Thursday, November 26, 2009

James Sullivan's Horse Trough

 Just around the corner from our house is one of three places where I particularly like to take Sniff for a walk - Camperdown Park - and within the park is one of my favourite things: a horse trough dedicated to the memory of James Sullivan and erected by the RSPCA.

The trough is sadly neglected as you can see from the photograph. At each end, where there should be fresh water, there are only broken twigs and rotting leaves. The mounting block serves no purpose anymore except as seating for the occasional Goth or as a climbing frame for youngsters - horse-riders being few and far between in Camperdown nowadays. Nevertheless the trough exerts a powerful fascination over me because of the inscription engraved at both ends. On dull blueish grey metal plaques the following text is inscribed in raised capitals:

who lost his life on 23rd July 1924
when trying to save his employer's
horses from death by fire.

Now this memorial inscription raises many more questions than it provides answers: who was his employer? where did this happen? in Camperdown Park? did the horses die? It is so bizarre in its reduction of someone's life to a single act without even giving us the barest details of his life: was he young? was he Australian? was he connected to the RSPCA? was he shagging his employer?

I could look him up on the internet and no doubt find answers to some or maybe even all of these questions but I prefer to remain in ignorance of the real James Sullivan and to imagine him, a young brawny, bronzed Australian, daily battling fire and rescuing horses, as if that was his sole occupation and purpose in life.

(The trough also nostalgically reminds me of the mounting block in London near the ICA in Waterloo Place, supposedly used by the Duke of Wellington...)

The rest of Camperdown Park is a little like its sign: a faded glory. The circus lettering implies side-shows and tea-rooms but there are no excitements here. There is a magnificent bandstand but even this is merely secondhand. An iron plaque explains that it was built in 1888 by Souter and Martin at the impressive-sounding Globe Foundry for the larger and more central Hyde Park which replaced it with a new bandstand and an amphitheatre in 1910, subsequently giving their cast-off to Camperdown who promptly put it up in their park in 1911. It has been, more recently, renovated and its ceiling painted a blushing pink under which boxers and tai chi experts do their daily work-outs.

I am always surprised by the fact that the Oval at the centre of the park is actually used for SPORT. This seems so un-English somehow. Shouldn't it just be used for taking drugs and drinking beer? But every weekend there will be some match or other (currently, it being summer, cricket). Last Saturday a cricket match was underway in 40-degree heat, everyone dressed in proper whites and managing to look vaguely crisp and alert despite the humidity. There was not a single spectator. Not one. Apart from Sniff who had a quick butchers. During the week, various odd-balls jog their way around the perimeter of the Oval or repeatedly kick rugby-shaped balls through the goal-posts or run on the spot grunting. There is a grandstand for the non-existent spectators the stairs of which are popularly used for running up and down in an exhausting-looking fashion but as neither Sniff nor I are impressed by displays of athletic vigour ("this means nothing to me" to paraphrase Midge Ure) this all makes me wonder whether I will ever, ever fit in here...

I'm going to go and raise a glass of something cool to James Sullivan. Farewell for now.


  1. This is nice, Jonty. I really enjoyed the part about John Sullivan -- just the kind of fragment of history that would make me wonder as well, but i would start googling. I remind you, however, that you've got to keep the whole thing UPBEAT - you're sounding a little morose toward the end. BTW, if you are looking for things to do with yoru parents while Danny's at work, do you want to visit us at Mackeral Beach the week before Christmas? You can stay overnight if you like. I think there's room in the so-called "Tree House" for three. See attached...
    L xx

  2. Does James deserve a song? Now it looks to me as though the trough has gone beyond simple neglect - it has been filled in. Or does it perhaps have a lid? The water would have been in the middle - I'm not sure what the little circular things at the side are but they wouldn't afford very much slaking for a thirsty horse.

    Have you been to the Portuguese Ethnographic Museum of Australia yet?


  3. And what is the other long grey thing behind James' trough? A trough to the memory of another Camperdown hero?

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. We learnt today from a man revisiting the park after many years that the sign at the bandstand has always been wrong. The bandstand came from Centennial Park not Hyde Park and was re-erected in 1910 not 1911...