FLOOD, FIRE AND FEVER
A History of Elwood
Recreation on the Hill and the Beach
A flagpole, maybe seven metres in height, was positioned on the peak of Point Ormond hill where the wooden marker is now situated. There could also have been a circular seating arrangement at the base of the flagpole. On the eastern side of the hill was Point Ormond Kiosk, which was quite large in size and really a tearoom. It was very dilapidated in appearance. It smelt musty at all times and even the tearoom staff seemed quite ancient. On the western side of the hill commenced a pier 40-50 metres in length. The structure was destroyed in a storm during the 40s or maybe 50s. It was popular with fishermen, there being some excellent catches of flathead. On the southern side at the base of the hill operated a team of Shetland ponies every Sunday afternoon, summer and winter. A brief oval ride whilst being led cost threepence.
On the northern side I recall on a cold and miserable evening an army display at the bottom of the hill, which I think was for the purpose of selling war bonds. The highlight of the display was the demonstration of flame-thrower m ounted on a tank or Bren Gun carrier. In those days the tea tree growth was much thicker. During the war when I was a student at St Columba’s, we were taken to the ‘forest’ to practice air raid drills when our nation felt most at threat around 1943. St Columba’s was occupied by U.S. troops while we were displaced into a tennis pavilion seated three to a desk. Ken Corbett, who grew up in Elwood from 1934 to 1957.
Elwood beach extends north from its border with Brighton at Head Street to the green prominence at Point Ormond. These 54 acres of land adjacent to the beach and extending east to Ormond Esplanade were reserved as a public garden early after settlement. Residents fought off an attempt by the Government to sell the reserve for development in 1865. Included at the southern end of the reserve were eleven acres of rifle range that became Elwood Park in 1907.
Swamp reclamation and tramways extensions in the early 20th century kick-started Elwood Beach’s transition to one of Melbourne’s most popular recreational areas for families. The Elwood Surf Life Saving Club was founded in 1913, building premises at Head Street in 1921. in 1971 it moved to its current premises designed by noted architect Don Fulton in striking ‘Brutalist’ style. Today it serves as local lifesaving club, bathing pavilion and the State Disaster Headquarters for all marine emergencies on Port Phillip Bay.
The oldest structure on Elwood Beach is the delightful octagonal weatherboard kiosk (1915) opposite Normanby Street that has provided refreshments to bathers and visitors for an extraordinary nine decades. In 1924 the clubhouse of the first Sea Canoe Club in Australia was erected and later became the Elwood Sailing Club in 1939. Other recreational facilities following including the Croquet Club (1937), and a Sea Scout hall (c1958).
By 1930 spacious tearooms were being operated by confectioner John Wharton at Point Ormond, on the west side of Marine Parade, near Glenhuntly Road. It was demolished with the nearby jetty in the 1950s. In the 1930s and 1940s, council minutes recorded the shocking news of the public breaching restrictions by swimming in their bathers. The seabathing pavilion was demolished in 1971. The advent of motorcars saw the Elwood beach, with its car park, supplanting older beaches as a premier destination. The historic Elwood Angling Club moved from Prahran in 1939 and was rebuilt in 1957 after a fire. The Elwood Bowling Club (1925) on the foreshore opposite Vaultier Street was converted to the Beach House Community Centre and Café in the 1990s. In about 1931, public tennis courts were built. A soccer facility followed later.
At the northern end of Elwood Beach, a wooden navigation tower sits atop a gently sloping hill beside a park and playground. Peel back the multiple cultural layers of this peaceful place and you have a snapshot of the whole history of Elwood. Originally known as Little Red Bluff, the place name of Point Ormond was named for Captain Ormond, who visited Port Phillip in 1839. He returned to England and bought a small ship to bring out his family, including Francis, his son. Francis rose from early employment as a stable boy to become a large landowner and a great philanthropist. The suburb of Ormond is named after him and his statue stands in front of the Melbourne Working Men’s College, later Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.
In August 1835, Elwood had a brief opportunity to become the centre of a great metropolis when the Enterprize, John Fawkner’s schooner, dropped anchor at Elster Creek. Fawkner later described the scene:
Each side of the red bluff (now Point Ormond) was a small inlet or bay. The one on the north…formed part of a basin into which a watercourse poured its floodwaters. The sinuous line of the watercourse was marked by fringing wattle and small gum trees. Slightly to the north, extending east alongside the stream, was a large marshy lagoon, with an outlet to the sea.
The crew was insufficiently impressed to stay for long and sailed on to the Yarra where they founded Melbourne after unloading near today’s William Street. In the early decades, the Point was a prominent landmark for shipping and by the 1850s was gaining popularity as a summer picnic spot. Since 1985 there have been several reunions of descendants of the Glen Huntley fever ship at the site of the former quarantine station of 1840.
Fire is a recurring motif at the point. Cooking fires of the traditional owners burned here over thousands of years. Beacons were lit on the Point in 1851 to celebrate separation from NSW. In 1863, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales and eldest son of Queen Victoria, married Princess Alexandra of Denmark. Seventy tons of firewood plus barrels of tar and oil casks were hauled to Point Ormond and lit on 10 March to celebrate the event. In 1998, Australia’s bicentenary was commemorated by a ‘ring of fire’ – the lighting of beacons around the entire Australian coastline, including one at Point Ormond.
The bluff was a favourite subject for paintings by artist, Elizabeth Parsons (1831-1897), who has left us many exquisite images. Her paintings around 1875 show the hill as a cliff or headland, not the gentle mound we see today. In the 1890s stone and sand from the bluff was used to reclaim Elwood marshlands. In 1904 the seaward edge was cut down to 2.4 metres, despite bitter opposition, to create a seawall and extend Marine Parade. The remaining bluff was then graded to a slope reducing its height by several feet.
An abattoir and coal mine were built nearby, the former provoking protests until it was closed in 1898. The Point Ormond Improvement Scheme began on 25 may 1915 providing work for the unemployed including the construction of a refreshment kiosk designed by Carlo Catani. On 4 June 1915, a new tramway was extended to Point Ormond, enabling travel from Elsternwick railway station to the beach. The terminus, with a large passenger shelter made of green latticework slats, was next to both the tearooms and the beach.
In 1901, a Signal Station at Point Ormond made history with the first ever radio-telegraph communication to a ship at sea (HMS St George) from the Australian mainland.
On 18 March 1924, thousands of spectators crowded onto Point Ormond hill and the St Kilda foreshore to see the stately warships of the British Fleet enter Port Phillip Bay. They rapturously welcomed the visible evidence after the Great War that ‘Britannia was still the Mistress of the Seas’ and basked in the ‘protective kinship of the British empire to its outlying dominions’ . Twenty-two aircraft flew overhead and a choir of seven hundred children from St Kilda’s two state primary schools sand Rule Britannia.
The Point has also been a focus for the arts. Actors Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner were there in 1959 for the filming of On the Beach, a movie about a nuclear holocaust in the future – 1964! In 1984 the Point also featured in the final scene from A Man of Flowers starring Norman Kaye.
In the 1970s roadwork excavations apparently uncovered a midden revealing that the point was a former campsite for the traditional owners. In 1989, local residents alleged that a UFO had landed at the point leaving a scorched circle. An amazing passage from a stone-age site to an outer-space heliport in a mere 150 or so years.
One of the lesser-known uses of public land on Elwood’s beachfront was for military purposes. In the immediate aftermath of the gold rush, Melbourne was full of the yellow mineral and full of fear of its loss. Elwood was to be a key area called upon to defend the unfortified city from imagined invaders.
Elwood Beach Kiosk, 1915
Point Ormond sketched by Elizabeth Parsons in 1875.
Note distant gravesites on the bluff and the Elster Creek
(today Elwood Canal) in the foreground.
(Cooper, History of St Kilda, Volume 1, 1931)