The 1903 grandstand at Camperdown Racecourse was reopened in 2019 after a long restoration period. Once upon a time it was ladies only in the grandstand!
My experience at the races
I had no idea when I ticked off the Camperdown Races in my diary for January 2019 that our visit would be on the very day they reopened the vintage grandstand at the racecourse after a dozen or so years of it lying derelict.
Of course, that meant we didn’t arrive in time for the official speeches and ceremony, which happened some time before the first race. That was a shame, but how lucky we were to attend on such a special day, and what a great piece of restoration work they have done here.
The weather was perfect, with a nice breeze keeping temperatures reasonable after the recent heat, and that probably increased the crowd numbers for this big annual event in the Camperdown calendar. We popped into town before going to the track and apart from the queue by the only functioning ATM in Camperdown, it all seemed pretty quiet. I reckon the whole of Camperdown decamps to the course for Camperdown Cup day.
The big draw for me as Vintage Victoria was the 1903 grandstand, which was packed with punters when we finally got to the course. But there was no scrambling for seats or ownership for the afternoon. People came and went as the meeting went on, watching a race, heading off to interact with friends, watching the wild animals or just soaking up the atmosphere, which was buzzing all afternoon.
The grandstand is a beauty, with lovely ironwork fencing at the front, freshly painted with the golden touch of CTC highlighted in the middle of every few sections. Three or four staircases lead up to the wooden benches which, as was described in the papers back when the place opened in 1903, afforded a great view of the whole course from every seat.
I even loved some of the tattiness of the parts they haven’t managed to restore yet: the big Luncheon sign down in the lower level at the front, behind which is a large open space, currently disused, but hopefully one day once again serving food and providing another gathering point.
Round the side are old vintage windows from the days when you had to queue at different stalls to place a bet or collect your winnings – I have a vague recollection of that from my first race meets back in the 1970s, I think.
People I spoke to said they still had lots of work to do to renovate and fix dilapidated parts of the structure, but they have done a tremendous job so far, and it must have improved the race-going experience at Camperdown tenfold, especially if the only place to view the races for the last 12 years or so has been from the grass at the front.
Nobody I spoke to recalled the days when the grandstand was filled with ladies (and the gents stood on the grassy mound in front) – see my history notes below – and when we saw the two blokey cops sitting up high having some lunch, we figured those days were well and truly long gone.
I was delighted to meet several of the people who had made the grandstand restoration happen: Laurie Hickey, President of the Camperdown Turf Club, steered me towards Mary Hay, who was secretary of the committee set up to oversee the restoration work. With a great farming name like Hay, she would certainly have some good tales to tell of how farming has changed through the generations, but I was here to find out about the grandstand.
So she pointed out Stewart and Chock, who told me of the plans to restore the metal grids at the back and top of the grandstand, and told me of the termites that almost had the whole structure fall down, not to mention the wall at the front that was collapsing. This was a real labour of love, costing just over $1m to do the work so far.
That figure was given to me by a fine old gent who happened to be standing next to me at the parade ring later in the afternoon. Dressed well enough to have won the Fashion in the Fields himself earlier in the day, Gerald (?) Macarthur was I believe a member of parliament for the area some time ago, and said his family had been involved with the building of the grandstand back in 1903.
And sure enough, look back through the records on Trove database, and the McArthurs and Manifolds were names that cropped up over and over in connection with Camperdown and its races, so I had the privilege to meet quite a few of the key people at all levels involved in this wonderful work of restoration.
However, in another sign of what a small world we live in, we got home to find that one of Anita’s oldest friends came from Camperdown originally, and this friend’s Dad had made one of the speeches at the grand reopening earlier in the day. What a shame we didn’t meet him, as well. It’s the kind of people connection that makes Vintage Victoria such a live project.
And so to the rest of the racing and the things that made this Camperdown Cup day so special:
The Fashion in the Fields event was excellent, and a reminder of just what a massive social occasion Camperdown races used to be when showing off your finery guaranteed a mention in the papers the next day.
They spread out the kids, men’s and ladies’ parades over three races with a great turnout in each category and some fabulous outfits on show. It even inspired us to think we’ll be back next year and might even put on our best rags as well.
There were wild animals out the back for the kids, with lizards, snakes, koalas and – they claimed – crocodiles (though I didn’t stay to see if they really had one of them); there were fun fair rides; and a band in good voice. The ice cream was good and the Lions Club caravan did the best value cuppa and cake I have had in a long while.
Even the flowers planted in boxes around the course were a joy to see. They were petunias, matching what Camperdown racecourse traditionally had on show many decades ago. Sadly the main tree mentioned in those early articles was the elm, and I am guessing all of those must have succumbed to the drought or disease at some point. Unusually for an Aussie country course, there were few gums around in view, but the track was lined for much of the fencing with elegant poplars, and there were cypress trees (I think) giving shade in the car park to early arrivals.
This was truly a great day of country racing, so hats off to everyone involved at Camperdown Turf Club. We’ll be back. And we can’t wait to see what improvements will have been made to this beautiful grandstand by January 2020.
We had a pretty decent day at the TAB, too, winning a small amount in every race until the big one, the Camperdown Cup. So of course I placed all our winnings on a couple of horses which came nowhere in the big race and we went home without winnings, as usual. But one day that strategy will work, for sure…
$20 entrance per person in 2019. One meeting a year at the moment – late January.
The track sits just a few kilometres from Camperdown township (my GPS initially had us heading to a spot near a dried-up lake about 12kms north of town, so don’t always trust your GPS).
Low-slung cars like ours need to roll along carefully on the heavily rutted earth which forms the carpark. I fancy we might struggle to get in or out on a very wet, muddy day, but presumably they don’t often happen in January round here.
The course is big, with the 2200m start was about 200m from the finish line just to the left of the grandstand, so it’s a good 2kms round the track.
History and stories from Camperdown racecourse
I loved the Camperdown Chronicle’s description of the first meeting held after the opening of the new grandstand in 1903. The article praised the ‘perfect view’ of the course from every seat, but what struck me was the observation that the grandstand was packed almost entirely with ladies. Did that mean it was men who filled every space on the ground in front of the grandstand? I had no idea there was such a gender divide even at the races in those days.
It was clearly a big day when the grandstand opened, and the reporter claimed it was altogether a great success, with the Camperdown Brass Band keeping everyone entertained between races, and even Members of Parliament attending to mark the day. The only regret, the article reckoned, was that the original plans had been for an even bigger grandstand, and perhaps that should have been built for the increasing numbers attending the races at Camperdown…
1904 was another big year in the history of Camperdown races, it seems, as a grand bazaar was organised to run during the summer meeting, to help pay for the course improvements, including the new grandstand. Organised by the ‘ladies of Camperdown and district’, the stalls included: a fancy stall (whatever that might have been); a tobacco stall; a cushion and handkerchief stall; a flower stall; a sweet stall and a toys & baskets stall.
Not too many colourful stories popped up around Camperdown Races on Trove. More often than not press coverage was limited to descriptions of the races and the fashions on display around the track.
The Camperdown Chronicle in 1920 reckoned the summer meeting at Camperdown was the ‘greatest outdoor event of the year’, bringing people in from the ‘metropolis’ and from all parts west of the State, from Hamilton to the coast. Judging by the entries in the Fashion in the Fields 2019, nothing much has changed there, either.
1939 was an eventful year, though, as bushfires came in very close to the course. The Age reported on the ‘thick pall of smoke’ hanging over the course, which meant a lot of the crowd went home early to check their homes were still intact.
There was also a gale blowing that day: “Under the force of the wind, the marquee in which tea was being served (to local VIPs) collapsed soon after most of the guests were seated.”
There were no such disasters in 2019 and hopefully we’ll be back in 2020 to check this place out again.
People linked to this place
There have been McArthurs and Manifolds at Camperdown races for generations.
The Manifolds got here first, apparently, and Sir Chester Manifold was a top owner of thoroughbred racehorses. I loved the Camperdown connection to the first ever Grand National I can remember watching as a kid in England. Sir Chester owned a horse called Crisp at Camperdown and he was winning such good races in Australia that Manifold decided to try his luck overseas, first going to Camden, North Carolina (which I’ve also visited) and then having a bash at Liverpool in the UK’s biggest jump race of the year.
I can remember watching Crisp miles ahead as the horses jumped the last fence, but then just carry on one-paced as the sprightly youngster called Red Rum sprinted past to win the first of three Grand Nationals right on the finish line. I always felt sorry for Crisp – even though I loved Red Rum – so it was great to find a connection here so far from Liverpool. And in a final twist, I discovered from this excellent biography of Crisp that he is buried very close to where I used to live in North Yorkshire before we emigrated in 2014.
The current Manifolds are less interested in horse racing, it seems, so the stables are now disused.
The McArthurs are very much still involved, though, as they have been since the family emigrated to Australia from Islay (where they make one of my favourite whiskys funnily enough) in the 19th century. John Neil McArthur was a founding member of the Camperdown Turf Club, and was probably one of the relatives the McArthur I met mentioned as having built the original grandstand in 1903.
His nephew Sir Gordon Stewart McArthur is the one who appears most often in Trove, partly because he was an elected member of parliament for the area, but also because his wife’s outfit usually got a detailed description in the newspapers the day after racing took place at Camperdown.
This is a nice story in the local paper about the two families who started out as neighbours and still are many generations later. – The chap in the photo of this article looks remarkably like the gent I met, but then brothers often do look alike – or is it the same man? No matter. McArthurs still have an eye for a good horse at Camperdown, and long may that continue.
What are your experiences and stories from a day at Camperdown Races?
Anybody got nice memories of days out sitting in the grandstand many years ago, or any stories of a day at the races while the grandstand was out of action?
Anyone had luncheon under the grandstand – was it a grand affair or simple snacks? And I don’t suppose anyone is old enough to remember the days when it was ladies only up in the grandstand? Or has anyone got photos to prove that notion right – or wrong?
Any comments or help, just leave them in the box below and we can add them to the post.
Other links and writings on Camperdown racecourse
There’s a fantastic history of Camperdown Racecourse in this 2013 pamphlet on the races at Camperdown, written by Adam McNicol
The Premier of Victoria got behind the campaign to restore the Camperdown grandstand – here is the Daniel Andrews press release
And the local newspaper, the Camperdown Chronicle, wrote about developments at the racetrack in this piece from July 2018.
Coffee before the off or to drown your losses?
There’s good coffee in Camperdown at The Loaf and Lounge, with excellent bread and pastries too. But if you’re in a hurry to get to the course, there is a coffee van on site on race days and the Lions Club ladies will do you a basic brew, which we also thoroughly enjoyed.