Sydney's Elephant Graveyard

Sydney's Elephant Graveyard

Sunday December 18, 2016 Written by James

Alice the elephant

In the backyard of a suburban home in Coogee, a coastal suburb east of Sydney, a princess is buried. A princess named Alice.

The princess was euthanised in April, 1956, surrounded by loving friends and family as she snuffed out her final breath. Many say that the Wirth's Family Circus wasn't the same after she passed. Others whisper that she never really left, citing phantom trumpets in the circus stalls long after she was gone.

Princess Alice was also the most distinguished elephant that Australia has ever known.

She was drawn into the spotlight in 1906, when her sale broke records for "the highest sum paid" at an auction in New Zealand. Alice was shipped to Sydney, quickly becoming a delight for children, who could ride on her six-seat gold-trimmed Howdah, or elephant saddle.

She warmed hearts with her long eyelashes and "perfectly docile" temperament, and was the star attraction of Sydney’s newest and and most ambitious attraction, Wonderland City. Built in Tamarama, Wonderland featured a seal pond, a cliff-top train ride and a steam power plant to keep it lit. But by 1912, the extravagant cost of maintenance had caught up with its owners, and the park sold off its assets. Alice left Wonderland to go and live with a local man by the name of Philip Wirth.

She was walked a short distance to the Wirth’s hilltop home-under-construction, which was named the Ocean View. There she discovered an acre of landscaped garden in which she could live, and a new career as a circus performer. The princess wasn't the only exotic member of the Wirth family. They had lions, monkeys, brumbies and a herd of at least 13 other elephants. Alice was a local celebrity in Coogee, where she was known to delight beach-goers on her regular evening walks along the iconic strip of sand.

Alice the elephant

The princess also spent many lumbering months on the road. Some months were longer than others.

In May 1943, Imperial Japanese Navy submarines invaded and bombed Sydney Harbour. The invasion raised a red alert for the country’s coastal infrastructure. News of the attack reached the Wirths, who had been traveling, when they reached Melbourne. They made the return to Sydney on a custom-built locomotive, the local constabulary having insisted the railway be avoided, forcing the circus to travel by inland road all the way back home.

They set off on the 895km journey, travelling by cart, foot, hoof and paw. The conditions through the Snowy Mountains in June did not offer much comfort to an African mammal in transit. Despite the conditions, Alice and the tired troop made it to Sydney in early July – though minus one member.

On the long road from Melbourne, in the town of Albury, one of the elephants collapsed in exhaustion. Faced with the task of finding an appropriate spot for the mammoth cadaver, the Wirth started looking around town. They found a construction site, in which a large (and remarkably convenient) hole had been excavated, and they laid the animal to rest. These days, the more senior members of the Windsor Park Bowling Club believe that the playing surface gets its notably bouncy grass from the historic heffalump buried below the bowlers.

The Wirth’s Family Circus remained in high demand right up until 1963, when they folded up the big-top for the very last time that year. With televisions in nearly every lounge room, people just didn't need a circus anymore.

The Wirth's family home, Ocean View, still stands proudly on a Coogee hilltop today. Alice's former palace now features high ceilings, ensuites to every bedroom and even once had its own private zoo, until the block was subdivided. The body of Princess Alice still lies buried in the backyard of the grand home, and has even been spruiked as a selling point for curious buyers.

Over half a century later, the story of Princess Alice has become an urban legend – distinguished only by the fact that it's true. If you tune your ears to the Sea, you may just hear Alice trumpeting as the sun goes down over Gordon's Bay. 

This post was written by James Woodriff, a creative consultant and writer who spent his childhood running through the bushland in the Blue Mountains, near Sydney. You can read more of his writing over at the Ponderance.

Images, top to bottom: an elephant at the Moore Park Zoo, from Sydney Living Museum; Wirth's elephants on deck, from the State Library of New South Wales' Hood Collection.