Monday, September 29, 2008

Night of the Exploding Tote

Avondale residents and those in surrounding districts for several miles around were enjoying a peaceful evening on September 22 1924, when at around 8.45 pm a thunderous roaring boom filled the air, coming from the Avondale Jockey Club. It was immediately feared that the grandstand was on fire.

Houses shook, neighbours and volunteer fire brigade members came running, as sheets of flame tore through the centre of the roof of the totalisator building on the course. Pieces of galvanised roofing iron were parted from their fittings, strewn about the paddocks around, one even found a hundred metres away on the racetrack itself. An old roller-type of totalisator machine owned by a Mr. S Yates and used by the Jockey Club was completely wrecked. All but one of the windows were blown out, purlins measuring 3 X 2 lifted from the cross beams throughout the structure, inside toilets wrecked with “lumps of porcelain … scattered about the room”. Part of the front wall of the building was “shattered to fragments, leaving an aperture several square yards in extent,” according to an Auckland Star reporter.

Almost immediately, rumours that the explosion was deliberate, rather than an accident, began to circulate around the village. “There is not the slightest evidence which would suggest that the explosion was an accidental occurrence,“ the Auckland Star declared, giving as a reason for this deduction that only the gas and water mains could have caused an explosion, and both were found intact (part of the gas main, however, was badly twisted on the edges of the damaged area.) The reporter pointed to the fact that the door to the commission room was found open, saying that it suggested that a forced entry had been made as the door opened inwards. “The bracket of the lock was forced away and the tongue was still as it had been turned in locking.” However, the Star did add that the explosion could have accounted for the door being open.

Reports were made of “adverse comments” having been made of the totalisator system at Avondale up to the night of the explosion. Unlike the automatic systems to be found at the time at Ellerslie, Avondale still used old hand-controlled roller types, such as had been introduced by the first secretary of the club, Harry Hayr, back in the early days of the racecourse. According to Graham Reddaway, a former president of the club, Avondale had been at the forefront of totalisator technology in the early years, thanks to Hayr and his company (continued on by Yates). Up until 1903, there were only bookmakers on the course, but these were replaced by the totalisator. There were advances in the totalisators from Hayr’s time until 1924, but it still took up to seven minutes after the tote had closed to adjust and ring up the bets for each horse, in order to determine each bet’s share of the total pool. The Star noted that the delay was found “tedious” by the betting public attending the meetings at Avondale. The Star also reported an opinion about the town that there was a “difference of opinion” over the verdict on “two very close and exciting finishes” on the day of the explosion.

Six of the eight tote machines in the building were severely damaged, and belonged to Yates, while two others belonging to the club remained undamaged.

Despite all the rumours and speculation rife in Avondale, the official insurance investigation found that the cause was due to the escape of “coal gas”. Mr. Reddaway, who has done some study into the incident, said that the building was lit by gaslight, and it was highly likely that someone had forgotten to turn the gas supply off to at least one of the lights before closing the building at the end of the day’s racing, and a spark ignited the gas.


  1. hey there, just came here through out in the sticks. Hi from an ex- fellow aucklander :-)

  2. Hi there, Amy! (waves hello). Thanks for popping in!