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Tales of barbers, billiards and betting

Words by Tony Sawrey, with permission of The Local

The shop at 49 Fraser Street, Clunes has been in existence since the 1870s. Its first tenant was John Lemmon, a saddler and today of course it now holds the newsagency owned by Craig Drewer. But its life as a barber shop and billiards hall for over 40 years and the larger than life character of “Flash Les’ Davis is where our story will focus.

Les Davis was born in 1903 and grew up in Ballarat where he had a barber shop on Sturt Street. He married Ethel Jones in 1927 and they had a son Robert in 1928 – later to become famous as AFL footballer Bob “Woofa” Davis.

Les Davis and Ethel Jones on their wedding day in 1927

In the 1930s the family moved to Clunes where he took over a small space and continued his trade. But Les’s business portfolio was a little more diverse than just shaving hair and trimming moustaches.
His early days in Ballarat were taken up with refining the art of playing billiards and running an SP bookmaking operation out the side of his barbershop. Illegal starting price bookmaking emerged around Australia in the 1930s when the advent of phone and radio allowed for the results of a horse race to be immediately known.
SP Bookies would take bets fixed to the starting odds or price of a runner which finalised just before the barriers opened. While the bookie and gamblers could get an idea of how the odds were moving in the hours before the actual race, the official starting price could only be known afterwards and thus determining the final payouts.
It seems like a complicated way to make a living but before the rise of regulated and taxed off-course betting shops such as the Totalisator Agency Board, or TAB, SP bookies were everywhere and hugely popular with generations of punters.
It was natural enough for Les to continue his bookie operations when he opened his barber shop. And it was rumoured that the ladies who worked at the old manual telephone exchange in the old post office tipped him off whenever the Vice Squad were planning a surprise visit.
Over the years the place developed into quite a hangout for people in town. And not just for his barbering skills or bookie activity but due to the billiards saloon he had out the back with tables salvaged from the nearby Club and National hotels. He also had a lending library installed mostly with western and cowboy novels.
Ethel had died in 1948 in Queensland which tends to suggest that she and Les had parted company by that time. Son Robert was carving out quite a career as a professional Aussie Rules football player and was playing for Geelong Football Club. By 1955 Les had remarried to Elsie Filby who remained with him until his death in 1983 at 80 years of age.

Les Davis, avuncular master of ceremonies, reclining, centre, front row.

By all accounts he was a “colourful character” with all the dubious connotations that come with the term. Known as Flash Les he liked to flash a fat roll of notes and was an old fashioned ladies man who could sing onstage and was always chosen to MC concerts and socials. That’s him pictured above, reclining front and centre, at a town social in 1938.
In Just a Boy from the Bush Lloyd Jones describes him as “Bookmaker and barber, polished and witty, as gentleman of those callings usually are”.
Maureen French, writing about her experiences of Clunes in the early 70s recalls being serenaded by Les from his shop as she did her shopping. And Christine Rowe, whose father was friends with Les, remembers as a kid the barber shop being a man’s place that you were not allowed to go into.

Above right, the former barber shop and in 2019 as the current Newsagency.
(The A.Greenhalgh signage, former tenant, was done for the 2003 Ned Kelly film.)