Ascot Vale turned over for housing development. The Association objected to the move because they held a long term lease from John Wren for the track, and at the same time had to deny accusations of being a proprietary racing club, stating that that their profits went back to racing, along with charity and patriotic groups. The Housing Commission would be the developer, believing the value of the land was reasonable if it was used for flats, but would not be economical if individual houses were built instead.
Due to a breakdown in negotiations with Wren and his partners in regards to the purchase price, the State Government issued a notice of compulsory acquisition in March 1946 under the Slum Reclamation and Housing Act. Wren was unhappy with the Government offer of £117,000 in compensation, valuing the site at £174,000 and so lodging a claim at the County Court on September 17, 1946. The case was settled in October 15 when the State Cabinet agreed to acquire the site for £142,618 – a figure midway between the two competing claims.
Altogether homes for 2,600 people were built on the 77 acre site by the Housing Commission, made up of 400 flats, 100 villa pairs and 50 single villas, along with 5 acres of parkland and a network of streets named after Australian World War II personnel.
The first residents moved in to the estate by Christmas 1947, but with rents to £2/5/ a week (in 1948) they were paying the most of all Housing Commission tenants in Victoria. Today the flats are managed by the successor of the Housing Commission, the Victorian Office of Housing, and remain as public housing in an increasingly gentrified suburb.
As for the other players at Ascot Racecourse…
- John Wren received an additional windfall in June 1947: the City of Essendon had attempted to charge him £5,591 in rates and interest, accrued during the World War II occupation of the racecourse. He took the fight to the High Court, who found 4 to 1 that municipalities could not legally collect rates for properties taken over by the Commonwealth for defence purposes.
- The Victorian Racing and Trotting Association merged with the Victoria Amateur Turf Club and the Williamstown Racing Club in 1963 to form the Melbourne Racing Club, which still operates today. As for their promised new racecourse at Sandown, it didn’t open until June 19, 1965.
- The Proposed New Racecourse. (1893, September 8). North Melbourne Advertiser (Vic. : 1873 – 1894), p. 2. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article66165450
- Ascot Races. (1893, October 27). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1956), p. 3. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article8705476
- Protest Against Sainfoin. (1893, November 4). Australian Town and Country Journal (NSW : 1870 – 1907), p. 35. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article71191220
- Notes and Chat. (1899, September 25). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1956), p. 7. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article9031686
- Ascot Racecourse Unavailable. (1942, September 14). The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954), p. 6. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article25888303
- Ascot Racecourse Removal Proposed. (1945, August 4). The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1931 – 1954), p. 7. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article43505227
- Ascot Course to be Housing Area. (1946, February 19). Advocate (Burnie, Tas. : 1890 – 1954), p. 3. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article68963377
- Flats may be built on Ascot Racecourse. (1946, February 21). Advocate (Burnie, Tas. : 1890 – 1954), p. 3. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article68963712
- Housing Commission Value For Land Challenged. (1946, September 17). The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1954), p. 4. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2695592
- Melbourne Ascot. (1946, October 16). The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954), p. 10. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article46176932
- Defence Area Rates Claim: Councils’ Cannot Collect. (1947, June 3). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 16. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article18028584
- Rents Higher for New Flats. (1948, March 9). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1956), p. 5. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article22548833