These are a few details from a few short years in the life of one of our smallest boroughs.
In 1856, on something of a whim, George Coppin relieved a struggling James Ellis of a great burden, the Cremorne Gardens. Ellis had overestimated his abilities, and what had worked in London, struggled somewhat in Melbourne. Coppin was a well connected man around town, who possessed a particular genius for 'spectacle'. Pretty soon this minor local attraction was the talk of the town.
Melbourne socialites would roll down in their finery. They would take the trolley or come steaming up the river on the ferry after Coppin had it rerouted there. If you are familiar with Melbourne you may know the place, at Hoddle Bridge, where Punt Road crosses the Yarra River. Today you can stand there and look north along the river, past well manicured parklands to a glorious, glittering city skyline. In Coppin's day the river was not so broad, nor so brown. The grasslands which lined it were already trampled by canvas slums. These had sprung up for poor migrants, dragged across the world by the promise of gold.
Coppin was a gambling man. Famously, he chose our colonies, and not America on the outcome of a coin toss. Here he would build theatres, hotels - he would perform regularly, and became something of a local celebrity. He made and lost his fortune many times, tried his hand at gold digging, but he was not cut out for the hard life. A man of culture, his greatest gift to Melbourne was in helping to bring the Princess Theatre to the city. To this day it is one of our finest buildings. And then came Cremorne, his biggest gamble.
Long before Luna Park, the Cremorne Gardens were a place for the emerging elite to spend their leisure time. These were not old English aristocrats, they had had no reason to uproot their lives. Here, upstarts abounded, the rejects, drifters and off-cuts came together and stumbled on a great fortune. By old world standards, they knew not what to do with it.
Coppin would lament the appalling theatre etiquette, where hard working miners came from the goldfields to blow off steam. They got drunk, rowdy, and would regularly brawl. Ill-liked performances were met with a shower of rancid food and obscenities, but times were good, and the favoured were flung flowers intermixed with the occasional gold nugget. Unsurprisingly, Coppin learned to love this new kind of elite, but they were never meant for the theatre.
The Cremorne Gardens were to be the new kind of leisure for this new wealth. Here curiosities, attractions and prostitutes were all part of the experience. It's where we launched our first hot air balloon, and showcased our first camels,
later sold to Burke and Wills for their legendary journey across the country. But Coppin's ideas were always better than his business sense. Bankrupt again, the gardens closed in 1863. Much of the area became an asylum.
I think of Coppin today when I visit the vibrant little borough Cremorne has become, full of makers, it's something of a creative hub in Coppin's tradition. It's an amazing place to explore, and to visit our friends who have found new uses for old spaces in this latest chapter of our city's history. Join us sometime.