White City ticket

A flutter on the monkeys

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.

Aerial view of White City

White City stadium, Tottenham, looking east. The railway track is on the left. Footscray and West Footscray are visible in the distance. Late 1920s or 1930s. From victoriancollections.net.au.

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.

monkey_jockeys

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.

opened-by-Menzies
Olex factory

The Olex Cables factory today.

 

*

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.

Map of this walk

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8 comments

  1. The train ticket image is a beauty. Is probably available as a tea-towel nowadays. Roald Dahl writes quite graphically about greyhound racing in a 40 page short story called Claud’s Dog. And Melbourne/western suburbs playwright Daniel Keene wrote Silent Partner about 20 years ago.To those names we can now add Nick Gadd and Melbourne Circle. Looking forward to your next discovery, Nick.

  2. Thanks Vin. Yes, if Fred Watkins was around today I’m sure he’d offer a great range of White City merchandise, including tea towels, mugs and plush monkey jockeys. Thanks for the Keene and Dahl references, will check them out.

  3. Great reading Nick, the more I follow your blog the more pleasant memories come back. There was a whippet track at Maribyrnong 1940 -1950 across the river from the Waterloo Hotel and If you stand on the corner of Maribyrnong Road and Epsom road, look to the roof line of the Waterloo Hotel and you will see a greyhound carved into the facade. The story was strongly believed that early on patrons of the Waterloo Hotel who were of the sporting persuasion decreed it a jolly good idea if the noble sport of Plymton (dogs chasing a live hare ) was available for their enjoyment so they developed the above mentioned area as their special place. The “sport” of Plymton was not favored by the average punter and eventually it gave way to whippet racing,
    There was also a whippet track at Travencore ( part of Ascot Vale – Royal Park ) beside the Moonie Ponds Creek in the vicinity of the present day freeway.
    A little known fact,
    There once was a place in Melbourne called ” Dudley Flats” it was situated between Dynon Road and Footscray road, originally a swamp area and one of the first of the City of Melbourne’s designated refuse dumps, well believe it or not there was a greyhound track dead smack bang in the center of this,as I remember, foul smelling place !948 – 1949.
    No live hares and no tin lures, just a blood soaked rag attached to a hundred yards of rope which was rapidly retrieved onto a forty four gallon drum in the manner of a windlass, hand driven of course. Several Bookmakers were always in attendance and generally held a compelling influence as to how quick the lure was retrieved. I as a kid knew this, I’m sure the punters knew it also, but it didn’t stop the gambling fraternity from having a go.

    1. Those are fascinating memories Edwin, especially about the track at Dudley Flats. Presumably it was next to the railway track where the market is now, or where they keep containers these days. Re the Waterloo Hotel, I took a photo of it a few weeks ago for my piece on the temperance triangle of Ascot Vale, but I can’t see the greyhound in the facade. Perhaps it has gone, or maybe the picture is from the wrong angle. https://melbournecircle.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/img_4436.jpg

  4. Hi Nick the dog track on Dudley Flats was in the center of the refuse dump hidden behind piles of household and industrial waste, it was of course, an illegal and because of it situation almost imposable for the police to raid. See Melways Map 43 B 7-8.
    Waterloo hotel or to give it it’s correct name Waterloo Cup hotel I distinctly recall a Greyhound adorning the building, perhaps I’m wrong and if so I apologize, I have studied your photograph and I agree there is no remaining evidence of one being there. However the connection to Plympton or Coursing is evident it the name. The Waterloo Cup was a coursing event it was the biggest annual hare coursing event in the United Kingdom and was often referred to by its supporters as the blue riband event of the coursing year. A hare coursing event of identical name was held in Australia from 1868 to 1985.
    .

  5. These are great stories, thanks for sharing. I grew up in Sunshine, born there 1962, and the father of a friend of my mum’s apparently ran greyhounds or whippets at White City. Great stories, thanks again. What on earth prompted me to check the article out early on a public holiday is beyond me!

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