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Failing the Final Rail

The Olympics are underway and BRAC are taking the opportunity to explore some sports-related stories through the lens of BRAC, PROV and other public resources. It is a good way to see the sort of information available in various collections and how different series can support each other.

Some of the first medals awarded on any Olympic program are for equestrian events, and northern Victoria has a long history of involvement in showing, show jumping, dressage and more.  The Bendigo Agricultural Show has been consistently held since 1859, with grounds moving from its first permanent home at the current-day Tom Flood Sports Centre precinct to its current home on Holmes Road in 1968. A thorough program of horse events appeared on schedules year upon year, initially with a focus on heavy horses and bloodstock, giving stud masters an opportunity to showcase their very best bloodstock across a range of breeds in the show ring


By 1896 though, more general competitive events started to appear on agricultural show programs in Bendigo including time trotting races, high jumping, hunter trials, pony trot races, rough riding and lady’s hunter trials. The 2021 Olympic equestrian team for Australia has equal representation between the sexes, and even in these early times, lady riders were not an unusual sight on the show ring, and not just in the specific hunter and palfrey classes for ladies’ horses.

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‘Mrs McColl on Fairfield’, Bendigonian, October 190

Wangaratta rider Charles McColl and his wife Eleanor were regular show competitors and early in October 1909, they were described as ‘invincible’ after claiming wins in the 10-stone hackney and lady’s hunter, and both placings in the 11-stone hunter, 14-stone hunter and high jumps classes at the Benalla Show [i]. The pair brought a team of horses to 1909 Spring Show; Eleanor competed in the Ladies’ hunter and jumping classes, claiming the special prize in the former, while Charles placed second in the heavy weight hunter class with his horse, Highland Laddie, and won the novice hunter plate with King of Arms.


Toward the end of the day, at around 6:00PM, McColl and King of Arms had reached the final round in the novice high jump, with the rail raised to 6’1”. The pair took on the fence but the horse struck the bar and crashed to the ground. The horse rolled on Charles and trampled him in an attempt to regain its feet, fracturing the rider’s skull and rendering him unconscious. Eleanor saw the accident from the side lines. Spectators, including Dr Box attended McColl on the course before being removed to Miss Thorne’s private hospital in Wattle Street, accompanied by Eleanor, and was attended to by Dr Hugh Deravin.

Hon Victor Nelson Hood, private secretary to the then State Governor, Sir Thomas Gibson-Carmichael, wrote to Bendigo town clerk William Honeybone to enquire as to McColl’s condition, the vice-regal representative having been at the grounds for the Show. Honeybone responded with the news that McColl was in critical condition and still unconscious. By the following day, McColl had passed away.


An inquest was held on October 16 by RB Anderson JP, who heard evidence from Ralph Watson, a local carpenter who was nearby  at the time of the accident, from Constable Garland, from Dr William Long. Eleanor McColl was too distraught to appear.


Watson had seen King of Arms hit the top rail and fall on his rider, and went to McColl’s assistance, finding him unconscious and bleeding from the nose and mouth; the Constable gave similar testimony. Dr Long had attended with Dr Deravin and described McColl breathing heavily with ‘bloody fluid running from his right ear’. McColl had contusions on the right of his scalp and they determined there was a fracture to the skull, laceration of the brain and membranes though no pressure was present. Following the inquest, McColl’s body was sent by train to McColl’s home town of Sale, arriving in Gippsland at 10:30PM and the funeral taking part the following day. A verdict of accidental death was lodged by the coroner.


McColl’s probate papers contain an inventory of his assets which show that his equestrian pursuits were very serious. He owned nine horses at the time of his death, valued at an average of £97 each (a relative modern value of $13,700) [ii]. In his listed liabilities included the bill for Misses Thorne’s nursing services (£4/4), Dr Deravin’s attendance (£30) and accommodation and stabling at John Kilfeder’s (£4) and Avery’s (£3/2/6). The estate also had to pay the Bendigo Agricultural Society for stabling and entry fees of just over £9, but the Society owed the McColls prizes to the value £34.

Eleanor remarried the following year to George Gibb and moved to Ballarat but within three years, the partnership had soured, with George lodging a missing person alert with the Police after Eleanor had left on a train at Geelong with his brother Frank, saying she would not be returning [iii]. In that report, he described her:


“38 years of age, five feet tall, slight build, dark complexion, very neat appearance, wore a grey costume and generally wears a black toque hat [a hat with a very narrow or no brim]”


Eleanor reappears – seemingly without George – at Oaklands Junction a few years later, where she takes on the licence to the Inverness Hotel (where the current Tullamarine Airport precinct is located). She later took on the licence of the Keilor Hotel, the Golden Fleece Hotel in Melton and the Essendon Hotel in Mount Alexander Road. She continued her connection with horses throughout, at one stage petitioning prominent trotting man, John Wren, to push the committee beyond simply allowing women to ride in races and establish races exclusively for lady riders claiming that there were ‘horse women in this district [Oaklands] who would welcome the opportunity to display their skill in public’ [iv].


The Inverness Hotel was first licenced in 1907, owned by bookmaker, Maurice Quinlan of Aberfeldie House, Moonee Ponds, who owned significant tracts of land in the district, so much so that he held the nickname ‘Squire of Bulla’. The digitised Index to Defunct Hotel Licenses on the PROV website shows us that Eleanor was first appointed licensee in January 1915, and it also includes a snippet about the fire that ended her tenure at the Inverness:
















The fire started on Christmas morning in a hay stack behind the pub, supposedly started by a passing motorist, but soon spread and the building was burnt to the ground. Quinlan rebuilt the establishment but Eleanor moved on, taking up the licence of the Keilor Hotel. Quinlan sold the Hotel and some farming land to Captain Thomas de Carteret early in 1918 but later that year, passed away. We can see in his probate papers that de Carteret still owned Quinlan over £425 on the purchase [v].


Eleanor continued to ride – she placed second in a trotting gymkhana held at the prestigious Richmond Racecourse in 1917 – but had cause to report to police several items of tack stolen. While it’s unclear if some items were her own or those of hotel guests – a woollen buggy rug with a grey stripe – the proprietary of others is clear. A canvas horse rug lined in check material and ‘ECG’ stamped on the side clearly belonged to Eleanor, while a gent’s riding saddle lined in white cloth with a blue webbing girth and leather surcingle stamped with ‘A Morrison’, did not. By the 1950s, Eleanor had moved to the Daylesford district and passed away in 1959 at Riverwood near Woodend.



There is a significant amount of correspondence in the City of Bendigo Inward Correspondence collection relating to the Bendigo Agricultural & Horticultural Society from as early as 1870 – take a look at the index here: 


Digitised probate papers, inquests and hotel licence cards can all be found via PROV’s online catalogue – search ‘Olympic’ too, for a wide range of photos from the 1956 Games and more, or for more on inquests, search ‘equestrian’ and narrow the search by the options on the left to find the digital copies.


End Notes

[i] ‘News and notes’, Yackandandah Times, 14 Oct 1909, p3

[ii] Public Record Office Victoria, VA 2624 Master in Equity Supreme Court, VPRS 28 Probate & Administration Papers, P3, Unit 105, Item 114/669 Charles S McColl

[iii] Victoria, Australia, Police Gazettes, 1855, 1864-1924 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2016, p479, 2 Oct 1913

[iv] ‘Race for women riders’, Warrnambool Standard, 24 Jul 1916

[v] Public Record Office Victoria, VA 2624 Master in Equity Supreme Court, VPRS 28 Probate & Administration Papers, P3, Unit 845, Item 159/158 Maurice Quinlan

‘The Governor watching the judging’, Bendigonian, October 1909

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Excerpt of Charles McColl inquest

Public Record Office Victoria, VA 862 Office of the Registrar-General, VPRS 24 Inquest Deposition Files, P0 Unit 846, Item 1909/965 Charles Stewart McColl

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First of six licence cards for the Inverness Hotel

Public Record Office Victoria, VA 2906 Licences Reduction Board, VPRS 8159 Index to Defunct Hotel Licences, Item Inverness, Sub Item 08159-p0001-000002-439 (Digital)

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