Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Diggers Rest - A Great Place for Coursing in the 1880s

The roots of greyhound racing, in Australia and around the whole world, originated in sport called “coursing.” Diggers Rest, more precisely the old oval next to the hotel ruin, was a integral location to that early sport.

There were no tracks as we know them today and it was a case of out to vacant land where there were hares a plenty and organise a slipper, who by the way walked most of the 'course'.  The judge followed the course on horseback, as did many of the participants that were fortunate enough to own this form of transport.  "On foot" was the general mode of transport along with horse and jinker.

One of the first clubs formed in Victoria was the Victoria Coursing Club, which is still in existence.  The officials of the opening meeting of the club were: Patron Sir George Bowen; President, W. J. Clarke, Esq.; Vic-President W. McCulloch, Esq.; Mr. Thos. Haydon; Judge, R. Tattersall; Slipper, M. Whelan.

On 28th May, 1873, and the following days, the first public coursing meeting held in Australia in which hares were the quarry coursed took place at Sunbury, Victoria.  The principal event was the Sunbury Stake of 32 all aged greyhounds at 3 guineas each, and was supported by the West Bourke Stakes of 32 all-aged greyhounds.  Amongst the subscribers to these stakes we find the names of. Hepburn, J. Capel, G. Plant, W.J. T. Clarke, W. McCulloch, W. Watson and many others, who were found supporting the sport throughout the early days of its inception.  On the morning of the opening day a vast crowd witnessed the arrival at Spencer Street Station of owners, supporters and greyhounds, all eager to board the special train which had been chartered to convey them to Sunbury.  Owners of the more valuable greyhounds had sent their candidates to Sunbury two or three days before the meeting.

The first pair of greyhounds slipped were Dr. Barker’s ns Comet and Mr. Richardson’s Riff Raff.

The winner of the Sunbury Stakes proved to be Mr. G. Plant’s Nicodemus (Prince – Day Star), whilst the West Bourke Stakes was divided by Mr. H. J. O’Farrell’s Victor (Hookey – Blanche) and Iona (Hookey – Blanche), which ran in the nomination of Mr. Gee.

Probably no season opened so full of interest as the year 1880.  Meetings were being held throughout the State and the sport was now firmly established in popularity.  Owners were now looking further a field to secure a greyhound worthy of their nomination.  Various owners placed commissions in England for the purchase of first-class greyhounds.  New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania threw down the gauntlet to their Victorian cousins, but to no avail, as Mr. S. Burgess’ ns bd wd Spring Water put paid to the account of Lucifer, Rosy Fawn, Castor, Maid of Athens, Hilda, and Bash Maid, t win the Cup of 1880.

The system of plumpton coursing was introduced into Victoria in the 1881.  For several years past the accidents to greyhounds had become so numerous that many owners were prepared to try out the system of enclosure coursing introduced to England by Mr. Case.  Through the press, the public learnt of the innovation, with the result that large crows flocked to the oval at Diggers’ Rest on the opening day, and great excitement prevailed.  The Victorian ring was largely represented, and double, treble, and straight-out books were opened to big business.  That those controlling the meeting had not got the grip of providing sufficient escapes and well-schooled hares was soon evident, for the mortality of the hares was great.  However, the experience gained was useful, and when the time for the next Blue Ribbon came round all these faults were remedied.  The winner proved to be Mr. M. Adamson’s fawn and white bitch Lady Maryborough (Robin Hood- Princess Alice), who defeated in the final Mr. A. Smith’s ns bk wb Bashful Maid (Bashful Joe - Wallflower).  Those to go under to the winner were Proserpine, Erin, Bashful Lady, Colleen Mohr, Fadette, and Lady Maryborough.  The trophy of a silver collar won by Lady Maryborough is still in the possession of the Adamson family in the Maryborough district.

The year 1882 may be ranked as one of the greatest in the history of the sport.  The previous year, it was vividly remembered that the Sunbury oval was on its trial as a coursing ground, and the hares ran so weakly as to render the great event, on the whole, the reverse of satisfactory.  Trials had shown that most excellent coursing would be witnessed, therefore it was no surprise that, for the first time, it was found necessary to despatch to Diggers’ Rest two special trains, both crowded and of great length.  Visitors were astonished at the improvements made.  Telegraph office, refreshment room, ladies’ cloak room, and enormous luncheon tents had now been erected on the grounds.  The Sydney division won a big stake by the victory of Mr Le Lords’ Capri, red or fawn dog by Canute – Little Star, who, in winning the Cup defeated Reform, Rhodanthe, Gunilda, King Jester, Giroffa II and Maid of Oborne.

The Waterloo Cup, Purse, and Plate, distributing £1000 in prizes, have just been decided, with numerous other events, at a three days' meeting, at Diggers' Rest, about 18 miles from Melbourne, to the north. This is not far from the seat of the Hon. Sir W. J Clarke, Bart., Rupertswood, Sunbury, and he is an enthusiastic supporter of Coursing.

The Diggers' Rest Coursing Ground is called the Oval. It is very extensive, 200 acres as we estimate, all fenced in with a hare-proof fence. An inner space, about 100 acres, is enclosed for the sport. The rest of the ground is devoted to the preservation and propagation of hares, under a curator who lives on the plantation, the whole concern belonging to the Victorian Coursing Club. The number of hares is practically unlimited. They are driven into a "kraal," from which, by a mechanical arrangement, they are let out one by one as required for the courses.

All visitors are jealously kept to the Stand enclosure, fenced with wire. Here we have the Press Box, Signal Flag post, Luncheon Marquee, and the familiar concomitants of a meet for horse-racing. The betting ring is in full vigour. The day's outing costs about half-a-sovereign, including railway, admission, and lunch, so that the sport is somewhat exclusive, but there are large attendances, conveyed by a couple of special trains.

The hares all run almost precisely in the same line, though it crosses an open field, and the courses are minutely visible with a lorgnette. The Judge, in red hunting costume, follows on horseback, and the Slipper is also in scarlet. Only about one hare in four is killed. They escape to the Preserve, through a brush fence protected by sacking, which keeps back the greyhounds. Doubtless a number of the hares, like English foxes, get practised, in the "sport."

It is shockingly cruel, for all that. There is a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in Melbourne, which is extremely solicitous about anything in which the poor man is concerned. They draw the line at the pursuit of the fierce carnivorous hare—and indeed at everything where the offender is wealthy. But clergymen attend the coursing matches. They would not go to the vulgar baiting of a timid bull or a bear. The hare enjoys being coursed—by strictly respectable people, who crimp cod and skin eels alive. An outcry rises from Christian philanthropists if common people course just one rabbit, or three or four urchins chevy a puppy after a cat. Such depravity is horrid; but the sport is glorious when, in the Waterloo Cup, fifty squeaking hares are torn to shreds by beautiful and aristocratically-owned greyhounds. Subscribers to the Cathedral must not be offended.

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