Garryowen lists the germs of an Australian township: first there’s a waterhole, then a forge, then a store and grog-shop. Then there’s a Wesleyan Church, a Temperance Society, and finally a race club or a cricket club. (Finn, p. 711)
Melbourne developed that way too. The Wesleyans and Temperance Society had already arrived by the time the first races were held by the Melbourne Race Club on what is now the site of Southern Cross railway station in 1838. Postboy won the first race- now that’s a bit of trivia we might all need one day. But wait- there was more! The races had finished, people were feeling mellow, and then someone suggested a bout of the olde English sport of “grinning”- where men would stick their head through a horse collar, then spend the next five or ten minutes pulling the ugliest faces they could. A hat was passed around, and a prize stake of 40 shillings was soon collected. The winner was Thomas Curnew, fifty years of age, and a carpenter by trade.
The “phizical” pantomime then commenced, and for ten minutes there was a display of physiognomical posturing, difficult to be accounted for by any deductions of anatomization. The bones, muscles, sinews, and tissues of Curnew’s head seemed as if composed of whalebone and India-rubber. At one time his tongue looked as if jumping out of his mouth, his lips and palate would be drawn in as if to be swallowed, whilst the chin and forehead approached as if to meet. His antics evoked thunders of acclamation, in the midst of which he regained terra firma, secured the proceeds of the hat-shaking, and betook himself to the Fawknerian [grog] booth, where the stakes were speedily melted down through the agency of a “fire-water”. And so wound up the first public race day in Victoria. (p. Garryowen, p713)
Now, that’s what the Melbourne Cup Carnival needs to do- revisit its ‘carnivale’ origins and bring back the “gurning” contests. In fact, there’s a World Gurning Championship too. I don’t think her Maj is amused, though.
By 1840 the races had shifted to Flemington, named after Bob Fleming, the local butcher. The carnival stretched over three days, reported in mind-numbing detail by the Port Phillip Herald, and years later by Garryowen as well.
It’s interesting how, for us today, horse racing has been ‘eventi-ised’ in recent years with corporate sponsorship and Government tourism funding etc. It’s no longer about the races as such. It seems that the drone of the race-call drifting over the back fence from a neighbour pottering around in his shed is one of the lost sounds of the 1960s. Even twenty years ago, the news on the television would devote a good five minutes to footage of the races- a time slot gobbled up now, no doubt, by the finance report.
But much is still made of the egalitarian nature of the Melbourne Cup carnival today. Right from its inception, the races have brought the gentlemen of Port Phillip society to the track to see their own horses run, cheered on by the working men out for a good time.
Now, you ask yourself, can we possibly insert our Judge Willis into a day at the races? Yes, we can. March 1842 was the second race carnival held at Flemington. It was hot, and in anticipation of crowd unruliness, ticket-of-leave men were called up and sworn in as special constables for the day. (Yes, ticket-of-leave men as constables). As there was no lockup, those who were somewhat drunk and disorderly were chained up to a log and left in the sun to repent of their overindulgence. Yet another unfortunate reveller had been apprehended and was being dragged off to the log when two gentlemen rode up, the Honorable James Erskine Murray the barrister, and Oliver Gourlay, “a fast, devil-may-carish merchant of the period”. They remonstrated over the rough treatment of the man to the constable- “Shame! Shame! Don’t ill-use the man!”- when Dr Martin the J.P. rode up with another justice of the peace, William Verner, to help control the crowd. They called out to Murray and Gourlay not to interfere; Murray retorted that he was only giving the prisoner advice. Three prisoners took advantage of the resulting contretemps to unshackle themselves from the log and disappear into the crowd. The whole thing ended up in the Police Court the next morning. Gourlay was charged with assaulting a police constable in the execution of his duty, and the constable admitted that he would have charged Murray too, except that he was a gentleman. Gourlay was released on bail.
What does all this have to do with Judge Willis (who was not at the races himself)? As Resident Judge, and responsible for oversight of both the bar and the magistrates, he wrote to Erskine Murray demanding an explanation for his behaviour. He then forwarded Murray’s explanation to Verner and Martin for their side of the story. He was not, perhaps, completely impartial here- both Verner and Martin were Heidelberg neighbours, and were to be strong supporters throughout Judge Willis’ time in Melbourne. Murray, on the other hand, had clashed with Judge Willis in the courtroom on several occasions.
Murray applied to have Gourlay’s case heard quickly, so that he could clear his own honour. Willis refused and postponed the case, claiming that the furore needed to die down first. As it happened, Gourlay made good use of his time on bail. Bushrangers were terrorizing the eastern and northern outskirts of the town and a number of gentlemen banded together to capture them. Gourlay was shot in the melee and returned to Melbourne covered in glory. Charges against the hero were dropped.
So, knowing that there probably won’t be a grinning (gurning) competition, or gentleman justices remonstrating with ticket-of-leave constables as they drag the tipsy off to be chained to a log, what is my pick for the races? Well, I like the young ‘girly’ on Moatize and it’s always a pleasure to see Bart Cummings and his eyebrows. I can’t be bothered going to the TAB though, so I’ll satisfy myself with entering the sweep down at the street barbeque in half an hour’s time. But if Moatize DOES win, you heard it here first.