Today is the 150th Anniversary of the Melbourne Cup, the world’s richest horse race, which was run on the turf at Flemington for the first time in 1861. The Melbourne Cup Spring Racing Carnival has come down to us from the Victorian Era with many of its traditions intact. In many ways the Melbourne Cup became our equivalent of Spring (May Day) Festivals.
Almost from inception the Cup became a Melburnian institution with 100′s of 1000′s of people of all social classes attending. The Cup was a place to promenade and picnic, to see and be seen. To underscore its importance to the social life of the colony the Victorian Government made the first Tuesday of November, Melbourne Cup Day, a public holiday in 1873 closing all banks and government offices.
Today as I enjoyed my public holiday I spent some time trawling through the internet looking at historic images of the Cup. There is very little to pick between images of 1881 and 2010. Men and women still dress in their finest and promenade on the lawn. Despite the waxing and waning of fashion hats have endured as a constant feature of race day – ensuring that millinery has remained a thriving art in Australia.
A traitor to my city I have to confess that I’m not interested in horse racing. I’ve never managed to get excited about the idea of dressing up and attending but nevertheless I feel a social obligation to place at least one small bet on the Cup each year (look in Melbourne parents take their kids to place a bet from the moment we are born). I have bucked the trend in my family who on both sides have loved racing from both sides of the turf. I’ve even found an extraordinarily wealthy ancestor, William Bailey, who (apart from being a career criminal) was exceptionally fond of a flutter. His 1906 obituary is online and a good third of the text lists the horses he owned, races won and the seemingly ridiculous amounts of money he paid for yearlings (1000 Guineas – This is why we are no-longer rich, ‘Damn you Bill’, I say as I shake my fists at the heavens).
Fashion and flowers remain an important part of the carnival especially roses. Each of the major racedays at Flemington has an official flower. Victoria Derby Day is the Corn Flower, Melbourne Cup Day is the Yellow Rose, Oaks Day the Pink Rose and Stakes Day the Red Rose. There is a modern staff of 12 gardeners that tend the enormous race track rose gardens and lawns with modern equipment; in previous eras this staff would have been much larger.
By the 1860′s the vast expanses of turf at Flemington would have been mown using horse drawn mowers. Horse drawn mowers were developed in the 1830′s. Previously lawns were managed using scythes (think Grim Reaper). To protect the turf from damage from the horses’ hooves the horses were fitted with leather booties.
Mrs Beeton’s Book of Garden Management has an extensive section on the newly developed Mowing Machines. All are a hand pushed version of the mowers that horses pulled along.
Mrs Beeton gives the following advice on when to mow the lawn:
“A scythe works better in the morning when the dew is on the grass, or when it has been wetted by a slight shower of rain, so when mowing is effected by means of the scythe it is better to get the work done early in the morning. The mowing machine, which works on an entirely different principle, acts more smoothly and pleasantly when the grass is dry, and may therefore be used even at midday… to produce a soft elastic velvet-like surface of fine short, close grass, a lawn should be run over with the machine at least once a week.”
Taking up Mrs Beeton’s advice I have been mowing our front lawn with the modern equivalent of the ‘Excelsior Junior’. The hand mower is definitely a lot more work than the petrol lawn mower. If the grass gets too long or sends up flower heads it wraps around the blades and jams the mower. This is one of the reasons that you do need to mow the lawn every week when using these devices. With out a scythe (I really think that me doing the lawn with the scythe would be the very last straw for our neighbors – which has almost inspired me to find one) I use hand clippers to cut down the long pieces.
As for a finish that looks like “a soft elastic velvet-like surface” well … it looks more like a neatly tossed salad.
So now that Melbourne Cup Day is in its dying hours I can go to bed with the knowledge that while I didn’t back the winner again this year or solve the puzzle of where the Bailey millions went (I imagine it was all lost at the track) – a least my front lawn is almost up to scratch!