Epsom Floats Service: Mordialloc

Julie Wallace, Mary Duffy, Claude Dunn, Colin Dunn, John Dunn gather to celebrate Claude’s 99th Birthday. Courtesy Noelene Dunn.

In 2004 Claude Dunn was interviewed about his time at the former Epsom racecourse as the owner of a horse float business that operated from Moridalloc.

At the time 98-year-old Claude lived alone at Mt.Martha on the Mornington Peninsula. He looked after himself after the death of his wife, Sheila, and took care of his garden that required his constant attention as the birds ravaged his vegetable garden and fruit trees. During the interview he excused himself as he went down stairs and shooed the black birds away. He returned and the interview continued.

Claude Dunn was born in London on the 27 June 1906. He came to Australia with his family in 1912; his father Claude Cecil and mother, Florence Anne (nee Austen) and his sister, Esme. Claude’s sister Patricia was born in Australia in 1917. His father was a Londoner and his mother was from Worthing, Sussex – by the sea. The family left England in December 1912 going across the channel to Antwerp on a German steamer the Frederick de grosse to Australia via Algiers, Port Said, Genoa and Colombo then to Fremantle, Western Australia. Claude’s parents had originally booked to go to Rockhampton Queensland. Conditions on board were so bad they decided to terminate the journey at Fremantle. They stayed in W A for six weeks before continuing their journey to Melbourne in a coastal steamer the ‘Warilda’, it became a hospital ship in World War One, and it was torpedoed by a German submarine.

On arriving in Victoria Claude’s father worked on a dairy farm at Yarragon for six weeks to see if he would like dairy farming. His mother, Esme and Claude stayed in a coffee palace at that time. Conditions in Gippsland dairy farming were hard and his father decided dairy farming was not for him. He purchased two acres of land in Old Moorabbin Road, now Warrigal Road, Mentone for £120 and built a four-roomed weather board house for a further £120. He then had to build a feed shed, incubation room, brooder shed and poultry pens. He also dug a well for water and added a windmill.
While this was going on the family lived at Hayes boarding house in Mentone.

Claude started school at Cheltenham State School No: 84 at the age of seven. He was paraded in front of the whole school and introduced as the little boy from London. Claude suffered at the hands of several bullyboys until he stood up for himself, then they left him alone. He finished his schooling at Caulfield Grammar. At the moment he is the oldest living past student.

In 1928 Claude’s father started in the horse float business. The family lived in Collins Street, Mentone, and one of his neighbours was the successful horse trainer F.W. (Fred) Hoysted, father of trainers Bon and Bob. In 1935 Claude Sr. sold the business to Jim Neylon.

Prior to 1939 Claude worked for Fred Hardiman at Flemington. Later Hardiman built a house on the corner of White Street and Nepean Highway at Mordialloc and Claude ran the business. After World War Two Hardiman sold the business in 1947 to a Mr McMillan and Claude remained to continue running the business. In 1954 Mr McMillan auctioned off his floats and Claude bought three. One transported six horses and two were for three horses. Claude changed the name of the business to Epsom Floats.

Transport of horses to the racecourses around the state and country was mainly by train until World War Two when restrictions were brought in and it was at that time that horse floats came into their own as a means of transporting horses.

Chapman and Hardiman were the first of the floats – Chapman was established at Ascot Vale. Claude eventually sold the Epsom Float service to Garrett and Griffith.
Claude Dunn operated a very successful float business out of Mordialloc as a main carrier for the Epsom Training Centre. He had six floats in all.

There was a great deal of land around Mordialloc and Mentone vacant and Claude would be required to drive the horses to the beach for exercise. He remembers the time the circus was in Balcombe Road, Mentone, for a season’s performance and the horses were exercising at the beach when ‘some elephants arrived at the beach and the horses went mad’.

Claude spoke of the many trainers he had worked for and the good horses that rode in his floats. He carted Phar Lap from Braeside on several occasions including a trip to the beach. He remembers the ritual that Jack Holt carried out each time before putting his horses into the float. Jack would parade his horses in the paddock and Jack’s two sisters would sprinkle each horse with holy water.

He worked for the McCormicks, Owen Lynch, Jack Besanko, Wally O’Dwyer and many other trainers including Peter Fergus, Jim Moloney, Ian Saunders, Andy White, Morrie and Ernie Willmott, Frank and Ray McLaren, Billy Warke and Bon Hoysted.

Claude’s two sons, John and Colin, drove for their father. However, before Claude employed them both had to have other professions. John became a plumber and Colin a mechanic. Their business included a great deal of interstate travel, mainly to Adelaide and Sydney. The busiest time was the Easter horse sales.

Horseracing was often interrupted by inclement weather and Claude remembers the serious floods of 1934. Water flooded the creek from Dandenong and the Carrum Swamp.

Claude was interested in the other side of racing. He was involved in meetings with the VRC and in promoting a better deal with a rise in fees for taking horses to the races for float owners. During the depression the cost of taking horses to races dropped and it was only in later years the prices were pegged at three pounds a horse.

Claude’s main interest outside his horse float business was golf. He was a member of Woodlands Golf Club for thirty-six years. He is a Life Member of the Cheltenham Golf Club in Park Road Cheltenham. He has in his possession a mounted golf ball presented to C. Dunn Kingston Heath Golf Club on the 7-8-1954 for a ‘hole in one’ on the 15th green. In 1934 his handicap was 13 and in 1935 his handicap was 15.

Claude is not happy that he has lost his licence two years ago and he has sold his boats as he feels that he is a little past going out on the bay. Claude goes to Queensland every year for seven weeks and still goes out fishing while there.

At 98 years of age Claude has just sold his boat at Mt Martha but he has kept a booking for a flat in Queensland for next year.

Horse Floats at Epsom Racecourse in the 1980s. Courtesy Bob Young.

27 June 2018
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