Royal Reels: Gambling


This registration cover has a printed ‘Four Pence Kangaroo on Map of Australia’ stamp canceled with a BOGANGATE/ 19 AU 14/ N.S.W as well as a red Registration label of Bogan Gate N.S.W. No. 281, and it is addressed to Mr. H. Oxenham, Tattersalls Club, Sydney (Figure 1).

The reverse has an identical BOGANGATE cancel as well as a REGISTERED/ SYDNEY N.S.W. cancel (Figure 2).

Humphrey Oxenham , bookmaker and gambler, was born on 23 February 1854 at Wattle Flat, New South Wales, third son of English parents Henry Oxenham, goldminer, and his wife Sarah, née Crane. As a youth he won a bet of £100 to one shilling that he could ride the two miles (3.2 km) between Bathurst and Kelso within a certain time with a pumpkin on his head, and set up business making a book on country race meetings. In 1875 he moved his operations to Sydney after a successful betting coup on his own racehorse Hogmanay. At St Patrick’s Church he married Elizabeth Wakfer on 8 January 1879.

The portly, mustachioed Oxenham, with a receding hairline, had become a familiar figure on Sydney racecourses by the 1880s. A ‘Leviathan’ of the betting ring, he was soon rivalling Joseph Thompson as Australia’s biggest bookie. His business interests extended to an intercolonial chain of betting shops and a mail-order sweepstakes business which rivalled George Adam’s Tattersall’s. His sidelines led Oxenham into conflict with the authorities in the 1890s and 1900s, when legislators attempted to restrict betting to the racecourses. Like other gambling entrepreneurs, Oxenham was proscribed in 1907 by the postmaster-general, who prevented the Post Office from handling any mail addressed to his headquarters in Pitt Street, Sydney.

While these off-course disputes were in progress Oxenham continued his career on course, as a bookmaker and racehorse owner with mixed fortunes. His successful stable included Cerise and Blue (1886 Sydney Cup), Phaeon (1887 Epsom Handicap), Waterfall (1898 Caulfield Cup), Syerla (1898 Doncaster Handicap) and Alemene (1898 Epsom Handicap). The highlight of his career as an owner came in 1904 when his mare Acrasia won the Melbourne Cup, saving him from ruin. He reputedly lost fortunes on his own horses, including Cerise and Blue which he backed to win £100,000 in the 1885 Melbourne Cup. When his colt Cabin Boy won the 1896 Victoria Racing Club St Leger at long odds he did not celebrate for he had reputedly wagered all the money he could raise on Waterfall.

A flamboyant gambler, about whom there were many apocryphal stories, Oxenham lived in style in a mansion overlooking Randwick racecourse and later at Villa Maria, Bennett Street, Neutral Bay. He also travelled extensively, supervising his interstate business interests and making at least four visits to England, where he raced some of his horses with moderate success.

Oxenham died at his Neutral Bay home on 2 December 1923 and was buried in the Catholic section of Waverley cemetery. His wife, four daughters and four sons survived him. Another, son Gordon had been killed in World War I.

The Clarence and Richmond Examiner ( Grafton N.S.W.) 30 June 1900 page 3 has a fine drawing of Humphrey Oxenham (Figure 3).

As well, the same paper on page 3 has a short column on him in regards to his aspirations concerning his horses racing results in England: “Mr. Humphrey Oxenham , king of Australian bookmakers, expects to make a big stand in England. During the past few days the cable columns of the papers have contained quite a number of references to the noted metallician’s [a racing bookmaker] movements in England, and it is only fair to assume from this to assume from this that he is making the headway there which he was prevented from doing in Australia. Mr. Oxenham, in going to the old country, aims at something more than was sought by Mr. Joe Thompson some years ago. The latter had no further wish than to become a leading member of Tattersalls, but Mr. Oxenham wants to be a runner first and a bookmaker afterwards. If in the former capacity he should succeed in winning any of the famous classic events, it will be an unique occasion for Australia, as though Australian horses have won English races before, they have not at the time been owned by Australian sportsmen”.

The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 December 1923, page 12 had a short obituary on Humphrey Oxenham, as follows: Early yesterday morning at Neutral Bay, the well-known patron of the turf, Mr. Humphrey Oxenham, died after a prolonged illness.Mr. Oxenham was a very popular sportsman with all classes of the community, and he was noted for his open-handedness in the cause of benevolence. Born at Wattle Flat, near Bathurst 69 years ago, the deceased leaves a widow and eight children. His daughter Laura, now in England, married Flag-Lieutenant Scott. Dr. H. B. Oxenham is wel known in athletic circles; Major N. Oxenham was awarded the D.S.O. and Lieutenant Gordon Oxenham , wh joined up with the Flying Corps was killed in action. The funeral will leave St. Mary’s Cathedral to-day at 2:30 pm for Waverley Cemetery. The S.M.H. newspaper’s photo is seen in Figure 4.

The mansion Normanhurst was built in 1887 in Alison Road, Randwick, on the corner of Cowper Street overlooking Randwick racecource. It was designed in an Italianate style by the architect John Kirkpatrick (1856-1923) – an influential member of the NSW architectural establishment, with a career spanning over 40 years – and was built for Humphrey Oxenham (1854-1923). A picture of the lavish entrance hall is seen in Figure 5.

Much of the text of this paper was derived from the National Library of Australia.

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