Heads up!

Gambling in the Snowy
Allegations of gambling at the Khancoban construction site in the Snowy, 28 January 1967 (NAA: A5628, C1967/554)

Snowy Mountains construction workers were renowned for working – and playing – hard! Gambling, a favourite pastime, caused heartache for both workers and the law.

Men worked six days a week and recreation time was limited. Migrants from all corners of the world, either single or separated from their families, mingled in the camp ‘wet’ canteens, where the flow of beer made for lively company.

Officially sanctioned pastimes included singing, attending dances, boxing, skiing, football and cricket, board games, table tennis, darts and films. Nightclubs in Cooma did a roaring trade.

However, the unofficial favourite was gambling – and it was big business. Between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of Snowy workers regularly gambled their pay cheques on the horses, on dice games like ins and outs, two-up and heads or tails, and card games such as manila poker and roulette.

The unwritten rules of play were that local workers controlled the games, gambling was limited to pay nights and men had to save money to send to their wives. However, the games often continued for up to 3 or 4 days after payday and would sometimes run all day and night.

This letter, sent to Sir William Hudson, Commissioner of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority (SMHEA), by ‘a group of disgusted miners’ in January 1967, is critical of the local police and those ‘holding responsible position[s]’ in turning a blind eye to organised illegal gambling at the Dillingham Construction Camp in Khancoban.

The men mention ‘the condition of life in those construction camps, the loneliness, the lack of any other form of entertainment’ as being the cause of temptation.

The official position of the SMHEA was ambiguous. While issuing notices to prohibit illegal gambling on Authority premises, ‘small-scale’ gambling (two nights a fortnight) was tolerated in the camps. Nonetheless, a transport driver was discharged in 1960 for repeatedly gaming with dice. He was not prosecuted to avoid any possible ‘adverse publicity’!

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    Investigation into gambling, 17 June 1960
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    Prohibition of gambling, 20 June 1960
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    Gambling discharge, 22 December 1960

A selection of records relating to life in the Snowy

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017