Control Data Australia Memories compiled by Brian Membrey

1958 : The Royal Commission

With the advent of television and improved mobility through cheaper automobiles, crowds at the Saturday meetings that the then four race clubs relied for revenue were declining and many men (and a reasonable proportion of women) who in previous years had been regular racegoers became occasional spring Carnival visitors.

The clubs both in Melbourne and interstate were desperately keen to establish some form of off-course betting to bolster their coffers - betting shops had existed in England since just after the War and in Western Australia for some years, but the thought of bookmakers plying their trade in suburban shopping centres was unattractive to various state governments, even Victoria under Premier Henry Bolte, a keen racing fan and owner of several prominent horses.

There were also concerns over the growth of illegal "S.P" (Starting Price) bookmakers plying their trade in laneways, behind hotels and sometimes with relatively sophisticated (by today's standards) telephone networks.

Following a visit from New Zealand’s Minister for External Affairs and Defence, Mr. T. L. (Thomas Lachlan) MacDonald in January, 1956, Victoria’s Chief Secretary Mr Arthur (later Sir Arthur)  Rylah announced that he would visit New Zealand to investigate the off-course system in place there.  

Rylah’s report after a three week tour was largely positive, but he quashed immediate hopes for an off-course system by declaring that that the legislation required would by complex and unlikely to be introduced before the end of the year, at the same time suggesting the Government could raise at least £1.25 million in the first year and that an off-course system could not be financed on less than 6 per cent of all investments.

The Victorian Government announced a Royal Commission on 1 October, 1958 to investigate the matter and to propose the most appropriate method of introducing an "off-the-course" system in Victoria.

The Chief Commissioner appointed was a retired Supreme Court judge, The Honourable Fred Martin whose prescribed objective was to make recommendations concerning off-the-course betting.

There had been some debate as to whether the Commission should hear from the current illegal S.P. bookmakers, and it was agreed in the third week of October that they would be heard, with a restriction on the press publishing names, addresses or occupations, and that no photographs were to be taken.

By an amazing alphabetical coincidence, the first witness was known as "Mr. A", and his evidence quickly put beyond any doubt the spread and sophistication of the S.P. betting industry.   He testified that some five years earlier, he had, through a legitimate company, erected a six-story block of flats in St. Kilda where he now lived in the penthouse.

For a six-story building, there was a rather interesting design innovation;  the lift only went to the fifth level, the only access to the top floor was via a staircase leading to a quarter-inch thick steel door!   

As well as the penthouse, the upper level included twelve 10 by 15 feet offices, each with four telephones, an intercom connected to the other offices and each leased by an S.P. bookmaker.

There were strict rules enforced - all bookmakers and their staff were required to be in place 30 minutes before the first race, but despite the fortress-like conditions, "Mr. A" admitted that he and others in the ring had been "busted" by a young constable who climbed out via a fifth-floor window, pulled himself up and edged his way along a sixth floor ledge and forced his way in through another window.

"I wouldn't have gone along it for £10,000, if anyone had opened a window accidentally, he would have been hurled to his death" "Mr. A" added.

"Mr. A" testified he gave subsequently given up the business, but on good days, the sixth floor bookmakers held up to £12,000 per race

After hearing evidence from police, racing clubs, both S.P. and legal on-course bookmakers as well as representatives from New Zealand where an off-course totalizator system had operated for several years, the Commission closed on December 18 and their report was released in April, 1959.

Its findings stunned Victorians when it estimated that illegal starting-price bookmaking was costing the State and the racing industry £112 million per year from telephone betting and another £50 million from those operating from street betting from card tables in back lanes, vacant factories and in the yards of hotels.

After considering a telephone credit plan favoured by the bookmakers and a betting shop system as used in W.A. and Tasmania,  the Commissioner's recommendation was an off-course system almost identical to that operating in New Zealand (originally based in turn on the model used if France) be largely adopted in Victoria as the most satisfactory to the community generally.

Australian Dictionary of Biography entries :

Sir Henry Bolte

Sir Arthur Rylah

New Zealand Dictionary of Biography entries :

Thomas Lachlan Macdonald