Fitzroy Gardens: the Quirky Random Stuff

Fitzroy Gardens cover a large area of 24 hectares (64 acres) on the edge of Melbourne’s CBD as the area was originally being set aside as a reserve in 1848. After the gold rush erupted, the 1860s saw huge growth in money and the development of grand parks all over Melbourne. The establishment of a network of grand avenues lined with trees and walkways through ferny glens in Fitzroy Gardens can only be truly appreciated now, as the trees have reached maturity. Over time, many artificial structures have also been added to the gardens. For today’s casual visitor, many of these additions seem very random and quirky: dolphin fountains, flower conservatories, bandstands and a miniature tudor village. Fortunately the beauty of the trees, avenues and ferny glen detract from these other structures that are often quite tacky in themselves.

The conservatory in Fitzroy Gardens was opened in March 1930, but flower displays still changed on each season. The floor is heated, meaning that a wide range of flowers can be grown throughout the year. The exterior of the building is Spanish mission style, supporting the walls at each end – the roof is all glass.

The gardens also play a central role in two books that have shaped Melbourne in a literary sense. It’s not often we think about pop culture back in the 19th Century, but a local Melbourne author gained worldwide fame by writing the first commercially successful detective story.

“The Mystery of a Hansom Cab” by Fergus Hume was a murder mystery book that gained worldwide fame soon after the author self-published in 1886. In this book, Fitzroy Gardens were a shadowy backdrop to a sordid divided world of tea parties, brothels and prosperity in gold rush Melbourne. A large tree in the garden is used to hide a piece of clothing from the unfortunate victim of this murder mystery. It was a key twist in the story where a body being discovered in a hansom cab: kind of like an Uber in the 19th century.

This detective story was penned prior to Arthur Conan Doyle inventing “Sherlocke Holmes”, with some speculation that Hansom Cab raised the profile of detective stories by the time the first Sherlocke book “A Study in Scarlet” was published. Hansom Cab is still great read, even though we live in a very different world – I can see how the first people who bought this book from a local railway bookshop in Melbourne would have gone on to recommend it to friends. It concerns a death that takes the detectives across the various classes and communities in Melbourne when it was a boom town, with all the problems that arise. Many locations in East Melbourne are still familiar, although the brothels and drug dens of Melbourne CBD have given way to office towers and apartment blocks these days. Unfortunately the author sold the worldwide rights to the story for £50, prior to it becoming a best seller in the late 1880s across the UK and USA.

This is a favourite spot to bring children. Ola Cohn carved this red gum in 1934 with Australian and European fairies, dwarves, imps, gnomes, goblins, elves and animals, including the kookaburra, kangaroo and emu.

It’s not hard to imagine little fairies living in the shady glades of the fern tree gully that runs through the centre of Fitzroy Gardens. Children’s author Ola Cohn wrote three books about fairies who live in the garden, beginning with The Fairies Tree in 1933. As a respected illustrator and sculptor, Cohn got permission to carve a series of fairies, Australian animals and other characters from her books into the trunk of a 300 year old red river gum in the garden. Hardly surprising that the tree died, but the garden authorities have continuously preserved the carvings on the dead tree trunk.

It’s said that the any wish made to the blue butterfly on the fairies tree sculpture will come true. Ola Cohn was inspired by the Elfin Tree in London’s Kensington Gardens, and her modernist sculptures were commissioned in several Australian public buildings in the 1940s-1960s. The inscription on the Fairies Tree tells of her love for the children of Melbourne, as she was also a school teacher at times during her career: “I have carved in a tree in the Fitzroy Gardens for you, and the fairies, but mostly for the fairies and those who believe in them, for they 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.”

The “Spanish Villa” inspired Conservatory in Fitzroy Gardens appears somewhat incongruous on many days in this Victorian era garden in Melbourne, but on a bright sunny day, you can feel like you may be in California. The “Meditation” statue by Robert Delandre greets visitors as they enter the conservatory, which dates back to 1930. The fountain has a chequered history – it features an ornamental bronze Victorian statue featuring a snake coiled around the figure of a boy, atop a granite shaped ball. This was originally on a street in the city of Melbourne in 1980, when it was damaged in road accident. It was relocated to it’s present site.

Moving on to other artificial additions to the gardens that seemed a good idea at the time: tourists with little time and an instagram/WeChat account always manage to do a minute stop at Fitzroy Gardens most famous building: Captain Cook’s Cottage. It’s normally teeming with tourists, mainly from China. COVID-19 finally gave me the chance to take a photo of this iconic building without the tourist hordes.

Captain Cook’s Cottage was purchased by a Melbourne philanthropist in 1934 and subsequently moved stone by stone from Great Ayton in North Yorkshire, England. But one may ask, was it a meaningful purchase for Centenary of Melbourne in 1934?

In addition to shipping and rebuilding everything, the ivy that grows over the walls was also propagated and regrown in Melbourne, demonstrating a high level of detail to make believers believe the link to our dear Captain. However, it’s not really Captain Cook’s cottage – rather a cottage built by his parents. Furthermore, it’s also important to remember that Captain Cook didn’t even set foot on land anywhere near Melbourne or nearby Port Philip Bay. He did spend some landed time near Sydney (Botany Bay) in addition to spending heaps of time fixing his boat when they were navigating through the Great Barrier Reef.

Another quirky addition to the garden came about in 1948, when a miniature tudor village was installed near the fairies tree. It’s another item that was shipped over from Britain. A 77-year-old pensioner, Mr Edgar Wilson, built a series of masonry models of a Kent village in his home in Norwood, London. The gifted these to the people of Melbourne, who had provided food parcels to the people of London during WWII. It would be rude to put these things in storage so they were duly placed in Fitzroy Gardens, next to the Fairies Tree. This Kent village strangely includes a model of Shakespeare’s home and a cottage of his wife, Anne Hathaway. It’s interesting to reflect that Melburnians must have more respect for these gifts from the 1940s, as similar model villages by Mr Wilson have since been removed from parks elsewhere in the world.

Other older structures in the garden include Greek inspired Temple of the Winds from 1873. No view to be seen and not much wind, as it just sitting next to one of the long avenues far away from the top of the garden where you might get a bit of wind.

Along the lush green glen that goes through the centre of the garden, there’s also a bizarre fountain that has dolphins and crabs washed up on big boulders, much like some sort of strange apocalypse – call in some trucks to drag them back to the sea. The “Dolphin Fountain” has to get the award for being weird and not so wonderful – it was donated by a carpet manufacturing magnate in 1982. Obviously didn’t want this hideous feature in their own backyard.

Summer’s early morning light reaches the secluded Dolphin Fountain in Fitzroy Gardens. This artwork consists of over 100 individual bronze animals with granite boulders and water cascades. It was completed in 1982 by June Arnold and was reasonably controversial at the time, as it is out of step with the Victorian nature of this garden in Central Melbourne.

These are only a selection the random stuff in the gardens. I guess it goes to prove that you can accumulate a lot of stuff over time. By comparison, Carlton Gardens to the north of Melbourne CBD have a World Heritage listing, as they are dominated by the Exhibition Building of 1888. No need for random quirky stuff if you got a huge World Heritage building.

Links and Further Reading:

Website: History of Fitzroy Gardens

Historical newspaper article on Captain Cook’s Cottage: Captain Cook’s Cottage – An Amazing Situation” – The Age, 2 December, 1933.

View of an avenue leading from east to west in Fitzroy Gardens during the CIVID-19 outbreak 12 April 2020 – very few visitors around here.

The BookMystery of a Hansom Cab: Original text of the story for a free download via Project Gutenburg, and a Washington Post review of the book in 2014.

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