Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Henderson's racecourses

Ben Copedo, well-known West Auckland local historian (someone I am truly honoured to say I know), asked me a question when I last visited Mill Cottage, the HQ for the West Auckland Historical Society. Something, as I recall, about why on earth there'd be a racecourse in Henderson. Short answer to that is: well, why not? Back in the 1860s to early 1900s, there seemed to be racecourses popping up everywhere, wherever some obliging farmer had a spare paddock, or even a stretch of beach. Rail transport wasn't a necessity, although it did help when it came to bringing in the crowds, so Henderson's racing history did pre-date the coming of the Kaipara Line in 1880.

Then, there came the research tangents, of course ...

Yesterday Ben gave me a brilliant map he'd made, showing some of Henderson's early landmarks and roughly where they were. I was rapt. He's included Prior's Landing, Delta Landing, Henderson's saw mill, the Oratia Hotel ... and the two racecourses. Yes, two racecourses, separated by the Swanson Road (and more paddocks) and a few years in time.

Here's what I have so far ...

On 4 January 1862, the first known horse races in Henderson were staged and called the Dundee Saw Mill Races, after the name given to Henderson's saw mill. This was held, according to Ben, in a paddock at the back of what is now the Methodist Church, close to the corner of Swanson and Lincoln Roads. Henderson's horse racing history got off to a lively start. The Pony Race was run in heats, and was for "ponies that never ran for public money. The first heat was disputed, but was finally given to Tubby, who came in 3rd. Second heat Tubby threw his rider twice, and was distanced, as were also Gipsy and Boomerang, both of whom bolted off the course." (SC, 14 January 1862)

Heartened by their success, the organisers had another meeting the following year. This too went well, even though the Hack Race provided some drama: "The first heat was won by Mr. Coyle's Miss Grizzle, and the second would to all appearance have secured the prize to her owner, but that shortly after the start the rider was thrown, and the mare bolted across the country. She was, however, caught after a gallop of four miles, and brought up to the starting post in time to contest the third heat, which she won easily." (SC, 5 January 1863) This time, I suspect, the rider kept a firmer hold of the situation.

Another meeting of the Dundee Saw Mill Races was held in December 1866 -- then, it vanishes from the record (well, at least from what it known at the moment).

In 1873, the "Henderson's Mill Races" were advertised to take place on Boxing Day. Now, there was a grandstand, refreshment booths, stewards and clerks of the course. The organisers were taking the Sport of Kings in Henderson very seriously now, and may have made their move to the second site, off Henderson Valley Road, opposite and just a bit to the south of today's railway station. The grandstand faced Keeling Road, looking south-west. The site, in 1875, was described as "a large paddock at the rear of J. McLeod's Hotel. This was one reason for the early success of the Henderson's Mill Turf Club -- proximity to a place where thirsts could be slaked with more than just water and ginger beer. By 1876, the Southern Cross recorded: "We noticed many of the leading citizens of Auckland present, and no doubt on another occasion many more will avail themselves of the opportunity of enjoying a very pleasant drive in the country, and derive benefit from visiting Henderson's Mill race course, which is equal to any in the province." This statement, I imagine, was intended to include the new Ellerslie racecourse, which cannot have pleased that venue's backers when they read it! Indeed, some members expressed their dissatisfaction that Henderson should choose to hold a meeting on Boxing Day when the Auckland Racing Club held theirs at Ellerslie: "... no true sportsman would do such a shabby thing as to hold a meeting in opposition to the meet of the province," one Ellerslie fan huffed to the Southern Cross editor. Henderson, way out in the country, was seen as a real threat, even though Ellerslie had a railway close by and Henderson did not.

When rail did come to Henderson after 1880, people attended the races in their droves. Attendances were usually from 600-1500 in the good years of the 1880s, and one year was reported to have topped the 2000 mark. The last good meeting for Henderson was possibly that held in March 1890, even in the depths of the Long Depression.

Why isn't there a racecourse in Henderson today, if they were doing so well? The major reason could be Avondale, and the consortium based around Moss Davis' new Avondale Hotel who decided to convert Charles Burke's former raupo swamp farm into the start of a first-class racecourse. The first meeting was in 1890, and soon after the crowds at Henderson began to dwindle. Then again, the Auckland Star felt that Henderson's facilities were "as primitive as when the Club started racing," and wondered whether Henderson was simply just "a proprietary affair". By February 1891, Henderson's course was in the hands of mortgagors, and their meeting was held at Avondale. After March that year, nothing more seems to have been recorded of their meetings.

In 1901, a subdivision plan for the Oponuku Hamlet (later renamed Plumer Hamlet, just like the Avondale worker settlements, after a Boer War commander) showed the grandstand as a feature. After this date, though, it would have been demolished. Plumer Hamlet, by the way, was the only West Auckland hamlet to lose its original Maori name. Hetana Hamlet in New Lynn and Waari Hamlet in Sunnydale both retained their names. Why this is is not yet known.

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