Traffic moves quite slowly in South Head Cemetery, both vehicular and otherwise. Nobody’s in that much of a hurry; even the post-hip, ridiculously overpriced motivational sportswear-clad joggers slow down to take in the breathtaking vistas the graveyard offers.
Only most of the time, there’s no breath to take.
The Victorian era saw a boom in ‘the art of death’ – society as a whole had an endless fascination with death, and paid particular attention to the manner in which deceased were committed to the void. This carried over into the early 20th century, and the ornate tombstones and mausoleums of this era are a far cry from today’s dour marble efficiency.
Look at this. It’s kind of like the headstone equivalent of one of those racing car beds, isn’t it?
Immediately eye-catching, the final resting place of Reginald “Phil” Garlick ensures its fair share of stares. A prodigious racer, Garlick’s love of motorsport is forever tied to him in the afterlife. At the time of writing, it’s getting nigh on close to 90 years since his death aged just 39 years at…Maroubra Speedway?! What the…?
This…this couldn’t be! Where would such a racetrack even be? Superfast hoony driving and Maroubra…it just doesn’t make any sense!
Actually it makes perfect sense, and this one’s pretty common knowledge. The Olympia Speedway drew an estimated 70,000 petrolheads to its grand opening in 1925, blowing the attendance of that year’s VFL Grand Final away.
The Olympia became notorious for the dangerously steep incline of its concrete saucer, reaching 48 degrees in one stretch. Suddenly, helmets like Phil’s up there don’t really sound like they’ll cut the mustard, do they?
And how’s that bloodthirsty crowd! 70,000 ghouls who couldn’t get their violent thrills at the VFL filled the Olympia’s seats hoping to see one of those poor bastards lose control and wipe out. Talk about a fascination with death…
In time, the Olympia gave its audience what it wanted:
And I thought Maroubra was a tough suburb these days!
The Olympia was actually shut down twice: 1927 saw the end of its days as a professionally promoted speedway due to a combination of anemic finances and negative attention surrounding the mounting death toll, and then again in the late 1930s after a series of fitful re-openings throughout that decade. By the time the light went red for good, the track was in serious disrepair. Yeah, a real HEALTH HAZARD. Could be DANGEROUS. LIVES AT RISK.
Another factor in play was the advent of public housing. The Housing Commission was snapping up as much ‘wasted’ land as it could and filling it with bland, efficient brick housing for war vets and refugees. By 1948, Maroubra was unrecognisable, a sea of brown roofs and 50km speed limits, strictly adhered to by residents at all times.
Coral Sea Park doesn’t look like much now, but this is pretty much our ground zero today. This was the centre of the speedway track back in the day, and the edges of the park are almost as steep as they were back when Phil and the boys were tearing it up.
It’s almost lazy, the way no effort was made to do anything but grass things over and slap a speed limit on the roads. But it does give us a great insight into just how dangerous it was to race around the Olympia. Look at the angles!
It’s said that the tablet laid on the speedway’s opening day is still buried beneath Coral Sea Park somewhere, and that any efforts made to find it have stopped short of the finish line. In 1925, this infield area was a swampy wasteland, known and feared for an abundance of snakes. But they’re gone now, so c’mon, find the damn tablet.
It’s also said that between its lives as the track’s infield and Coral Sea Park, this portion of land was a tip, and it closed in the 1960s after a boy was found dead inside a fridge. Will the killing never end, Maroubra?! I couldn’t find any hard evidence of this, but if you know more, or you were that boy, get in touch.
Just before we go, there’s one last interesting remnant of what was once Australia’s “killer track”: on the western side of Anzac Parade, there sits Heffron Park and the neighbouring Des Renford Leisure Centre (folks of my generation probably remember man of leisure Des Renford best from that Martin/Molloy skit. IN MY DAY…). This park too sees a sharp incline as you head east toward where the speedway would have been.
An upside to building a racetrack in the middle of a bunch of sandhills was that it was easy to get a saucer in place for the kind of angles necessary for DA THRILLZ. A downside is that tightass locals could sit their tight asses down on said sandhills – like this one – with a perfect view of the action without paying for the privilege, and that’s just what they did. And the Olympia went into voluntary liquidation, you say?
Thanks to my pal Viv for her help with the modern day photos. Gorge!
They don’t make ’em like this anymore. Once upon a time, just after the Second World War, Herne Bay was a suburb notorious for violence and poverty. During the war the United States Army had established a hospital barracks in the area (which is why many local street names have a distinctly American flavour), but once the war was over the hospital buildings were converted to public housing by our old friends the Housing Commission.
Within a decade of the advent of commissioned housing, Herne Bay had become a no-go zone. Overcrowding begat poverty, poverty begat crime, and crime begat Riverwood. In 1957, in an effort to repair the suburb’s reputation, Herne Bay was newly christened Riverwood. That’ll do the trick. Don’t think to try and combat any of the aforementioned problems or anything, just change the suburb’s name. Maybe all those no-goodniks will think to themselves “But I live in Herne Bay, not Riverwood!” and move away!
But the rebranding effort didn’t stop there. Private development sprang up, and the small shopping village made a concerted effort to present a friendlier face and reforge the suburb into a place you’d want to live.
One of these was likely the Riverwood Pantry. 1960s by name, 1960s by nature, the Pantry would have provided cakes and treats to both the working class Riverwegians and the undesirable leftover Herne Bayers. The woman behind the counter would have called everyone ‘love’ and ‘pet’ even though she knew all their names. They would have had the same cake in the window for so long that it became fused to the paper doily it was sitting on.
As we move today towards all-in-one shopping experiences and self-service supermarkets, there’s no room for this kind of shop anymore. No one cares what your name is, and cakes no longer need doilies. At some point, having failed its mission, the Pantry went the way of all things, leaving behind a Riverwood with a reputation for crime, poverty and general unpleasantness. Maybe it’s time for another name change.