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Bagot, Robert Cooper (1828–1881)

by Maurice Cavanough

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Robert Bagot, by Julian Rossi Ashton, 1881

Robert Bagot, by Julian Rossi Ashton, 1881

State Library of Victoria, A/S23/04/81/133

Robert Cooper Bagot (1828?-1881), civil engineer, was born at Fontstown, County Kildare, Ireland, son of John Bagot, a Church of England clergyman, and his wife Olivia, née Edwards. He emigrated to Sydney in 1849, and settled first in the Moreton Bay District. About 1855 he moved to Melbourne where he quickly established a reputation as a civil engineer and surveyor. As a result the committee of the Melbourne Cricket Club invited him in 1861 to redesign their ground. He altered the playing area, which had previously been little more than a rough paddock, to make it a perfect oval and returfed the whole surface. In his work on the cricket ground he had the advice of and some practical assistance from Ferdinand Mueller who gave Bagot four hundred trees to plant between the inner and outer fences. The M.C.C. so much appreciated Bagot's work that he was made a life member.

Bagot is best remembered for his contribution to horse-racing in Australia. Before the 1860s racing in Australia was a faithful copy of the English model and a pursuit of the privileged classes. Bagot played the leading part in the development that gave colonial racing its present egalitarian character and made it the recreation of the masses. Yet, strangely enough, Bagot himself was not strongly interested in racing and it was said of him, perhaps with exaggeration, that to the day of his death he never could distinguish the difference between a weight-for-age race and a handicap. Indeed Bagot was quite astonished when the forceful Herbert Power called at his home one Sunday morning in March 1864 and invited him to become secretary of the Victoria Racing Club, which had been formed on 9 March to take over and combine the affairs of the ill-managed and bankrupt Victoria Turf Club and the Victoria Jockey Club. To Bagot's protest that he had no knowledge of racing, Power, in characteristic manner, retorted: 'There are too many self-styled racing experts in Melbourne, and all they have done is to bring the sport to the brink of extinction. We need a man of character who will get things done in his own way'.

Bagot could be brusque to the point of rudeness but did get extraordinary things done. He altered completely the appearance of Flemington race-course which had received little attention from the previous tenants who had occupied it since the first meeting was held there in March 1840. He drained the evil-smelling marsh in the centre of the course and made of it 'the Flat' which was a picnic ground for generations of race-goers; replaced the sour, coarse grass on the running tracks which he made smooth and even under the horses' hooves; and persuaded the V.R.C. to buy land that he made into 'the Hill', a vantage point that commands one of the finest views of a day's racing at any race-course in the world.

More important than the amenities he provided was Bagot's insistence that if racing were to prosper it must be made the sport of the ordinary citizen. He insisted that the Flat should be free to family parties and that the charge for the Hill should not exceed 1s. So successful were his measures that, although before his appointment Flemington had never attracted a bigger crowd than 7000, he lived to see Melbourne Cup Day in 1880, when 100,000 people attended the race-course, and this at a time when Melbourne's population was about 283,000. What he did at Flemington was emulated by racing clubs on race-courses all over Australia. He died at Ascot Vale on 14 April 1881, aged 53. In an extravagant but understandable eulogy, an obituarist in the Australasian declared: 'there is no one more widely known throughout the Australian colonies than the deceased gentleman'.

Bagot married twice: first to Jane Smith and second to Maria Gregory. He left a son by his first marriage and, by his second, two daughters who lived to their eighties.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Griffiths, Turf and Heath (Melb, 1906)
  • D. M. Barrie, The Australian Bloodhorse (Syd, 1956)
  • M. Cavanough and M. Davies, Cup Day (Melb, 1960)
  • K. Dunstan, The Paddock That Grew (Melb, 1962).

Citation details

Maurice Cavanough, 'Bagot, Robert Cooper (1828–1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bagot-robert-cooper-2916/text4207, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 18 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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