In the backyard of a Coogee home, 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, 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 left.
Princess Alice was 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 6 seat gold trimmed Howdah (Elephant saddle). She warmed hearts with her long eye lashes and “perfectly docile” temperament. Alice was the star attraction of Sydney’s newest and and most ambitious attraction, Wonderland City theme park. Built in Tamarama, Wonderland park featured a Seal pond, a cliff top train ride and a steam power plant to keep it lit. By 1912 however, the extravagant cost of maintenance had caught up with its owners and the park hastily sold off its assets to stomp on its mounting debt. Alice left Wonderland, to go and live with a local man by the name of Philip Wirth.
Alice was walked a short distance to the Wirth’s hilltop home-under-construction named ‘Ocean View’. There she discovered an acre of landscaped garden in which to 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 beachgoers on her regular evening walks along the iconic strip of sand.
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 Wirth’s in Melbourne, when they arrived there ready to return to Sydney on their custom-built locomotive. The local constabulary insisted the railway be avoided, forcing the circus to travel by inland road all the way back to Sydney.
They set off on the 895km journey, travelling by cart, foot, hoof and paw.
The conditions in June through the Snowy Mountains 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… Minus one.
On the long road from Melbourne, in the town of Albury, one of the Elephants had collapsed in exhaustion. Faced with the task of finding an appropriate spot for the mammoth cadaver, the Wirth’s crew started looking around town. They found a construction site, in which a large (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. They folded up the big-top for the very last time that year. People just didn’t need a circus anymore if they could sit in their lounge room and watch it on a television.
The Wirth’s family home, Ocean View, still stands proudly on the hilltop in Coogee today.
Alice’s former Palace features high ceilings, ensuites to every bedroom and once had a private Zoo until the block was subdivided. The bodacious body of Princess Alice still lies buried within the backyard boundary of the grand home, and has been spruiked as a selling point for curious buyers.
The story of Princess Alice has become an urban legend.
If you tune your ears to the Sea, you may just hear Alice trumpeting as the sun goes down over Gordon’s Bay.