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Why is Melbourne Cup Day a public holiday?

The first assertions to provide for a public holiday on Melbourne Cup Day were made in 1873.  At that time provisions existed to allow for the proclamation of special bank holidays under the Bank Holidays Act of that year and for special civil service holidays under the Civil Service Act.  Although these holidays were proclaimed by the Governor in Council and then published in the Government Gazette, the task of preparing documentation and making recommendations to the Governor was the responsibility of the Chief Secretary’s Department.

On 30 October 1873, the Department prepared the necessary documentation for the birthday of the Prince of Wales (9 November) to be declared a special public holiday under the Civil Service Act.  William Henry Odgers, the Under Secretary of the Department annotated the margin with “Also the “Cup” Day sug[gests]s CS [Chief Secretary]”.  This was duly approved by Chief Secretary James Goodall Francis.  The documentation for the proclamation of Cup Day (6 November) was also added to the Bank Holiday proclamation for the Prince’s birthday.

But this did not please everyone.  The file containing these arrangements (VPRS 3991/P0, unit 710, file 73/C15451) also contains a letter of complaint from the Society for Promoting Morality.  It argued that the proclamation of the public holiday may lead to young men “…contracting the habit of “gambling”.”  It is unclear whether this had any effect but a Cup Day was not proclaimed the following year.  By this time Chief Secretary Francis had vacated his position and this might appear to bear our Odgers’ annotation of the previous year that the holiday was his idea.

The 1874 Cup meeting was the last one to be run on a Thursday.  In 1875 it was moved to the second Tuesday of the month.  This meant the Cup was to be run on 9 November, the Prince of Wales birthday.  As a result civil service and bank holidays were gazetted.

So, did the Victorian Racing Club (VRC) move the day for the Cup meeting in 1875 to a Tuesday in order to take advantage of a likely public holiday?  Or was it soliciting a public holiday irrespective of the day?  In this respect it is worth noting that in 1876, the Secretary of the VRC, R.C. Bagot wrote to the Chief Secretary with the following proposal:

“Will you make Tuesday 7th a holiday instead of Thursday 9th.  Sir James informed me it was in your hand.”  (VPRS 3992/P0, unit 883, item 76/K13038, file 76/K13126.)  “Sir James” was most likely Sir James McCulloch, the Premier at the time.

William Odgers subsequently annotated this item to record that the Chief Secretary had “seen” Mr Bagot but did not disclose any further detail.  Subsequent to this meeting both of the 7th and 9th November were Gazetted as Civil Service and Bank holidays.

From then on the precedent appears to have been set and a special public holiday for the Cup was proclaimed annually.  The extent of coverage of the act was adjusted via these annual proclamations over time and legislation specifically providing for a public holiday on the first Tuesday of November was not enacted until the Public Holidays Act of 1993.

Cup day

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