Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Humphrey Oxenham (1854–1923)

by John O'Hara

This article was published:

Humphrey Oxenham (1854-1923), bookmaker and gambler, was born on 23 February 1854 at Wattle Flat, New South Wales, third son of English parents Henry Oxenham, goldminer, and his wife Sarah, née Crane. As a youth he won a bet of £100 to one shilling that he could ride the two miles (3.2 km) between Bathurst and Kelso within a certain time—with a pumpkin on his head, and set up business making a book on country race meetings. In 1875 he moved his operations to Sydney after a successful betting coup on his own racehorse Hogmanay. At St Patrick's Church he married Elizabeth Wakfer on 8 January 1879.

The portly, mustachioed Oxenham, with a receding hairline, had become a familiar figure on Sydney racecourses by the 1880s. A 'Leviathan' of the betting ring, he was soon rivalling Joseph Thompson as Australia's biggest bookie. His business interests extended to an intercolonial chain of betting shops and a mail-order sweepstakes business which rivalled George Adams's Tattersall's. His sidelines led Oxenham into conflict with the authorities in the 1890s and 1900s, when legislators attempted to restrict betting to the racecourses. Like other gambling entrepreneurs, Oxenham was proscribed in 1907 by the postmaster-general, who prevented the Post Office from handling any mail addressed to his headquarters in Pitt Street, Sydney.

While these off-course disputes were in progress Oxenham continued his career on course, as a bookmaker and racehorse owner—with mixed fortunes. His successful stable included Cerise and Blue (1886 Sydney Cup), Phaeon (1887 Epsom Handicap), Waterfall (1898 Caulfield Cup), Syerla (1898 Doncaster Handicap) and Alemene (1898 Epsom Handicap). The highlight of his career as an owner came in 1904 when his mare Acrasia won the Melbourne Cup, saving him from ruin. He reputedly lost fortunes on his own horses, including Cerise and Blue which he backed to win £100,000 in the 1885 Melbourne Cup. When his colt Cabin Boy won the 1896 Victoria Racing Club St Leger at long odds he did not celebrate—he had reputedly wagered all the money he could raise on Waterfall.

A flamboyant gambler, about whom there were many apocryphal stories, Oxenham lived in style in a mansion overlooking Randwick racecourse and later at Villa Maria, Bennett Street, Neutral Bay. He also travelled extensively, supervising his interstate business interests and making at least four visits to England, where he raced some of his horses with moderate success.

Oxenham died at his Neutral Bay home on 2 December 1923 and was buried in the Catholic section of Waverley cemetery. His wife, four daughters and four sons survived him. Another son Gordon had been killed in World War I.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Gould, On and Off the Turf in Australia (facsimile of 1895, Canb, 1973)
  • M. Cavanough, The Caulfield Cup (Syd, 1976)
  • J. O'Hara, A Mug's Game (Syd, 1987)
  • People (Sydney), 21 June 1961
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 26 Oct 1895
  • Arrow, 3 Mar 1906
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 4 Dec 1923.

Citation details

John O'Hara, 'Oxenham, Humphrey (1854–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


23 February, 1854
Wattle Flat, New South Wales, Australia


2 December, 1923 (aged 69)
Neutral Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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