Melbourne Cup Stops the Nation in Federation Square

A photo of the crowds at the 1896 Melbourne Cup

Melbourne Cup (1896), Marius Sestier

One of the first films ever recorded in Australia is currently screening 12 times a day in Federation Square in the lead-up to the 150th Melbourne Cup. Crowds are gathering in Melbourne’s cultural centre to watch the rare 1896 footage of Australia’s most loved horse race.

This footage is one of the earliest films made in Australia (only being beaten by a few days by another Lumiere classic, Le Patineur Grotesque). Frenchman Marius Sestier shot this film using a Lumiere Cinématographe that he had been given by the Lumiere Brothers to document life and culture around the globe. Sestier’s footage was first screened in Australia and then was exhibited in France and other countries around the world.

The film includes footage of the 1896 Cup winner, Newhaven, with his trainer W. Hickenbotham, and jockey H. J. Gardiner. It then goes on to show the crowd in front of the Flemington racecourse grandstand. Many people parade in front of the camera, including Mrs Robert Brough, one of Australia’s favourite actresses of the time. We see the arrival of the Victorian and NSW governors with their wives — Lord and Lady Brassey and Lord and Lady Hampden. Finally, the clip cuts to the last seconds of the race itself.

The Bulletin, 28 November 1896, commented how 'beautifully appropriate’ it was 'that the first Australian picture presented by the new machine should be a horse race’. By this time, the Melbourne Cup was already world renowned.

The Melbourne Cup has a long and illustrious history. The first Cup was won in 1861 by the equine Archer, in front of a crowd of approximately 4,000. Back in those days prize was a gold watch and £170. By the time that Sestier shot this footage of the Cup in 1896, the crowds had swollen to 100,000 – with the prize-money reaching £4,148. Current day crowds can now exceed 200,000, with last year’s winner taking home the princely sum of $5,650,000.

So if you are wandering through Federation Square at the height of the spring racing season – cast your eyes up to the Big Screen to see a slice of history brought to life in celebration of this most significant milestone in Australian sporting history.

— Siobhan Dee, Reference Services Officer, NFSA (Melbourne)

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