Compiled for OzSportsHistory by Brian Membrey

Ex-CDA comments, suggestions, criticisms

Courses For Horses - Williamstown

City of Williamstown City Engineer's Map, 1945

Showing the racccourse and adjacent Racecourse Station just to the north; Miller's Road far left, Newport Railway yards and Williamstown Cemetery top right, Williamstown Rifle Rangle bottom right.

Duke and Orr’s Dry Dock, circa 1900. Another Melbourne landmark, The Tea House at the southern end of Clarendon Street shows in the background.

Of the three public tracks, Williamstown was probably the most important, rating below Flemington and Caulfield, but equal in importance to Moonee Valley

Despite always being called Williamstown, the course was actually in today's Altona, in Racecourse Road on the eastern banks of the Kororoit Creek after the trustees of the original club were unable to agree on terms with the Williamstown Council to develop a course closer to the port and approached the neighbouring Shire of Wyndham, who made the site alongside Kororoit Creek extending to the foreshore available to them.

Racing had been conducted at the seaside village as early as 1859 with an annual Williamstown Handicap the main attraction \There had been a number of meetings held at the Steam Packet Hotel prior to the Williamstown Racing Club being formed on 28 April 1868 with a committee of twenty.

A temporary site was set aside on Government land on 15 February of the following year, but it appears to have been nearly two years later before the first five-race meeting was held. Control of the 130-acre sites was vested in the Williamstown Borough Council on 15 February, 1869.   

The original course was replaced by a track closer to the creek in 1876 and the rules for the new site were set down in the Victorian Government Gazette on 22 December, 1876 outlining a Committee of Management of nine.  

Prior to 1885, patrons who went to the course by train had to walk from North Williamstown on the Geelong line but a branch line of approximately 1 1 kilometres was built in two stages (1885 and 1886-87) by the Altona Bay Estate Company with the Williamstown Racecourse Station serving the track  

Williamstown became a popular training centre, perhaps because its remote location kept horses being set for a race away from the prying eyes of the public.  Famed Sydney trainer, Etienne de Mestre, trainer of five Melbourne Cups including the first two in 1861 and 1862 with Archer, also made use of the Williamstown course for his horses when he came to Melbourne in the 1880's.

A member’s grandstand along the north-western side was constructed in 1887, with a public grandstand added in the early 1920s.

The club suffered a considerable setback during the winter of 1891 when several days of torrential rain flooded most of Kensington, Flemington and Footscray.  The Saltwater (Maribyrnong) River  overflowed into Kororoit Creek, leaving both the Flemington and more so Williamstown course under several feet of water, extending in the latter case back to North Williamstown railway station.

At the course, most of a 9-foot corrugated iron fence, outbuildings, gates and running rails washed away ... "Nothing whatever was visible on the racecourse, except the top of the roof of the building which acts as the grand stand ...".

Fortunately for the club (then noted with five Saturday and three public holiday meetings per year), the Spring Meeting was still some seven weeks away and the course was patched up in time for the events to proceed (although it was notable that all advertisements for entries prominently included the proviso "Weather Permitting"!

Williamstown was the first Melbourne course to operate a doubles totalizator, permission being granted by the Government in October, 1939, just in time to allow the club to have the system in operation for the Williamstown Cup meeting on November 18.   

Racing continued at the track and the doubles tote used just three times until the outbreak of the Second World War when the course was taken over by the Army  The final race meeting at the Williamstown Racecourse was held on 10 February, 1940.  

The best known event held at course was the Williamstown Cup, traditionally the last of the four cups run during the Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival, and the family most closely associated with racing at Williamstown were the Underwoods, a surname famous in the histories of both Williamstown and Victorian thoroughbred racing and perpetuated by the traditional Underwood Stakes, a key lead-up race prior to the Caulfield Cup.   

Various parts of the course were being restored in readiness for a resumption of racing in June, 1947 but on 29 January, a fire (believed to have been caused by a workman's blowtorch) broke out and so badly damaged the member's and public grandstands and an administration block that the course was closed to racing, although it was still used for training purposes and barrier trials.  

The Williamstown Racing Club ran a few meetings at Flemington and Moonee Valley as it had done during the war years, but with the abolition in 1948 of proprietary racecourses and a requirement that clubs must own their courses, it in July of that year following an earlier attempt to negotiate a merger with the Victoria Racing Club, amalgamated with the privately owned Victorian Trotting and Racing Association to become the Melbourne Racing Club.  The branch railway, then rather pointless of closure of the course closed on 22 May 1950; two stanchion bases can still been beside today’s  Altona line.

The V.T.R.A. had purchased the Sandown Park racecourse the previous years, but with the chronic shortage of housing, building materials and labour, was never able to develop the site, although following a merger of the M.R.C. and the Victorian Amateur Turf Club and with the help of the Light Car Club of Australia.  construction of the new Sandown Park with motor and horse racing tracks commenced in the early 1960’s.

The merger came despite Williamstown having 700 members (some 350 attended the meeting with just three dissensions) while the V T R A   had just 27, most with proprietary interests in the club. The new club raced mostly at Flemington in the early years, but later became more closely associated with the Victorian Amateur Turf Club at Caulfield with which it later merged.

Reports of the amalgamation proceedings cast doubt on whether Williamstown would have survived for much longer anyway, the chairman Mr DuCrow suggesting that even if the Williamstown course were re-licensed, racing would end there within a few years because of the Vacuum Oil Company's plans for expanding its plant in areas close to the course.  It was also suggested the with the chronic shortage of housing and building materials, it could be up to five years before the grandstand could be built and the course brought back to a condition appropriate for metropolitan racing.

The M R C were allocated 13 meetings and the intentions were to re-develop the V T R A ’s de-licensed course at Sandown, but the M R C  merged with the V A T C before Sandown Park re-opened as a public course  The Williamstown Cup was renamed to the Sandown Cup in 1962

At the time of the merger, the Williamstown Club had nearly as long a life as the V.R.C,but it had only five secretaries. Mr. H. P. Sutton acted in an honorary capacity from 1875 until he was formally appointed secretary in 1893. He held the post until his death in June, 1911, and was succeeded by Mr Charles Frederick Orr, whose memory is perpetuated by the C. F. Orr Stakes.

Orr was chairman for several years and became treasurer following the appointment as secretary by Mr H. L. Hosier, who was followed by Mr Jack Nagle. Nagle retired in 1947, his successor retired just prior to the merger, and his successor, Jack Reilly became secretary of the new Melbourne Racing Club and later after a second amalgamation, the Victorian Amateur Turf Club.

(Charles Frederick Orr was also one of the pioneers of the shipwright and docking industry in Victoria having established a dry dock on the south bank of the Yarra, later Duke and Orr's, (closed 1975 and now the home of the restored barque Polly Woodside is now on display.  The dock, gates, machinery and pump house from a reconstruction in 1901 are largely intact and restored, although the basin of the dock has been partially filled and reduced in length).

The Williamstown course was later leased to the Commonwealth Government and after a number of industrial disputes became the site of a hostel accommodating up to 11,000 displaced persons and refugees from Europe, mostly the Baltic States

The area is now wetlands acting as a buffer between housing and a petro-chemical complex (the Vacuum Oil Company plant of 1948); the original course is commemorated by a plaque on a small surviving section of the grandstand.

The approximate location of the Williamstown course in North Altona  The station, indicated by a rectangle, was on the western side of Kororoit Creek

Williamstown Racecourse, date unknown   From the aspect, the image was probably taken from over the Racecourse Station with Port Phillip Bay in the background. A prominent bend in the Kororoit Creek in the foreground with the connecting bridge to the station.

1888 “Epsom Racecourse Estate”, NEWPORT

“The Workman’s Paradise”

Williamstown Racecourse bottom with Racecourse Station shown. The estate was absorbed into the the Vacuum Oil Company's development after the course closed.