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    The totalisator, Sportsman’s Club, Bourke-Street, courtesy of State Library of Victoria.

Betting and Gambling

Gambling in Melbourne has altered from a casual and informal recreation in the mid-19th century to become a massive industry, relying on electronic networks and providing critical revenue to State government.

Street betting, particularly the three-card trick and pitch and toss, was a standard recreation in Melbourne in the 19th century. Chinese clubhouses in Little Bourke Street provided opportunities for fan-tan and other gambling games; even in the late 20th century there were occasional reports of police raids on gambling rooms in and around Little Bourke Street.

In the 19th century the most popular form of gambling took place at thoroughbred horseracing meetings. Initially wagers were made between owners and bookmakers, with the bookie simply wandering the lawns, taking bets, and writing these into a notebook. Occasionally the bookmaker worked at Kirk's Horse Bazaar and the city clubs, most famously at the 'Call of the Card' for the Melbourne Cup. Smaller bets took place on the 'Flat' at Flemington racecourse and other racetracks.

In 1882 the Victoria Racing Club moved to license on-course bookmakers. In the same year Robert Sievier arrived in Australia. Sievier stood on a stand at the track, carried a large kit bag in which to hold money, displayed his odds on a board and wrote out tickets for each bet. The classic bookmaking style, which has lasted for more than a century, was born. Bookmakers became folkloric figures and their duels with 'leviathan' punters like Eric 'the Great EAC' Connolly or, more recently, Filipe 'Babe' or 'the Filipino Fireball' Ysmael, gave rise to tales of fortunes won or lost in the shadow of the post. Joe Thompson, who boasted of his friendship with bushranger Ned Kelly and who named his mansion Don Juan after his Melbourne Cup-winning horse, handled massive wagers in the 19th century. Other familiar faces in the betting ring after the turn of the century included Sol Green, the East London Jew who drove to the track in his gold- or silver-plated cars, or 'The Baron' Skelton, one of the few of the so-called 'professional' punters to finish ahead of the books. Flamboyant and popular with punters, the bookmaker was never fully accepted by race clubs, especially when those like Thompson, Green or the illegal tote proprietor, John Wren, bought and raced quality horses.

Sections of Melbourne's comfortable, and occasionally churchgoing, middle class have remained impervious to the appeal of the punt, so that the illegal gambling networks of the city, and after them the legalised poker machine business, have most often located in working-class locales. John Wren's Collingwood Tote (totalisator or parimutuel betting) which operated from 1893 to 1906 in one of the poorest working-class districts, proved a lucrative business, especially as totalised betting, with payouts depending on total invested on each horse, demanded that Wren take on none of the risks associated with the bookmaker's primary task in framing realistic markets. The Collingwood Tote, if anecdotes are accurate, was aided by failure to refund money wagered on scratchings and by the massive commission extracted from each bet.

Bookmakers, and gambling in general, drew frequent and near-hysterical condemnation from wowsers and some of Melbourne's Protestant churchmen, a reform movement most prominent in the 1890s and revived in the 1920s in a successful campaign to prevent bookmakers from laying bets with women. Reformers' attempts to ban horseracing failed, and the anti-gambling crusaders, by preventing legal off-course betting, ensured the survival of an illegal SP (Starting Price) industry and the corruption of public officials in telephone services and law enforcement.

Despite alterations to gaming legislation in the early 20th century and the creation of a police gaming squad, off-course betting flourished in Melbourne until at least the introduction of the TAB in 1961 and possibly until its more complete computerisation during the 1980s. Race broadcasts by radio brought the SP bookie to hotels throughout the metropolis during the 1930s. Increased use of telephones allowed for a further massive expansion after 1945. So widespread was illegal betting by the mid-1950s that bets of more than £10 000 could be placed without any alteration to starting price odds. Lesser betting opportunities, both legal and illegal, existed in greyhound racing and harness racing (trotting and pacing). Anecdotal evidence points to extensive betting on Victorian Football League matches; before World War I bookmakers paraded in front of the grandstand at matches, shouting odds as the game progressed. Gamblers flouted gaming legislation by playing cards off St Kilda beach, in Harry Stokes' floating baccarat school on Port Phillip Bay. The last such baccarat school was thought to have closed in 1961. More routinely, each Melbourne Cup brings with it the workplace sweep and occasionally the more elaborate Calcutta, often a fundraiser for a sporting club.

Lotteries, or sweepstakes, despite their comparatively high commission levels, have remained popular betting pastimes, and George Adams' Tattersalls sweepstakes, which he promoted in Brisbane, Sydney and in Tasmania before his arrangement with the Victorian government in 1954, offered prizes after the State took out 31% of investments for hospitals and charities. A 'Ticket in Tatts' remained a favourite flutter and the phrase has passed into popular argot as meaning 'good fortune'.

Other forms of petty betting, on, for example, illegal boxing fights, continued, as did the popularity of cards in private clubs. Immigrant men who gambled in clubs in postwar Richmond, Fitzroy or Carlton became easy targets for anti-gambling crusades. More money was probably wagered in raffles, 'wheels of fortune' and other gambling games (among them Housie Housie or bingo) at Catholic parish fêtes. Until recently, two-up schools regularly formed on flat lands in Fishermans Bend, near the West Melbourne docks, and on Point Gellibrand, Williamstown. Better known was the school near the Queen Victoria Market. This survived into respectability and in the 1990s a proprietor conducted legal two-up games after the last race at Flemington each Anzac Day.

A mechanised and legal totalisator was introduced on Melbourne racetracks in 1931, giving women the opportunity to bet legally for the first time, and 30 years later, the Victorian Government established a legal off-course tote network, the TAB. The first spartan TAB outlets provided minimal information to punters. Sophisticated computer and video services, and the introduction of TABs in pubs and clubs, have led to the rapid decline in both illegal race gambling and legal betting in the on-track bookies' ring. Each year, fewer bookmakers take the stand and at the present rate of extinction, this vital cultural element in Melbourne life will have vanished within a decade. In 1910, 256 bookmakers were registered with the Victoria Racing Club; by 1930 this had risen to 443 but, on Melbourne Cup Day 1999, only 108 bookmakers fielded at Flemington. Legal bets, with a state-legislated minimum wager, can now be made by phone with on-course bookmakers and may perhaps arrest the decline in bookmakers' turnover. Legalised sports betting, especially on Australian Rules football, is looked on by bookmakers as their best means of competing with the now privatised TAB (TABCORP), recently expanded through acquisition of interstate totalisator networks. At the same time, racing clubs now look with trepidation at the new Internet-based betting exchanges. These allow the punter to act as a bookmaker, laying odds against a horse winning. The exchanges also promise to offer 'spread' betting on team contests like football.

Such traditional gambling outlets as horseracing and 'the trots' may find greater difficulty in surviving alongside Melbourne's massive casino and the many venues with poker (slot) machines. In their search for revenue by which to make up for tighter Commonwealth funding and mismanagement of State budgets, a Victorian ALP government legislated for poker machines and casino gambling in 1990. The gambling solution to tax shortfalls was embraced enthusiastically by a subsequent Liberal government and by punters. Crown Entertainment Complex now dominates the south bank of the Yarra River and has altered the pattern of leisure and retail spending in Central Melbourne. For the majority of gamblers, a night at the casino or the local pub pokies remains an occasional and cheap entertainment. For a minority, and it is this minority who contribute disproportionately to State gambling revenues, the new gambling outlets, especially poker machines, can bring ruin. The new gaming business has already caused changes in traditional gambling activity. It has revived a broad coalition of Protestant church leaders dismayed by the social effects of excessive gambling. How far the new gambling business will alter cultural identity and economic stability in the city remains to be seen.

Chris Mcconville

Cathcart, Michael, and Kate Darian-Smith (eds), Place your bet: Gambling in Victoria, The Australian Centre, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 1996. Details

See also

Paynes Place