History of the Gift

The Castlemaine Gift is a locally organised footrace, typically held at the Camp Reserve. Traditionally, Gift races are run on grass tracks over 120 metres, often referred to as the ‘Sheffield Distance’. The length of the ‘Sheffield Distance’ was termed by miners from the industrial and mining town Sheffield in South Yorkshire, England. The miners ran races, likely for money – perhaps even with bookmakers – over the 130 yards (or, approximately 120 metres) that stretched between the two local pubs. When the miners came to the Goldfields in Australia, they brought their culture with them; and the practice of the 120 metres distance footrace.

The history of professional running in the Castlemaine area had existed since at-least the mid-1800s. But more specifically, the Castlemaine Gift has been running in an official capacity for over 100 years. The first year that the Gift was promoted officially by the Victorian Athletic League was in 1922, hosted at the Camp Reserve. The Castlemaine Gift has not run continuously for all that time, occasionally going on periods of hiatus. After 1937 was one of these periods, and then sometime after the 1960s.

Below are a collection of stories, told chronologically over the long history of the Gift.

The 1800s – Early Beginnings

Foot Races have been around locally since the 1860s. The North Western Gathering was an event that brought 40,000 – 50,000 miners to the local sporting event for entertainment. The Gathering would have offered more than just footraces, perhaps including boxing and pony races. Prize money was offered to the winners. With such a large draw of attendees the North Western Gathering didn’t always run smoothly, and was no stranger to the occasional controversy as a result.

On January 3rd 1861, an instance of this controversy was reported by the Mount Alexander Times:

A Castlemaine man, Mr. Bythell ran in the 600 yards race (approx. 550 metres*) with 3 other runners, all of whom were professional athletes: Mr. Mills, Mr. Emery and Mr. Joshua. As the race began, Joshua took the lead; followed by Bythell. But, as they ran – Bythell found himself seemingly blockaded by Mills and Emery. The athletes ‘shepherded’ Bythell so that he could neither overtake them, nor Joshua – who continued to race ahead. (1)

Supposedly, these runners were involved in similar instances of  shepherding in the 600 yard race. The crowd also seemed to notice the apparent tampering and began creating a scene. The Mount Alexander Times continued:

Likely it was that a friend of Bythell was first to speak up while watching with the other spectators. In anger or frustration they jumped out of the crowd running over to Mills – yelling at, and attacking him. The police stepped in, singling out William Edwards, a noteable runner from the district.

Edwards denied any involvement; and with no confession or reasonable evidence to hold him- the police had to let him go. (2)

It remains likely that the real assailant vanished into the noisy commotion of the crowd leaving Edwards to be accused. And Bythell was still credited with second place for the race.

The shifty practices seem to have continued throughout the day with the 150 yard race (approx. 140 metres*).

A Castlemaine runner, Mr. McCrae, was nearly forced out of second place as well. But, after protests from McCrae, the Committee who were overseeing the races acknowledged the tampering, and honoured his position in second. Joshua also won this race.

The third race, a half-mile (approx. 800 metres distance*) hurdle event was also won by Joshua. The race was over 8 hurdles, at 3 ½ feet high (approx. 107 cm height*). (3)

Joshua demonstrated huge prowess at the North Western Gathering as a successful professional pedestrian. Joshua would have trained to walk and run in similar events and competitions from the surrounding area.

At that time, local papers brought up whether it was ethical for professional and amateur runners to compete in the same races, where there is not the same level of training involved.

Of those three races, these were the details of the winnings. (4)

  • 150 yard race – prize, 5 guineas (approx. $1,500 in 2023**)

Won by Joshua, beating McCrae and six other athletes.

  • 600 yard race – prize, 5 guineas (approx. $1,500 in 2023**)

Also won by Joshua, beating three other runners: Bythell, Mills and Emery.

  • The half-mile hurdle race – prize, 10 guineas (approx. $3,000 in 2023**)

Was also won by Joshua, easily.

This meant that Joshua’s winnings from that day totalled $6,000

Around 30 years later, in the 1890s, the Gift had undergone bigger changes. It was becoming an even more established and elaborate event for the local public. In 1894, Castlemaine held two Gifts – one on New Year’s Day, and the other on Easter Monday (March 26th).

The Easter Monday Gift was held at the Camp Reserve. There were five main athletic events, three running races and two bicycle races. However, there was also an assortment of additional races and competitions for people to take part in. (5)

The Mount Alexander Times listed an ad on the day of the event that detailed the programme: (6)

Easter Monday, March 26th.
BICYLES RACE (Safety) of L20. 2 and 3 miles.
BICYLES RACE (Safety) of L8. 2 miles
WOODCHOPPING CONTEST of L5. Each competitor must deliver on to the ground a log, to be of sound rem gum timber, with the bark on, 22 inches in diameter, 6 feet long, and sawn square at one end to stand up, (in lieu of entry fee); each competitor must reside within 15 miles of Castlemaine.
BOY’S RACE, under 15 years 150 yds.
HIGHLAND FLING (in costume) of L3
SAILOR’S HORNPIPE (in costume) of L2.
HIGHLAND FLING, Boys under 16 years, of L1 10s.
IRISH JIG (in costume) of L1 10s.
BEST PIPER, 1st prize, L1
Nominations close March 17th. Acceptance notes later than March 23rds. Admissions to Reserve, 1s [unintelligible]
W. LASCELLES, Secretary.

There were races for younger attendees, dancing events- like the ‘Highland Fling’, wood chopping contests; and music. Even ‘best piper’ was a competition.

The woodchopping contest added the condition that:

“… each competitor must reside within 15 miles [~24km*] of Castlemaine.” (7)

The Gift finals were the races that boasted the bigger prize money. But before anyone could compete in the finals, contenders of the Gift and other foot races were required to win three smaller races with other similar competitors – called ‘heats’.

Heats were used to qualify athletes for the Semi-Finals, and are still used today. The winners were timed and this was often also used to handicap the more successful runners; in an effort to make the Finals fair for all competitors.

The Sheffield handicap sparked mild controversy, when the Final was contested. Intercolonial cricketer, J.H Stuckey was declared the winner, with Bailey and Gordon second and third, respectively. (8)

The value of the Gift prizes had increased in the 30 years too, in proportion with the success of the event.

In 1894, the prize was £25 ($7200 in 2023**), which at that time was around half a year’s total wages. (9)

1922 – The Beginning of the Tradition

A hundred years ago in 1922, the first Castlemaine Gift was professionally promoted and hosted by the Victorian Athletic League at the Camp Reserve in Castlemaine. These events in the 1920s were held on Boxing Day. Bookmakers would have attended the event to take bets on the races.

Trains arrived with runners from Bendigo, Kyneton, Maryborough, and Maldon to take part in the sporting event.

In 1922 the Gift was worth £100 (approx. $13,000 in 2023**), and was won by Richard Morton from Burnley. (10)

An article from December 27th 1923 details the ‘second annual’ Gift event.

It appears that the article says the 1923 Gift was worth £800 that year (which would be approx. $107,000 in 2023**), although the text is unclear. (11)

These Gifts that were organised in the 1920s were the beginnings of the modern Castlemaine Gift that runs today.

1924- Gallipoli Soldier runs in the Castlemaine Gift

William Edward Darby, was an amateur turned professional runner, winning the 1924 Castlemaine Gift against 56 opponents.

The Castlemaine Mail reported: Darby (from East Malvern) succeeded in his heats, qualifying for the Final. He won by 18 inches from Armidale’s P. A. Daniel. The prize was £130 ($17,500 in 2023**), and Darby was presented with a blue riband. (12)

Illustrated by Rowany, 2023

His life and success as a runner were explained in an article from the Herald Sun on March 26th, 2005:

Darby came from an athletic family, having already found success in a number of races before he had turned 14 years old.

In 1908, he came first in the 100 yard sprint (approx. 91 metres*), in Wanganui, New Zealand – his hometown.

In 1913, he was given another medal as the town’s champion athlete. (13)

And his running continued into the First World War. On the 25th of April, 1915 at 4:40am; Darby was among the first of the ANZACs to jump ashore at the beaches of Gallipoli.

His experience with footraces led into his job in the war as a Western Front messenger. Darby would relay orders and positions between the artillery gunners, ANZACs, and dispatchers. (14)

He spent the 8 ½ months of that campaign running.

At the beginning of WWI, Darby returned home to New Zealand from Malvern and enlisted to service as soon as he was able.

Darby was No. 329 in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, both he and his brother Jack left for Gallipoli. (15)

He was even gassed during the Battle of the Somme in mid-1916.

The 1924 Castlemaine Gift is considered the pinnacle of his running career.

Darby settled in Victoria, where he continued running until his last sports day at Foster in South Gippsland in 1941. Darby passed away in 1961 as a proud ANZAC, leaving a house full of running trophies for his family.

Tab content description goes here….

Goldie Heath - The Gifts of 1933 & 1936

By the 1930s, the characteristics of the local Gifts had changed again. The Prizes were getting bigger, and betting was becoming more prevalent. And, so of course – there were some shady characters that appeared. But more importantly, there were also huge success stories.

With the Gift races becoming more established, the athletes were also becoming more highly trained and specialised. Enter the beloved Goldie Heath, winner of the 1933 Stawell Gift.

The Stawell Gift is a similar Gift length footrace, currently still running in regional Victoria. It is one the oldest and richest Gifts in the area.

Heath first won the Stawell Gift in 1933 after spending six months training with his Campbell’s Creek mentor, Wally Maple. Maple, only three years older than Heath himself, trained his young charge at Lake Nagambie. The training ground was only accessible by boat, located on an island in the middle of the lake; away from the prying eyes of onlookers who may have wished to glean how well Heath’s form was progressing. (16)

Maple and Heath needed to guard their progress, as their opponents – and the bookmakers who would be paying out bets – desperately wanted to know exactly how good Heath was getting. There were considerable amounts of money on the line, and no one wanted to lose out.

The opening bet for Heath was £3 to £100 – or 33 ⅓ – 1.

Goldie won the Gift that year at Stawell, which was worth £230 (approx. $37,000 in 2023**); as well as the 75 yard race (approx. 70 metres). His time was an incredibly quick 11 and 10/16 seconds.

Attempts to injure Heath before the race on Easter Monday led to police protection for the runner.

Reportedly, Heath himself chased down the attacker, and defended himself from the assailant. (17)

It was believed that these attacks were motivated by the bookmaker’s fears that they couldn’t pay out if Heath won the races.

Illustrated by Rowany, 2023

In those days, bookmaker’s didn’t have to be licensed – and so anyone with enough money to take bets could turn up at these events as bookmakers. As soon as Heath won the race, it seemed that many of the bookmakers packed up, and skipped town without paying out the bets. Or perhaps their cheques just mysteriously bounced.

McMinn, a tailor from Castlemaine – was both the promoter and person who financed Heath – and was also the only one to receive his winnings from the bookmakers for that event. Heath received nothing, as did many of the other people who placed bets on those races.

Fourteen years later, Heath received a cheque in the post for £500 (approx. $44,000  in 2023**) from one of the bookmakers who had fled the race in 1933. (18)

Supposedly, this particular bookmaker wanted to become licensed to take bets on horse races in Queensland, but the QLD Bookmakers Association knew of his outstanding debt from the Gift in 1933, and required him to ‘clear the slate’ and pay the money he owed before he could become officially licensed.

Heath was a prolific athlete.

Two days after the success at the Stawell Gift, Heath ran in the Bendigo Easter Gift. Another successful event on the VAL (Victorian Athletic League) calendar. He ran second in the 75 yard race (approx. 70 metres*).

After a small hiatus due to his ill-health, Heath ran again in the 1936 Castlemaine Gift. Due to his hiatus, Heath was only competing with one month of training behind him. (19)

It’s also said that Heath was only running in the 1936 Gift as a favour to some old friends. But, regardless of his motivations, Heath again found success.

Allocated to the handicap of 4 ¼ yards (approx. 4 metres distance*), Heath won his first heat with the 12 and 10/16 seconds, and progressed to the Semi-Final.

In the Semi-Final, Heath was beaten by F. O’Shea off 11 ½ yards (approx. 11 metres distance*), losing by one foot’s distance with the time 12 ¼ seconds. Heath’s time, however, was still excellent enough to earn him a place in the Final as well. (20)

With these events, the reports from the newspapers would turn the athletes into local celebrities, drumming up both attention and wider-reaching success. The Castlemaine Gift was considered a comeback for Heath, with the margins for his wins being smaller. The Castlemaine Mail often reported on the Gifts:

“The carnival attracted good entries from both athletes and cyclists, and they provided an interesting programme. Much interest was created in the appearance of former champions T.L. Roberts and C.G Heath.” (21)

“Heath gave the most creditable performance in defeating by three yards the only other runner in his heat, to whom he conceded 6 ¾ yards. That performance of Heath, particularly as he won very easily, made him a strong favourite for the final…” (22)

And in 1936 more changes meant races for women too. The Gift was no longer just for men. A 1936 ad in the Castlemaine Mail showed that the VAL (Victorian Athletic League), and Castlemaine Athletics Club were looking into possible support for upcoming women’s races in the Boxing Day event.

The ad outlined a possible 75 yards (approx. 70 metres*), and 100 yards (approx. 90 metres*). (23)

Two women’s races were eventually scheduled for the Castlemaine Gift..

There were two sprints, one that was for local competitors, and another open race for everyone. Both races had C. Brudenell in first, followed by L. Jolley as second. (24)

1936 was the last year that the Boxing Day Gift ran due to dwindling support. However, Professional Running in the area persisted with the Eight Hours Day Meetings of 1936 and 1937.

The Eight Hours Day disasters - The Gift of 1937

Illustrated by Rowany, 2023

The last Castlemaine Gift of the 1930s was the Eight Hours Day Meeting of 1937. It took place on the Labour Day Holiday of that year, held again at the Camp Reserve.

Caulfield football-player with the Melbourne Football Club, Ray Wartman won the Gift in 1937.

Winning off of 11 ¼ yards (approx. 10 metres) in 12.0 seconds.

L. Cooper from Footscray and G. Guiney from Maryborough came second and third in that event, respectively. (37)

Goldie Heath also ran again that year, as a back-marker (off 4 yards) in L. Cooper’s heat – and while he did not qualify, he still demonstrated the prowess he was known for.

That same day, a few notable moments were detailed by the Castlemaine Mail:

Mr. Manning, a steward for the cycling events- was struck by one of the passing cyclists from the three mile scratch race, as Manning leaned out over the track.

Manning fell over onto the track, trying to call out to one of the leading riders. A number of the following cyclists landed on top of him, knocking him unconscious for half an hour and cutting his mouth badly.

Upon examination by Dr. W.H.G Steele, he revealed that Manning had two fractured ribs, a bruised lung, and was suffering from shock. (38)

And at that time, a ‘helpful’ onlooker decided to drive their motorcar over the tracks to assist the doctors and medics who had gathered to help the injured man.

The driver didn’t realise the 75 yard (approx. 70 metres) heat race had already begun and the runners were started towards the same area as the car. (39)

Luckily, the car cleared the track before more serious injuries were caused. But coincidentally, this was the heat that Wartman was running in before the Final.

Also during the event, a case of mysteriously missing pants caused amusement with the crowd.

A frantic message was given over the PA system, telling the pant stealer that they could have all of the money and items that could be found within its pockets – but that the original owner of the pants just wanted his trousers back, “…as [they] would not leave the ground without them.” (40)

Without modern technologies available to them, making sure that the results of the race were correct was just as important – but very difficult if there ever were a ‘protest’. Protests were made by runners who thought that their place was incorrect or unfairly judged. They still occur with modern races – however, with the modern photo-finish and timed lanes- mistakes are infrequent and can be solved quickly. In the past, protests could not always be honoured, especially if the races were a very close call.

Wartman protested his second place in the 75 yard (approx. 70 metre distance) Final sprint. He suggested that the confusion had arisen because the blue coloured shirt of McNeil was mistaken with the blue clothes under Wartman’s white jacket. (41)

The stewards could not confirm this, however, and as the race was very close they were forced to dismiss the protest.

With the end of this event brought about the end of professional athletics in Castlemaine for a time. It had been a long standing tradition, but dwindling interest and support had meant that it became less viable.

But, this was not the end of the Gift, and by the 1960s the event was running with full force again.

1960s – The Gift’s Revival in the 60s

In 1965, two separate Gift events were held. The first was on April 10th, a non-penalty before the Stawell Gift. The second event was the 19th of December.

In the first event, 240 athletes competed, most notable of which was Terry Clarke – an Australian professional sprint champion.

The Castlemaine Gift drew in both international and national athletes and audiences. Many of these athletes arrived from across Australia; but largely Victoria, New South Wales, and Tasmania.

The event attracted notable people who arrived to attend the Gift:

Norman Yemm; would later be known for playing Norm Baker in the 1976 T.V-show ‘The Sullivans’

Frank Brown; a writer for Melbourne papers on professional athletes.

Ken McKimmie; Vice Principal of the Castlemaine High School.

Lloyd Stringer; runner from Kyneton, (who continued to be a prolific competitor, and would attend Castlemaine again in the 1990s).

Kevin Maple; son of Wally Maple. A good runner over 440 yards (approx. 400 metres*), and was also a good sprinter. Kevin Maple had won the 75 yard (approx. 70 metres*) race previously. (42)


The winner of this Gift in Castlemaine was Jim Sumners off 8 ¾ yards. He won £60 (approx. $2600 in 2023**), as well as sash awarded to him by Mr. & Mrs. Hayes from Castlemaine, in memory of the late Tom Hayes, a former champion runner. (43)

The second event was on Sunday, 19th of December, before Christmas. British Professional Sprint Champion, Ricky Dunbar turned up to this event.

Ricky Dunbar, from the Victorian Athletic League Website

Dunbar was a notable, highly successful professional runner from Scotland. In 1962 Dunbar had run second, beaten by C. Harrison in the Powderhall Final.

The Powderhall was a foot race event run on New Year’s Day in Edinburgh, and was one of the biggest events of the British professional running circuit.

In 1963 Ricky Dunbar ran first off of 4.5 yards (approx. 4 metres*) with a time of 11.39 seconds.

At that time, the average annual wage in Scotland was £700 (approx. $33,000 in 2023**), Dunbar won £200 (approx. $9,200 in 2023**) with a bet on himself at 10-1. (44)

He arrived in Australia in November 1965, only intending to stay for a short trip sponsored by the Doncaster Apex Club – as noted by the [Castlemaine] Mail. The plan was for Dunbar to pay a percentage of his winnings back to the Club after his successes. Ricky Dunbar ended up staying in Australia (45)

At Castlemaine, Dunbar entered in the 75 yard (approx. 70 metres*) , and the 130 yard (approx. 120 metres*) races. He ran 9.6 seconds for 100 yards (approx. 90 metres)  and 11.3 seconds for 120 yards (approx. 110 metres*). (46)

Dunbar ran very well, one headline read: “‘Flying Scotsman’ takes city Gift” (47)

Flying Scotsman Takes City Gift

Controversially, Dunbar’s appearance was paid for by the Castlemaine Football Club, indicating an increased level of professionalism for the athletes.

This was paid on top of his winnings for the 75 yard race (approx. 70 metres).

Dunbar won the 75 yards race with W.C Monk in second, with a time of 7.8 seconds. In the third semi-final, he beat out A.N Collins with a time of 7.4 seconds. (48)

This made Dunbar one the quickest of the semi-finalists.

Dunbar made quick work of the Gift Final and the 75 yards. Even with an additional handicap from his previous successes.

Dunbar won a race, with T. Clarke in second, and C.C. Burnette third.

Dunbar is quoted by reporters to have said that it was the best running of his career, and one quote suggested that “Dunbar appeared to be going only as fast as was necessary to defeat his rivals.”

Dunbar then went on to win the Daylesford Gift a few days later with the time of 12.6 seconds. He also won the Echuca Gift on Boxing Day, and Maryborough Gift on New Year’s Day. (49)

Dunbar’s winning streak came to an end with Lancefeild, where he ran second. Where he ran the quickest time that he had yet, but was still bested.

Harold Downs was another notable athlete that attended Gifts in the 1960s. Winning the mile race from scratch (50)

1990s -present: The Modern Gift

After 29 years of another hiatus –the Castlemaine Gift was revived in 1994 on the 6th of March. This rebirth was a result of the efforts of the Gift president, Darryl Nettleton. An article on page 10 of the Bendigo Advertiser from the day before the event – March 5th listed the programme and sponsors for the various races.

The familiar faces: Wally Maple, Goldie Heath, and Ricky Dunbar were in attendance to help promote the event’s relaunch. Entry cost $5.

The day had races for children, both young boys and girls.

A ‘first-ever’ professional Castlemaine ‘70 metre handicap’ was promoted with 18 heats, drawing in 130 runners.

The Castle Motel and Restaurant 800 metres handicap had 8 heats. With 90 of “VIC’s best professional distance runners” set to compete.

Including the then 16-year-old Lucas Tickell – who was set to run in heat eight.

The Bendigo Building Society’s Castlemaine Gift had drawn 102 entries; with athletes from all over Victoria. There were 15 heats, with all heat winners and three of the fastest second place runners advancing to the semi-finals.

First prize was $1500 with trophies.

Thompson’s Transport and Jack Stuart Real Estate’s veterans 100 metre handicap also ran, with Lloyd Stringer being the favourite to win.

The Henri Schubert Memorial Women’s Gift was sponsored by Heart Health Victoria. (51)

Scubert had been known as the most successful women’s athletic coach in Australia.

The sponsors for the 400 metres were split with the backmarkers being sponsored by Castlemaine Mitsubishi, and the front markers by Express Post. (52)

The event was organised by the Apex Club of Castlemaine, and other events like: Harcourt Valley Vinyard’s wine-tasting, Hayrides for the attending children, and Tog’s Cafe of Castlemaine were selling cakes.

Castle Motel also put on a runner’s breakfast the morning of the Gift as well.

The final event of the day was the Castlemaine Cycles and Globe Restaurant 1600 metres. (53)

The article in the Bendigo Advertiser listed the heat chances for each of the 15 heats that led to the Semi-Finals:

A quick run down of the chances in each heat:
Heat 1: Tim Mason, last year’s

Bendigo 10,000 winner; Steve Tilburn, this year’s Kyneton Gift winner, Wangaratta finalist and second in the Ballarat Gift, as well as Perry Hannah, a well performed runner off a good mark. Selection: Steve Tilburn.
Heat 2: Shane Taylor, running from scratch, has won this year’s Broadford and Echuca Gifts. His training partner Simon Gallagher will be hard to beat as will Paul Slupecki, Nick Orfandis and Adraian Campagna. Selection: Adrian Campagna.
Heat 3: Wayne Perry has been a finalist at this year Wangaratta and Ballarat Gifts. Upsets could come from Ian Reed or Micheal Witty. Selection: Wayne Perry.
Heat 4: Andrew Saunders, Paul Dunne and several young novices. Selection: Andrew Saunders.
Heat 5: Rod Matthews is running in brillant fashion, winning the Fitzroy-Northcote Gift. Rod Green could be hard to toss. Selection: Rod Matthews.
Heat 6: This will be a match race between Robert Lechman and Dave Robertson. Selection: Robert Lehman.
Heat 7: Another match race this time between Andrew Paull and Craig Hedington. Selection: Andrew Paull.
Heat 8: The form runners are Mack Reed and B.J Rayment. Reed made the recent Ballarat Gift final. Selection: Mark Reed.
Heat 9: There are three main chances in Richard Ralph, winner of last year’s Bay Sheffield Gift, Nick Rodda and T. Reade. Selection: Nick Rodda.
Heat 10: Several chances in Peter


O’Dwyer, Richard Driscoll and Castlemaine’s Darryl Nettleton. Selection: Richard Driscoll.
Heat 11: This is a difficult heat with three chances, Kerry McConnon, David broomhall and Darren Paull. Selection: David Broomhall.
Heat 12: This should go to Micheal Benoit, the winner of this year’s Daylesford Gift. Another chance is Brendon Boyle. Selection: Michael Benoit.
Heat 13: Well-performed amateur Andrew Douglas and Jamie Findlay are the chances. Selection: Andrew Douglas.
Heat 14: Australian long jumper David Culbert recently won the Rye Gift. Another with a chance is outmarker Paul White. Selection: David Culbert.
Heat 15: Many chances including G. Reidy, Ross de Valle, Peter Emerson and Lloyd Stringer. Selection: Lloyd Stringer.