For 70 years, Wirth’s Circus stood where the Arts Centre is now, and was one of Melbourne’s top attractions. It was destroyed by fire in 1953.
When Melbourne was founded, in 1835, it was primarily a city on the north bank of the Yarra. The north side was firm, dry ground, and the first buildings were constructed around what would become King and Queen Streets.
The southern bank looked less promising. This was lower lying, swampy, and prone to flood.
Princes Bridge, first constructed out of wood in the 1840’s, connected the two banks. The road across lead to Port Melbourne, the city’s connection to the outside world, the land either side of the road was left empty, a marshy wasteland little used by settlers beyond the occasional sporting contest.
Members of the local indigenous population lived south of the Yarra, the Boonwurrung people and other members of the Kulin nation, and continued to do so after the arrival of European settlers.
For a time, the two groups lived alongside each other, separated by the river. Although Indigenous numbers declined rapidly, once settlers arrived. By 1850, it was estimated just 28 Indigenous people remained living on Boonwurrung land.
That same year they were relocated to a reserve, at Mordialloc Creek.
And then gold was discovered, at Clunes, in 1851.
Victoria’s gold rush triggered a human tidal wave of immigrants to the city.
The population of Melbourne climbed dramatically, from an estimated 29 000 in 1850, to 123 000 four years later. And this figure only records the number of people residing in the city itself, not the high volume of transients on their way to and from the diggings.
All of the new European arrivals needed a place to stay, which the young city struggled to provide them. Fixed accommodation in Melbourne was limited, and was quickly overwhelmed.
So the arriving thousands spilled into the nearest vacant land available; the south bank of the Yarra. A vast tent shanty, dubbed ‘Canvas Town,’ sprouted either side of Princes Bridge in the 1850’s, providing short term housing to many of Melbourne’s new residents.
Canvas Town was well established enough to have fixed street names; tongue in cheek riffs on the finest streets in London, like ‘Mayfair’, and ‘The Strand. Among the thousands of tents, industrious types could make a good living selling the new arrivals provisions, prospecting gear and grog.
Eventually Melbourne began to catch up.
New suburbs were established, that could provide proper housing for the influx of residents. The city’s expansion also made land close to the city centre more valuable.
By the end of the 1850s, the tents of Canvas Town had been replaced, as industry rapidly took over the waterfront. The land was drained, the bank itself fortified against flooding, and the area became home to brickworks, breweries, and factories.
Behind the riverfront, large patches of vacant land remained, waiting for someone to put them to use.
Circus’ were big business in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
At a time when long distance travel was difficult and expensive, they gave a glimpse of the wider world, as well as providing live entertainment suitable for the whole family. Travelling circus’ began visiting Melbourne at the start of the gold rush.
In 1887, a large American circus company, Cooper and Bailey’s, pitched their tent next to St Kilda Road for the first time.
To maximise publicity for the show, the circus organised a procession through the city centre to the site. This caused a great deal of excitement, and subsequently became a tradition for other visiting circus troupes.
Cooper and Bailey’s were a hit: huge crowds turned out to watch them perform. They proved so popular that the company came back every season for more than twenty years, through to 1900, on each occasion using the same site on St Kilda Road.
Australian circus companies formed in the later 19th century, to compete with the big troupes from overseas. Multiple circuses now came to Melbourne each year, trying to outdo each other with acts and attractions.
One of Australia’s largest homegrown circuses was The FitzGerald Brothers. Formed around 1890, the company had made a splash in Melbourne with their first big shows, in 1892. Their acts included Japanese Sumo wrestlers, aerial artists, a tiny pony called ‘Commodore’, and a lion that rode on the back of an elephant.
The shows were so popular, the FitzGerald’s returned to perform each year.
But their location, a large empty block on Swanston Street, was eventually acquired for development. The FitzGerald’s began lobbying to take over the site used by Cooper and Bailey’s.
They were eventually successful, and began performing next to St Kilda Rd in 1901. The FitzGerald’s constructed a permanent wooden theatre on the site, a ‘hard top’, they dubbed ‘Olympia’.
They would lease this to other visiting circuses and live acts.
Sharing the location was another, smaller, amusement park called ‘Princes Court’, which opened around the same time. This featured a toboggan ride, as well as restaurants, bars, and a Japanese tea house.
This stretch along St Kilda Road became known as a live entertainment district.
Another successful local circus was run by the Wirth Brothers. This had an even longer history, having been founded in 1858.
The Wirth’s had been a Melbourne institution since the 1880s, often timing their appearances to coincide with the Melbourne Cup. They toured frequently, around Australia and abroad, and in style; travelling in their own special trains, sourcing their acts from around the world, billing themselves as ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’.
They appeared several times at the Olympia, when they visited Melbourne.
In 1907, the Wirth’s decided to settle permanently. They bought out both the FitzGerald’s and Princes Court, and combined both properties into one large scale venue.
Re-named ‘Wirth’s Park’, the new owners would do things on an even grander scale than their predecessors.
The ‘Olympia’ would be rebuilt, larger and more elaborately. When movies arrived in Melbourne, and caught on as a wildly popular new craze (you can read about this here), it was converted into a cinema.
New buildings were added, including a hippodrome for live events, an ice skating rink, and a large dance hall called ‘The Green Mill’. They kept the toboggan ride and waterslide from the previous park, and added a kart track, pavilions with permanent exhibits, restaurants, and bars. The new park had a capacity for 30 000 customers.
Wirth’s Park proved very popular. Its entry gate, topped with a triangular flag, became an iconic Melbourne landmark, often featuring in souvenirs of the city.
During the First World War, some of the buildings in the now sprawling complex were used for nursing veterans, and the dance hall was popular with returned serviceman.
It was not until the Great Depression that Wirth’s Park began to lose popularity. As tough economic times impacted the population, many forms of entertainment suffered adversely.
A number of the attractions would close during the 1930s. The dance hall, now called the ‘Trocadero’, remained popular, otherwise the venue was less patronised.
The grand age of the circus was coming to an end.
During World War II, the site was again used by the armed services, and some dances were still held at ‘The Troc’. But after the war, the site’s decline continued.
And then, disaster struck.
Early on the morning of December 27, 1953, Desmond Doyle was driving across Princes Bridge, when he noticed something amiss; flames were coming from the roof of the Olympia.
He raised the alarm and then raced to the circus gates, where he joined the efforts to try and rescue the animals kept there. Other employees, many of them living on site, hurried out in their pyjamas.
‘Fire destroyed the main pavilion of Wirth’s Olympia in half an hour this morning.
Thirty firemen worked hard to prevent strong winds spreading the fire to the adjoining Trocadero Dance Hall, and skating rink.
Bruce Johnson, 19, was sleeping in the main pavilion when the fire started.
“I woke and found my bed clothes on fire,’ he said. ‘I ran to the pony stalls to help release them. Most of them were tethered, and we had to untie them and drive them into the streets. Then I ran to the other cages.” ‘
– Reported in ‘The Age’, December 28, 1953
In the end, all the animals were rescued except four monkeys, and a prize-winning Great Dane, pet of the Wirth family.
The fire caused 70 000 pounds of damage. The cause was never determined.
Rather than rebuild, the Wirth’s decided to relinquish their long-standing lease on the land. The high running costs were a main factor; keeping such a large site going, as its popularity declined, was becoming increasingly difficult.
Wirth’s Park never re-opened. After some debate about future use, and the possible relocation of the circus, the land was purchased by the Victorian State Government. They had been eying the location since the mid 1940s.
In 1955, Victorian Premier Henry Bolte announced that the old Wirth Brother’s site would be home to a new Victorian Arts Centre.
Local architect Roy Grounds was appointed to head the project. As a youth, Grounds had been a performer, and had appeared on stage at the Olympia.
Grounds’ first proposal was for both the theatre and concert hall to be contained in one structure, and to be built underground, with an ornamental spire to mark the location. These plans would be revised several times, as new additions to the arts precinct were suggested, and added.
Eventually, it was decided to split the design into two separate buildings: a concert hall, on the riverbank, and a performing arts centre, the Theatres Building, a short distance further along St Kilda Road.
As part of the redevelopment, ‘Snowden Gardens’, a popular wedge-shaped park on the riverfront established in 1903, was also swallowed up. The demolished Wirth’s site would be used as a carpark, short term.
The complicated nature of the planning lead to extensive delays.
During this period, Grounds was also commissioned to design the National Gallery Victoria, a showcase art gallery that would sit adjacent to the Arts Centre. This was completed in December 1967, and opened the following year (you can read about the first exhibition held at the NGV, here).
The architect left quite a mark on this part of the city.
Construction on the Arts Centre project finally commenced in 1973, nearly twenty years after it was proposed, and took ten years to complete.
The new Melbourne Concert Hall opened in 1982, and the Theatres Building in 1984. The Arts Centre Spire, measuring 162 metres, became an iconic Melbourne landmark.
The concert hall was renamed ‘Hamer Hall’ in 2004, after former Victorian Premier Dick Hamer (in office when the buildings were completed).
It would undergo extensive renovations and redevelopment in the 2010s, part of which included a new arcade of shops and restaurants, along the waterfront. As a nod to the site’s history, one of the new restaurants was named the ‘Trocadero.’
You can also find a ‘Wirth Bros Circus’ mosaic, along the walkway between the two main buildings.