State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 88 December 2011


Andrew Lemon
Inventing the Melbourne Cup

A Few Haunts of Melbourne today might be familiar to ghosts of those who knew the place one hundred and fifty years ago. Imagine walking out after dinner tonight into the top end of Bourke Street, then take yourself back to Saturday 2 November 1861. A fair evening promises a mild day tomorrow. Ignore any office towers, otherwise the aspect is somehow similar – footpath and street, low buildings, a mix of small shops and businesses. Take away cars, trams, traffic lights; replace them with horses and carts, pedestrians. It is a clear night and you can see the stars. The town is not sewered, so there is a particular smell. In 1861 the nightman deals with the waste, which explains Melbourne's network of back lanes and the lushness of its well fertilized parks and gardens.
There is no Florentino here – the wine bar (Foussin's) that evolved into one of Melbourne's most famous restaurants does not open for business till 1900 – but there are places where you can eat and drink.1 With your mind on the forthcoming horse race, the one they are calling the Melbourne Cup, you encounter a friend walking towards the brand new Parliament House. You share the news that has just reached town of the disaster that has befallen the Burke and Wills Expedition.
Melbourne is young, yet in this precinct it has matured rapidly. Twenty-five years earlier the first few European settlers were building their huts. Even ten years in the past Melbourne and its suburbs were home to merely 30,000 people. Now in 1861 the total is 140,000, a city enriched by gold.
Parliament House is huge, with iron palisade fence at the front. Stand at that gate in 1861 and look down Bourke Street. You see the White Hart Hotel on the (now) Windsor corner, two storeys. Most of the shops are stone or brick, some have awnings or verandahs. There is a gas street lamp on the corner. The footpaths are broad and paved, the gutters well-constructed and the roadways metalled.
A series of mostly one storey shops stretches down the northern side. Mr Moses Benjamin is worrying about his building project. The business directory of 1861 says he is 're-erecting shops 193 to 203' starting at what they called Juliet Lane: five terrace shops and residences.2
Exhibition Street will remain Stephen Street until the great Exhibition Buildings go up in 1880. By then, locals will be happy to change the name. After all, next up Bourke Street from Juliet Lane is Romeo Lane. Stephen Street is developing a notoriety later attaching particularly to Little Lonsdale Street nearby.
The shops and businesses at this end of town include hotels, milliners and drapers, hatter, boot importers, an oyster dealer, an ironmonger, a confectioner and a pastry cook, a pawnbroker – bad omen if we are off to the races. Kerosene oil and lamp importers

Post Office, Melbourne, 1861 under construction

Photograph by Edward Haigh.

Rex Nan Kivell Collection NK10699/8, NLA.

Stanford and Son are in business near the corner with Stephen Street.
Diagonally opposite downhill (on the site that many modern Melburnians still think of as Southern Cross Hotel) is the original Eastern Market which in 1861 offers stall space to hay merchants, fruiterers, poulterers, greengrocers, seedsmen. In a few years it will grow into an extraordinary hotchpotch of art dealers, coin collectors, herbalists, dealers and specialists.
Directly opposite Juliet Lane is the glamorous, controversial Dr Louis Lawrence Smith's surgery, anatomy museum and private hospital. Dr L. L. Smith, racehorse owner and breeder, is making a fortune in 1861 by advertising mail-order cures for inconvenient diseases and helping ladies in difficult circumstances. In later years Dr Smith becomes a member of parliament and, in the 1880s, an early if unsuccessful advocate of the newfangled totalisator betting machine, a miniature example of which he carts into the Legislative Assembly.3 This proves to be one of the few causes that defeat him. Such
infernal devices will not be legalized on Melbourne race tracks for a further fifty years.
What they call the horsey end of town is much further down Bourke Street, beyond where in 1861 work is starting on the new General Post Office. Cobb and Co, the Albion Hotel are there. On the hill between Elizabeth and Queen Street you find auctioneers, saddlers, livery stables, gun makers and above all Tattersall's hotel and Kirk's Bazaar, the horse trading and betting centre of Melbourne, where bookmakers gather before and after race days, spreading and receiving racing gossip, offering wagers to the willing, recording details in their notebooks.
You decide in the gloom of the news of the expedition, and heroic stories of death and survival, that you could do with diversion. You might visit Kirk's Bazaar on Monday to get the latest racing news and maybe take the odds. You will declare Thursday 7 November a holiday from business and head to Flemington and see for yourself whether the Sydney horses can beat your own favourite, Mormon, in the new two mile handicap. It turns out you are one of maybe four thousand who have the similar resolve. You make history: you are there when Archer wins the first Melbourne Cup.

Roads to the Racecourse

Many years earlier, in 1840, the racing aficionados of Melbourne shifted the horse races away from the centre of the young town. Ad hoc committees (one of which jocularly used the name 'Melbourne Race Club' though it never was a club as such) had previously organised Melbourne's first two or three race meetings on a track on swampy ground where the sun sets west of Spencer Street.4
The river flats of the lower Yarra would disappear in time into railway yards and the Victoria Docks before, in the late twentieth century, the Docklands precinct with its sports stadium took their place. Batman's Hill, now flattened near Spencer and Flinders Streets, had been a vantage point for those first horse races on the swampland. But evidently Melbourne would need this site for transport corridors, so the search began for a permanent racecourse reserve for the settlement a little further into the scrub. The choice fell on what would, in the next decade, become known as Flemington Racecourse. In its first years it was simply the Melbourne Racecourse.
This new racetrack was two miles from the town centre as the magpie flies, further by road. To get there, you could walk, ride your horse, drive your buggy or cart, find a horse-drawn omnibus, or get on a small steamer at the Queen Street wharf if you had time at your disposal.
One of the continuing debates among pedantic Melbourne historians has been the correct attribution of credit for the name 'Flemington' for the racetrack. The contenders were 'Bob the Butcher' – early Port Phillip settler Robert Fleming – and James Watson who owned a property he called 'Flemington' consisting of half a square mile adjacent to the racecourse.
In the official 1988 history of the first century of the Victoria Racing Club,
author John Pacini rashly said the proof in favour of Fleming was irrefutable.5 That is the problem with historians. The 'proof' has now been thoroughly refuted. The name came not from Bob Fleming but indeed from Watson's nearby estate, bisected by Mt Alexander Road and approached from Melbourne by the broad boulevard still known as Flemington Road.
A detailed chapter in a book issued to mark the 150th running of the Melbourne Cup in 2010 outlined the process by which the racetrack, first known simply as 'the Melbourne Racecourse', became uniformly known as Flemington before the time of the first Melbourne Cup. My own research was complemented by careful work over several years by Judy MacDonald, formerly of the State Library of Victoria, published first in the Encylopedia of Melbourne and more recently at greater length in Latrobeana.6
'Brindled Jamie' Watson, as his friends called him, was for a few brief years a partner with early Port Phillip District squatters, the Hunter brothers.7 In his own name he bought his own piece of territory (extending westwards from the Moonee Ponds Creek) at crown auction. This was late in 1840, the same year as Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe reserved the abutting racecourse from sale, setting it aside for public use. It is important to understand the distinction.8 Watson never owned the racecourse freehold: nor did anyone else. Once alienated by the crown, the racecourse was always crown land – as it still is, for the most part, today.
Watson called his estate 'Flemington' as a mark of affection and honour for his new wife, Elizabeth Rose, 'second daughter of the late Mr James Rose of Flemington, Morayshire'.9 Already betrothed to Watson, Elizabeth arrived in the colony from Scotland and married him in that same fateful year of 1840. Her homeplace, the original Flemington, was just beyond the outskirts of Inverness.
Melbourne's geography and the state of its early roads dictated for more than a decade that the only vehicular way from town centre to racetrack continued to be by way of Flemington Road, fording (later bridging) the Moonee Ponds Creek at the lowest possible crossing point before the creek sprawled down to the lower Yarra. The road took travellers through Watson's Flemington estate and added half a mile or more to the distance, later eliminated by the construction of bridges at Footscray, Dynon, Kensington and Racecourse Roads.
I have written elsewhere that it was a smart purchase by Watson: 'A town grew up on his land along this road, notably a Flemington Hotel with stables. He leased this hotel to James Dunbar, who sometimes ran horse races there' – not to be confused, as it sometimes has been, with the Melbourne Racecourse. 'For himself and Elizabeth, Watson began a homestead on the hill above Mt Alexander Road and he called this Flemington House.' Within a few years, nearly bankrupt and already a widower, he cut up and sold the estate. His homestead passed to his one-time colleague, the speculator Hugh Glass. 'Glass built Melbourne's most magnificent mansion on the spot, retaining Watson's name of Flemington House. Later owners called it Travencore and now only the name, not the mansion, survives.'10

Reconfiguring Flemington

Flemington as 'the Melbourne Racecourse' hosted its first meeting over three successive and glorious autumn days in March 1840 and has been Melbourne's major public racetrack ever since. Organisers had a busy time clearing dead wood from the designated racing track, brought downstream by summer floods. With the aid of a mob of sheep to keep the grass short, the place was in good order for the March races. Never a year has passed since without a meeting there, making Flemington one of the oldest racecourses in continuing use outside England. The Melbourne Cup, its signature race, did not emerge for a further 21 years.
One topographical feature, not part of the racetrack reserve at first, became essential to that success. A natural hill or low ridge oriented towards Melbourne forms a northwestern boundary arc to the flat racetrack. With their thoughts only on the floodplain of the Salt Water (Maribyrnong) River, the racetrack pioneers did not ask to include the hill in the original reserve: most of it was beyond the boundary. They set out their first track with the finishing straight convenient to the river side, and threw together some temporary stands and refreshment tents nearby. But immediately picnickers gravitated to the hill to get a better view, and soon this was the favoured place.
The first racing club in Victoria deserving of the name, the Port Phillip Turf Club, lasted just two seasons, 1841 and 1842, and it organised two annual autumn races. Adhoc committees were then once more left to run meetings at Flemington for the next several years, but the gentlemen involved created traditions and standards that provided solid foundations for later success.11
Governor Bourke in Sydney approved the racecourse's first trustees in 1848 to protect and develop this reserve for the public. Gold rushes, beginning in mid 1851, changed everything in the newly-separated colony of Victoria. Gold attracted gamblers by nature who, in time, brought new money and enthusiasm into the sport of horse racing. The existing vested interests, mostly members of the Melbourne Club, sought to maintain their control of racing by creating a Victoria Turf Club in 1854. This club took over the autumn races and for the first time organised spring races at Flemington that year. It was an astute move. The new club was bold enough to run its first proper classic, the Victoria Derby, in 1855.
Flemington hosted Australia's first inter-colonial grudge match race in 1856, Sydney's champion versus the Melbourne one (or Geelong's, to be accurate). Their Veno versus our Alice Hawthorn. Theirs won. Melbourne sportsmen gained a reputation as good losers.
The new year saw a rival at Flemington, the Victoria Jockey Club, dissatisfied with Turf Club exclusivity. The jockey club luminaries included railway engineer and contractor William Randle, woolbroker Richard Goldsbrough and his business partner George Kirk. The turf club men tried to bar the newcomers from using Flemington, but the racecourse trustees over-ruled them. Each club held successful races on the course in autumn and again in spring.
In 1859, in unexpectedly co-operative mode, the rivals combined to host a unique three-mile Australian Champion Sweepstake, offering a rich prize that attracted the best horses from Australia and New Zealand, thereby stimulating a frenzy of betting for months before the race and enticing an unprecedented crowd to the track. This was the race that gave rise to the exploits of the iron horse, a triathlete named The Barber who ran in the event only after swimming ashore from a shipwreck, and walking from beyond Mount Gambier to Geelong before arriving in Melbourne by train. In a storybook world he would have won instead of finishing eighth, but everyone acclaimed him as the hero.12
Most of the people who clamoured to see the race still had to travel via Watson's Flemington settlement, but there was now a new transport option. The first country railway line in Victoria was the one completed in 1859 to connect Melbourne with Geelong (and used by The Barber). A platform at the Maribyrnong River brought racegoers from Spencer Street to within a short walk of the riverside stands and tents near Lynch's Punt. But the huge crowd at the Champion Race demonstrated the limitations of the racecourse configuration with its straight and finishing line near the river bank.
Accumulating big profits from the event, the trustees made the historic decision to shift the racing action to a position at the base of the hill. This was the single most important change ever made at Flemington. Later generations of administrators progressively extended the Hill reserve by freehold purchase to develop this into one of the great natural grandstands of the world. It was a much longer walk from the Maribyrnong River railway platform to the Hill and the new stand, so the trustees solved the problem instantly by negotiating with entrepreneurs building the Melbourne to Essendon railway.13 While members of parliament were still debating the enabling legislation, the branch line directly to the back of the new grand stand opened for business for the start of the Victoria Jockey Club autumn races on 28 February 1861.
Advertisements proclaimed the innovation and promised special trains at 11 o'clock and 'about every 15 minutes after that hour'.14
Visitors to the races are requested to inquire at the Government Terminus for race tickets by the Essendon trains, and they will thus save themselves from the annoyance of dust and a long walk, and have the satisfaction of being set down at the Grand Stand and the Hill on the Racecourse.
Dust was not the problem that year. Earlier in the month floodwaters again inundated the course, covering the track in sludge and debris: the old riverside grandstand stood with its feet in water, with much of the training track submerged. Doomsayers said the Jockey Club meeting, due within two weeks, could hardly go ahead. The track ranger, Jonathan Brown, summoned fifty 'stout navvies' to dig a channel to drain the waters away and the races were saved.15 But Jonathan's labours must have seemed wasted when the public showed its indifference. The Argus reported:
The opening day of the ninth race meeting of the Victoria Jockey Club passed off with less éclat than any other day of the earlier gatherings of this once popular club. The attendance was meagre in the extreme, notwithstanding the beautiful weather
that shone around and the extraordinary facilities of transit to the course afforded by the newly-made branch of the Essendon Railway, which drops the visitors in close proximity to the Grand Stand.16
If the Turf Club people felt smug, they too were disappointed when their meeting came around later in March. On both of the first two days, 'there was scarcely anybody present who is not a regular habitué of the course'. Final day was no better. 'Contrary to general expectation, the usually popular steeplechase day failed to draw any large concourse of visitors to the racecourse.'17 It must have seemed that the craze for horse racing had passed.

Inventing the Melbourne Cup

Captain Frederick Standish, 36, had recently moved to Melbourne from official duties at the Bendigo gold diggings to become Chief Commissioner of Police in the colony.18 Biographers tell us his unprofitable enthusiasm for racing and gambling had prompted his original migration from England to Victoria in 1852. Socially well-connected, Standish at once became a leading figure in the Victoria Turf Club, and it was he who advocated an annual feature betting race for Melbourne. He also, surely, was looking for ways to give the Turf Club an edge over the Jockey Club.
A press report of a January 1861 Turf Club committee meeting says that, after the club approved its autumn racing programme, 'Mr Standish also gave notice of motion that, at the next meeting of the club, he should move that a race similar to the Chester Cup at home, to be called the Melbourne Cup, be run annually at the spring meeting of the club'.19
Chester, near Liverpool, had been racing in one form or another since the days of Henry VIII. Its compact racecourse, the Roodee, is held to be the oldest in England. The Chester Cup dates back in recognisable form to 1824. It distinguished itself from the classic races at Epsom, Doncaster, Ascot and Newmarket by being a handicap event, not a set-weight championship. Handicaps are designed to make competition more even, so they stimulate speculation. This is the element Standish wanted to introduce to Melbourne. If the Turf Club offered a good prize and promised fair handicapping, months ahead of the race itself, the Cup would attract multiple entries – particularly when entry fees for all horses were added as a 'sweepstake' to the club money.
It immediately attracted inter-colonial attention. Racing in Sydney was under some stress. Racing men there had tried running their own Australian Champion Race in 1860 but with conspicuously less success. The leading club, the Australian Jockey Club, was in the throes of shifting its meetings from a private track at Homebush to the seldom-used 'sandy racecourse' on crown land at Randwick, conducting its first race meeting there in May 1861. All was in flux, so Sydney's racing paper Bell's Life enthused over the Melbourne initiative.
We would call the especial attention of horse owners to the advertisement of the 'Melbourne cup' which appears in our front page. This stake, the first of its kind in
the colonies, is a regular startler to the 'old fogyism' of the past; and, producing as it must a splendid entry, and consequently a valuable prize, it surely ought to tempt some of our sportsmen to send nags from here.20

Bourke Street, Melbourne, 1862

Wood engraving by Samuel Calvert (based on photograph by Charles Nettleton), Illustrated Melbourne Post, April 1862.

It went on to express 'a hope of seeing the colony represented' and added, 'We look upon such a stake as "The Melbourne Cup" as worth two or three champion races'.
When entries closed in May, months ahead of the scheduled running, the sporting writers delighted in the unprecedented response. Bell's in Sydney presciently noted the entry of the eventual winner.
We give our readers, this week, the superb entry for The Melbourne Cup, a race which cannot fail to excite considerable attention here, both from the large number of horses engaged, and also from the fact that Archer and Exeter, two of our greatest favorites are found among the entries.21
With £200 put up by the club, and 57 initial entries at £10 for the first round, the fund already reached £770. Second and third 'acceptances' (progress payments made after handicap weights were allotted, and again a day or so before the race) boosted the total prize to nearly £1000. With bookmakers in both colonies busily offering tempting
odds, horsemen such as Archer's trainer, Etienne de Mestre, could back his judgement.
The rest, as they say, is history . . . except that history, almost by definition, is never definitive. Descendants of de Mestre and the breeders of Archer still quibble over who was the real owner of the champion and exactly where in the Braidwood district of New South Wales the colt was bred (de Mestre will always be, for racing purposes, the official owner as well as trainer of the winner of the first two Melbourne Cups).22 Almost all are now prepared to concede that Archer did not walk from Nowra in New South Wales to run in the Cup, but rather travelled from Sydney with his stable-mates on the ship the City of Sydney.23 Few know that 'John Cutts', the winning jockey rode under a nom de course and that his real name was John Dillon.24
In Melbourne, Turf Club and Jockey Club rivalry brought both groups to the point of financial ruin, particularly when for a variety of reasons, the third running of the Melbourne Cup produced the smallest field (seven runners) on record. Both clubs agreed to dissolve in March 1864 and to merge their talents into a new Victoria Racing Club which has been running Flemington and the Melbourne Cup ever since.
Wise heads have long analysed how and why the Melbourne Cup came to be such an instant and enduring success, making its distinctive contribution to Australian culture.25 The Cup has insinuated itself into Australian novels, poetry, drama, ballet, film, songs and music, painting, sculpture, taxidermy, folklore, photography, family rituals, journalism and of course fashion. Many elements are at play, including even Melbourne's changeable weather and the time of year when the race is run. It should never be dismissed as a sideshow: it was Melbourne's first expression of confidence in itself as a city of style and international significance.
When the economic crash of the 1890s ended the dreams of Marvellous Melbourne, the phenomenal instant metropolis, the Melbourne Cup was left standing, still living. It continued to exert the power that allowed Mark Twain to bestow his celebrated (and only slightly ironic) accolade: 'Cup Day is supreme, it has no rival. I can call to mind no specialized annual day, in any country, which can be named by that large name Supreme . . . No day save this one; but this one does it'.26
Australia believed it, ironic or not. It is not hard to see that confidence confirming itself time after time in the next century, and the one after that. It is the same confidence that allowed Melbourne to assert its right to be taken seriously internationally: to bid for and secure, for example, the 1956 Olympic Games and even more latterly to claim its place as a UNESCO City of Literature. Each Spring since 1861 the festival of the Cup has given the lie to the sometimes plausible treachery that Melbourne was ever pale, dull and provincial.


Henri Foussin's wine bar is first listed on this location in Sands and McDougall's Melbourne and Suburban Directory in 1900. The Florentino restaurant opened in 1929.


Sands, Kenny and Co's Commercial and General Melbourne Directory, 1860-1861.


For Louis Lawrence Smith, (18301910), see his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (hereafter ADB) at; Andrew Lemon, Racing and Politics: the great totalisator debate, Melbourne: Hornet Publications, 1972.


First horse races contested in Melbourne noted in March 1837, location not certain, Tasmanian, 10 March 1837; first official public race meeting, March 1838, reported in Melbourne Advertiser, 12 March 1838.


John Pacini, A Century Galloped By: the first hundred years of the Victoria Racing Club, Melbourne: Victoria Racing Club, 1988.


Andrew Lemon, 'Tracks leading to the Melbourne Cup', in Stephen Howell, ed., The Story of the Melbourne Cup: Australia's greatest race, Melbourne: Slattery Media, 2010; Andrew Brown-May and Shurlee Swain, eds, Encyclopedia of Melbourne, South Melbourne, Vic.: Cambridge University Press, 2005; Latrobeana, vol. 8 no. 3, November 2009.


J. D. MacInnes, 'The Hunter Brothers at the Devil's River', Victorian Historical Magazine, vol. 14, nos. 52 and 53, 1931, pp. 56-70, 88-104.


Watson's land was bounded by the later Racecourse Road, Ascot Vale Road, Maribyrnong Road and the Moonee Ponds Creek.


Marriage notice, Port Phillip Herald, 21 January 1841.


Howell, The Story of the Melbourne Cup, pp. 27-8.


See Paul de Serville, Port Phillip Gentlemen and Good Society in Melbourne Before the Gold Rushes, Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1980; Andrew Lemon, The History of Australian Thoroughbred Racing, vol. 1, 2nd. edn, Melbourne: Hardie Grant, 2008 (first published in 1987).


Lemon, The History of Australian Thoroughbred Racing, vol. 1, pp. 239-42; Ian Mudie, Wreck of the Admella, Adelaide: Rigby, 1966.


Hansard: report in Argus, 26 January, 21 and 27 February 1861.


Argus, advertisements, 28 February 1861.


Argus, 25 February 1861.


Argus, 1 March 1861.


Argus, 26 March 1861.


Frederick Charles Standish (1824-1883) was police commissioner from late 1858. See his entry in ADB at


Bell's Life (Sydney), 26 January 1861.


Bell's Life (Sydney), 27 April 1861.


Bell's Life (Sydney), 11 May 1861.


Keith W. Paterson, The Master's Touch: racing with Etienne de Mestre, winner of five Melbourne Cups, Nowra, NSW: K. Paterson, 2008; Danny Power, 'The early master of the great race', and Andrew Lemon, 'Archer, the first winning raider', in Howell, ed., The Story of the Melbourne Cup.


Andrew Lemon, The History of Australian Thoroughbred Racing, vol. 2, second edition, Melbourne: Hardie Grant, 2008, pp. 11-12 (first published in 1990).


See Paterson, The Master's Touch.


'The Heart of Australian Racing' – symposium held at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, August 2010. Audio and transcripts available from See also D. L. Bernstein, The First Tuesday in November, Melbourne: Heinemann, 1969; Howell, ed., The Story of the Melbourne Cup; Andrew Lemon, The History of Australian Thoroughbred Racing, vol. 3, Melbourne: Hardie Grant, 2008; Neal Kearney (writer and producer), The Story of the Melbourne Cup (Roadshow DVD), 2010.


Mark Twain, Following the Equator: a journey around the world, New York: Harper, 1899, chapter xvi.