Compiled for OzSportsHistory by Brian Membrey

Ex-CDA comments, suggestions, criticisms

Something of a misnomer, the so-called "Fitzroy" course was actually in Northcote and over a kilometre from the border with North Fitzroy.

Its original name was the Croxton Racecourse (appropriate, as it was close to the Croxton Park Hotel where racing had been second only to Flemington some twenty years earlier and which remained the major sporting ground in Northcote).

In 1891, Messrs Byrne and Callaghan, two private investors, purchased 20 acres of land on the west side of St  Georges Road in Northcote (between today's Gadd and Wootton Streets) to establish a pony racing track five furlongs in circumference (later extended) and including a grandstand capable of seating 500 people.

The first meeting was held on Friday, 16 October, a couple of Melbourne papers incorrectly suggesting it was intended to  revive racing “at the old Croxton Park”, but the club faced immediate problems when three other clubs - Sherwood Park (Burwood), Oakleigh and Richmond - who had combined as the Victorian Pony and Galloway Association issued an edict that all owners, jockeys and ponies that had competed at Croxton was be barred from the Association’s track..

"Last Friday the newly constructed Croxton Park racecourse was opened, when a programme of seven mixed events was  gone through very successfully. Tbe course, which as easily reached by train or 'bus, is about a quarter of an hour's walk from the North Fitzroy tram terminus, and within ten minutes walk from that of the Northcote tram sheds. The course, which was fenced round with pickets, and also has a rail similar to that on Flemington and Caulfield, is a trifle over five furlongs round, and perfectly level. Tbe turns are somewhat sharp, but still the Lilliputs get there all tbe same. If the judge's box were shifted more to the left of its present position and placed at the turn, there would be a straight run of about a furlong and a half, whereas there is considerably less than half that distance now. The grand-stand was not quite ready for occupation, except for the band, and, when ready, will provide ample accommodation for spectators. Everything was carried out in the most perfect manner, the judge, starter, and the other officials being all well up to their respective duties".  (Sportsman, 20 October, 1891)

Regardless of the threat (which seems to have fizzled out without any real action being taken). the Croxton Park Racing Club continued with an ambitious program of racing virtually every week - typically of six events, four for horses (often including a hurdle) and two for the “Lilliputs” or ponies, occasionally with a “trot” thrown in for good measure.

Despite the economic conditions, most of the meetings throughout 1891 and the first half of 1892 appear to have attracted good crowds and been well-conducted, but in June, 1892, it was announced that Councillor W. A. Webb, the Mayor of Richmond had taken over management of the Croxton Park course with a new committee to be formed and several prominent racing men promising to lend their assistance.

Reports suggest Webb himself was planning to start the races, ad duty he had performed several times on the Richmond course.  The first meeting under the new management was held on Friday, 24 June, but reports suggest that both the quality of animal and the level of crowds were declining, and early in Early in November, 1892, advertisements under the name of P. Callaghan (listed as a land agent at 548 Rathdown-street, North Carlton)appeared offering  the lease of the Croxton Park Racecourse.

The offer, made during perhaps the most severe economic depression in Melbourne's history fell of deaf ears, and a few weeks later, alternate advertisements by auctioneers, John Vale and Son of Collins-street announced the upcoming auction on 8 December 1892 of the Croxton Park Racecourse - enclosed by an 8-foot iron fence, a grandstand accommodating 2,000 to 3,000 people, two refreshment rooms, jockey and weighing rooms, etc.

There is no evidence to suggest that the property actually sold - it shows in the Northcote Rate Book of 1900 under the names of Joseph Webster, secretary of the Standard Bank  with a Net Annual Value of £200 on a 20.25 acre site  most of the couple of dozen house sites on the eastern side of St. George’s-road under £10 (the exception was a 37-acre site of undeveloped land owned by the Australian British Land Depot Agency Company, probably somewhat further north).

In January, 1893, it was announced that the Scott brothers, founders of the Sherwood Park course in Burwood and instigators of the Victorian Pony and Galloway Club had taken over the management of Croxton Park and re-named the venture as the Fitzroy Pony, Galloway and Trotting Club, with promises that modifications currently under way would do away with the sharp turns and extend the home straight to just under a furlong.

It was suggested that the stand would be shifted from its existing position to the south-eastern portion of the (ground (where it appears it the one or two surviving images of the course).

According to the rules of the National Pony and Galloway Committee and Club of England, a pony was a horse, mare, gelding, colt, or filly aged three years or over and whose height was fourteen hands or less; alternatively, a galloway was an equine with the same characteristics with the maximum height extended to fifteen hands in England, but in Victoria to 14.2 hands.

It was from this point that the racecourse became known as “Fitzroy” under the management of  Fred.Mack and his  "comrade in arms", John H. Scott and a small meeting on Monday, 23 October, 1893 saw Fitzroy make history when a device that eventually has become an integral part of modern-day racing was seen for the first time with a starting barrier accredited to Scott was used to replace the old "flag" starts.  

The device proved so successful that by December, all pony races at the course were being started by what was then the ""Excelsior" starting machine and a similar device was used for the 1894 Melbourne Cup.

Fitzroy was at first successful and drew in crowds from near and far, but by the turn of the century, local residents of the rapidly filling area were raising objections that it was attracting the lower elements of society and that dust raised from the sand and cinder track was proving a nuisance, especially as the club raced on Mondays which was typically the housewife's washing day.

The racing dwindled during the first few years of the twentieth century, the course primarily used by the Melbourne Trotting and Brunswick Coursing clubs in 1905, and in October, 1906, Mr. Samuel Spry, the owner of the freehold of the Fitzroy pony racecourse was forced to issue a statement that Fitzroy had not ceased to exist and had been used for some time as a training ground for horses and ponies with considerable improvements made in the previous twelve months. He reiterated that the course complied with sub-section 4 of clause 6 of the Gambling Bill, inasmuch as racing had taken place there during the past twelve months, and he had hopes to resume racing there "very shortly".

"Very shortly" was rather longer than normal - in April of the following year, it was announced Spry had  leased the Fitzroy racecourse to the Victorian Pony and Galloway Racing Clubs and was about to leave for England and America. It was suggested that during the previous few months, extensive alterations had been carried out on the course "and when it is reopened to the public in a few weeks' time, visitors will witness some interesting improvements".

Fitzroy/Croxton was due to re-open on Monday, 29 May, the event included in large advertisements placed by the clubs "J. Wren, Manager" - perhaps some relevance as to status of the Fitzroy course is that Wren promoted a £500 stake at Ascot "the largest stake ever given for  a PONY EVENT in the WORLD", while the two principal events at Fitzroy carried  £100, both over four furlongs, one for ponies, the other for horses and galloways. Seven other events offered stakes of  £20.  

Despite the optimistic announcements, works on improvements on the course saw the re-opening delayed until Wednesday, 14 August " the racing track having been entirely reconstructed and widened to permit of large fields competing without tlhe necessity of dividing the races. The half holiday crowd, which filled the two enclosures, witnessed some admirable sport, good fields and smart finishes being the order of the day".

Wren by this time had lodged an application with the Victoria Racing Club to have his Richmond, Ascot and Fitzroy courses registered under recently changed regulations for turf control in Victoria, but the V.R.C. after several meetings and an extensive interview with Wren failed to reach a decision on his application.

Racing was conducted at the course on a more or less monthly basis, interspersed during winter months with Victorian Junior Football Association matches during winter, the competition including several "seconds" teams from League and Association clubs. (Later notices suggested that so many clubs had applied for use of the Richmond and Fitzroy courses that Wren suggested free use of the grounds would be granted provided the competition clubs sorted out a schedule of matches for Saturday and Wednesday afternoons.

Despite his earlier connections with his illegal totalizator operations in Collingwood, Wren when conducting his courses introduced new standards for racing with stipendiary stewards in control of all meetings, and after evidence was taken suggesting a prominent horse which had been heavily backed by the public had "run dead" at Fitzroy in 1908, one bookmaker was disqualified for life and two others "warned off" Wren's courses.

In June, 1919 announcement that the Richmond, Ascot and Fitzroy racecourses had been sold by John Wren to the Victorian Trotting Association, the latter's new name to be the Victorian Trotting and Racing Association (in which Wren was a major player). Wren agreed to continue as manager for a nominal period prior to his departure for America and England.

In October, a young jockey Albert Sylvester "Nuts" Renny was killed instantaneously when his mount Wongaburra fell during  the fourth race. Whether as a result of the incident is unclear, but the course closed for six months, racing resuming on 15 May, 1920 with a rare Saturday meeting of 12 races.

The course (and the value of the property) undoubtedly received a boost with the opening of the Fitzroy-Northcote-Preston electric tram along St. George's Road on 1 April, 1920. Originally conceived as early as 1914, but delayed because of shortages of key materials during the First World War, the line as double track with a crossover at Woolton Avenue allowing cars to set down or pick up passengers at the racecourse and return to North Fitzroy without the necessity of completing the arduous trip to East or West Preston. Coincidentally, the route of roughly a mile in length from Barkly-street, Fitzroy to the racecourse constituted the first of three penny sections on the lines.

The two previous options for public transport (other than cabs) were Croxton station on the Preston-Whittlesea line, approximately a quarter of a mile from the course, or possibly the City-Clifton Hill cable tram which required a change onto the Northcote service at Clifton Hill and a walk of around half a mile from High-street.  A few  reports on the meetings suggest there were areas set aside for both  motor and horse-drawn vehicles.

The course is known to have closed down the first half of 1925 when the track was re-cindered and re-graded at a cost of around £1,000 with a sewerage system at £700 also in the make-over,  Fitzroy re-opened on Monday, 22 June of that year, the Sporting Globe in its next edition bemoaning the fact that only four favourites had been successful - from some 14 races!

In 1929, the Victorian Government as part of its drive to eliminate “proprietary” tracks in the hands of private owners introduced legislation to close the racecourse on the grounds that its track of just over six furlongs was too small and pony racing was detrimental to the accepted thoroughbred industry.

There was a lifeline available - the Act provided for trotting meetings to continue at the Ascot course opposite the Showgrounds, but this required the construction of a new track and Fitzroy, like Richmond, was allowed to continue for another year until the works at Ascot were completed, but with a dramatic reduction in the number of pony and trotting meetings, the Government decided Fitzroy was not required.

The grounds were closed to racing from 31 July, 1931, and although occasionally used for charity carnivals, athletics, lacrosse and junior football matches, the land remained largely vacant until 1941 when an investor outlaid around £30,000 for re-development as a housing estate.   

Initial reports suggested some 200 blocks may be available, but Northcote Council insisted that additional streets were required to subdivide the 30-acre site and today's Bradley and Bird Streets were added.  There were earlier suggestions that the names of racehorses be used, but local opposition, seemingly designed to break the traditional link to racing, saw the Northcote Council adopt alternative names, that a of a recent mayor (Allan Bird) and the incumbent City Engineer (Victor. J. Bradley).

The first section of 45 lots was released for sale at auction in February, 1942, every block sold at a total return of £13,720, just under £305 per site.

Details of the later sales do not seem to have been published. but if the first day's sale average is extended, the remaining 142 potentially might have brought another £43,294 and a total of £57,014, by any stretch of the imagination a handsome return to the unknown investor during the darkening days of the Second World War.

In reporting the first sale of the famous old site, the Sporting Globe's Merv. Williams (better known as Mumblin' Merv during his later days with Channel 7's World of Sport) added :=

“Another Long Fitzroy Programme

“IT is many years since a crowd was seen at the old Fitzroy racecourse anything as large as that which gathered there last Saturday afternoon: and what a different setting it was to the days when bookies called the odds!  There was lots of shouting, but it came from an auctioneer and many hundreds of buyers who bawled each other out in their eagerness to buy lumps of the old course.

It will come as a kick in the pants to the Japs to learn that Australians fell over themselves to spend thousands of pounds buying building sites after what they have threatened to do to our cities. Every one of the 45 blocks offered was sold and the amount realised was £13,720. There are still 124 lots to be offered”.

Despite Merv’s optimism, most of the houses were not completed until the early 1950’s due to a severe shortage of building materials during and after the end of war, the shortages for a considerable time placing Melbourne’s ability to host the 1956 Olympics in some doubt.  The last residence on the old course is believed to have been completed in 1955.

Courses For Horses - Fitzroy

#top Fitzroy

Above : 1909 MMBW map of the Fitzroy Racecourse (double click to enlarge)

Aerial view of Fitzroy Racecourse, confirming the entrances, horse stalls and stand in the south-eastern corner, Pitt’s Tannery in Kemp-street right.  Date unknown, but the build-up of houses to the north and east suggests it may have been post-1931 when racing ceased.  The function of the building in the centre of the track is uncertain, but the 1929 image shows spectators on “the Flat” in the centre of course, suggesting the structure serviced this section with refreshments, toilets and undercover bookmaker’s stands.