Victoria’s first amusement park was an elaborate ‘Pleasure Garden’ on the banks of the Yarra, the lifelong dream of an obsessive English confectioner.
James Ellis grew up in Dickensian London.
After a hard scrabble youth, he established himself as a shopkeeper, and eventually made a good living selling confectionary. He did well enough, in fact, that he was able to indulge his dreams.
In 1845 he took a lease on the elaborate gardens at Cremorne House.
Cremorne House had previously been a farm, that ran from the edge of the Thames to the King’s Road, in Chelsea.
Around 1800, the property was acquired by Viscount Cremorne, an Irish Lord who was looking for a property in London. A wealthy man, Cremorne built an elaborate mansion, and set about transforming the 12 acres of farmland into a lavish garden.
A man-made lake was excavated, many species of tree and flowering plants added, and stone walkways and viewing platforms built.
The property became well-known as one of the handsomest in London.
Viscount Cremorne died in 1813, and the property passed to his wife.
When she passed on herself, the family sold the estate, and it then went through several pairs of hands. One owner built a stadium in the site, and used it for professional sporting contests; another used it for hot air balloon rides (at the time a popular novelty).
But James Ellis’ vision outstripped these.
The ambitious confectioner would re-imagine Cremorne House as a ‘Pleasure Garden’; 19th Century Europe’s version of an amusement park.
Assuming control of the property in 1845, Ellis would add restaurants, shops, boat rides on the lake, and make the balloon rides a permanent feature. Live music played constantly on a rotunda on the estate lawn, and in he evening the trees were lit with thousands of tiny gas lights, while fireworks lit up the sky.
The Cremorne Pleasure Gardens quickly became established as one of the spots in contemporary London, with the fun continuing until late at night.
‘The Gardens are covered with trees, and ornamented with fountains, flower-beds, and statues. This is the maddest place in London after ten o'clock in the evening, and from thence until one and two o'clock in the morning, Cremorne is in the possession of women and their male friends and abettors.’
- Contemporary account
But despite the gardens popularity, Ellis’ lack of experience managing such a large enterprise counted against him. Costs spiralled out of control, and he was eventually forced to file for bankruptcy, relinquishing control of the property in 1850.
The Pleasure Garden would continue, under different management, until 1877, when the land was sold for redevelopment. Residential properties stand on the site today. A small park, featuring one of the Gardens original wrought iron gates, is the only remaining trace.
Undaunted, Ellis decided to try his luck elsewhere. And the Victorian Gold Rush provided the opportunity; he arrived in Melbourne in 1853.
But unlike many of the people flooding into Victoria to seek their fortune, Ellis was not interested in prospecting. He was looking for a second chance at realising his dream.
With money acquired from selling his businesses in London, Ellis now leased a large tract of land on the banks of the Yarra river, to the east of Melbourne city. At this time, largely empty land with few inhabitants.
Ellis then set out to replicate his previous venture in London, right down to the name; the new property would be called the ‘Cremorne Pleasure Gardens’.
Some of the attractions were similar as well; with restaurants and bars, boating on a man-made lake, nightly fireworks and live music played from a fancy rotunda.
Ellis also added a theatre, ‘The Pantheon’, which staged pantomimes and popular theatre.
To transport his patrons to and from the park, Ellis purchased a small paddle steamer, that ran from a dock below Princess Bridge in the city, to one at the gardens.
Melbourne was expanding rapidly at this time, and the Pleasure Gardens quickly became successful. A day at the gardens was shortly established as one of the things to do in the city.
But along with their popularity, came controversy.
Ellis had the Gardens licensed, and alcohol was freely available. Public drunken-ness became a common sight, and the park gained a slightly seedy reputation.
Even more serious, it was an open secret that local prostitutes were conducting business in the Gardens, using it as a place to meet clients, even to tryst with them.
Ellis worked hard overcome this bad publicity.
He spoke publicly against excessive drinking, and vice, and donated money to local charities and churches. Despite these efforts, the Garden’s reputation remained tainted.
Ellis was having other problems as well.
Costs were again spiralling out of control, and he was struggling to turn a profit. With an eerie similarity to the first Cremorne Pleasure Garden in London, Ellis’ Melbourne business lasted 5 years. In 1858, he took the bitter step of cutting his losses, and sold the park to local showbiz identity George Coppin.
Ellis took the money from the sale and bought a pub in Fitzroy, which he ran successfully for the rest of his life.
George Coppin was a flamboyant local figure, best known for running a successful acting company.
An actor, at times, himself, he also played the violin professionally, performed live comedy, and ran a variety of businesses, most of which had ended in bankruptcy court. He was also married multiple times, and had a series of affairs with local women, which scandalised Melbourne society.
When Coppin assumed control of Cremorne Gardens in 1858, he sought to repair their image; restricting alcohol consumption and policing late night activities more diligently. He also added a railway line and private station, making it easier for his customers to get out to and from the city.
Later that same year, Coppin also staged a hot air balloon ascent in the Gardens, the first time this had been done in Australia.
Coppin paid for these activities by running several theatres in the city, the most profitable of which was the Theatre Royal. But in 1859, he split with his business partner, and lover, Brooke Bray, and she assumed control of the Royal as part of the settlement.
Denied this important source of income, Coppin’s fortunes declined.
Cremorne Gardens continued to run at a loss, and as Coppin’s debts mounted, he was forced to sell the property in 1863.
Coppin then turned to politics. Despite his mixed reputation, he was elected to Victoria's Upper House, where he served one term. He later returned to the theatre, and his fortune's continued their roller-coaster ride of boom-and-bust, success and failure.
The land the Cremorne Pleasure Gardens had stood on was, by this time, becoming increasingly valuable.
And the new owners had no intention of utilising the Gardens in their current form. The Gardens were closed permanently, the buildings torn down, and the lake filled in.
The entire property was eventually subdivided and sold for residential and commercial redevelopment. The suburb would be renamed ‘Cremorne’, as a small commemoration of the Gardens that once stood there.
Today, at the end of Cubbitt St, Cemorne, a tiny plaque in the equally tiny Charles Evans Reserve marks Victoria’s first amusement park.