What is Royal Park?
This hefty chunk of parkland, north of North Melbourne, west of Carlton, has an identity crisis. It’s been set aside for public use since the 1840s. But the public has never known what to do with it.
The great parks and gardens of London, Paris and New York have a clear place in their city’s psyche; everyone knows them, and if they don’t go there, at least they know what they are for. Not so Royal Park. It’s the poor cousin of the Botanical Gardens, a place we think we value (if we think of it at all) but we are unsure why.
Over the years it’s been a place for grazing, a wilderness, a car park, a military base, a zoo, emergency housing, the site of sports complexes and hospitals. It’s housed murderers, it’s been called a ‘slum’ and a ‘plague spot’, it’s been the scene of angry protests.These days it attracts thousands of netballers and hockey players, and visitors to the zoo – who in most cases come and go without noticing the surrounding park at all.
It’s one of the strangest, most unsettling spots in Melbourne. Maybe its history has something to do with that.
Sure, it can be a nice place for an afternoon stroll.
Parts of the park have been set aside for native grasslands and signs point you towards ‘remnant vegetation’. No doubt people who can identify trees, grasses and attendant wildlife would know what they are. Unfortunately, that’s not me. I recognise the call of bellbirds, up around the netball centre – that’s the limit of my knowledge.
Last year, Royal Park was in the news when the developers of the East-West link proposed to dig a thumping great trench through it. There were angry protests, and when the Napthine government lost the election, that plan was abandoned. But it was only the latest of many controversial proposals inflicted on a contested space.
When you enter the park from the Flemington Road side and walk past the Royal Children’s Hospital, you come to an elevated area with a path around a very large circle of grassland. A few people are jogging, walking dogs, riding bikes. There are even skater dudes practising flip tricks over stray branches. There’s a sense of peace and openness, and a panoramic view of the city. And yet … it’s somehow not welcoming, that large circle; it doesn’t invite you to walk and relax and explore it. We stick to the path, most of us.
I wonder why there aren’t more people here.
It was Governor LaTrobe, back in the 1840s, who wanted the park reserved for recreation. It was held back from sale when the rest of the city was sold off in one of Melbourne’s periodic real estate frenzies. Royal Park was formally reserved in 1876.
But the Trustees didn’t know what to do with it. It wasn’t a botanical garden, but neither did they want “a place of recreation for multitudes”. It was proposed to be a place for “our most umbrageous [i.e. shady] eucalypts and acacias”. However, despite good intentions, plantings over the years have failed. These wide open spaces are far from umbrageous. There is a distinct lack of umbrage.
Meanwhile, bits were carved off by sports clubs, graziers, and the zoo (founded by Albert le Souef in the 1870s). By 1923 the park was a wilderness.
What’s that big stone thing?
On the far side of the big grass circle, you come to an unexpected object, like a slim bluestone Dalek. This was erected in 1890 to commemorate the doomed expedition of Burke and Wills, which departed from this spot in 1860. It’s an odd memorial, about as sophisticated as a kindergarten art project in concept and execution. The plaque boldly claims that the expedition was ‘successful’ which seems a big call given that most of them died due to bad leadership, ignorance of the land, and refusal to accept the help of Indigenous people (Burke fired on the Aborigines when they offered assistance).
Is it ironic, or just appropriate, that one of Melbourne’s wilder locations (in part, anyway) contains a memorial to people who spectacularly failed to understand the Australian landscape?
Their attitude to Indigenous people was hardly unusual though. In 1888, as historian Tony Birch has written, an Aboriginal family was put on display in Melbourne Zoo by Albert Le Souef for something called “an exact representation of an Aboriginal people’s encampment in the Bushland exhibit”.
During World War Two, thousands of American soldiers were based at Royal Park at a military camp known as Camp Pell. (You can see the locations of the huts on these marvellous aerial photographs of Melbourne in 1945). Tents and Nissen huts were erected, and the park traversed by roads with names like Bronx and Frisco. What an odd thing to think of: thousands of young men from Michigan and Texas and New York and Tennessee and Idaho, dropped in this alien land among the redgums, waiting for orders that might send them to their deaths.
Relationships between American and Australian troops were often tense, for reasons including the Americans’ better pay and apparent success with local women. In 1943 a mass brawl took place in central Melbourne involving 3,500 troops. The local media avoided reporting the incident.
The most shocking event, though, involved a serviceman from New Jersey, Private Eddie Leonski. Leonski was a serial killer who murdered three women in two weeks in 1942. He was known by two names: the so-called ‘Brownout Strangler’ (because he struck when the Melbourne street lights were dimmed and windows covered in case of air raids) and, even more sinisterly, the ‘Singing Strangler’ because he was obsessed by women with beautiful singing voices and reportedly said ‘I killed them to get at their voices’. Leonski was hanged at Pentridge on the orders of General Macarthur.
One of the other stories that lingers is the rumour of tunnels under Royal Park, containing tanks, weapons and other stuff left behind by the Americans. Some tunnels certainly exist, but no one seems to know how many, or what is inside them. These subterranean possibilities add to the strangeness.
The indisputable remaining evidence of the camp includes two sentry boxes on Brens Drive.
“The worst slum in Melbourne”
After the war, Camp Pell huts were used as emergency housing for thousands during Melbourne’s homelessness crisis (this was the era when the Housing Commission was building new estates in places like Flemington, which I walked through earlier). But many families ended up staying in Camp Pell for years.
Camp Pell, nicknamed ‘Camp Hell’, was essentially a shanty town for thousands of people with nowhere else to go; toilet and cooking facilities were shared, the Nissen huts overheated appallingly in the sun, there was a quagmire when it rained and diseases inevitably broke out. The families living there, awaiting better housing, made the best they could of the situation. However, they did not receive much support or sympathy from the broader Melbourne community. The well-heeled locals raised a stink and the media portrayed the camp as a place of filthy moral degeneracy, crime and disease – the worst slum in Melbourne, in fact. Political pressure was applied to get rid of the camp before the Olympics in 1956.
The story of ‘Camp Hell’ has been well told by Adam Shand. And here are some recollections of Camp Pell from people who lived there, many of whom have fond memories of the place and didn’t regard it as hellish at all, despite the slurs that were levelled at them.
The subsequent history of Royal Park is more positive: the creation of sports complexes during the 1960s and 1970s; the construction of the Royal Children’s Hospital in one corner. My own memories include rushing my kids to hospital for emergency treatment a few times (an unpleasant experience transformed into something positive by the wonderful medical staff). We’ve been to the netball centre, to play and to watch. My partner insists that we once saw comedian Rod Quantock construct a papier mache elephant outside the zoo, as part of a protest about, possibly, increased traffic disturbing the animals.
But one thing that Royal Park doesn’t suggest to me is, well, a park. It carries the traces of its contested and muddled history, and embodies our confused attitude to landscape. There are places where beautiful gums have been preserved; there are vast empty spaces where Nissen huts once stood.
Does Royal Park remember these struggles, these conflicts? Do the failures, follies and brutality of the past linger in the uneasy open spaces? Does it hold memories of foreign troops in secret underground labyrinths?
Does the shadow of Private Leonski flit across the grassy circle at dusk, heading out in search of a woman with a beautiful voice?
I drew some historical information about Royal Park from a Cultural Heritage Study prepared by Georgina Whitehead in 1998 for the City of Melbourne.
Writer Tony Birch and artist Tom Nicholson created a work, ‘Camp Pell lecture’ in 2010, based on the history of Royal Park, including the exhibition of Indigenous people in Melbourne Zoo, the Burke and Wills expedition and Camp Pell’s use as emergency housing.