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Albert John (Bert) Lillye (1919–1996)

by Wayne Peake

This article was published online in 2020

Albert John Lillye (1919–1996), sports journalist and racing administrator, was born on 9 July 1919 at Paddington, Sydney, only child of New South Wales-born Cecil Florence Myrtle Lockhart, née Smith, and Tasmanian-born Albert Lillye, wharf labourer. Bert recalled living opposite the Rosebery Park pony racecourse and watching races from the roof of his home. He was educated at Chatswood Public and Chatswood Boys’ Intermediate High schools. Aged fourteen, he left home and became a copy-boy on Smith’s Weekly, the Referee, and the Arrow—the latter two papers largely devoted to horseracing.

At the Presbyterian Manse, Hurstville, on 3 July 1941 Lillye married Amelia Bernice ‘Bonnie’ Kendrigan, a printer. On 1 October 1941 he began full-time duty in the Citizen Military Forces for service in World War II. He was employed as a cook in support units in New South Wales and Queensland. When stationed near Toowoomba he watched the promising colt Bernborough on the track. In 1942 he had twice briefly absented himself without leave to attend race meetings but in September 1945, having been refused a posting to be near his sick wife, he absconded for forty days and was court martialled on return. Discharged in November, he returned to Smith’s Weekly. He then worked at the Sydney Morning Herald for thirteen years before being lured to the Daily Mirror for five years. In 1969 he returned to the Herald and was racing editor until he retired in July 1984.

A prolific and versatile racing writer with a Runyonesque touch, Lillye obtained tip-offs in bars and stables and produced topical copy for the dailies and well-researched columns for the Sunday papers. In addition he wrote countless uncredited features for Turf Monthly and Racetrack magazines. He delighted in documenting the behind-the-scenes world of racing, including his visits to stud farms, and bemoaned the passing of the racetrack characters who abounded before the Totaliser Administration Board era of regulation.

In November 1961 Lillye learnt that the champion racehorse Martello Towers and several others were lost, feared drowned, in the flooded Nepean River. He recruited a photographer-driver and headed for Windsor. They tracked down Martello Towers and several other missing horses, and were instrumental in their rescue, which he reported in Turf Monthly. In 1973 the Australian Jockey Club, acting on his suggestion, set up an exhibition at Randwick racecourse. At about the same time he began recording the history and folklore of both pony and AJC-registered racing in his ‘Backstage of Racing’ column in the Sun-Herald. A selection would be republished in book form in 1985.

Lillye was tall and broad-shouldered, with an unabashed Australian accent. In later life he wore thick framed glasses. He was jovial and avuncular and mentored many fledgling racing journalists, including Steve Crawley and John Holloway. Introducing them to trainers, jockeys, and administrators, he also tutored them in the bonhomie of drinking which he considered part of the craft of racing journalism. He formed close friendships with his mates from the track and participated in social cricket matches between jockeys and journalists. An ardent gambler, he was noted for charging through betting rings to place bets. For his articles he was twice awarded (1979, 1983) the Sydney Turf Club’s Golden Slipper writers’ prize.

Since 1976 Lillye had taken an active interest in the Kembla Grange racecourse, near his Woonona home. After its controlling club was placed in receivership, he and the sports administrator Keith Nolan formed the Illawarra Turf Club and lobbied for government support, helping to secure the long-term future of the site. He became vice-president of the ITC and a trustee of the Kembla Grange recreation reserve. In the early 1980s his story featured on the television program This Is Your Life, and his portrait by Craig Taylor was commissioned by John Fairfax Ltd. Survived by his wife and their son and two daughters, Lillye died on 18 February 1996 in the Illawarra Regional Hospital, Wollongong, and was cremated. He had attended Kembla Grange races the previous afternoon. At the course, a lounge in the grandstand and an annual race was named after him. He was inducted into the Australian Racing (2015) and Australian Media (2018) halls of fame.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Crawley, Steve. ‘A Thirst for the Good Oil of the Turf.’ Australian, 27 February 1996, 17
  • Lillye, Bert. Backstage of Racing. Sydney: John Fairfax Marketing, c. 1985
  • [Lillye, Bert.] ‘Here’s How We Found Martello Towers!!’ Turf Monthly, January 1962, 2–5, 9
  • Lillye, Mervyn. Personal communication
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, N24441
  • Presnell, Max. ‘Bert Lillye.’ Australian Media Hall of Fame, Melbourne Press Club. Accessed on 18 December 2019. Copy held on ADB file

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Wayne Peake, 'Lillye, Albert John (Bert) (1919–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 21 May 2024.

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