Picture of the Month

RHSV_PH-970399_Wirth's-Park Elephant with male attendant standing on low-loader outside Wirth’s Park (situated between Sloss and Sturt Streets, South Melbourne), c. 1946-1947 Commercial Photographic Co., photographer RHSV Collection : PH-970399


This ‘publicity photograph’ – eye-catching, telling a story, visually appealing and of good technical quality – is intended to attract and maintain an audience. Subtly it says that the circus is ‘on the road’ again, to hint that Melburnians will have to wait for another season, but that another farther-away community will have a chance to enjoy circus performances. There are references to some of the attractions of Wirth’s Park – skating, circus acts and pantomimes – and it is direct promotion for the A. G. Russell cartage company.

In 2015, this publicity photograph is being ‘repurposed’ to publicise quite a different attraction – History Week, 18 – 25 Oct 2015. Visit the History Week website: http://historyweek.org.au/. There you will find details of how you can travel back in time this History Week –from fascinating walking tours and engaging discussions, to exhibitions and ‘history in the making’ events – there is something in store for everyone to enjoy.


Wirth’s Park, of some 4.5 hectares, was on the site now occupied by the Melbourne Arts Centre.

In 1887 Cooper and Bailey’s Great American International Circus pitched their ‘big-top’ nearby. (As early as 1852 an American international circus had arrived in Port Phillip.) In 1906/1907 Wirth Brother’s Circus acquired the entire site from FitzGerald Brothers’ Circus. FitzGerald’s, at the beginning of the 20th Century was Australia’s biggest circus, and they had built a permanent circus home here from 1901. In 1904 the area not occupied by the FitzGerald Brothers was developed as a fashionable meeting place called Prince’s Court featuring a Japanese Tea House, open-air theatre, miniature train and a water chute. Apparently, many of these attractions were maintained for a time into Wirth’s occupancy.

A 1930s Mahlstedt fire insurance plan which includes Wirth’s Park, shows three substantial buildings. The Trocadero Danse Palais (previously called the Green Mill) was at the point of the triangular site. A large hippodrome amphitheatre (Wirth’s Olympia) ran along Sturt Street. This was the main arena, a cavernous structure of timber and galvanised iron, elegantly appointed, with a foyer, padded seats and cloak rooms. Wirth’s roller skating rink was alongside Sloss Street (and the site of the photograph). Between these, though not shown on the plan, would have been various temporary structures, perhaps animal cages, sales outlets and sideshows.

Wirth’s Olympia was not only the place for circus-style performances. It was used for film screenings, garden shows, exhibitions and fairs (for example the Pan-Pacific Exhibition and Fair – May 9 – 23, 1923), jazz concerts and YMCA gymnastic displays. In December 1953 a catastrophic fire left Wirth’s Park in ruin and brought the era to an abrupt end.

Sloss Street was subsumed by the building of the Arts Centre. A mosaic linking the arts, cultural and entertainment history of the site and marking the 150th anniversary of Circus in Australia was unveiled on 7 June 1988 at the Victorian Arts Centre. This was a joint project between the Circus Fans of Australasia Inc. and the Performing Arts Museum, Victorian Arts Centre.


Following the USA pattern, circuses in Australia used the blossoming railway system (as well as coastal shipping) to travel from town to town. Victorian Railways leased out a whole train to not only to carry props, people and animals, but to become the company’s sleeping quarters at night. Personal accounts describe how hectic and demanding life was to pack the train with equipment and animals after the evening show, to sleep on the moving train, then only to unpack and set-up again in the next town in the morning.

It is possible that the pictured A. G. Russell Carriers’ low-loader was being used to transport circus equipment and resources to Spencer Street railway station (Southern Cross Station). According to the Business Register, the company was established in February 1947 and deregistered in June 1972. The insignia on the vehicle reads gives its address as Wirth Park, Melbourne.

The elephant in the photograph remains unidentified, though, one of Wirth’s elephants, named Alice, was known nationwide. Alice died in 1956 at a disputed 110 years old.


Puss in Boots, a fable or fairy tale, tells of a cat that uses trickery and deceit to gain power, wealth, and the hand of a princess in marriage for his penniless and low-born master.

Melbourne newspapers of the immediate post-World War 2 period describe this Wirth’s production of Puss in Boots by Miss May Downs as ‘the only circus pantomime in the world showing twice daily’.

The Argus, Friday 21 December 1945, p16 says:

A number of spectacular scenes have been introduced into the circus version of the pantomime Puss in Boots, which opens for a season of matinees at Wirth’s Olympia tomorrow. These include Donald Duck’s Farmyard, Rainbowland, Apple Blossom Time, and Gumnuts. Lorraine Clarke will play Puss, and Victor and Roy Reid will fill the skin of Daisy the Cow. Production is by May Downs. Wirth’s Circus opened its 62nd Christmas season on Wednesday night with a well-balanced, varied programme of animal acts, acrobatics, and comedy numbers. Equestrienne number by Misses Doris and Eileen Wirth, and Eric Hill’s cleverly trained horses, are features of an entertaining bill.


The WIRTH FAMILY : Philip Peter Jacob Wirth (1864-1937) and George Wirth (1867-1941) : http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wirth-george-9291

May Emmeline Wirth (1894–1978) : http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wirth-may-emmeline-9158

On the road : the wandering Wirth familyhttp://blogs.slq.qld.gov.au/jol/2013/05/30/on-the-road-the-wandering-wirth-family/


Mahlstedt fire insurance plan which includes Wirth’s Park, c. 1930 – http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/132564)

Interior of the Olympia in 1936 showing the ‘Flying Nelsons’ : http://www.circopedia.org/Flying_Nelsons_Video_%281936%29

The end of Wirth’s Park, December 1953, The Argus, 28 Dec 1953 pp 1 and 2 – http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article23317966


Geoff Greaves : The circus comes to town : nostalgia of Australian big tops (Terrey Hills, NSW, Reed, 1980)

Mark St. Leon : Spangles & sawdust : the circus in Australia (Richmond, Vic., Greenhouse Publications, 1983)

James Grant and Geoffrey Serle : The Melbourne Scene, 1803-1956 (Neutral Bay, NSW, Hale & Iremonger, 1978)

Circus in Australia – A way of life for 70 years, 1847–1917http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/early-circus

New circus in Australiahttp://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/new-circus