By Dr Cheryl Griffin – Royal Historical Society of Victoria
It’s a stark but beautiful winter scene in one of Melbourne’s oldest parks, a landscape laid bare. The skeletal elm trees stand like proud sculptures extending skywards, their shadows creating faint stripes of light and shade along the pathway in the silvery sunlight.
This is Melbourne in winter at its best. You can imagine the bracing cold. The silence and serenity of the surrounds are palpable. There are no crowds, and apart from the man walking with his children on the left of the image, there is a stillness that embraces the onlooker. Even that group proceeds at a sedate pace, the children holding hands with each other and with their father.
This was once swampy land with a creek draining into the nearby Yarra River. There is no evidence now of that. By the 1860s the development of this 26-hectare site on the south-eastern fringe of the CBD had begun. The paths were fenced and lined with statues. Many of the trees at that time were conifers, although some were the iconic elms that are visible throughout the CBD. There were fountains, a rotunda, and a bandstand where concerts were held on Sunday afternoons – sacred music only, though.
It took some years for flowers and lawns to enter the landscape of the gardens. By the time this photo was taken, the fences and statuary had disappeared. People were allowed off the paths and onto the lawns and the gardens felt more like a park than the formal, constrained place it had been in the 19th century.
In 1913, when this winter scene was captured by photographer Robert Law, some of the biggest drawcards of the Fitzroy Gardens were still 20 years into the future. One of these, Cook’s Cottage, was moved from England in 253 crates in 1933 (complete with an ivy cutting from its original setting) then reconstructed in the gardens. As a very young child I thought that Cook had lived in this cottage in the gardens and was captivated by its smallness – just perfect for the young child I imagined Captain Cook to be when he lived there. I was very disappointed to discover some years later that it was his parents’ home and he’d never lived there.
Another favourite childhood place, created in the early 1930s, is the Fairies Tree, created by children’s author and sculptor Ola Cohn. Located at the base of an amazingly old red gum, it depicts a wonderful array of fairies, gnomes, koalas, flying foxes and various other Australian animals and birds. Generations of children have fallen in love with the Fairies Tree that Cohn dedicated to “fairies and those who believe in them”. It is the believers, she wrote, who will “understand how necessary it is to have a fairy sanctuary – a place that is sacred and safe as a home should be to all living creatures.”
Then there is the Spanish Mission style Conservatory, opened in the 1930s and known for its marvellous floral displays. And the 1947 model Tudor village, created by an elderly Englishman and sent to the City of Melbourne as a thank you gift in appreciation of the food parcels Melburnians sent to Britain during World War II.
There are so many places to visit in the Fitzroy Gardens, but my preference is for a walk along one of the tree-lined avenues such as the one you see here.
Postscript to last month’s article “And there she was, just riding down the street” …
Shortly after the publication of my last article about an unnamed horsewoman riding along Exhibition St, the Royal Historical Society was contacted by a reader who had an almost identical image in her collection of family photos. She was able to tell us that our previously unidentified rider was almost certainly Isa Taylor, then in her 20s. She was the daughter of Joe Taylor, who traded in the CBD from around 1906 as Joe Taylor The Tailor. The photo was probably taken in the early 1920s, rather than 1929 as we had thought. A well-known businessman and master of self-promotion, Joe Taylor had businesses in Bourke and Swanston streets with branches in Brunswick, Footscray, North Melbourne and Richmond until the mid-1920s. Isa Taylor, we were told, would often ride into town. Those were the days … •