By 1860, Melbourneï¿½s streets were awash with gold money and its
residents were aware that one day the city, which until recently had been a
smallish settlement, could maybe rival the great cities of the world.
Impressive stone edifices were being erected everywhere since there were no
building tribunals which would have forced them to maintain the ï¿½neighbourhood
characterï¿½ of two-storey wooden buildings. But of course, a city to be
reckoned with also needed culture and urbane entertainment for the citizens.
Into this aspirational town strode George Coppin. He always strode ï¿½ he
was born into the theatre and knew how to carry himself to best advantage.
Even when making a hasty exit stage left due to a failed business enterprise
with monies owing. However he could always go back to his knitting. He was a
competent violin player before his teens and had worked hard on the craft of
a comic actor ï¿½ they were always in demand. If a business venture failed, he
would disappear overseas and, sometimes with creaking bones, tread the
boards, often adapting his role to reflect on the current affairs of the
time, before striding back into town for a theatrically contrived champagne
luncheon for his creditors where he would pay them 20 shillings in the
Here he was striding back into Melbourne in the late 1850s. He had been
there and successful before the gold rush with his theatre company and with
his talented wife Mrs Coppin. At that time in Melbourne, you knew not to
enquire too closely. If she said she was Mrs Coppin then they must be
married. Once you started asking questions like that who knows where they
might lead. After she died, there were two more Mrs Coppins ï¿½ the third the
daughter of the second.
When Coppin returned to a newly wealthy Melbourne he decided what the
residents needed was a pleasure garden. The residents didnï¿½t realise they
needed this, but Coppin was soon able to convince them. After all, on one of
his refinancing ventures he had worked for Phineas Barnum in America and
learned a thing or two about talking up a venue. He set up his pleasure
gardens in Burnley at enormous cost. The Cremorne Gardens had exotic plants,
exotic animals, roving jugglers musicians and cultured entertainment. He had
learned that what worked best in Melbourne was middle-brow entertainment
marketed as high-brow ï¿½ a formula that still works well to this day.
He knew from his years in theatre that you could tell whether a show was
going to work just by walking through the foyer beforehand. If there was no
sense of excitement, whatever happened later on stage was unlikely to change
that. Thus, when the good people of Melbourne went to the Cremorne Gardens,
they boarded a paddle steamer under Princes Bridge and after the on-board
entertainment were already in a state of expectation when they arrived.
ï¿½Oh pater, look at those two darling camels over there. I have never seen
one in the flesh before.ï¿½ I have a feeling we might be meeting those two
camels in a later newsletter.
For a period, Cremorne Gardens was Melbourneï¿½s equivalent of Disneyland.
Now it has disappeared with hardly a trace. In a future newsletter we might
direct those of you who are interested to the remaining traces. Meanwhile,
Coppin went on to leave his mark in both the upper and lower houses of
Parliament, in Gordon House, in The old Colonists Village, in Sorrento and
in Coppin Street Richmond. In a society which has grown to delight in
cutting down tall poppies, I like to remember George Coppin as someone who
not only presented Shakespeare and grand opera to Melbourne but, if they
didnï¿½t work and he lost lots of money, in the best music hall tradition he
ï¿½picked himself up, brushed himself off, and started all over againï¿½.
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Other articles in the series Seven Lost Icons of Melbourne: