Turtle Racing’s weird history

Turtle Racing was huge in the 1930s during the Great Depression. That’s because it was a cheap form of racing and betting, after all, turtles don’t eat much and they need only a small track. I told a version of this story on West Bremer Radio.

The gangster Al Capone (pictured above) quickly identified an opportunity to expand his empire having just taken over Chicago after the St Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929.

He already controlled dog racing, but he had all his illegal Speakeasies that needed discreet indoor betting entertainment.

Turtle Racing was perfect because it could easily be run inside his venues, generate the betting revenues he wanted, and because the races could be a bit slow, that left plenty of time for him to sell his illicit drinks.

So in 1930, Capone bought five thousand racing turtles to run on his indoor tracks. As the popularity spread, Turtle Racing came to Australia which of course was also battling the Depression.

The first recorded Turtle Race in Ipswich was on Thursday the 15th of March 1934, admission was one shilling, and the owner of the winning turtle was Noel Campbell.

Noel’s father was William Donald Campbell who was a bit different.

When Campbell Senior enlisted for the First World War in 1916 he used a false name, and got married eight weeks later using his real name. Then four weeks later and just before he got on the ship, he must have realised there was no point having a false name so admitted his fraud and was sent to war anyway.

In France, Campbell was constantly in trouble for insolence and spent two months in a Venereal Disease hospital. In the last year of the war, he was wounded and suffered shell shock so was sent home.

While he was recovering in hospital at Kangaroo Point in Brisbane, he went Absent Without Leave and his son Noel, the Turtle Racing champion, was born exactly nine months later.

A year after the turtle race, Campbell Senior was accidentally burnt possibly by exploding sewerage while working with the Hornibrook Sewerage Contractors.

But the really weird part about the history of Turtle Racing in Ipswich is that the racing committee president and founder of the sport was Mrs J.W. Harper. Her husband was The Reverend Harper who was later president of the Congregational Church.

Mrs Harper the founder of Turtle Racing, and her husband The Reverend Harper

And the name of the racing committee was the ‘North Ipswich Congregational Ladies Association’. They were the spiritual founders of the sport in Ipswich.

The historic venue of that first race was OIympic Hall just near the North Ipswich Congregational Church, which today is the old Saddle World building at 62 Downs Street.

The site of the North Ipswich Congregational Church where Turtle racing was hatched

The next Turtle Race that you go to, remember that the popularity of the sport is thanks in part to Al Capone, Mrs Harper, and the North Ipswich Congregational Ladies Association.


Photo credits:
Al Capone 1930 – history.com
Mrs and Rev J.W. Harper – Telegraph Brisbane 17th September 1938 page 13 and 16th September 1938 page 11
Saddleworld 62 Downs Street North Ipswich – Google maps 2021

One comment

  1. Another good tale. Certainly kept the radio men amused !Sent from the Samsung tablet lovingly given by Harold, Jacqueline, Harold, and Murray


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