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Wonderland City

The grounds of Bondi Aquarium in 1891, later to become ‘Wonderland City’ , 85/1285-848, Powerhouse Museum

It’s been 150 years since the famous author Lewis Carroll published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but did you know Sydney had its own Wonderland back in the early 1900s? I thought I’d delve into the Dictionary of Sydney and spoke to Sophie on 2SER Breakfast about our city’s love of amusement parks.

It turns out Lewis Carroll’s Alice and her trip down the rabbit hole to the fictional country called Wonderland, has formed the source of inspiration for amusement parks for quite some time. And the first large scale open-air amusement park to hit Australia was in Sydney’s eastern suburb, Tamarama, when the theatrical entrepreneur William Anderson opened Wonderland City in December 1906. On the opening night, 20,000 people travelled to Tamarama to see the ‘fairy city’ buzzing with novel attractions and exciting rides.

'Airem Scarem' dirigible over Tamarama

‘Airem Scarem’ dirigible over Tamarama, State Library of NSW

Across its 20 acres, it included an artificial lake, Australia’s first open-air ice skating rink, a merry-go-round, Haunted House, labyrinth, music hall which could seat 1,000 people and a Japanese tearoom. Among the more novel attractions was the ‘Airem Scarem’ dirigible, which was a floating airship suspended on a cable which extended over the sea. Other attractions included an elephant called Alice, perhaps referencing Carroll’s character. Alice the elephant was dubbed ‘the children’s friend’ and was sold to Wirth’s Circus in 1908 continuing to entertain Australian audiences until her death in 1941.

Wonderland City employed over 160 people and it is estimated 2,000 people came each summer weekend. But the park was short-lived, as it closed just five years later in 1911 and Anderson reportedly lost £15,000 on the venture (in 2014 money, that’s almost $2 million).

Alice the elephant loading the Wirth's Circus train

Alice the elephant loading the Wirth’s Circus train, State Library of NSW

Wonderland City was by no means the first entertainment precinct to offer Sydneysiders amusement. Circus acts had been witnessed by citizens since the 1830s, with rope-walkers, gymnasts, acrobats and clowns entertaining the audiences. Roofless arenas were built in the city centre, and in 1871, Australia’s first ‘hippodrome’ or oval-shaped open arena was opened for 6,000 spectators for Queen Victoria’s birthday. It was complete with a fun-fair, circus performances and chariot races.

Botany Pleasure Grounds

Botany Pleasure Grounds, 1855, State Library of NSW

There were also pleasure gardens which were also open-air spectacles. One of them was established in Botany Bay in the 1840s. Opened by the Sir Joseph Banks Hotel, the gardens exhibited exotic animals including an elephant, Bengal tiger and Himalayan black bear. In 1852, English writer John Askew described his experience visiting Sydney mentioning the ‘menagerie in Elizabeth Street that contains an elephant, two or three monkeys, a lion and a lioness and a few other animals of the cat species’.

Luna Park

Luna Park Shutter Blend experiment #1 2008, Brentbat via Flickr

After Anderson’s Wonderland City, another noteworthy amusement park to hit Sydney was, of course, Luna Park in Milsons Point. The park opened in 1935 and became a major social and entertainment space when World War II broke out in September 1939. From its opening until 1970, it was operated by the engineer and long-term employee Ted Hopkins. In June 1979, a fire in the Ghost Train resulted in the park’s closure. Six children and one adult died during the tragedy as inadequate fire-fighting measures caused the fire to completely destroy the ride. After the tragedy the park was neglected but it was redeveloped and restored from the 1980s to 2000s and it reopened in 2004.

Visit the Dictionary of Sydney and listen to my segment at 2SER radio. For other interesting segments, see my Dictionary of Sydney project post and visit the Dictionary of Sydney blog.