Named for Sir Arthur Middleton, Middle Park today is a small and easily over-looked suburb. Indeed, many people think of it as being little more than the block or so either side of Armstrong Street, which holds the area’s small main shopping strip. In fact, it is a larger area, and its name – far from being a dismissive diminutive of adjacent Albert Park, has an older and prouder origin than that of its neighbour.
Arthur Middleton was one of the earliest settlers in the region, arriving on board the Enterprize with John Pascoe Fawkner. He laid claim to a large area of swampy beachfront among the lagoons south of Sandridge Pier, and proceeded to begin his work there. Most people thought he was mad to farm there, and told him so. What they overlooked was that farming was not what Middleton had in mind.
Along with his manservant, Neville Armstrong (who had been his batman when both men served in the Crimean War), Middleton set about creating the first zoological gardens in the area, and paid especial care to obtaining specimens of native species. Middleton was a firm believer in the Lamarckian theory of evolution, which held that acquired traits could be passed on to descendents (but was otherwise fairly similar to Darwin’s later, more accurate, theory), and as such, Australian native wilflife was a puzzle to him, albeit one he enjoyed immensely.
Along with Armstrong, he ranged far and wide, endeavouring wherever possible to learn the habits and natures of his specimens – and to learn about previously unknown ones – from the various peoples of the Kulin nations, with whom he tried at all times to maintain good relations. He was an early supporter of equal rights for indigenous Australians, although that seems to have been motivated largely by a recognition of the benefits of their gratitude to him if such rights were granted. Similarly, he opposed the introduction of rabbits, foxes and other such species less on environmental grounds and more because they would detract from the uniqueness that was his zoo’s main selling point – although he had no problem with feeding the zoo’s resident dingoes, thylacines and Tasmanian devils rabbit meat.
He lost both these fights, and his zoo fell on hard times by the late 1840s. The zoo’s last day of operation was Christmas Day, 1849, after which it was closed. The various animals were freed (and most of them seem to have made their way back to the wilderness without incident) and the land was subdivided for residential use, with construction beginning in 1850. At first, the pace of sales and building was slow, but the discovery of gold in 1851 led to a real estate boom in Melbourne, and Armstrong became very rich as a result – the childless Arthur Middleton having willed all his goods to his old servant and taken his own life on New Year’s Eve, 1849.
At Armstrong’s insistence, the suburb bore the same name as the former zoo, and the former soldier spent much of his newfound wealth on ‘gifts’ to other former members of their army unit, promoting the idea of a posthumous knighthood for Middleton. The dead zoologist was created Sir Arthur Middleton on January 1, 1862. By that time, Middle Park was a thriving suburb, and a sought after address – Armstrong had created fewer, larger blocks than in neighbouring suburbs, which gave the houses more privacy and the area more exclusivity. Despite this, it was not until 1883 that the area received a railway station, even though a rail line to St Kilda had run past it since 1857.
Suburbs near Middle Park: