Bayside Williamstown is one of Melbourne’s oldest suburbs. Until the 1940s, it was home to one of the city’s most popular racetracks.
Situated at the Western mouth of the Yarra river, Williamstown arose after the founding of the city, as it proved a good location for a port. With the river impassable to large cargo ships (discussed further here), Point Gellibrand was established as the disembarkation point for goods headed for Melbourne.
Named after King William IV, Williamstown thrived as Melbourne expanded. Like much of the city, this growth increased exponentially during the Gold Rush of the 1850s.
One tangible indicator of this expansion was the founding of the Williamstown Racecourse.
In 1857, enthusiasts formed the Williamstown Racing Association, and began looking for a place to build a track. Racing was popular in Melbourne, then as now, and a racetrack would also provide a boost for the local economy.
The council denied the initial request for lands close to the township, but a subsequent application gained permission to use an open clearing on the waterfront, adjacent to Koroit Creek. Construction of the track began in 1858, and the first race meeting was held on Boxing Day, 1859.
Reached by a small causeway crossing the creek, the track’s location offered a sweeping view across Hobson’s Bay. The wooden grandstand was augmented by decorative Canary Date Palms, and Norfolk Pines ringed the far side of the grounds.
It was a simple, but handsome, layout, and the track grew quickly in popularity. The Boxing Day races became an annual event, the end point of an extensive racing season.
In 1885, the Williamson Racecourse Railway Station was opened, to allow punters easy access to the venue. Originally the end of a small side spur from the Geelong line, this track would eventually be expanded through to Altona (where it still runs today, as the Werribee line).
In 1887 a new public grandstand was built, and the following year the Williamstown Cup was first held, which soon became one of the most prestigious events in the local racing calendar. By the 1890s, Williamstown Racecourse was as well established as Flemington or Caulfield.
The course’s place in local racing history was secured on 25 August 1931, when Phar Lap won the Underwood Stakes.
‘The weather, though fine and sunny, was boisterous, and at times the wind swept across the course with almost hurricane force. The crowds which filled both enclosures were particularly large for a week day.
The principal event, the Underwood Stakes, attracted six starters and resulted in a win for Phar Lap. Though obviously above himself in condition, he was not extended in his win over stablemate Rondalina by a length and three quarters.’
– The Age, August 1931
This formed part of an amazing run of success for Phar Lap, where the horse won 14 races in a row across 1930-31. It was also one of his last races in Australia.
Having finished 8th in the Melbourne Cup of 1931, his owners shipped him to America to compete in the big races there. He died, April 5, 1932, of a mysterious and still unexplained illness. Many people were convinced he had been poisoned, by rival trainers.
Like many aspects of life in Melbourne, change would come with the Second World War.
As Australia joined the conflict, racecourses in the city were closed to the public. Many, including Caulfield and Flemington, were turned over to the Army, who used them for training and temporary barracks.
Williamstown held its final race meeting in February 1940, the Army assuming control shortly after.
The Racing Club took over again once the war was over, but found the track had fallen into disrepair. Extensive maintenance was scheduled, and the club intended to resume racing in the spring carnival of 1947.
Around 5pm on January 29, 1947, smoke was seen coming from the roof of the public grandstand.
Fanned by a strong wind, the stand was soon fiercely ablaze, the fire quickly spreading to the members stand alongside. Fire brigades from several surrounding areas were dispatched to the site, but they were unable to bring it under control. The fire blazed for several hours, eventually consuming all of the principal buildings at the course.
While police investigated the fire as suspicious, the totality of the destruction deprived them of evidence and the case eventually petered out. The cause of the fire has never been determined.
The timing of the destruction was especially unfortunate, as the State Government had been agitating for consolidation in local racing. Now, without a home track, the Williamstown Racing Club was in a vulnerable position.
Pressured by the government, and without the funds to rebuild their course, Williamstown members voted to accept an amalgamation with the Victorian Trotting and Racing Association, forming the Melbourne Racing Club. The new organisation would be based at Caulfield.
Racing in Williamstown was consigned to history.
The former track was sold to the State Government, who put it to use as temporary accommodation for returned Army veterans. Years later, it was then decided to preserve the site as a public park.
The former track is a windswept, grassy expanse that forms part of the Altona Coastal Park, a multi use trail popular with cyclists and dog walkers.
Artist Yvonne George’s ‘Requiem for a Champion’, depicting a stylised racehorse on the gallop, provides a small tribute to a vanished era.