There’s nothing left of White City, the greyhound racing track of Tottenham. I know, because I walked along Sunshine Road looking for it. I wish it was otherwise, but there’s no trace. An Olex cable factory stands at the place where local race-lovers gathered three times a week to watch, cheer, and gamble.
And what were they betting on? Greyhounds. Whippets. Goats. Foot races. And monkey jockeys.
Let’s get this straight: greyhound racing is a working class sport. Your fancy equine thoroughbreds change hands for millions, but an ordinary person gains just as much pleasure from training or watching a racing dog at a fraction of the cost. That’s why dog racing has always been popular in working class areas like the north of England and the western suburbs of Melbourne.
In 1927 the Victorian Mechanical Hare Association set up a greyhound racing stadium, White City, on Sunshine Road mid-way between Tottenham and Sunshine stations. Rather than chasing live hares, as in the traditionally bloodthirsty sport of coursing, the dogs chased mechanical ‘tin hares’. The new technology was already in use at London’s White City and Sydney’s Glebe Circuit, where it attracted huge crowds. Tin-hare coursing was the craze of the moment.
The first meeting at Tottenham attracted 8,000 punters, along with 40 bookmakers, and was a great success. The White City shareholders were elated. What could possibly go wrong?
Political intervention, that’s what.
“Degrading and revolting scenes”
The state government claimed that betting on greyhounds was a morally reprehensible pursuit from which the lower classes must be protected. The Attorney General, Mr Slater, introduced the Betting (Mechanical Coursing) Bill on 6 December 1927.
Reference was made to the “clamorous ferment” of the dog tracks, compared with the “ordered excitement” of horse racing. Sir William McPherson complained that “the greater portion of the persons who attend these meetings are boys and girls who are able to make bets as low as two shillings. Surely we do not want to encourage such a class of entertainment.” Mr McKenzie referred to “degrading and revolting scenes” and claimed that “anyone who does not support a Bill of this kind is not standing up for the morals of the community”.
The aspect that most greatly alarmed the gentlemen of the house was that women seemed to like it.
Mr Gray: “Only a few days ago I had a conversation with a friend … He is a great sporting man, and he took the opportunity while in London to attend a tin-hare coursing meeting. He told me there was a crowd there of 72,000 people. There were 500 bookmakers. The din was something awful. What impressed him more than anything else was the class of the spectators. The vast majority of the people present were women. Many women had young children trailing at their skirts, and some had babies at their breasts. He watched these women put their one or two shillings on the dogs. He told me that he thought it was a dreadful thing.” (Hansard, Legislative Assembly, 6 December 1927, p3148)
Besides good old paternalism and sexism, what did the Victorian Parliament really have against the working people’s sport?
In reality, the legislation was all about defending the interests of the horse racing fraternity. Tin-hare coursing was amazingly popular in England and Sydney. That made it a threat to Victorian horse-racing interests. Mr Toutcher, member for Stawell and Ararat, pointed out that “there is a very strong and monopolistic [horse] racing man in this community, who … has influence which he has exercised to a very alarming and considerable degree.”
Tin-hare coursing was banned because it might lure gamblers away from horse racing.
Without mechanical hares White City had lost its biggest attraction, and when the legislation passed it bankrupted the shareholders of White City. Was the dream over before it had begun?
(We’re nearly up to the monkey jockeys).
Fred Watkins steps in
That was when a new shareholder, Fred Watkins stepped in.
Fred was an entrepreneur with a lot of the showman about him. Unfazed by the loss of tin hares, he dreamed up a range of novelties to entice the punters back. He brought back live hares instead of tin hares, and held not just greyhound races but whippet races, goat races, professional foot races, and most exotically of all, greyhounds with monkey jockeys.
I must admit I had my doubts the first time I heard about the monkey jockeys. Monkeys riding dogs? Really? But it’s true. This was a popular pursuit during the 1920s, and in some form it still goes on today. If you don’t believe me, type ‘monkey jockeys’ into YouTube.
The Argus, one of Melbourne’s major newspapers, gave two monkeys named ‘Pike’ and ‘Badger’ a run on page 3 on 11 May 1938. Sorry for the quality of the photos, but you get the idea.
I can just imagine Bruce MacAvaney interviewing a winner after the race: “So, is the monkey off your back now?”
With Fred Watkins running the show, Tottenham White City was a red-hot attraction from the 1930s to the 1950s. There were meetings on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, with total weekly attendances around 9,000. White City even had its own station, a single platform between Tottenham and Sunshine (gone now, too), serviced on race days by a special train known as the Dog Train. It must have been quite something to catch the Dog Train to White City for a flutter on the monkeys.
Eventually the crowds declined, and after 28 years the venue closed on 29 December 1955. In a final irony, on the first day of 1956 the Dog Races Act came into force, which lifted the ban on mechanical coursing and banned racing with live hares. So far as I know, no mention was made of monkeys.
Fred Watkins sold the track and equipment for 113,000 pounds. In keeping with the policy of encouraging manufacturing in the urban fringes, the new Olex factory was opened on the site by Robert Menzies in 1960.
But I’d like to imagine that on a quiet night, if you listen hard enough, you might just catch the echo of a distant crowd cheering on the greyhounds and their monkey jockeys.
Some of the information in this post is sourced from Tom Rigg’s booklet Going to the Dogs, available from Sunshine and District Historical Society. Parliamentary quotes are from Hansard.
John Weldon has written an entertaining piece about the monkey jockeys of White City, with more photos, on the Maribyrnong Council website.