Melbourne’s Giant Santa

The corner of Swanston and Bourke Streets, in Melbourne, is now home to a flashy telecommunications shop. At one time, this corner was dominated by a giant Santa, and a fondly remembered rooftop fun park.

Forgotten Places FORGOTTEN PLACES

 THE LOCAL FILES

Mark Foy with his family

Born in Ireland in 1835, Mark Foy, like so many of his countrymen, was lured to Melbourne by the gold rush. He arrived in the city in 1858, and decamped to the goldfields near Ballarat, with his young family.

But when he failed to strike it rich, he turned instead to shopkeeping, opening a butcher's shop in Campbell's Creek. Energetic and resourceful, he was soon able to move to the larger city of Castlemaine, and expand into wholesale produce.

Smith St, Collingwood, circa 1880.

By 1870, Foy was successful enough to move back to Melbourne.

Trying a new line, he now opened a drapery on Smith St, in Collingwood, which quickly proved lucrative. By the end of the decade he had expanded his business to a chain of six shops, and had become a wealthy and respected member of the local community.

Foy's heath was not robust though, and in 1882 he took early retirement. Control of his businesses then passed to his eldest son Frances, and Foy installed a family friend, William Gibson, as a business partner. Mark Foy moved abroad, living in England and America, before passing away in 1884.

As a retailer, Frances Foy would prove just as ambitious as his father.

A 'Foy & Gibson' store, circa 1900. Photo: trove.com.au

The younger Foy decided to expand again, and now hatched a plan to open a series of 'General Stores', a kind of proto-department store, selling a wide range of goods. Originally badged 'Foy & Gibson', the first store opened in 1883, and was immediately successful.

After Gibson allowed Foy to buy out his share of the company in 1884, the business reverted to  the name 'Foy's'. 

Foy's lavish Sydney shop

The chain soon expanded interstate, opening shops in Adelaide and Perth, and a particularly lavish outlet near Hyde park in Sydney, replete with crystal chandeliers. Modernisation followed; as the stores became larger, the range of goods sold more modern and sophisticated.

Foy's main Melbourne branch

Foy's main Melbourne branch was a stylish building opposite the eastern end of the Bourke St pedestrian mall. The store was hugely successful, and an iconic part of the city in the first half of the 20th century, occupying a similar niche to the Myer Department store, Foy's great rival. 

Frances Foy passed away in 1918 at only 53 years of age, which ended the family's active role in the business. His heirs sold their stake in the company, although the business and storefronts would retain the family name.

The Giant Santa, and Rooftop Fun Park, were a Christmas gimmick that began shortly after the Second World War. The Melbourne store was already known for it's elaborate Christmas decorations, and the new additions were meant to reinforce the idea of Foy's as Christmas central.

The three storey high Santa was promoted as the largest in the world, and its index finger was mechanised, so it would beckon to shoppers passing by. 

The Rooftop Fun Park featured rides, a playground, a petting zoo, sideshows and even (at one time) bumper boats. A few pictures remain of the park in operation:

Sadly, the fun came to an end in the late 1960's.

The Foy's chain was taken over by David Jones and the iconic Melbourne building sold to Woolworth's, relegating the Rooftop Park and the giant Santa to history. 

The same site today:

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