08 November, 2012

And they're off and racing!

In attempting to chase down the popular 19th century camping spot along the Barwon known as "The Willows" which will be the topic of my next post, I came across  some other places and dates which relate to the land along the river and its historical uses. The first of these was the Geelong Racecourse which today is in Breakwater a short distance from the north bank of the river, however this has only been the case since 1909. Prior to its moving to the present site, the track was located on the opposite side of the Barwon at Marshalltown (now the suburb of Marshall). According to GCMagazine the Geelong Racing Club was established in 1865 and was located "on Barwon River flats off Tannery Road on the opposite banks to the end of Wilsons Road".
A map of the town and district of Geelong dated 1848 (held by the State Library of Victoria) shows the racecourse as having its northern boundary level with today's Reserve Road, its southern boundary a little north of Boundary Road and extending from the river on the east to a point a few hundred metres short of the Barwon Heads Road on the west.
On 4th March, 1869, an invitation was issued by the club to Prince Alfred the Duke of Edinburgh to attend a race meet at the course. The Duke who was no stranger to the region having visited the Austin's property 'Barwon Park' and opened the bridge across the Barwon at Winchelsea the year before, accepted the invitation.
By the time of the Duke's visit, which occasioned a public holiday and a huge crowd, one grandstand was in place and another temporary structure was erected for the event. The Duke and his party arrived in Geelong by train and were then whisked to the racecourse by carriage.
In 1872, the first Geelong Cup was run at the track. The horse which won that inaugural race was The Flying Scud which as it happens was trained by one James Wilson - owner of the famous St Albans Stud, located on the opposite bank of the river.
Geelong Racecourse, Marshalltown, c1900. Image held by the Victorian
State Library
The race meetings at Marshalltown drew patrons from as far afield as Melbourne, Ballarat, the Bellarine Peninsula and Colac, all keen to enjoy a day at the races. To accommodate this interest, a branch line from the railway line to Colac was built to the racecourse, running special services only on race days. It branched off from the main line somewhere near today's Marshall Station, crossed Barwon Heads Road and curved around to terminate inside the racecourse grounds. More detail can be found on this page of the Rail Geelong website.
The race track at Marshalltown however, was not without its problems. Situated on low-lying land beside the river, it was of course prone to flooding and by 1905 it was deemed to be too far from the centre of Geelong and a decision was taken to move to a new location at Breakwater. The last race meeting was held on 13th January the following year.
A little later in the year on 1st July, the land on which the former racecourse stood was handed over by the government to the Geelong Harbor Trust - a newly formed body who decided to develop the land as an experiment in agriculture: Sparrovale Irrigation Farm. A quick Google search will generate quite a bit of information about the farm over the years so I won't repeat it in detail, but will settle for a brief outline.
The entrance to Sparrovale Farm, Marshall
Sparrovale Farm (yes, this is now the accepted spelling and I note that the road signs have been adjusted to match in recent times) was named after Edward Rogers "Ned" Sparrow, secretary of the Geelong Racing Club and was set up as a model farm to prove that using the best farming practises of the day, what was otherwise viewed as waste land could be turned into a profitable farming venture. To do this, the land - about 1077 acres which included the former racecourse and surrounds - was drained and an irrigation system installed. A manager's house was erected near Sparrowvale Road and additional land allocated for employees' cottages. A nursery was established along with a poultry run, calf sheds, milking sheds, cattle pens and other dairying facilities. Horses and pigs were also bred whilst some of the land was given over to cultivating crops.
Things however, did not always go according to plan and after the property was flooded in 1909 and again in 1911. As a result, a levee bank was built to protect the reclaimed land from the inevitable flooding. This can clearly be seen from above to the present day. To aid construction, a tramway which also served to transport goods within the farm was extended along the line of the old railway branch to the banks of the river before, travelling some distance downstream. Construction of the levee began in January, 1912 and continued until funds dried up in September, 1915.
In 1916 however, the media of the day reported damage to the levee banks during another flood event. A further setback occurred in 1915 when a significant amount of cash was stolen during a robbery on the property.
Ultimately, the venture was not as successful as the Harbor Trust had hoped. The Trust itself struck difficulties and in 1933 new commissioners were installed. The property was maintained for a further three years until 1936 when it was decided to sell. The new owner of Sparrovale Farm was Mr W H Bailey, the son of Stephen E Bailey of Suma Park, Queenscliff. Stephen was educated at Geelong Grammar and in fact would have been at the school in the era dealt with in my previous three posts. He would surely have known where The Willows was!
The back of Sparrovale Farm from across the river at Wilsons Road
His son meanwhile, seems to have made a going concern of Sparrovale Farm for almost twenty years before selling up in 1955 to Mr C O Lorimer of Remirol Park, Ocean Grove for the sum of  £70,000. By this stage the property extended to some 1,400 acres and it was remarked at the time that Mr Lorimer was intending to establish a dairy herd on the land.
By 1964, the property had changed hands once again and at this time was established as an incorporated company under the name of KM Briscoe & PR Briscoe & GB Perkins & HG Perkins, also known as the Sparrovale Pastoral Co. In 2000, the farm was winning awards for their sheep and then in 2005 for their cattle. I believe Sparrovale is still a privately owned property.
Anyone wanting more historical detail the Sparrovale Farm page of the Geelong and District History Site is a good place to start.


  1. A historical post indeed. It is very interesting to know the past. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you for the info on Sparroville & Edward Rogers "Ned" Sparrow. Ned's mother Jane Sparrow (nee Bruce) is my great aunt, & this helps greatly with the family history research.