The name Wonderland evokes a sense of magic and mystery, something otherworldly and out of reach – much like the famed Alice and her trip down the rabbit hole. Sydney has more than one connection to the use of this name, most recently, is the title of a television sitcom set in an apartment block along the coastline of the eastern suburbs beaches of Sydney. The second more historical, but still recent connection was as the title of a theme park which ran for some 19 years at Eastern Creek in Sydney’s western suburbs between 1985 and 2004. Curiously, both the television series and the theme park have a connection to a third much older use of the term ‘Wonderland’ in Sydney.
Originally named ‘The Royal Aquarium’ and ‘Pleasure Grounds’ and opening in October of 1887 on what is now the eastern or seaside part of Tamarama, the site was also known as the ”Bondi Aquarium’ and consisted of the aforementioned aquarium building, skating rink, seal pond and shark pool.1
The aquarium and pavilion were destroyed by fire in 1891 and re-built within a year, a close up of one of the Powerhouse Museum’s glass plate negatives details the reconstruction as taking 11 weeks to complete.
The novelty of the enterprise gradually fell into decline, partly from a waning of interest from the public and competition from other similar set-ups along the coast, such as ‘The Centennial Coogee Palace Aquarium’ and swimming baths which opened in the same year (on the current site of the Palace Beach hotel) and which included a 70m toboggan.
By 1906 the Bondi Aquarium was finished and a William Anderson bought up land around the Tamarama beach area and acquired the lease of the beach which was a government reserve, 100 feet wide, from the Department of Lands (except for a 12 foot wide strip measured from high watermark which the department insisted be kept free for public use). A ‘road’ down to the beach on the northern side was part of the deal so that public could have access to the water.1
Anderson created a new venture ‘Wonderland City’ opening on the 1 December 1906 using many of the existing structures and modelling the site on the famous Coney Island. Attractions included ‘an artificial lake, a roller-skating rink (run by George Marlow), double-decker merry-go-round, Haunted House, Helter Skelter, a switchback railway (moved from its original site above the beach to the rear of the Tamarama park), a maze, fun factory, one-kilometre miniature railway (on the south slope), the Airem Scarem (a captive airship that tracked on a wire from cliff to cliff by electricity), wax works, Katzenjammer Castle, Hall of Laughter, Box Ball Alley, a boxing tent, seal pond, circus ring, movie house, penny parlour, Alice the elephant and other animals, the Japanese tearooms and Swiss Chalet (slide). The Kings Theatre, a kind of music hall, could seat 1,000 people.”2
Again, over a short number of years interest from the public waned and with displeasure from swimmers and locals for beach and water access increasing, the days of Wonderland City were numbered and Anderson’s venture finally closed in 1911.
Today Tamarama’s colourful past is remembered by Wonderland Ave situated on the north side from the beach.
Written by Einar Docker, Assistant Curator, 2013
1. Tamarama, A Settlement paradigm by Warwick Mayne-Wilson and Ari Anderson, 2010.
2. Tamarama Park Plan of Management by Waverley Council adopted June 2007. See: http://www.waverley.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/9255/Tamarama_Plan_of_Management.pdf
Saltwater People of the Fatal Shore by John Ogden. 2012 Cyclops press.
Eastern Suburbs Album by Portia Fitzsimmons, 1985, Atrand Pty Ltd, Sydney
http://www.dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/tamarama by Kimberley Sullivan.
A Nation in the Making by Alasdair McGregor, 2011. Australian Geographic.
An Edwardian Summer, Judith Ainge, Alan Davies, Howard Tanner, edited by Caroline Mackaness, 2010 Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales.