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The war was over and there were jobs for all. By September 1946, Prime Minister Ben Chifley could boast that, despite 10,000 servicemen being discharged from the forces every week, unemployment had remained below one half of one per cent. With rationing limiting consumer choices, that meant a lot of money burning holes in a lot of pockets. So where could a man dispose of a discretionary shilling or two? That summer, one place as good as any other was Foley’s Lane in the northern Melbourne suburb of Coburg.

There, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, Cole Robertson, Jack Attwater and partners Phil Samson and Jim Elliott stood willing to offer fair odds on the nag of your choice—at the prices chalked on the boards they hung on the fence or at the starting price. Being an SP bookie was a lucrative business. There were four lanes working in Coburg alone, and dozens more across the city. At least one registered racecourse bookie gave up his licence to work in the lane. The SP men would hold five hundred pounds on a race day, at a time when three blocks of land a little further out of town, next to Fawkner cemetery, could be picked up for one hundred the lot and a nice little house in Rosebud was a snip at three thousand. So giving five pounds each race day to the 14-year-old boy who kept nit—looking out for the police—was a minor business expense.

To that boy, Arthur Bell, five pounds was a passport to freedom. ‘My dad was getting that working at Millers Ropeworks.’ Being one of the four nit-keepers in Foley’s Lane twice a week, plus cannily playing the odds at two-up, brought his weekly income to a king’s ransom of 15 pounds. ‘I owned a horse and cart which mum and dad didn’t know about. I used to play up a little bit! When I had to go to work at Gilmours Smallgoods as an apprentice I was getting just seven shillings and sixpence a week.’

Arthur didn’t have far to go to ‘work’. Foley’s Lane, behind the Buffalo lodge and alongside a wood yard, has long since been covered up by the Coles supermarket carpark. Arthur’s 1946 bedroom is now an aisle in the neighbouring Liquorland bottle shop. Keeping nit meant strolling around the corner into Victoria Street and keeping a sharp eye out for the cops—and for his own back. ‘The cops used to haunt us. If we saw them coming, I’d head off through the pub or jump on a tram.’ There were times when they had to scramble as the police came across the backyard fences. On another occasion, Arthur and his mates were walking down the lane, discussing how the Buffalo hall roof would be a good spot to keep nit when an incautious police officer looked out from over the parapet, blowing his cover. ‘In 14 years I got caught once. This one time, I felt this big hand on my shoulder. It was a cop, and he warned me that if I yelled out I’d be nicked. But I didn’t have to—just walking up the lane with him was enough to tip the blokes off.’

With such vast sums of cash sloshing through the bookies’ hands each race day, was the lane a target for standovermen? ‘You never had any trouble at all,’ says Arthur. Perhaps it’s nostalgia, but the world seemed a different place then. ‘I lived nearby and my lock never, ever had a key in it. I’d rather have those days back. My sister went up to the Trinity dance hall every Thursday and Mum and Dad never had a worry in the world. I used to keep bookies’ money in the stove. Mum started it up one day without knowing. The money was all crinkled, but the Commonwealth bank still took it.’ In the early days, even the police problem could be bought off with a judicious backhander or two, although not everyone played by the ‘rules’. ‘Bookies used to take bets in a paddock in Reservoir. One day the cops came driving past and jumped out to grab them. One bookie was very upset and told them, “it’s not our turn—we paid last week”.’

Even when the police did make an arrest, their victim would usually give a false name but a real address. That way, they could keep the police happy by paying the one hundred pound fine—then, as now, gambling was a revenue earner for the state government—without running the risk of getting three fines in their own name. Three fines meant jail time. From the age of 18, Arthur started writing bets. ‘I had a bank book in a false name. If the cops got me I could produce it, as all they wanted was to send out fines. The cops were getting them all the time from different lanes—wrong names, right address for the bluey (the fine notice). After the war everyone had a quid.’

The problem for the police was that most people didn’t really consider SP bookies to be a danger to civilisation. They may have been illegal, they may have been linked to graft and corruption, but there was nowhere else to have a flutter away from the track. As Arthur explains: ‘Senator McKenna’s mother and father lived nearby. His father was the warders’ boss at Pentridge. But they never complained. No-one around here accepted it as criminal. Everyone wanted to get a bet on. A mayor of Coburg used to bet with us. He had a catering and wedding business—and my brother didn’t pay for his reception, given the amount I was owed. There was an off-duty cop—who I could name, but I won’t—who used to come in and place his bets on the way to work.’

A combination of police crackdown and the establishment in Victoria of the country’s first TAB brought the SP days to a close. ‘All good things come to an end. Our lane was the last to finish.’ Arthur, thanks to the false name in his bank book, could sit the examination for a bookmaker’s licence with a clean record and a clear conscience. Today, he runs a pet shop in Victoria Street, a stone’s throw from the lane where he worked in the SP business for a dozen years—even on his wedding day. But after work on race days, he still runs a book at the trots. Once he was one of 1300 or more bookies and would drive thousands of kilometres in a weekend, from Mildura to Gippsland. Now he reckons there are scarcely 160 and Arthur limits himself to Moonee Valley, Geelong, Yarra Glen and Ballarat.

Once a year, he heads down to St Francis’ Church in central Melbourne, which holds a mass for the racing fraternity on the Sunday before the Melbourne Cup. He long ago got roped into doing his bit, taking round the collection plate. It’s a long way from the days of keeping nit, but the punters’ dreams remain the same. You could ask Arthur to lay odds on it.  

David Glanz is a Melbourne writer who knows one end of a horse from the other—as long as it neighs.



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Existing comments

Hi just googled the buffalo hall, and hit your site! fantastic information. I've just been reading some articles from old newspapers on the national archive, you might be interested, heaps of Victoria street action in coburg, including the hall, the footy club, court room reports and even the pet shop, which I too remember from childhood.

The Argus is a wealth of information!

Maree | 15 October 2009  

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