Some years ago my partner Rob and I spent an enjoyable day at  Sydney’s harbourside  Luna Park.  It was only enjoyable  because I refused to venture  onto any ride  liable to make me sick. An unfortunate previous  experience on the Rotor Ride had  made me  wary. For the uninitiated, the Rotor is a giant barrel. It spins so fast that when the bottom falls away, pale faced  riders are stuck to the sides by centrifugal force. OMG!!

I felt a stab of envy that day when Rob  told me  that, as a child in the nineteen fifties, he was given rolls of free tickets for  all the rides and sideshows. His maternal great- uncle,  David Atkins, had brought Luna Park  to Sydney from Adelaide  in 1935.

In 2010, Sydney Morning Herald  journalist Steve Meacham  wrote a piece celebrating  Luna Park’s   75th birthday.  After interviewing  the Park’s archivist Anne Doughty, Meachem commented on the move to Sydney;

Sadly, we owe our good fortune to those wowsers in Adelaide who so objected to showman David Atkins’ attempts to expand Luna Park in Glenelg that he switched his attention to Sydney.  Atkins, who died of a heart attack in 1957, is the forgotten hero of Luna Park, according to Doughty.
But let’s go back  to  when Luna Park began operations  at Glenelg.   In the photo below, the park is being laid out.

Laying out Luna Park in Glenelg.
And so it began.



A report in the NEWS (Adelaide) September 13 1930;

Mr David Atkins (Managing Director) is most optimistic with regard to the success of Luna Park, which will be opened at Glenelg on Wednesday, October 8. He stated that a large sum of money had been expended on the plant.

Attractions included; the big dipper, a giant  ferris wheel,   river caves, a scenic railway, and a  ‘goofy’ house’  where perceptions were warped to  confuse and amuse patrons . There was also a Noah’s Ark. I suspect Rob’s great uncle was employing a little poetic license when he stated  that it was, ‘designed from the original ark, and has all the animals complete! ‘  

Noah's Ark, Luna Park, Glenelg.
Noah’s Ark beside the Big Dipper
Poster for Luna Park, Glenelg
Oh the excitement!

During those early years it was Rob’s mother Jean and her sister Lila who received free tickets. Jean was just six years old when the Park opened, but  she remembers her visits with great joy.

According to Anne Doughty, David Atkins was the visionary among the directors. Ted (Hoppy) Hopkins was the  engineer and draughtsman.

A tragic incident occurred at the park early on New Years Day 1932 when a woman plunged to her death from the Big Dipper.  An inquest found that she had deliberately unfastened her seat restraint before  falling. It  was David Atkins who had the dreadful task of removing the fatally injured  woman  from beneath the ride before the ambulance arrived.   A letter  written to the woman’s friend the previous year  was produced at the coroner’s inquest . It revealed  that she had been very unhappy in her marriage, and that the most likely scenario was that she had committed suicide.

View of Luna Park, Glenelg, taken from the giant ferris wheel.
View of Luna Park, Glenelg, taken from the giant ferris wheel.

In 1934, after attempts to expand the Park were unsuccessful,  the company went into voluntary liquidation. David Atkins and his fellow directors  subsequently purchased all the equipment at auction  and transported it to Sydney. After a lengthy search for a suitable ‘home’, Luna Park was reassembled on a five acre site beside the harbour at Lavender Bay. Previously the area had been used for workshops, during the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  The grand opening was held in September 1935.  A letter to the newspaper a few weeks later revealed that local residents were feeling the impact;  ‘Each night there are upwards of two dozen peanut and hot-dog merchants between Milson’s Point station and Luna Park. A cornet player and a crooner roam between the two places. Pedestrians  had to move off the footpath in order not to disturb a man with a jumping doll….’

The multi-talented  Hopkins  had drawn  up the Park’s layout, and he built many new rides in the years that followed.  However, Doughty explained that it was David Atkins who knew how to draw a crowd.  He   ensured that most youngsters went home with a prize; a guarantee that they would be pleading with their parents for another visit.  Ted Hopkins once paid tribute to David’s generous spirit, saying;  “One time a child, who came from a very poor family, stole something. I saw David take money out of his pocket and say to the child, “Don’t steal, come and ask for it. Now here’s a bunch of tickets for the rides, and there’s some money.”  * (see footnote)

David Atkins, who brought Lna Park to Sydney.


People from all walks of life worked part-time at the Park. In 1946  an employee of the Supreme Court  told an interviewer that he had signed up in 1935,  and had been in attendance on opening day. He spoke of the pleasure his long-term, second job  provided;  ‘I see so much that is sordid and tragic in the courts everyday that I look forward to seeing people happy and enjoying themselves. The excitement also gets me.’

‘LUNA PARK – JUST FOR FUN’   became a well known  advertising slogan in Sydney, but sometimes that slogan had a hollow ring.   Disaster  was narrowly averted on April 13, 1947 when one of the park’s great towers caught fire. It was a Saturday night and 10,000 patrons were enjoying the attractions.  Miraculously,  David Atkins was the only casualty. He gashed both hands when he desperately  smashed the glass  cover of the fire alarm.  After David Atkins died suddenly  in 1957, engineer Ted Hopkins continued as manager  until 1969.

There was another, far more serious fire at Luna Park on the night of  June 9 1979. It broke out in the Ghost Train, one of the original rides brought from Glenelg. Seven people died, including six children.  The park was immediately closed and subsequently much of the equipment was demolished.   It did not reopen until 1982.

Despite  changes of management and controversy over  development applications since the re-opening,  Luna Park operates  on the site to this day. It provides passengers on  Sydney’s ferries with a magical sight, especially at night.

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Dusk on Sydney Harbour, as Luna Park lights up.
Dusk on Sydney Harbour, as Luna Park lights up.

It has become such an icon that it has featured in Sydney’s  annual Vivid Festival, with images projected onto the shells of the Opera House.  My word, great uncle David would have enjoyed that.

Just for fun! One icon pays tribute to another.
Just for fun! One icon pays tribute to another.

Luna Park has also inspired a unique  set of chess pieces.  Rob and I saw the chess set on display  at the Museum of Sydney this year,  in an  exhibition of  old toys.  Note the dreaded Rotor Ride in the top,  right hand corner.

Chess - 'Just for Fun'
Chess – ‘Just for Fun’

* This quote is from a delightful book by David’s niece Lorraine Masters, published in 2010. It is called  Just for Fun; At the Bay, Luna Park Glenelg 1930-1935. You can still buy copies at Glenelg Beach.

  1. I actually went to Luna Park with my two daughters back in 1996. They were 4 and 2 at that time and we were there of vacation from the USA over the Christmas Holidays. Now I need to go find some pictures to post for you.

    • Pauline

      Oh, that would be lovely Suzanne. I’ll look forward to seeing them. x

  2. So much I had not known about Luna Park and Rob’s family connection gives it that extra zing. I went as a child one evening with my sister and parents, and I can remember so well one evening walking towards the gates full of light and colour. I remember only the ghost train and a small studio with curtains where silhouette portraits were made of us children. (They vanished during a burglary a few years later?!). Thanks for bringing this wonderful place to life.

    • Pauline

      Ooh, I’m glad it brought back happy memories for you Annabelle. The Park is currently in a dispute with wealthy local residents over the noise of riders screaming while on a new ride.

  3. This certainly did bring back memories of first arriving in Sydney (from NZ) and joining my friends going to Luna Park. Nothing like it back home and we had a lot of fun. I remember saying as we entered the Park, listen to all those girls screaming. Within minutes I was one of them, screaming as we rode the roller coaster!

    I hope Luna Park can stay in it’s current location. After all, it was there first!

    • Pauline

      Fortunately I think it is heritage listed Christine, so should be safe. I am terrified by roller coasters…it’s that slow rise before the plummet that freaks me out!

  4. Hi Pauline

    Not sure if you’re still watching this page or not. However, just wondering if you happen to know who the two gents are with David Atkins in the above photo from The News in Adelaide. Might they be the Phillips brothers ? Currently trying to track down a pic of them for a piece that I’m putting together here in Melbourne. Nothing major, just a minor local history project / love job.

    I have interviewed someone who knew Harold and Leon Phillips when he was very young back in the 1950s. However, as the above photo was taken long before he met them , he can’t tell if it’s them or not. Any assistance would be much appreciated

    Thanks for you time, Bruce

    • Pauline

      Hi Bruce

      Sorry, the two men in the photo are not actually Luna Park directors. The one on the left is consulting engineer Trevor Hedberg, and the other is the engineer Stanley Lock. Good luck with your project.

  5. Thanks Pauline. Actually, I’ve since found photos of both Herman and Leon Philips. But no sign of Harold… apart from a mention in the Melbourne “Herald” (not to be confused with the Melbourne “Harold”) when he arrived in Australia in the late 1920s to join his brothers in the business. As you would know, Herman was the shaker and mover behind Sydney’s Luna Park. Thanks .

  6. I am with you Pauline on eschewing the ‘fun’ of a rollercoaster, though I do love a funfair generally. But what a story – every 31st Dec Sydney Harbour, is the first glimpse the world has of the new year arriving. It must be a thrill – bigger than the rides – for Rob to see his family’s legacy being a part of that landscape lit up large every year. x

    • Pauline

      Yes Christine, always special to see the Park lit up when crossing the harbour at night on a ferry. May not be fireworks this year!

  7. Dear Pauline,
    I wonder if you know anyone that could track down a Luna Park image?
    In the late 70s and the early 80s I lived with my family on Broughton st. Milsons Point and I attended Kirribilli Primary, maybe called Misons Point Primary?
    Our whole school (never more than 83 children in total in all the years we were there) went down to be photographed for one of the newspapers, outside the entrance for an article that Luna Park was opening.
    From memory it made the front page. I imagine it was The Telegraph rather than The Herald.
    Would you have that image or know where I may find it?
    My brother, sister and I were all in it, I would be so happy to see it.

    Thank you so much for your time in advance.

    Yours Sincerely

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