In Bad Company, and other Stories/Sport in Australia

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Very early in a land peopled by the roving Englishman did sport of one kind or another begin to put forth those shoots which have since so grown and burgeoned. For some years there must have been so few horses, that racing contests were difficult if not impossible. The first cattle were herded without horses, some of the pedestrian stockmen acquiring thereby extraordinary speed of foot. It was customary for early Australians to make longish journeys on foot, and legends are yet rife in colonial families as to the distances performed then by the seniors—tales which strike with astonishment their descendants, who rarely walk, much less run.

We doubt not, however, that as soon as the colts and fillies began to grow up, their young riders, with or without leave, commenced to ascertain their relative speed.

Parramatta has, it is said, the honour of holding the first race meeting in 1810, the example being followed by the officers of the 73rd Regiment, then in Sydney, who utilised the reserve now known as Hyde Park for the purpose. From that time annual races commenced to be held there. The country towns, as they arose, were only too eager to follow the example of the metropolis. Favourites of the turf acquired fame which was trumpeted abroad through the restricted sporting circles of the day.

Sir John Jamison's Bennelong—named after a well-known aboriginal—was one of the early racing celebrities. He ran against Mr. Lawson's Spring Gun in 1829 for a heavy wager as they went then; and the old-world system of heats finishing up Spring Gun, he won easily. He carried off the principal turf events in Parramatta in 1832. In the same year Mr. H. Bayley's imported colt, Whisker, won the great races at the Hawkesbury meeting. Trotting was not entirely overlooked. It appears that a Mr. Potter's horse trotted twelve miles within the hour for a bet of £30, winning by fifteen seconds.

In May 1834 the Sydney Subscription Races were held on the New Course, Botany Road, for the first time. This course was new as compared with Hyde Park, but came to be called 'the old Sandy Course,' in relation to Homebush, the next established convincing-ground. At this meeting, Mr. C. Smith's Chester, a son of Bay Camerton, won the Cup; Whisker the Ladies' Purse. This grand horse won the Town Plate of £50; also the Ladies' Purse, £25, again beating Chester. Whisker, for whom £1400 had been offered three days previously, died within the week. I was present at that same old Sandy Course in the autumn of 1835, when Chester beat his half-brother Traveller—the latter fated to belong to my old friend and neighbour, Charles Macknight, at Dunmore, Victoria, in years to come. The well-known Emigrant mare, Lady Godiva, ran at the same meeting, and won her race for the Ladies' Purse, containing the modest sum of £30. The Town Plate was £50.

The celebrated horse Jorrocks, 'clarum et venerabile nomen' in turf annals, belonged to that period. A son of Whisker from Lady Emily (imported), he inherited some of the best racing-blood in the world; the dry air and nutritive pasturage of his native land did the rest. A horse of astonishing speed, stoutness, and courage, his record covers a longer list of victories than that of any other Australian racehorse. In those days of three-mile heats, he might not win the first, but rarely lost the succeeding ones. It used to be said that when the 'native' lads began to cheer, Jorrocks seemed to comprehend the situation, and would win on the post or die in the attempt. I saw him once, a retired veteran, and can never forget his shape, almost symmetrically perfect. A long forehand, with light, game head and full eye, grand sloping shoulders, cask-like back-rib, muscular quarter and Arab croupe, legs like iron, as indeed they needed to have been; a long, low horse, scarcely exceeding fifteen hands, I should say, in height—such was Jorrocks.

Intercolonial races began in 1849. Without railways there was a difficulty in transporting horses; but it was overcome. Petrel, the property of Mr. Colin Campbell, a popular Victorian squatter, ran a great race on the Melbourne Course with Mr. Austin's Bessie Bedlam, a beautiful daughter of Cornborough.

Dark brown, with tan muzzle.

Gordon's description might have been written for her. She was, to my thinking, the handsomest mare ever stripped on an Australian course. Petrel won, and Mr. Campbell gave a ball at the Prince of Wales' Hotel in Melbourne on the strength of his winnings, at which I was a guest—and a very good ball it was. The same year saw Emerald and Tally-ho (from New South Wales), Coronet and Hollyoake (of Tasmania), beaten by the Victorian horse Bunyip, a big powerful bay. He won the Town Plate, Publicans' Purse, and Ladies' Purse at the same meeting; and starting for fourteen principal races that season, won them all—a truly phenomenal animal.

By this time the gold 'boom of booms' had occurred. There were no more £50 Town Plates. In 1856 Alice Hawthorn won £1000 for Mr. Chirnside, beating Mr. Warby's Cardinal Wiseman; in her turn losing the three-mile race with Veno—an intercolonial duel—for £2000. In 1859 I saw Flying Buck win the Champion Melbourne Sweepstakes for £1000, eighteen starters, and may have heard the late Mr. Goldsborough offer a thousand to thirty against him after the start, and Roger Kelsall call out 'taken.'

The pageant of Flemington on Cup day was yet a visionary forecast. Mr. Bagot had not appeared above the horizon. First King, Briseis, Archer, and Glencoe—much less Carbine and Trenton—were in the dimmest futurity. I was to see Adam Lindsay Gordon win the steeplechase of '69 upon Viking, with Babbler half a length behind. Glencoe the same year bore the coveted Cup trophy to New South Wales.

What a wondrous change had taken place in a few short years between the primitive racing and rude surroundings of the old Botany Course and the shaven lawns, the flower-beds, the asphalt walks, the immense grand—stands, the order, comfort, and perfect organisation of Randwick and Flemington —exceeding indeed, in these respects, the race-courses of the old country! What a difference in the size and quality of the fields of running horses, in the amount of money wagered, in the multitude that attends, in the facilities of rail and road by which the tens of thousands of spectators are safely, comfortably disposed of in transit!

In these and other astounding developments of the era we cannot but mark the transition stage from a colony to a nation, from a collection of humble towns and hamlets to a cluster of cities commencing to take rank with the world's important centres. An Anglo-Saxon dominion unmatched, for the period of its existence, in wealth and culture, population and trade, in progress in all that constitutes true, steadfast, abiding civilisation.

With respect to sport other than horse-racing, the men who had left 'Merrie England' so far away across the Southern main, conscious that in many cases they had looked their last upon that earthly paradise of the angler, the huntsman, the fowler, and the deer-stalker, began to cast about for substitutes and compromises. Hares and rabbits there were none (did we catch a cheer, or was it a groan?); but the active marsupials which then overspread the land afforded reasonable coursing, and led to the formation of a breed of greyhounds, stronger, fiercer, in some instances hardly less fleet, than those of the old country. Reynard was still absent, but Brer Dingo was fast across the open, and a good stayer, while his insatiable appetite for mutton and poultry rendered him beyond a doubt the fox's natural successor. Even as a 'bagman' he was fairly serviceable.

Thus at an early date in Tasmania, a land of farms and small enclosures, and later on in Sydney, the old-world rural recreation, with pinks and tops, horn and hound, huntsman and whipper—in, 'accoutred proper,' was welcomed and supported. In Victoria there are now home-grown foxes in abundance, with hares, and, alas, rabbits in still greater proportion for them to subsist upon; while as to the fields, no straighter goers are to be found in Christendom—moi qui parle—than our young Australians, men and maidens, married or single—let the stiff three-railers of Petersham and Ballarat, Geelong and Rooty-hill testify; no better horses—fast, well-bred, clever, and up to weight. It seems hard that distance, expense, and long voyage should stand in the way of members of Australian hunt clubs trying their own and their steeds' mettle in 'the Shires.'

Now for the gun. Wild-fowling has obtained always on the inland lakes and rivers, on marsh and lagoons, with quail and snipe, more or less, still extant; yet it must be confessed that it has chiefly partaken of the nature of 'pot-hunting.' In marshy localities snipe are abundant in the season—I have known a bag made of twenty-five couple in Squattlesea Mere in old days; but the quail, the brown variety of which more nearly resembles the partridge, has a way of disappearing from haunts too much disturbed. Unlike the partridge, it will not return to the same cornfields year after year. The native pheasant is a shy bird, for the most part inhabiting the thickets of the interior and the forests of the main range—localities where sport can hardly be carried out under proper conditions. The wild turkey is a grand bird, both as to size and flavour, but wary and a dweller on plains. He is only to be approached by stratagem.

In New South Wales, Victoria, and Tasmania, the partridge and pheasant, though often imported—my old friend Mr. Yaldwyn brought out both to his station near Macedon early in the 'forties'—have never thriven in the bush proper. Edible seeds and berries are scarce, while natural enemies are plentiful. In New Zealand, a virgin Britannia of the South, the converse obtains. There are in that priceless possession, obtained by pluck and luck (before we got into the habit of advertising for the colonisation of our territory by foreigners), no eagles, no crows, no dingoes or dasyures. Partridges or pheasants turned loose in the woods of the North Island multiply apace, and a tremendous bag of the former was made to my knowledge by a Sydney proprietor on a visit there, walking in breast-high fern, but a few years since. As to introduced game, a herd of red deer, led by a 'stag of ten,' may be seen on the grassy slopes of Laverton, within easy reach of Melbourne, and near enough for an occasional hunt, while fallow deer are plentiful, both there and in other Australian localities. Among the farms they have grown to be somewhat of a nuisance indeed; hence a trifle of justifiable poaching no doubt occasionally takes place. In a general way no great harm has been done by the introduction of European game. Hares have increased amazingly, while greyhounds of stainless pedigree, with coursing matches to suit all comers, are plentiful in every country district.

But the 'werry important and particlar' exception to this comfortable doctrine has been the rabbit. Alack! and alack! What evil genius, hostile to the good South Land, prompted the importation of that fiend in a fur-jacket? 'Brer Rabbit' has amply revenged upon us the sufferings of his kind in bygone ages, and left a balance yet unpaid. What have we spent on him? What tens of thousands of pounds sterling are yet to be disbursed by suffering squatters, o'erburdened tax-payers, even by the humble 'retrenched' civil servant, against whom appears to be the hand of every man in the hour of financial need!

But the subject is too painful. Far removed from any description of sport. Sport? Ha! ha! Death, indeed, is the closer designation. However we may have been deceived as to certain results 'on this behalf,' let us not forget that our enemy is, like most of his congeners, excellent eating—good alike on the table of the poor man and the rich. In time, as population advances and smaller enclosures become necessary, his doom of extermination will be fulfilled, while the more harmless ministers of sport will be protected and encouraged.

About cricket it seems unnecessary to dilate. It has been taught sedulously to the Australian boy, by precept and example. No denominational bias has hindered that lesson being learned thoroughly—a fair argument, by the way, supposing the national reputation and existence to depend solely upon cricket, in favour of the secular system. How all our boys love it! Did I not see a youngster, of say seven or eight, yesterday, leading two small brothers, with one cry of 'Cricket match!' dash up to the engraving of the Gentlemen of England and 'Our Boys' in London, on the cricket-ground, now on view in a bookseller's window in George Street? How they gloated over it!

Many a good match have I seen in the old Hyde Park, when the Sydney College boys had a right of occupation there for a special purpose. His Honour Judge Forbes, then a crack bowler at one wicket, with Mr. William Roberts senior performing the part of the historic veteran of Dingley Dell with the bat. William Stiil looking out for a catch, George Hill or Geoffrey Eager, or Moule or Hovenden Hely, alert at cover-point or slip, mid-wicket or long-stop.

Ah me! those days have gone, and how many of those who then ran and shouted in all the glee of youthful spirits and health! Those who remain are growing old, if not in the 'serious and yellow' stage, and the young ones are coming on, doubtless to fill their places, 'in arms, in arts, in song.' When Hugh Hamon Massie made that 206 score for the Australian team against Oxford, our British cousins were probably of the same opinion. His triumph on that occasion was by no means a solitary one, and successive teams have demonstrated that in Australians our kin beyond sea will always find foemen worthy of their steel. Long may the friendly rivalry last; and in the deadlier contests to come—as surely they must come—may they always stand, like Highlanders, 'shouther to shouther.' [1]

Next to the outside of a horse—even, perhaps, as regards the coast towns, before that instinctively natural position—your true Australian is most at home in a boat. Those who watch the appearance of Sydney Harbour on a holiday must come to the conclusion that as a nursery for seamen it is excelled by few sea-boards in the world. Gay is the sea-lake with every kind of sailing craft, from the fifty-ton yacht, brand new and not launched under a cost of ₤2000 or ₤3000, to the canvas dingy flying along, bows under, with a big sail, and the youthful crew perched like seagulls on the weather gunwale. When a capsize occurs, which with these craft is a matter 'quite frequent,' they dive like a brood of wild-ducks, as they right their frail craft, and are soon bowling along as reckless as ever.

With such aquatic habits, small wonder if we have bred or trained the men who have beaten with the sculls not only old England but the world—ay, the world!—at this particular sport. Not only is it now demonstrated that we possess equal skill in all the manlier exercises—the boast of the island Briton, and at which he was long held to be unrivalled—but that in strength, stature, and the desperate courage which prolongs the contest to the last dangerous degree of exhaustion and afterwards, our men, Australian-born or reared, are equal to the best Briton that ever trod a plank, or to the best transatlantic colonist, himself superior in that special section of sport to his British kinsmen.

All Sydney boys, of whatever degree, take naturally to the boat. And when I saw a young friend but the other day, in a Masaniello rig, expand his broad chest and glide into stroke with one stretch of his bronzed muscular arms, I hummed instinctively as I watched the retreating skiff, 'Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves.'

The 'incomplete angler' necessarily commenced by deep-line fishing in Botany Bay, where he discovered the highly-edible schnapper, that moderately-boned fish of comfortable size and toothsome flavour. To him all honour therefor. Also the rock and other cod-fish, whiting, bream, mullet, trumpeter, flounder, sole, and many others (not forgetting yellow-tail for bait)—all these for sea-fish are not to be surpassed. It was some years before the lordly Murray Cod was handled with the help of rod and line, by reason of the Murray, our Australian Mississippi, not being then discovered.

Since then we have made piscatorial advance, and doubtless shall make more. If we have not finally settled the question as to the acclimatisation of Salmo ferox in Tasmania, we have the best of all evidences of the existence of trout of exceptional size in Australian waters. Fly-fishing is still in its infancy, though the thymallus of the Yarra Falls rises eagerly, and gives good sport. Trout and herring furnish many an hour's enjoyment to the disciple of Izaak Walton in Tasmania. Huge lake-trout are to be found in the erstwhile eel-tenanted deeps of New Zealand A salmo-appearing fish, weight 27 lbs., was killed in Tasmania in 1893.

In time—only give us time—and rest assured, my Australian brethren and English kinsfolk, that we shall have such sport in the South Land generally as shall do no discredit to our race—the best all-round sportsmen in the world. And so, fully aware that this is a bald and incomplete sketch of the rise and progress of sport in Australia, but promising to do better (if spared) at the next Centennial, and wishing us all good fun and fortune at this, one Australian hunter's horn must cease 'blowing' and sound the recall.

  1. Written in 1885. A prophecy fulfilled in February 1900.