Flemington’s forgotten neighbour: Ascot Racecourse

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).

Flemington Racecourse

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)

Ascot and Flemington Racecourses, Melbourne

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.


View Larger Map

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.

Housing Commission flats in Ascot Vale

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.

Sources

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12 Responses to “Flemington’s forgotten neighbour: Ascot Racecourse”

  1. Tony Bowles says:

    Dear Marcus,

    I just wanted to thankyou for putting this very informative document on the net.

    My parents lived in the housing commission flats back in the fifties and sixties, and i was born and started my school life in Ascot Vale.

    I have been trying to find some history on the Ascot Vale flats since I started my Family history research back in 2001.

    The links to the news articles are fantastic, I’ve loved reading the document over and over.

    Thanks again Marcus………….Kindest Regards…Tony Bowles.

    • Marcus says:

      Hi Tony – glad you’ve found the post useful!

      Stay tuned for some more history of the area – I’ve been working on a piece covering the construction of the housing commission estate.

  2. Patricia Hale says:

    Marcus, Thanks so much for the history. I was born in Flemington, 5 minutes from the old Ascot racecourse, and used to play on the site with other children prior to the commencement of the construction of the commission dwellings. My grandparents and Mother remembered the races there, and the ‘rise’ of John Wren. Also I have photographs of a horse owned by my Great Aunt, which won trotting races at Richmond Racecourse, and of my Great Uncle ‘riding’ a pacer to victory at Richmond in 1918. The date of two of the photos is May 1932, which means that it did close in 1931 as noted. It is so good to see history of our old area, and we have fond memories of that area and its growth over the years to a very desirable area now to reside in, whereas in our time, it was considered lower class. I would love to know if there is a historical society that may like the photos, so that they could form part of the history.

    • Marcus says:

      Hi Patricia,

      Thanks for sharing your story as well.

      If you are interested in sharing your photos with somebody who will take care of them, the Essendon Historical Society are your best bet, as the cover the area – their website is http://www.esshissoc.org.au/.

  3. David says:

    Hi Marcus,

    Great article. Thanks for putting it together.
    I moved into the flats in Dunlop Ave as a 5 y.o. in 1974.
    I am living in the same flat again, as I took over the lease after
    my mum passed away in 2002.
    I was aware of some of the history but your article has great details.

    A couple of typos:
    Melbourne’s namesake was built a site

    Should read:
    Melbourne’s namesake was built on a site

    seven furlongs round (1,408 kilometres)

    Should read:
    seven furlongs round (1,408 metres)

    David.

    • Marcus says:

      Hi David,
      Glad you found the article useful, and thanks for the free proofreading session – I’ve since made the corrections! :-)

  4. John says:

    Marcus, that’s a great snapshot of the history of the Wingate Housing Estate. A link has been put in on the Flemington heritage facebook page. I look forward to more local pieces!

  5. Lorraine says:

    I have a number of postcards relating to the Ascot Vale and Richmond racetracks,all dated between 1929/39. They show the finish of trotting events at those courses with good background and horses names,driver names etc. Can anyone tell me a bit more about them please?

  6. Anthony says:

    Thanks Marcus, fantastic information. Two bachelor uncles of my father owned a horse, ‘Xmas Tree’, and I’ve inherited a photo showing its one and only win: the Ascot Handicap at Ascot in March 1929, so I was interested to know where the Ascot track was. The John Wren connection was interesting. When the TV series of Power Without Glory first aired, I remember the surviving uncle reminiscing about many of the events Hardy had fictionalised. The Fitzroy trotting track was actually in Thornbury, off St George’s Road, just a few blocks from where I now live. It’s also discernible on the wonderful 1945 aerial survey of Melbourne

  7. Clive says:

    Hi Marcus,

    Great piece. Is there any chance you can add this to wikipedia?

    • Marcus Wong says:

      Glad you liked it. I used to do a lot more Wikipedia editing in the past, but don’t have the time available these days between adding blog posts and uploading photographs.

      As for the the story of Melbourne’s former racetracks, it goes much further than just Ascot Vale – there were about a dozen of them located around the city:

      http://www.emelbourne.net.au/biogs/EM00722b.htm

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