Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Avondale’s Racecourse by the River Part 1: Origins and first years (1890-1922)

The set-up at the Wingate side of the course, 1890-1900, showing the main stand (centre) looking toward St Jude Street in the distance. 7-A7334 (1897), Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

See also: Avondale races, the early days

Whether you have the occasional betting “flutter” on the horses, or you come out these days emphatically opposed to horse racing on animal rights and gambling issues, one thing can’t be denied: for well over a century, since 1890, the Avondale Racecourse has come to be part of the landscape of Avondale both in heritage terms as well as in the reality of its existence. Avondale identified with the racecourse through most of the 20th century, and thoughts of its closure from time to time elicit sadness, and concern. Especially regarding the fate of the much more recent Avondale Sunday Markets there. 

But, back in 1889, it didn’t exist. What was there, in the main area of the course, was the land owned by Charles Burke, a mix of swampy ground, paddock and, right at the edge of the Whau River, a brickyard which he’d leased out to various entrepreneurs since the 1870s. In 1889, the business there could have been Kane’s, or even J J Craig’s yard before the latter took over the St Georges Road brickworks in the 1890s. It isn’t clear which as yet. 

Burke’s land had no access to the Great North Road, being completely surrounded on the landward side by other owners and their properties. It is likely that those who paid him to use part of the ground for a brickyard didn’t mind that – the river was their way of transporting what bricks were made at the small kilns out to market. The brickmakers there didn’t last long, however. There was a considerable turnover at the site, probably due to that lack of direct road connection. 

So when, in 1889, after a meeting that apparently took place in the brand new Avondale Hotel that August, a consortium approached Burke with an offer to lease his ground apart from the brickyard, he probably saw a great opportunity. The partnership was Moss Davis, Henry Henwood “Harry” Hayr and Michael Foley

Davis, through his firm Hancock & Co, rebuilt the Avondale Hotel after the previous building was destroyed by fire in 1888. Later in the 1890s this became the Captain Cook Brewery’s land. The company had the hotel’s land, and the adjoining strip fronting Great North Road including the site of today’s Town Square and the “Dale the Spider” installation. Moss Davis stepped away from the committee by 1899. 

Hayr, a sports promoter, was friends with Davis. He was appointed Secretary for the new club in 1889, and was one of the early handicappers at the first races (a conflict that was brought up when it was pointed out that he was the handicapper for races where his own horses were starters.) He took over the printing business of Cecil Gardner & Co, and turned it into the Scott Printing Company – which wound up with the concession to print and sell all the club’s programmes. To top it off, he ran a totalisator company, and as secretary of the club was the one to apply to the government for a licence to run a tote on the course. In later years, he passed that part of his enterprise over to his son.

Foley was another friend of Davis’, very involved with the hospitality industry, and was the second publican at the new hotel (after Daniel Arkell, who went on to found his own brewery in Newton). Foley remained connected with the club from that point on, including serving for a number of years as president up to his death in 1922. 

A right of way giving access for the brickyard tenants to the main road via Wingate Street may have been provided in the undocumented 1889 agreement between Burke and the three partners – it was certainly laid out clearly in writing twice in 1898 and once, on the second deed, as an illustration. “The Drive” as it became known for the brief time it existed ran eastward along the southern boundary of the racecourse, then took a right turn, swept out on a curve, before exiting into Wingate Street, possibly somewhere near the grassy strip that still remains attached to the racecourse land between 21 and 25 Wingate Street. The Drive became a legal grey area in terms of the gambling regulations, not because of the racecourse but because individuals sometimes used it on racedays as a place for illegal games of “two-up” – and would sprint into the adjacent Webb’s Paddock in Wingate Street to evade the police in pursuit. 

Up until 1901, the early racecourse was little more than a third of its present size. The 47 acres leased from Burke, with an irregular boundary toward the river, meant that the first track had to be egg-shaped rather than oval, and smaller than later versions. Up until 1921, the Jockey Club itself had a small membership, even by the standards of the clubs of the day. The land dealings for the club were, up to 1923, always in the names of three trustees, rather than the club as in incorporated body. These were Davis, Hayr and Foley up until Davis’ departure from the committee, when he was replaced by Robert Humphrey Duder. 

Still, with the proximity of the Avondale Hotel and the railway line, the Avondale Racecourse proceeded, the first meeting held on 26 April 1890. Architects Burrows and Mitchell designed the first grandstand (located possibly just north-west of the Wingate Reserve), the first programme was printed by Hayr’s Scott Printing Co. in time for the day, including the first Avondale Cup of 1¾ miles, for a purse of 55 sovereigns. Easy access from the railway station was advertised, which indicates to me that the Elm Street gate was possibly the first main entrance (later used as a members’ gate). “The Drive” from Wingate Street was a secondary entry, but one where those arriving could also purchase entry tickets. 

Tracking the early history of the Avondale Jockey Club isn’t easy. The press didn’t cover what went on at the annual general meetings until 1898. They worked in closely with the Metropolitan Club at Ellerslie (which considered approval for Avondale’s annual programmes), and allowed coursing, cricket teams (“Publicans” vs. “Sinners”) and polo clubs to use their grounds by 1892. Also in that year, the club auctioned off “privileges” or concessions to certain providers: Foley had the publican’s booth for £17, a Mrs Hunt paid £2 for refreshment stalls, the Scott Printing Co (Hayr) paid £5 for the right to sell racecards, Mr Quinn had the rights to charge for stabling for £1 10s, and Mr L Adams controlled the gates for £27. The racecourse was a business upon which other businesses relied, right from the start. 

The saddling paddock was on the eastern side of the property by at least the mid 1890s, backing onto what was until recently the Suburbs Rugby grounds, taking advantage of stabling available both on the properties between the future line of Racecourse Parade and what is now the Avondale Central Reserve, and Thomas’ Paddocks on the other side of Great North Road. 

Each year, the club needed to apply for a license to run the totalisator; in 1895, they experimented with doing without the tote, sticking just to bookmakers instead, and saw their attendance numbers drop sharply as a consequence. 

1898 saw the club finally gain a formal lease agreement of seven years from Burke, and the following year another from the Captain Cook Brewery (then owners of the Avondale Hotel) for two sections on Wingate Street (as well as an access agreement for “The Drive”). The club set to with enlarging their grandstand. In August 1898, the press reported on their annual general meeting. Michael Foley chaired the meeting, with John Bollard MHR voted as President, steward and judge, and Edwin Mitchelson Vice-President. Hayr as Secretary was tasked with drafting a set of rules for the club (which makes me wonder if they were operating for the first eight years without any rules at all).

As part of the improvements completed by September 1898, the whole course was encircled by white wooden rails (something it lacked up to that point.) The old grandstand had doubled in size to 82 foot long, designed to accommodate 1500. A box was placed on top, for stewards and press representatives. Underneath the stand was a “spacious” dining room. Two separate bars, one inside and one outside the paddock, catered for the thirsty. In 1899, the club members agreed to make a new roadway at the main (Elm Street) entrance, add new loose boxes, and enclosed the saddling paddock with a galvanised iron fence. By September 1899, the saddling paddock was now just west of the grandstand, alongside Webb’s Paddock near Wingate Street. A new totalisator house was built from 1899. 

At the club’s 1900 AGM, there was talk of purchasing part of the Captain Cook Brewery land, possibly leasing an acre of Webb’s Paddock, and considering John Bollard’s offer of 18 acres of his land fronting onto Ash Street. In May 1901, Hayr, Foley and Duder obtained title of that part of Bollard’s farm for £1100 (Bollard’s land at the time under action of sale through mortgage default by the Auckland Savings Bank). A section at the corner of Ash Street and Rosebank Road, including the Bollard homestead, was transferred back to Jane Bollard, and only returned to Jockey Club ownership in 1943. 

From the end of 1900 therefore, the club with its architect Edward Bartley started to make plans to shift the existing grandstand along with judge’s building and some fencing clear across to the other side of the track, on the additional space that the Bollard land purchase brought with it. This sparked threats of a lawsuit by Moss Davis, who claimed lease rights to the buildings and didn’t want them shifted. In the end, he withdrew, the club promised to leave the old “Drive” entrance gate off Wingate Street where it was, and the focus for the racecourse shifted away from the hotel which had led to its founding. 

Now, on the Ash Street side, the club had a new grandstand built beside the older one they had shifted, the new building constructed by R R Ross for £1657. They also built a stewards stand and offices, also designed by Bartley, for £367. There were new horse stalls built, latrines installed, and new fencing, along with a drainage contract. The new layout proved attractive as a location for other events, such as local fruit and horticultural shows from 1902. The course also had its first telephone installed, with telephone poles and wires crossing the course through to at least the early 1930s.

In 1904, the main area of the racecourse, the land leased from Burke, was purchased outright by Hayr, Foley and Duder on behalf of the club for £2415 12s 6d, giving the club more firm footing in terms of land tenure. This was followed by purchase of the old brickyard site in 1906. 

In 1908, as a result of the Eden electorate going dry, the racecourse could no longer sell alcohol. Following on from that, the Avondale Hotel lost its licence in 1909 and closed in June 1910. I have heard stories though of jockeys secreting illicit stashes of beer and other alcohol under the stands in various nooks and crannies, until the liquor laws were relaxed in the 1960s. There were also instances of sly groggers operating on the course during race days, until they were caught. 

In 1909, the Jockey Club adopted new rules, which it retained through to the early 1920s. A new members stand was designed by Wade & Wade Architects in 1910. Around this time, the course started being used for military camps from time to time, right up to and including World War II. Tenders were discussed for a new totalisator building in 1911, and in 1913 the grandstand was extended. That year, the racecourse was used by Sandford and Miller for their aeroplane flights. A trainers stand was added in 1914. 

The 1920 Jockeys Strike was sparked off in Avondale at an April meeting. The dispute would come to affect other Auckland clubs, and involve even the local Railwaymen’s Union, before it ended three months later. 

A grand athletics carnival was held on the racecourse in May 1921, including motorcycle and bicycle racing, basketball, rugby, athletics, dancing, music, and lots of sweets to eat. Motorcylists would use the course in other events in the 1920s to 1930s, as would local harrier clubs. The Auckland Rugby Union, in particular, viewed the racecourse as a huge asset, with the burgeoning interest in the sport and the shortage of grounds on which to play. This support helped the Jockey Club face the most serious threat to its existence up to that point in 1921. 

In that year, a commission of inquiry recommended that Avondale Jockey Club be shut down. There were too many suburban racecourses in Auckland in the commission’s opinion. 

“Auckland at the present time has no less than five racecourses within a radius of ten miles from the Central Post-office, three for racing and two for trotting. Of what may be termed Auckland suburban clubs we have rejected the claims of two—viz., the Avondale Jockey Club and the Otahuhu Trotting Club. With reference to the Avondale Club, the position is most unusual. This club, from its inception, has had a remarkably small membership. It now has upon its roll twenty-nine members, of whom one has permanently left the Dominion.
“Of the remaining twenty-eight, no less than twenty-three are members of the Auckland Racing Club, and, according to the returns furnished, only twenty-one had paid the annual subscription. Of the sixteen members who fill positions on the committee and stewards, thirteen are members of the Auckland Racing Club. Not one of the members of this club lives in Avondale or its vicinity. The committee has obviously not welcomed new members, as is apparent from the fact that only thirteen have been elected during the last eight years, and the club has an exceedingly discouraging rule with regard to a change in the personnel of its committee.
“Little or no attention has been paid to the provision of training facilities, and it is therefore not surprising that there is but one small training-stable at Avondale. The totalizator was for many years worked for the club by the gentleman who was then, and is now, its secretary —under contract; but since a rule of racing prohibiting this came into operation the contract has been held by a firm comprising the son of the secretary and a partner- —the secretary himself, as we are assured, not being interested. This club is in a strong financial position, and has a very substantial surplus of assets over liabilities. The titles to the racecourse properties stand in the name of three persons, of whom the secretary is one. These persons were among the original promoters of the club. The rules of the club, adopted in 1909, provide that the properties of the club shall be vested in trustees. No declaration of trust could be produced. This club is unnecessary, and for that and other reasons indicated should not be permitted to hold down totalizator licenses, which are urgently desired by country and other clubs with infinitely better claims.” 
A vote to limit permits was lost in Parliament, Opposition member Michael Joseph Savage in particular remarking that “the report seemed to show a dead set against Avondale, though he was not sure the report contained anything in the way of evidence.” The Jockey Club received support from the new Avondale Borough Council, as well as the Auckland Rugby Union, and managed to weather the storm intact. However, the message had been received, and changes were made.
A new set of rules were drawn up, and the Jockey Club incorporated on 29 April 1922 under the Incorporated Societies Act 1908. From May that year, the existing trustee titles were transferred over to the Avondale Jockey Club, and the Club would obtain titles in its own name from that point on. It had been, though, a very close call.

Michael Foley, one of the original promoters, died in October 1922, and Harry Hayr was to pass away in 1923. Their passing coincided with the shift to a new phase of development for the Avondale Racecourse as the Jockey Club entered its fourth decade.

Part two at this link.

The racecourse in the 1910s. 35-R158, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections

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