Friday, March 25, 2016

Williamstown Racecourse

Williamstown is one of the oldest suburbs of Melbourne.


Situated at the Western mouth of the Yarra river, the town arose naturally after the founding of the city, as it proved a good location for a port. With the river impassable to large cargo ships (discussed further here), Point Gellibrand was quickly established as the disembarkation point for goods headed for Melbourne.

Founded in November 1835, a few months after the city itself, and named after King William IV, Williamstown thrived as Melbourne expanded. Like much of the city, this growth increased exponentially during the Gold Rush of the 1850s.

One tangible indicator of this expansion was the founding of  the Williamstown Racecourse.

Williamstown Racecourse, shortly after its founding.

In 1857, local enthusiasts formed the Williamstown Racing Association, and began looking for a place to build a track. The local council denied their initial request for lands close to the township, but they were able to secure an open clearing on the waterfront, adjacent to Koroit Creek (then in Wyndham Shire). Construction of the track began in 1858, and the first race meeting was held on Boxing Day in 1859.

Aerial view of the racetrack
Location of track on current map.

Reached by a small causeway crossing the creek, the track's location offered a sweeping view across the bay. The simple wooden grandstand was augmented by decorative Canary Date Palm trees, and Norfolk pines ringed the far side of the course. It was a simple, but handsome, layout, and the track grew quickly in popularity.

The Boxing Day races became an annual event, and the racing program would expand into the racing season proper. In 1885, the Williamson Racecourse Railway Station was opened, to allow punters easy access to the course. Originally the end of a small side spur from the Geelong line, this track would eventually be expanded through to Altona (where it still runs today, as the Werribee line).

In 1887 a new public grandstand was built, and the following year the Williamstown Cup was first held, which soon became one of the most prestigious events in the local racing calendar. By the 1890s ,Williamstown Racecourse was as well established as Flemington or Caulfield.

Phar Lap wins at Williamstown, 1931.

The course's place in local racing history was secured on 25 August, 1931, when local legend Phar Lap won the Underwood Stakes. The Age gives a sense of the day:


But despite its popularity, the outbreak of World War II would eventually put paid to racing in Williamstown.

The final race meeting was held 10 February, 1940. Shortly after this, the Government took over the track, as they also did Caulfield and the MCG, and put it to use as an Army camp. Throughout the war it was used as a training facility, and barracks.

After the war, the Williamstown Racing Club intended to start holding meets again, but were delayed by the poor condition the course had fallen into. The club worked to rectify this, and pencilled in the 1947 racing season to resume competition.

Then, fate intervened:


Fire destroys the Williamstown Racecourse Grandstand.

Around 5pm on January 29, 1947, smoke was seen coming from the roof of the public grandstand. Fanned by a strong wind, the stand was soon fiercely ablaze, the fire quickly spreading to the members stand alongside. Fire brigades from several surrounding areas were dispatched to the site, but they were unable to control the fire. It blazed out of control for several hours, and, eventually, would consume all of the principal buildings at the course.

The local press reports the story.

While police investigated the fire as suspicious, the totality of the destruction deprived them of clues and the case eventually petered out. To date, the cause of the fire has never been determined.

The timing of the destruction was especially unfortunate, as the State Government had been agitating for consolidation in the ranks of local racing. Now, without a home track, the Williamstown Racing Club was in a vulnerable position. Pressured by the state government, and without the funds to rebuild their course, Williamstown members voted to accept an amalgamation with the Victorian Trotting and Racing Association, forming the Melbourne Racing Club.

The track was this time sold to the State Government, who put it to use as temporary accommodation for homeless Army veterans.

Racing in Williamstown was consigned to history.

The last Canary Date palm.

But once the last of the veterans had been re-settled, the Government decided to preserve the site as a public park. Now known as the Altona Coastal Park it is in this form still, and is now part of a popular hiking, bike riding and dog walking track.

But a few remnants of the area's racing history remain; the last of the canary date palms, part of the wreckage of the burnt out grandstand and artist Yvonne George's 'Requiem for a Champion', a small tribute to a vanished era.


Grandstand wreckage.

'Requiem for a Champion.'

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