Lost Australian history November 6

The Melbourne Cup winner of 1923 nearly bankrupted the bookies

One hundred years ago, on 6 November 1923, the Melbourne Cup actually put smiles on thousands of dials when Bitalli was first past the post.

It was the first time a favourite had won in more than a decade. Bitalli, which hadn’t raced for 6. months, had started off a longish odds, but word of its powers had gotten around and punters had laid on a bumper lot of bets before the bookmakers woke up to its chances of winning and shortened the odds to a still-ruinous 4/1.

Those bookies had quite the hangover after the race, having to pay out £400,000 – which, simply adjusted for inflation, is $37m today.

NSW's first lotto: a 1979 gamble

Who has the numbers?

That was the question all of NSW was asking on 6 November,1979. That was because the night before, the state had held its first Lotto draw.  

Daytime television host Mike Walsh and Karen Pini hosted a half-hour live TV draw of lotto in 1979.

In a live half-hour telecast on Channel Nine, hosted by daytime TV king Mike Walsh and first-ever Australian Playboy playmate Karen Pini, the 6 coloured balls and the supplementary had come out of the machine. Now the state waited for the winner to come forward and claim his or her or their fortune.

So, who was the winner of the game where the odds of getting all 6 numbers were 3,838,379 to 1?

The numbers you needed were 2, 9, 16, 19, 30, 34 and 36 – 9 being the supplementary.


Winner #1: Lotto was operated by the NSW government and was premier Neville Wran’s cunning plan to raise revenue. Which it did rather handsomely. 33-35 cents of every dollar went to the government. That first week’s tickets delivered $480,000 in revenue. It was criticised as being essentially a voluntary tax paid by mainly working and middle class punters.

Winners #2, #3, and #4: Amid much controversy, a company owned by Rupert Murdoch, Kerry Packer and Robert Sangster been awarded the contract to operate the Lotto at a profit. The massive publicity blitz had also delivered huge circulation boosts to Murdoch’s Daily Mirror tabloid inSydney – and, of course, to Packer’s Channel Nine, where Monday night Lotto became a fixture.

Runners up: As no-one selected all 6 numbers, there was a handful of second-division winners, who scored $38,715 each.

Bookish landmarks

No fan of bookies, but a big fan of books, Melbourne’s marvellous bibliophile Mr E. W. Cole opened his landmark New Coles Book Arcade on 6 November 1883 by appealing to non-sporting types.

The ad in The Argus on 3 November read: ‘Cole’s New Book Arcade (opposite Buckley and Nunn’s) will open on Cup Day. It is the finest sight in Melbourne, and the grandest book shop in the world. All intellectual, non-racing people are invited there instead of gojng to the races.’

It worked and his venue became a must-see destination – up there with the city’s waxworks and its chamber of horrors.  

Browse as long as you like, subsequent ads would say, promising ‘No-One Asked To Buy’.

The arcade had orchestras, monkeys and more to keep people entertained.

A more enduring reading room

Those very phrases were also applicable to another Melbourne bookish landmark that opened 30 years later to the day.

On 6 November 1913, the State Library’s Domed Reading Room was opened to the public. Of course, this institution had originally been the brainchild of Supreme Court Judge Sir Redmund Barry.

 His statue still stands out the front overlooking Swanston Street, even though he’s these days remembered chiefly for ordering Ned Kelly to the gallows.

The Republic fail

The man who later became our Prime Minister - Malcolm Turnbull - led the 'yes' campaign to do away with the Queen as our head of state and become a Republic.

Alas, just like the recent Voice vote, it failed to garner support.

Remember, remember, the 11th of November

Of all the dates in Australian history, the 11th of the 11th is the one that had been remembered by successive generations, albeit not for one but for an accumulating number of events that took place on that day.

Armistice Day

In the 20th Century, 11 November 1918 marked the end of the Great War that had seen some 60,000 Diggers killed in place like Gallipoli, Ypres and Fromelles.

Armistice Day was thereafter observed with one minute’s silence at 11am, which was when the guns had fallen silent on the Western Front.

But, given the time zone differences, this wasn’t when the news reached Australia.

The cable actually reached Sydney at 6.31pm that night.

With radio still in the future, word was at first mostly via word of mouth.

Ordinarily, the outbreak of peace would’ve resulted in a stampede to the pubs to raise a toast or ten.

But it came half an hour too late for that.

Australia was then into its third year of six o’ clock closing, which had came into force across much of the country in 1916.

New South Wales had voted for early closing in June that year, popular opinion influenced by a riot four months earlier when disgruntled army recruits had gotten on the drink and gone on a rampage in Sydney.

So, on Armistice Day, Aussie men who had to front up for work the next morning, would have to wait until knock off to hit the pub and get stuck in during the ‘Six O’ Clock Swill’.

The Dismissal

Gough Whitlam didn’t know anything about Armistice Day or the Six O’Clock Swill in 1918.

We can forgive that - he’d only been born in July 1916.

But when he grew up to be prime minister, Gough would forever become associated with 11 November.

For, on that dark day in November, he was sacked as prime minister by the Governor-General John Kerr.

This time news travelled far faster across Australia – live on colour television, in fact, compete with Norman Gunston – and it wasn’t long before this historic event had its own shorthand phrase: ‘The Dismissal’.

At least those who wanted to celebrate or commiserate The Dismissal were able to hit the pubs because at least early closing had long since been abolished.

Hanging Day

It’s perhaps odd that 11 November wasn’t known as ‘Hanging Day’ in the late 19th Century because it could’ve been proclaimed as such for 2 very good reasons.

1. Hanging Ned Kelly

The first was the hanging of Ned Kelly in Melbourne Gaol on this day in 1880.

Convicted for the shooting murder of a police constable in the company of his (now-dead) accomplices near Mansfield in the north-east of colony, young Ned went to the noose on the morning of 11 November, amid much press coverage and controversy about his career as a bushranger and following a popular campaign to save his life.  

Ned Kelly wasn’t saved.

Thanks to the reporting of the Herald, Ned’s last words were claimed to be: ‘Such is life’.

But Ned didn’t say it – at least not on the gallows, though there is evidence he uttered these famous words earlier when having his leg irons struck off.

So, what did he say as the rope was affixed? Eyewitness reports vary.

The Weekly Times had him saying, ‘Ah well, I suppose.’ The paper said it probably meant ‘he supposed this was the last of it, or this was what it had come to, but the expression was never concluded.’

The Argus reckoned he said: ‘Ah, well, I suppose it has come to this.’

The Sydney Morning Herald caught Kelly’s last words as: ‘Ah, well! It’s come to this at last.’  

But a police sergeant present reckoned Kelly’s last words had been a murmured response to a question from the hangman.

Another witness, who was a justice of the peace, would write: ‘After the noose was put over his head, he said something in a low tone of voice to the hangman about the placing of the rope.’

2. The first woman hanged in Victoria

The second was the hanging of Elizabeth Scott in Melbourne Gaol on this day in 1863.

Convicted for the shooting murder of her husband in company of her (still alive) accomplices near Mansfield in the north-east of colony, young Liz went to the noose that morning of 11 November, amid much press coverage and controversy about the fact she was to be the first woman hanged in Victoria and following a popular campaign to save her life

Elizabeth Scott wasn’t saved. But she should have been.

In her early teens, Elizabeth had been married off against her will to a much older man who was a drunken brute. They lived in and ran a grog shanty near Mansfield. Elizabeth bore her husband 2 children – along with many more who died in childbirth or infancy.

At the age of 23, this attractive young woman began a love affair with David Gedge, a 19-year-old who’d been employed by her husband. Elizabeth and David and another worker named Julian Cross conspired to shoot the husband dead while he was sleeping off his latest drunken bender.

Despite her tender years, Elizabeth was depicted as a femme fatale who’d induced these weak-willed men to her do her wicked bidding.

With Gedge and Cross confessing to the killing, Liz didn’t stand a chance with the jury. But it came as something of a surprise that the Executive let her death sentence stand in defiance of public opinion that the gallows were no place for a lady.

Elizabeth Scott went gallantly to the noose on 11 November, flanked by Gedge and Cross. Newspapers reported she displayed more nerve than the men.

She didn’t say a word as the rope was placed around her neck.

Dressed in black, she held a flower in one hand. She was still clutching it when her body was cut down.

Elizabeth Scott’s effigy took its place in the Melbourne Waxworks a few days later – alongside figures of Gedge and Cross.

They were still there 15 years later, when, after the Stringybark Creek massacre, she was joined by effigies of Ned Kelly and his gang.

The Kelly Gang’s waxwork would be updated after the Glenrowan siege and again after Ned’s execution.

The first woman elected in Victoria

Seventy years to the day after Elizabeth Scott was hanged, Lady Millie Peacock became the first woman elected to the Victorian parliament.

But to get the seat, her husband had to die!

It wasn’t sinister, though, Lady Millie’s titled hubby had been a popular member of the Legislative Assembly who’d passed away from natural causes. On his death, she’d stood for his seat and romped home – without even needing to campaign.

But before we start making ‘Lady Millie’ T-shirts celebrating her as a feminist trailblazer, it’s worth noting she didn’t stand for re-election, having decided parliament – like the gallows – was no place for a lady!

Lady Millie was elected to parliament as the first woman in Victoria.

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