Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Charity Begins at Home: or, Why Middle Park is called Middle Park

Philip Harvey
The larrikin priest of South Melbourne would say to his parishioners that here in South Melbourne we spread Vegemite on our toast, while over there in Middle Park they use caviar. An exaggeration, and I always thought Vegemite was the great leveller that cut through all class distinctions, but we can sort of see what Fr Bob Maguire was getting at in his sermon. South Melbourne is on the other side of the tracks. South Melbourne is dinky-di while Middle Park is select. Select, though Fr Bob was in no doubt about who was elect. Less partisan members of his congregation would have noted that Vegemite was invented by a doctor in Albert Park, the suburb in between. There is even a monument to this culinary breakthrough in the median strip of the thoroughfare that divides the suburbs, Kerferd Road.

The perception that Middle Park is distinctive goes back to the earliest residential days. At the turn of the century, after the bust of the nineties, allotments were being offered regularly and houses in Albert Park and Middle Park were more likely to be owned outright than rented. When the Mayor of South Melbourne, the Honorable John Baragwanath (a surname to conjure with in Melbourne history) spoke at the opening of the Middle Park Bowling and Recreation Club in 1905, he stated that “The Middle Park district had become the Toorak of South Melbourne.” Other sources then and since make clear that Middle Park is not a working class suburb. It is therefore not altogether surprising that in our search for the origins of the name, we are not mistaken in surmising that Middle Park really is middle in that sense of class distinction.

But all of this talk, including the words of historians, overlooks a simpler explanation for Middle Park that would have been obvious to people in the 19th century but not to people today. Peter Thomas, dedicated user of the Library, was walking in the area the other day and found himself standing before a large map at the outdoor Middle Park lightrail stop, formerly the Middle Park Railway Station. It is a grid map and when you draw a line through the middle of Albert Park Lake it goes straight through the station. Collective modern memory says that Albert Park is a suburb to the north of Middle Park, tending to overlook the fact that Albert Park is (or was) actually also the land all around the lake, what today we call Albert Park Reserve. In the 19th century the Park had been virtually all the land south of the river to St Kilda, and was even called South Park before being renamed after Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (in full, Francis Albert Augustus Charles Emmanuel), the Prince Consort, husband of Queen Victoria (1819-1861). Neither he nor his wife ever visited Albert Park.

Because if a railway on an embankment runs through a territorial park of heathland swamp, then if you decided to construct a railway station half way, it is sensible, though not very imaginative, to call it Middle Park. Especially so if there are no houses in the direct vicinity, and when Middle Park station opened in 1883 this was very much the case. Residences were going up in Kerferd Road and Canterbury Road, but not elsewhere in the area. Indeed, the government was still filling in holes and reclaiming the land from tide and flood. Though always open to correction, at this stage in the discussion I tend to believe that the suburb, which was not yet a suburb, was named Middle Park after the only physical sign of civilization at the time, the railway station. It’s that vague. Did people refer to their new found home in reference to the station? Or were they still calling themselves Albert Park? Or South Melbourne? Maybe not South Melbourne, for indeed the new station gave extra support to Fr Bob’s view that South Melbourne is on the other side of the tracks. Tracks were in fact built to divide the sea, and Middle Park, from inland South Melbourne.

Being middle class is not virtuous in itself and the discussion here simply extends our pursuit of the naming of Middle Park. It must be observed, nonetheless, that last year the results of the Australian census revealed something significant about this quiet if distinctive corner of Melbourne. The Age reported (24 October 2012) that “the residents of Middle Park in Melbourne and Lakes Entrance in Gippsland are the most generous in the nation, a report examining Australians’ donations to charity has found ... The figures, released yesterday, gave postcode-by-postcode breakdowns revealing the highest average donation in the country — with the people of wealthy Middle Park forking out the most each year at $334. At $276, the people of Vale Park, in South Australia, were the second-most generous followed by Killara, in New South Wales, at $242.68. But when the inaugural Charitable Giving Index calculated an area’s donations as a proportion of mean taxable income, the people of Lakes Entrance emerged as the most generous, giving 0.34 per cent of their income to charity last year. They were followed by Vale Park and Middle Park again, who donated 0.31 and 0.28 per cent of their incomes respectively.”

Clearly this is one area where Middle Park is not in the middle. But that’s not all. “Middle Park appeared on top of the list for highest donations, but also came in third nationally when this was calculated according to income. Sharon Torney, of Sacred Heart Mission in St Kilda, was not surprised at the results, saying the people of Middle Park were generous. ‘‘Most of our support comes locally, and with Middle Park being so close they are very supportive,’’ she said. Ms Torney said one Middle Park supporter had donated  his money and time to the group for more than a decade.‘‘ He’s one of our monthly givers, he also ran the Gold Coast marathon a couple of years ago and raised $19,000.’’


  Middle Park Bowling Club history. Compiled by David South. Online at

Middle Park History Group. ‘The Heart of Middle Park : Stories from a Suburb by the Sea.’ 2011.

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