Aspendale Racecourse’s Demise
Aerial photograph of Aspendale Racecourse Nepean Highway and Aspendale beach, 1945.
Aspendale Racecourse was one of four courses, all in close proximity to one another, catering for the entertainment of the race-going public in the early 1890s: Mentone, Epsom, Aspendale Park and Sandown. Aspendale, created by James Robert Crooke and opened in 1891 on land previously purchased by his father, continued to host horse race meetings until 1931.  For some years after its closure to horse racing it was used as a training track and as a venue for motor racing. But the local agitation to close the course to horse racing started back in the early 1920s after a government minister announced that the number of courses along the Frankston railway line had to be reduced.  Resident in a letter to a local paper seized the opportunity given by the Minister’s comment to express his view that the racecourse was holding back the development of Aspendale and something needed to be done about it.
James Crooke was a successful racehorse trainer whose dream was to establish a racecourse.  This he achieved at considerable financial cost and risk by taking 130 acres of ti-tree covered, flood prone land, adjacent to the Frankston railway line, and gradually converted it into pleasant parkland relatively free from encroaching flood waters. He implemented a drainage plan and deposited large amounts of filling to reclaim the land. At the time of this activity there were only two houses in the area, one occupied by Mrs Black and the other by Mr Madden. There was no railway station. Crooke built a platform at his own expense as the railway commissioners were not interested in such an enterprise and refused to accept any financial commitment. At first the platform was only used on race day to off load horses and visitors from Melbourne. The opening meeting of the Aspendale Park Racecourse saw three trains leaving from Princes Bridge, two for passengers only.  Later Aspendale became a flag station where passengers could alight after informing the guard of their desire, or catch a train to Melbourne by waving a flag to indicate their wishes to the train driver. For a time the course was unprofitable, failing to attract spectators from the city. Takings were only sufficient to pay the winning horses. Gradually this situation changed with improvements to the property. 
Some individuals attributed the birth of Aspendale as a suburb to James Crooke and saw its subsequent development as being due more to him than any other person. The race meetings, it was claimed, drew to the district people who then saw its potential as a place for settlement and investment.  Other individuals challenged this view. They saw the existence of the racecourse as the most important factor holding back the development of the town. The claim was that the land on either side of the course had been unsaleable for years as no family wanted to live next to a race course. The opponents of the course claimed that the absentee owner drew princely revenue at the expense of all other property owners whose properties suffered depreciation because of its presence.  An ‘Aspendale Resident’ writing to a local newspaper claimed the problem was the location of the course. He suggested that if the course had been located ‘one mile or so from the road’ there would be no objection to its existence. In its existing position he pointed out it ‘didn’t even produce a motor fare from the station’. 
A journalist wrote in the Carrum Borough Gazette a strongly worded article attributing what he described as Aspendale’s stagnation in comparison to Chelsea’s development to the presence of the racecourse. For him Aspendale’s progress was being curtailed by the presence of the course. Local businesses, he believed, received no benefits other than the few coppers dropped in the box when racegoers used their telephones. All patrons’ needs for food, cigarettes and drink were met on the course. In addition, the Council was losing rate money because the property was under-valued. The answer to this unsatisfactory situation, according to the journalist, was to close the course and devote the land to housing. He summarised his case for the abolition of the racing licence and the resumption of the land for building in nine points and noted the arguments for its maintenance as nil:-
Picnic at the Aspendale Park Racecourse given by Cr J James, Mayor of Chelsea July 9, 1922. Courtesy Chelsea and District Historical Society.
Over the years the Aspendale Racecourse was the venue for a variety of social activities. The Royal Automobile Club organized an annual picnic day each year over several years for approximately 600 girls and boys drawn from institutions such as the Melbourne Orphanage Asylum, the Methodist Children’s Home at Cheltenham, the Ragged Boys Mission, the Sutherland Homes and the Children’s Convalescent Home at Brighton  Over 10,000 people attended a function arranged by the Catholic Federation in 1920, the fourth occasion the event had been held at Aspendale. Sweets were distributed, foot racing conducted, along with dancing and jig and reel competitions. . The Victorian Protestant Federation, led by Cr Dave White, used the Aspendale facilities in 1922 to hold a picnic for about 4,000 individuals  Other community organisations including the Aspendale and Edithvale branch of the Alfred Hospital Auxiliary held a concert and dance in the hall to raise money for their charity as did the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.
Children of members of RACV at the first children's outing at Aspendale Park Racecourse, 1908. Courtesy Chelsea and District Historical Society.
Back in 1906 the course was used by the RACV in what was described as the first motor race meeting in Australia, and subsequently the RACV used the course and park for other activities. In 1925 between 4,000 and 5,000 people attended a motor cycle and motor race meeting during which there were no serious accidents when average speeds of 78 m.p.h. were reached. 
In September of 1927 a news item revealed that the Aspendale Park Racecourse had been placed under offer to a syndicate at a purchase price believed to be well over £100,000.  Subsequently an advertisement appeared in the Argus announcing the establishment of the Aspendale Racing and Coursing Club Limited, registered under the Companies Act of Victoria 1915 with a nominal capital of £250,000 made up of £1 shares. The provisional directors were named as James Paterson an engineer, Frank Shillabeer a builder and Stanley Freeman a manager. One hundred and fifty shares were to be offered to the public at PAR. Thirty Two thousand five hundred £1 fully paid up shares were to be issued to J R Crooke, the vendor, as part of the purchase price. The remaining shares were to be held in reserve. The full purchase price was £157,500 with £125,000 being a payment in cash.  
The directors said an objective of the new company was to conduct horse racing, motor racing and electric hare coursing. These three activities they saw as great revenue raisers and believed there were additional opportunities for profit making with booths, training fees, and hiring of the grounds for picnics. They claimed the balance sheets of the course already showed excellent profits which would facilitate regular dividends. They revealed particular excitement at the possibilities of the ‘Tin Hare’ activities. They claimed football, boxing and other sports were being deserted for the ‘Tin Hare’ which provided an exciting chase. For the prospective investor they stressed that the course was a ‘Registered Course’ where six race meetings a year were profitably conducted but intimated that this number as well as profits would increase. 
Almost immediately the new company commenced mechanical hare racing with the first meeting taking place on Boxing Night 1927. That meeting which attracted nearly 1,000 spectators in chilly conditions was described as a ‘disaster’, although one that was ‘brief but exciting.’ During the first race while half the lights went out there was sufficient illumination to allow the judges to declare a winner. On the second race all the lights completely failed and the running hare stopped allowing it to be caught by the dogs. Trainers ran onto the course to control their barking and excited animals. The spectators waited for over an hour until an announcement was made declaring all remaining races cancelled and learned that complimentary tickets were to be distributed for the next meeting. 
The initial inconvenience with electrical power was not the only difficulty the racing club faced. There had been strong anti-racecourse feelings in the Aspendale community for some years, on course betting had hit a stumbling block, and there were moves in parliament to reduce the number of licensed racecourses. In 1928, just over one year after the club took control of the racecourse, a Select Committee was established in the Legislative Council to explore the conditions under which racing was conducted in the State. Among the matters of interest were betting on races, the issue of licences, and the limitation of the number of meetings.
The Aspendale Racing and Coursing Club leased the park to Aspendale Speedway Proprietary Limited to conduct motor racing on the dirt track. It was the decision of the directors of the Speedway Company to invite bookmakers to attend their meetings that raised the ire of the racing club. The directors of the racing club served notice on their lessees that all persons were prohibited from ‘directly or indirectly wagering or betting or offering to wager or bet’ on motor car and motor cycle events held on the Aspendale racecourse. The speedway company directors disputed the right of the racing company to issue such a directive. 
When the parliamentary Chief Secretary, Dr Argyle, was approached regarding the matter of betting at Aspendale he said the course was registered for betting and therefore people there could bet on anything they desired. There was no law under which action could be taken to stop betting. . Dr Argyle went on to suggest ‘if they wished they could bet on the progress of two flies along a fence.’
The racing club claimed that in the contract setting out the nature of the lease was a clause stating that motor racing should not interfere with horse racing in any way. In their opinion betting on motor racing would be injurious to horse racing and therefore they had the power under the lease to prevent betting. As part of their strategy to gain their objective they planned to write to the Victoria Club, Tattersalls Club and Bookmakers’ Club informing them that any bookmakers licensed at Aspendale Park would not be re-licensed if they conducted their operations at the motor races. The underlying reasons for their differing attitude to betting on motor races versus betting on horses was not stated but no doubt related to money. Money derived from bookmaker fees which they believed should be paid to them as owners of the property rather than to the lessees.  At the motor race meeting held on 28 January 1929 bookmakers operated for the first time registering a defeat for the racing club.
The Aspendale Racing Club directors and shareholders were to face more devastating attacks on the company’s profitability with the attention parliament was giving to the operation of horse racing in the State. Following the Select Committee of the Legislative Council inquiry into the conditions under which racing was conducted in the State, legislation was introduced into the Legislative Assembly with the formal title Police Offences (Race Meetings) Bill. Two major provisions of the bill were to restrict the number of race meetings in the metropolitan area to 114 annually instead of 152 and to close four racecourses: Aspendale, Sandown Park, Fitzroy and Richmond. In speaking to the bill, Dr Argyle said there was so much racing that a class of parasites had sprung up. ‘Such people,’ he said, ‘never worked, but wandered from one race meeting to another living on the confiding public. Members of the underworld were also attracted to some meetings. Employers complained that their work was upset very frequently by the number of week day race meetings for sporting workmen very often neglected their work to attend meeting when it would be better for themselves and their wives and families if they attended to their jobs.’ Dr Argyle explained that compensation would be paid to the clubs forced to close and to provide for this the number of meetings each year at Epsom and Mentone would be increased from six to seven. The profits made from these extra meetings would be placed in a pool used to pay the compensation. After the payments were completed the number of meetings at Epsom and Mentone would return to six each year. In addition it was proposed that reasonable time would be given to Mentone and Epsom to take on the additional meetings. The legislation was approved by the Governor of Victoria, Lord Somers, on 31 October 1929 but it was not to be implemented until August 1, 1931.
The passage of the bill was received with joy by the North Aspendale Progress Association who had been arguing that the racecourse was not of benefit to the district as it attracted undesirables and detracted from the district’s popularity.  They sent a letter to the Chief Secretary expressing their satisfaction with the policy of the government. As could be expected, the directors of the Aspendale Racing Club objected and sent a deputation to Dr Argyle to present their case. The deputation pointed out that racing had been conducted at a high standard at Aspendale for more than forty years, and had been constantly improved. If the course was closed the railways would lose more than £5000 a year from revenue. The company was a proprietary one with more than three hundred shareholders who would lose their investment. The course cost shareholders £145,640 and in addition £5000 had been spent on improvements since the formation of the company. The amount of money being suggested in parliament to pay compensation was inadequate. Moreover there was no suggestion of compensation for goodwill and lose of licence. Finally they drew attention to the fact that only a small portion of the land was suitable for building because of excess water. 
In 1931 a delegation from the Aspendale Racing and Coursing Club once again sought support from the Chelsea Council in an approach to government seeking an extension of ten years before implementing the decision to close the course to horse racing. They pointed out that they had a large mortgage on the property and had no means of getting out of their difficulties unless they were granted a ten year extension. They paid £4200 interest each year and faced liquidation if the course was closed. Some councillors were supportive of the delegation’s case while others expressed reservations. Both Councillors Meier and Williams commented on the changed circumstances that people were facing. Many men throughout the district were unemployed and the course brought money into the district and assisted in its circulation. ‘Many of their own unemployed were paid a little harvest looking after cars,’ Meier’s said referring to the practice of local men acting as parking attendants. He warned his colleagues that if the course was closed and the buildings pulled down there would be no residences erected for ten years. Councillor Williams reminded councillors that water was only two feet below the surface even on the lawns and not one third of the property was fit for sub-division. Other councillors were not convinced and referred back ten years to the agitation of citizens for the closure of the course. The matter was not resolved but rather deferred. 
Aspendale Ratepayer writing in the local newspaper, challenged the observations of Crs Meirs and Williams. ‘While a number of school boys who look after the cars earn a few shillings they could hardly be called unemployed’, he wrote. ‘At the conclusion of the races patrons rush for their cars or the special trains waiting at the station and have only time to purchase a few Heralds.’ While it was noted the City of Mordialloc retains two racecourses and Chelsea loses its one, Ratepayer pointed out that both the Mordialloc courses, Epsom and Mentone, were some distance from stations in contrast to the situation at Aspendale. This was a much more acceptable situation he believed.
Despite the delegations, discussion and arguments the government decision to close Aspendale as a racecourse proceeded. On July 29, 1931 the final race meeting was held. The program was as follows:
To raise the money to pay compensation to the Aspendale Racing and Coursing Club promised by the government, a race meeting was held each year at Mentone and Epsom. By 1944-45 it was deemed these special meetings were no longer necessary as the set compensation had been paid.  Earlier, in 1941, building material and galvanised iron were advertised for sale freeing the property for redevelopment.  However, it was some years after the Second World War before the vision of Aspendale’s early residents of a thriving suburb was achieved.
©2022 Kingston Local History | Website by Weave
City of Kingston acknowledges the Kulin Nation as the custodians of the land on which the municipality is a part and pays respect to their Elders, past and present. Council is a member of the Inter Council Aboriginal Consultative Committee (ICACC).