If someone asked you what Sydney’s most iconic landmarks were, what would you say? Most likely you’d name the Opera House, Harbour Bridge, and Luna Park high up on the list. But before any of those came to be, Sydney was home to a host of unique attractions that now seem lost to the sands of time. Speaking of sand, did you know there used to be a rollercoaster running across Tamarama Beach? Get comfy, it’s story time.
The Royal Aquarium
All the way back in 1887, Tamarama Beach was home to The Royal Aquarium. Despite the fact you could’ve just thrown on your cossies and taken a snorkel into the ocean for free, visitors paid in droves to explore the aquarium, which featured seal and shark pools, a skating rink, and a rollercoaster suspended above the sand. The aquarium was destroyed by fire in 1891, but was rebuilt and renamed the Bondi Aquarium, before closing for good in 1906 as public interest waned.
By 1901, Bondi Beach was already a fashionable tourist destination. A tramline had been built to the beach in 1894, and a large amusement park, the Royal Aquarium and Pleasure Grounds, had opened at nearby Tamarama in 1887. Wonderland City – promoted as ‘Sydney’s Great Playground’– opened in December 1906, also at Tamarama. Described as the Coney Island of Australia, its 50 major attractions were ‘designed by artists in architecture and landscape gardening’, with ‘no expense spared in achieving the highest standard of excellence’. The wooded slopes featured pleasure palaces, brightly coloured sideshows, a switchback (roller-coaster), scenic railway, slippery dips and underground rivers.
Once the aquarium closed, an entrepreneur by the name of William Anderson came along and signed the lease of the century with the government—all the land up and around Tamarama Beach, with the exclusion of a small 12ft strip for public access to the water. There he opened Wonderland City, an amusement park modelled off New York’s famous Coney Island. Anderson repurposed many of the aquarium’s structures and attractions, including the rollercoaster (renamed ‘Helter Skelter’), the skating rink, and the seal pool. On opening day, some 20,000 people turned up to ride the double decker merry-go-round, explore the haunted house and fun factory, and even ride a captive airship that tracked on a wire from cliff to cliff by electricity called the Airem Scarem, which likely was as sketchy as it sounds. Wonderland City also offered a boxing tent, circus ring, wax works, movie house, penny parlour, and even Japanese Tearooms and a gold-digging escapade. Its popularity was short lived, though, and in 1911, it closed its gates for good.
Sandwiched between Sydney’s Central Station and Railway Square you’ll find Regent St Station, though no trains stop there. But that wasn’t always the case. From 1869 until 1947, it transported a particularly unusual type of traveller—the dead kind. Opened on June 19, 1869, Mortuary Station was used to transport the dead and their grieving relatives to Rookwood Cemetery. The latter had to buy return tickets for the trip, whilst the dead obviously only opted for one-way. Trains ran twice a day, in the morning and afternoon, and the carriages were divided to transport the dead (up to 30 coffins per carriage) and the living separately, before disembarking at Cemetery Station. After its closure in 1947, the heritage listed structure has undergone many transformations, including a parcel depot and even a failed pancake restaurant in the 1980’s.
What’s now a two-hour, thirty-minute walking loop through the Lane Cove National Park was once a thriving market garden in the early 1900s. After some twenty years operating as such, the cleared land was then transformed into popular picnic grounds. Legend has it that the Swan family, who ran the grounds, used to hide fairytale characters in trees for visitors to find, thus the name Fairyland. As the area’s popularity grew, so too did its facilities, with everything from a dancehall, playground, and even a wharf installed for access by ferry. For a while, it was known as ‘Fairyland Pleasure Grounds’, so take from that what you will. The area closed to entertainment in the 1970s, and now all that is left is an old gate post to mark a once bustling destination.
In 1888, the Natatorium Hotel opened on the corner of Goulburn and Pitt St. The main attraction of the five-story, 94 room hotel was the two large ‘non-tidal’ swimming pools it housed in its basement, the first of their kind in Sydney. Built by the Sydney Bathing Company, the public pools were filled with sea-water pumped from Woolloomooloo Bay. In 1899, the hotel was sold to the Salvation Army to provide affordable accommodation for single people and families. Unfortunately, this historic building was demolished in 1988 to make way for… you guessed it—apartments.