The sporting traditions of Darebin owe something to Josiah Goyder, who purchased the Pilgrim Inn in 1865, had the building painted red, and named it the Red House. In the four years Goyder ran the Red House, it became a centre of sporting pursuits in the area. Beginning with ‘pedestrian races’, what we now call track events, as well as horse racing and hunts, the Red House was a moderate success in attracting spectators and media attention to Darebin. A small, narrow racetrack of about 1200 yards was built, along with a modest grandstand. Goyder was also able to use his association with William Pender to approach Job Smith, who owned a substantial farm neighbouring the Red House. Smith allowed the Red House to use his paddocks for cross-country events, including steeplechase and hurdle races.
The first races were on October 28th 1865. The day’s events included a handicap steeplechase, handicap hurdle, a one-mile trotting race and a Hack Race. The cross-country events were the most popular. That first meeting was quite well attended, despite an admission price of one shilling, which rose if you needed to park a vehicle. People slipping through the course’s wire fence without paying boosted the attendance.
Controversy was never far from the sporting events held at the Red House. Goyder’s next effort was a meeting of pedestrian races on December 29 which attracted 1000 people but which struggled to compete with a major athletics meeting at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Nevertheless the two-mile walking race created a stir. Prominent walker, George Moore, battled a local resident named Archbold, who started with a 200-yard advantage. Eventually Moore caught him and they crossed the line in a dead heat. Moore now claimed that he was Victoria’s champion walker. This claim led to a challenge from Ballarat man William Payne. The rivalry that had been forged in 1861 between Melbourne and Ballarat track fans, after a series of match races between representatives of each city at the Melbourne Cricket Ground had attracted crowds of 10,000, was to continue to grow. Bell’s Life, a major sporting newspaper of the day, took a major role in promoting the event, with the purse for the two men to divide reaching £80. Payne accepted £10 to forfeit the event to a location of Moore’s choice. He chose the Red House. The event was well publicised and Goyder took the opportunity to add three amateur races to the days events to further enhance the occasion. As continues today, the walking event caused controversy over the legitimacy of styles, with Moore employing a classical style while the 19 year old Payne was forced to use a more unorthodox style as he had one leg shorter than the other. Eventually Payne came from behind to defeat Moore easily but the debates between the two men and their supporters continued in Bell’s Life for weeks afterwards.
The Red House’s penchant for controversy continued in May of 1866, when the novice horses and their amateur riders all completed an additional lap of the course during the Chumpkins Steeplechase event, which was designed for inexperienced racers. In the end the horse that had been clearly leading after the fourth lap, which was supposed to be the final lap, was deemed the winner, despite protests from the owner of the horse that had been leading after the additional fifth lap completed by the field.
Matt Higgins, a professional athlete, who would travel to events like those staged at the Red House and broker his own challenges, was the next to court controversy at the Red House. On the same day that William Payne had outwalked George Moore, Higgins had defeated a bitter rival, Herbert Pardoe, over a half-mile. Pardoe was incensed and insisted that Higgins had not been correctly entered in the race, a claim that was dismissed by the officials. Higgins would later challenge willing punters to bet against him running 10 miles in an hour at the Red House. He offered £300 for £200 in return, a sum that was raised through promotion by Bell’s Life. The interest level in Higgins’ challenge was such that one bookmaker was offering a double for Higgins to complete the challenge and for The Barb to win the upcoming Melbourne Cup. On September 23rd 1866 the day arrived and Higgins achieved the task with 25 seconds to spare, while The Barb also took out the cup a few weeks later at 6/1.
Higgins association with the Red House continued on after the hotel changed hands in 1869 and became the Croxton Park. After failing gallantly in an attempt to run 19 miles in two hours at the Albert Ground in Sydney, he returned in October of 1869. On this occasion he was challenging unknown New Zealander Joseph Bolton for £50 over 150 yards. Higgins ignorance of Bolton’s background cost him dearly, as he gave him a 5-yard start and ended up losing the race.
During the Red House years, Goyder tried his hand at promoting other sports, with hunting and shooting among them. In May of 1866 Goyder announced a competition for the Red House Challenge Cup, worth £25 to the winner, with challenges to be held every three weeks. After a Mr. Gill took out the inaugural trophy, the challenges did come every two to three weeks, but unfortunately for Goyder, the one on one contests were of little interest to spectators.
Goyder next tried to promote a grand challenge in November of 1866 between 10 shooters each from Sydney and Melbourne. Although Goyder did visit Sydney in an attempt to get the event off the ground, nothing came of it, except perhaps that his trip away saw the scheduled spring racing event at the Red House cancelled.
While Swift says the sporting resort created by Goyder at the Red House rivalled Flemington for popularity, the truth is far less glamorous. The events struggled to attract crowds despite the best efforts of Joseph Goyder, and while Andrew Lemon says Goyder’s “venture was a limited success”, in the end he was forced to sell the Red House to a syndicate of businessmen due to financial pressures. These men had recognized the potential that Goyder had been trying to tap into, and aimed to take it much further.
Membrey, Brian (2003?). The pubs, the parks and the Rose. [unpublished manuscript].
Lemon, Andrew (1983). The Northcote Side of the River. North Melbourne: Hargreen
Swift, William George (1928). The History of Northcote: from its first settlement to a city. Northcote: Leader Publishing
Edge, Gary (2004). Surviving the six o’clock swill: a history of Darebin’s hotels. Melbourne: Darebin Libraries.