Northern Victoria Burning Bright

“Bendigo worked itself into an excited, happy frenzy and really turned it on for the arrival of the Olympic Torch last night”1. So reported the Bendigo Advertiser on the leg of the 1956 Olympic Torch relay which came through the district, a stage coordinated by the City of Bendigo on the request of Torch Relay Victoria’s Honorary Organiser. Details of that first request for support can be found in the City of Bendigo Minute Books for 1956.

Gearing Up For The Games

Excerpt from council minutes meeting held 30 April 1956,

Public Record Office Victoria, VA 2389 City of Bendigo, VPRS 16269 Council Minutes, P1, Unit 20, 1955-1956

At the same meeting of Council where the request from the Torch Relay organiser was tabled, they received, and accepted, an offer from the local centre of the Victorian Amateur Athletic Association (VAAA) to conduct the relay through the Bendigo zone; they also considered – but declined – a request to support the VAAA’s suggestion to eliminate the metropolitan athletes from the stage as they considered ‘that there are ample amateur sportsmen in Bendigo and surrounds to fill all the mile stages of the relay’2.

 

The City of Bendigo and VAAA were to coordinate the stage which incorporated not just the council area but other shires taken in by the route, namely Metcalfe, Maldon, Marong and Huntly, and arrange the 36 torch bearers that would each cover a mile along the route. Citizens chosen to carry the torch had to demonstrate they could run a mile (1.61km) in a maximum of six minutes (for Victoria), and could not be a professional sportsperson.

 

As an opportunity to showcase the City, the Mayor Henry Snell, a quarry master, and Councillor Tom Flood (for whom the modern Sports Centre on Barnard Street in is named) determined that a sub-committee should be formed to organise a visit to the city by overseas dignitaries that were in the country for the Games; the motion was carried and the Mayor was joined by Councillors George Pethard and Osborn on this committee 3.

 

The Council had evidently also written to the Melbourne Olympiad Technical Director, offering the use of the Showgrounds for Olympic athlete training, however the response sent from the Director declined the offer:

 

 

Excerpt from council minutes meeting held 12 November 1956, Public Record Office Victoria, VA 2389 City of Bendigo, VPRS 16269 Council Minutes, P1, Unit 20, 1955-1956

 

Bendigo planned a whole carnival surrounding the Olympic build up, which in addition to the events on the night of the Torch arrival included an athletics meeting of the VAAA, an RSL bonfire, and the Bendigo Cup which returned to its earlier, two-day carnival format. The athletics carnival, designed to give international athletes who chose to take part an ‘experience of Australian competitive conditions’ took place on November 17 after the council granted use of the Showgrounds 4:

Excerpt from council minutes meeting held 23 July 1956

Public Record Office Victoria, VA 2389 City of Bendigo, VPRS 16269 Council Minutes, P1, Unit 20, 1955-1956

Bendigo planned a whole carnival surrounding the Olympic build up, which in addition to the events on the night of the Torch arrival included an athletics meeting of the VAAA, an RSL bonfire, and the Bendigo Cup which returned to its earlier, two-day carnival format. The athletics carnival, designed to give international athletes who chose to take part an ‘experience of Australian competitive conditions’ took place on November 17 after the council granted use of the Showgrounds:

Excerpt from council minutes meeting held 23 July 1956

Public Record Office Victoria, VA 2389 City of Bendigo, VPRS 16269 Council Minutes, P1, Unit 20, 1955-1956

The meeting was a success and the VAAA wrote to the Council to thank them for the support received and to inform them that the meeting had been featured in international newspapers.

 

The local RSL sub-branch wished to participate in the state-wide celebration of the Olympics and applied to Council for permission to use one of the City’s recreational reserves for a ‘monster bonfire’; the request was granted and the bonfire was hosted on Londonderry Reserve, on Creek Street North, behind the current-day Domino’s shop 5.

Bendigo in the Parish of Sandhurst #17 Township Plan

Public Record Office Victoria, VA 4554 Department of Sustainability & Environment, VPRS 16171 Regional land Office Parish & Township Plans Digitised Reference Set, P1, item S-Ti, record Sandhurst Bendigo 17 LOImp347

The event didn’t go off without a hitch however, with police having to be engaged to control traffic blocking surrounding streets as 3,000 people gathered to watch the 100-foot high flames. People arrived as early as 2:30PM when children’s entertainment commenced, but by 8:30PM cars were parked up to four blocks away and High Street traffic was at a standstill 6. Mayor Craig opened the carnival and a fireworks display was held before the bonfire was lit by 13-year-old Sea Cadet, Barry Twidle of Carpenter Street.

 

The glow from the fire at its peak lit up the spires of Sacred Heart Cathedral; the smoke from the 30-foot-high pile of tree loppings (and 200 tyres) swept as far as the railway yards. As the fire diminished to coals, ex-Navalmen and Sea Cadets put them to good use with a fundraising BBQ, cooking steaks and more over the remnants of the bonfire.

‘3,000 saw this bonfire

Bendigo Advertiser, 20 November 1956

Footage of the Olympic equestrian events, held in June in Stockholm due to Australia’s strict biosecurity measures, and the Badminton Horse Trials were screened at the Memorial Hall at the start of the month, during the Bendigo Agricultural Show. A lecture from equestrian judge Colin Kelly was also given and money raised was donated to Legacy 7.

 

The Bendigo Jockey Club (BJC) renamed their feature the ‘Bendigo Olympic Year Cup’, which carried a purse of £1,080 and as the only midweek race meeting programmed in the Olympic opening week, it attracted a significant crowd with many international visitors making the trip up for the program. One special train from Melbourne alone brought 223 racegoers to the Epsom track platform. The Cup winner was New Zealand-bred Mentone horse Harry Lime, (ridden by star jockey Ron Hutchinson and trained by Des McCormick) and the only locally trained victor on the card was Flinders Lane in the Improvers’ Handicap, prepared by George Daniel. His star, Sailor’s Guide, gave an exhibition gallop before the main race.

 

In partnership with the Jockey Club, local Jaycees, Rotary and Lions Clubs, the City of Bendigo developed a marketing flyer, showcasing the attractions of the city and featuring coloured images of Loong, the dragon, gold mining activity and the racecourse, was printed up and ‘distributed to Olympic visitors and athletes’8. On the night of the Bendigo Cup, 400 people gathered at a cabaret ball hosted by BJC president, Fred Oldfield at the Mollison Street Drill Hall, while nearly 12,000 lined the main streets to cheer the arrival of the Olympic Torch 9.

 

 

The Torch Arrives

 

To bring the Flame from Olympia in Greece, first a prayer to Zeus was made by a princess at the temple of Athena whereupon an olive branch was lit by the sun’s rays onto a concave mirror, and the flame transferred to an ancient lamp. It then took a journey that first incorporated Sweden (where the 1956 Olympic equestrian events were held) and South-East Asia before being brought to Darwin on QANTAS’s Southern Horizon to make its way, via Cairns where the flame was first transferred to a torch, along the Eastern seaboard to Melbourne in time for the 22 November opening ceremony 10.

Qantas.png

The lantern is handed to QANTAS’ Captain Young

Official Report of the Organising Committee for the Games of the XVI Olympiad Melbourne, 1958, p210

[For an incredibly detailed description of the logistics surrounding the longest torch relay in Olympic history at that time, refer to The Official Report of the Organising Committee for the Games of the XVI Olympiad Melbourne, 1958, pages 206-222, available online]

 

The Torch first reached Victoria via Albury-Wodonga at 1:37AM and headed to Wangaratta and Shepparton before making its way toward the Goldfields, but the weather conditions meant last minute detours from the original planned route through Byrneside, Stanhope and Corop. Heavy late Spring rains had hit the district and led to waterways being swelled and roadways being blocked.

 

Instead of running the full mile, several Torch bearers had to be carried through floodwaters on the Midland Highway in an army truck, detouring the run through Tatura, Rushworth and Colbinabbin. Near the junction of the Northern and Midland Highways, cars were parked bumper-to-bumper for eight miles, and the same occurred at Goornong, where a banner proclaiming ‘Welcome to Goornong’ was strung over the main road 11.

 

Further drama occurred as the Torch passed through Goornong, and one perhaps indicative of the contradictory Australian climate. As Melbourne runner Jack Murray approached the township, he waved the 1.8kg aluminium Torch to the cheering crowd, sending sparks from the flame into the roadside and starting a grass fire. Murray helped to stamp out the flames before completing his leg in under five minutes.

 

From Goornong, the nine runners successfully made up the 18 minutes lost through detours by running the distance of eight miles in 35 minutes and 37 seconds. Geoff Lockwood covered a mile in 4:40; a 1954 Empire Games (now Commonwealth Games) representative, Geoff Warren, clocked 4:44 along with Doug Henderson and Murray, who both helped in the effort. The way was cleared where traffic threatened to impede the catch up efforts by police escort and a convoy of trucks that had been on the journey all the way from Cairns.

 

Picnics, afternoon teas, cheering and traffic jams featured across the district, with thousands lining even relatively remote country roads to cheer on the bearers, often waiting more than two hours to see the rapid procession. Several school buses deliberately ignored schedules so that the students on board could watch the Torch go past.

 

A ‘festival of sport’ was also taking place to entertain the crowds as they awaited the arrival of the Torch in the city centre, with several basketball matches and gymnastic displays were conducted at the YMCA in Mundy Street, where the Torch was due to pass from McCrae Street before it turned into Lyttleton Terrace 12.

 

The first local runner was EJ Wilson from Kamarooka North, followed by the Shotton brothers from Warragamba (Diggorra West) and well-known Rochester footballer, N Featherby. The first Bendigo runners were YMCA Harrier members and brothers, Malcolm, Murdoch and Graham Macdonald (pictured below, Bendigo Advertiser). One of two ‘flying milk-ohs’, Harold Pilgrim, was the first in his family to carry a Torch; his brother John took it through the city of Geelong the following morning 13. But the man who carried the flame from Lake Weeroona to its final sweep to the Town Hall was Jack Davey.

 

Davey, a talented runner who had represented Australia at the 1954 British Empire Games, had narrowly missed a place on the 1956 Olympic Team after damaging his knee in a car accident. A member of the YMCA Harriers, he had won a five-mile cross-country race in Bendigo and it encouraged him to take his pursuit more seriously. Three years later, he made the Victorian team and returned from a Melbourne meet with an Australian record. He was selected for the Empire Games after a win at the Australasian Championships in Adelaide and at the main event in Vancouver, finished fourth over six miles after leading to the five mile mark.

‘There was an excited murmur from the giant crowd outside the Town Hall as cheering broke out further up the route near the YMCA’, reported the Bendigo Advertiser, with the noise becoming ‘ear splitting’ as local athlete, Jack Davey approached the Hall. It drowned out Mayor Craig, in the middle of his welcome speech and who, at 8:44PM, was handed the Torch by Davey to cheers of ‘Good on you, Docka’ (Davey’s nickname)14. Beneath 18 flags, including two UN flags, he raised the Torch above his head to acknowledge the crowd, and passed it to the Mayor as hundreds of children rushed up to the platform to watch.

 

On receiving the Torch, Mayor Craig said, “On behalf of the citizens of Bendigo I receive this torch and will guard it well until it leaves on its way to Melbourne and the XVI Olympiad” and to further cheers, lit a brazier with the torch 15.

 

An official enclosure contained the Councillors and their wives alongside official representatives including Ron Masters, a Bendigo Olympian from the 1936 Berlin Games, the uncle and aunt of Olympic swimmer, Faith Leech, and Olympic cyclist Jack Trickey’s father and sister. The Torch bearers who had completed their stints joined officials for entertainment in the Mayor’s room before returning to the brazier to complete the ceremony and present Torch bearers with bronze Olympic medallions.

The next torch was then lit from the brazier at 9:14PM and handed to 17-year-old schoolboy athlete, Russell Oakley; earlier in the month at Kyneton he had broken the Northern District High School Association Senior Boys’ Half Mile record, covering the 800m in 2:02 (the current Open 800m Men’s World Record sits at 1:40.9) 16. “Take this torch. Guard it well”, the Mayor told Oakley, “Carry it swiftly on its way to the XVI Olympiad in Melbourne. Godspeed” 17.

 

A further 23 runners completed the total 53 miles through the Bendigo district and the Torch departed Castlemaine just before midnight for Daylesford on its way to Ballarat. Families came out in droves, including ‘children still in their bed clothes’ awakened to see the Torch’s late pass through their district 18 and joining a 6,000-strong crowd throughout the township. A torchlight procession from the fire brigade, open air theatre and judo exhibition were some of the attractions on offer with Mayor RT Morrissey welcoming the relay. The Castlemaine Shire had proclaimed a public holiday for Thursday, according to The Argus, to ‘help them recover from their strenuous celebrations’ late into the night 19.

 

The Torch was delivered to the Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony at 4:20PM on November 23. Junior mile champion Ron Clarke, in front of the crowd which included Prince Philip, carried the flame in a specially designed Torch that included magnesium flares so it could be seen better in the stadium. It was possibly this addition which caused Clarke to receive burns to his arm as he lifted the Torch and reached into the Olympic Cauldron to light the stadium flame and complete the relay. Clarke later said, “It was terrific being out there. I did not feel the burns at all until afterwards” 20.

 

The Bendigo Advertiser was told that Officials stated the Bendigo welcome was the ‘biggest they had ever seen since crossing the border… also the most orderly and best planned’ 22.

BRAC’s suggestions for areas of further research:

  • What was the specific route through the Huntly, Bendigo, Marong, Maldon & Metcalfe Shires that the Torch took?

  • What economic impact was likely generated through Olympic tourism for the district?

  • Are there any oral histories from 1956 torch bearers?

  • Have oral histories been recorded by 2000 torch bearers from BRAC catchment areas (Swan Hill, Kerang, Echuca, Kyabram, Bendigo, Castlemaine) been collected?

Citations

1 ‘Crowds cheer Torch through Bendigo’, Bendigo Advertiser, 22 November 1956

2 Council minutes April 1956, Public Record Office Victoria, VA 2389 City of Bendigo, VPRS 16269 Council Minutes, P1, Unit 20, 1955-1956

3 Council minutes July 1956, Public Record Office Victoria, VA 2389 City of Bendigo, VPRS 16269 Council Minutes, P1, Unit 20, 1955-1956

4 Council minutes 23 July 1956, Public Record Office Victoria, VA 2389 City of Bendigo, VPRS 16269 Council Minutes, P1, Unit 20, 1955-1956

5 Council minutes 1 October 1956, Public Record Office Victoria, VA 2389 City of Bendigo, VPRS 16269 Council Minutes, P1, Unit 20, 1955-1956

6 ‘Big bonfire caused traffic jam’, Bendigo Advertiser, 20 November 1956

7 ‘Films for horse lovers’, Bendigo Advertiser, 28 October 1956

8 ‘The Mayor speaks’, Bendigo Advertiser, 23 October 1956

9 ‘Crowds cheer torch through Bendigo’, Bendigo Advertiser, 22 November 1956

10 ‘Olympic Torch arrives here tonight’, Bendigo Advertiser, 21 November 1956

11 ‘Crowds cheer Torch through Bendigo’, Bendigo Advertiser, 22 November 1956

12 'Festival of sport for all tonight', Bendigo Advertiser, 21 November 1956

13 ‘Brothers took turn with Torch’, Bendigo Advertiser, 21 November 1956; ‘Olympic Torch arrives here tonight’, Bendigo Advertiser, 21 November 1956

14 ‘Crowds cheer Torch through Bendigo’, Bendigo Advertiser, 22 November 1956

15 ‘Torch started a fire near Goornong’, Bendigo Advertiser, 22 November 1956

16 ‘800 Metres Results’, IAAF. 9 August 2012. Retrieved 14 November 2012.

17 ‘Torch started a fire near Goornong’, Bendigo Advertiser, 22 November 1956

181 ‘Torch starts fire’, The Argus, 22 Nov 1956, p1

19 'Rock n roll to greet the Torch', The Argus, 19 November 1956, p7

20 ‘Ron Clarke carried the Olympic Torch despite burns’, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 November 1956

21 ‘Torch started a fire near Goornong’, Bendigo Advertiser, 22 November 1956

First published 31 July 2021