Wednesday, March 30, 2011




The story so far: The incredible story of Thomas Henry Eslick landed in my lap completely by chance. This gentleman is not related to me and the only link I can claim is the short lived, and for him rather ill timed creation of Brisbane’s Luna Park.

Even then the link is tenuous, I was a babe in arms when he first set about beguiling the city fathers with thoughts of a gigantic fun park; a teenager when I first took advantage of the only part of his scheme to survive, Cloudland Ballroom.



You first met Mr Eslick in The Good Old Days- Cloudland; the year was 1944 and Eslick had seen his Luna Park dream for Brisbane end in disaster and bankruptcy.  To be fair he had been fighting an uphill battle from the beginning, no sooner had construction begun then so too did World War 2.

But his failed business wasn’t the reason I felt compelled to focus on his story; my curiosity was tweaked by a short line in the 1942 newspaper article announcing his forthcoming bankruptcy hearing in Brisbane’s law courts.  

... TOLMACH HERRIORR ESLICK known as Thomas Henry Eslick...

Eslick’s name not to mention the newspaper’s atrocious spelling, came as a surprise, I did a quick search and found no one with that name mentioned anywhere, not in the usual birth, death, marriage lists.  Even when I cast the net further a field to foreign countries I found nothing.

Except for this item in the London Gazette of 1926...pan down to the last entry.

At least the English Courts spelt the name correctly, Tollemache Heriot Eslick, aged 48 of Rupert Street, London. 
This 1926 court case in London confirmed part of Eslick’s claims made during his Brisbane court case, namely about his various reversals of fortune and loss of money in Europe and California.

Where initially I was caught up in the chutzpah of a larger than life show biz entrepreneur, now I found myself delving into the mystery of yet another man with a dual identity. Not my wily Grandfather this time, not a relation at all, but as Eslick’s story unravelled so too did the incredible past of this audacious but likeable man.  And of course, by now I was hooked;  I just had to find out more.

With a name like Tollemache I thought finding his origins would be a piece of cake.  Wrong!



In fact finding T.H. Eslick’s origins, Tollemache or Thomas, is an ongoing challenge. With a choice of only two babes born in the UK in the corresponding decade with the name Thomas Henry Eslick, I settled, for the time being anyway on a family in Lancashire.

Stephen J. Eslick and his wife Mary and their young family, including a Thomas Henry, resided in 1882 at St Aberdare House in Toxteth Park, Lancashire.  A Map Dissector Master he employed six men and two girls and was clearly a man of education and reasonable means.

In other words this was a family where education was an important factor and the right breeding grounds for a young man like our T.H. to sprout.  I could find no Tollemache coupled with Eslick and put that name aside to consider later.

In fact I will come across two newspaper interviews in 1916 where T.H. states in one that he was born in India and brought up in Lancashire, and in another where he says he was Lancashire born.

And later still I will find two further references to Tollemache Heriot Eslick; one listing that name in Australia’s 1943 electoral rolls, and another where he enters the United States under that same name.

I have a couple of theories about the late arrival of this additional and most unusual name, but that is all they are, theories...
I’ll share them with you at the end of this tale.


This then is the life of the multi faceted Thomas Henry Eslick:  The same T.H. Eslick who masterminded the creation of Brisbane’s Luna Park and Cloudland dance hall. A man I will eventually discover has claimed to be many things, engineer, architect, builder, organiser. The same man whose brag book of achievements was extraordinarily unbelievable because much of it happened supposedly in the years prior to his arrival in Australia in 1911.

For that era, long before Concorde and Boeing jets the time frame seemed utterly impossible. 

I’m not saying the gentleman was a liar, he comes across as both charismatic, delightfully erudite and extremely clever, but as I soon discovered his forte first and foremost was in publicity and the newly emerging profession of public relations. And in that side of his persona he succeeded admirably.

And that’s where I found him back on May 2nd 1911 successfully applying for a job at the Portobello Marine Park in Edinburgh, Scotland.



The year is 1908 and the good people of Edinburgh are suffering withdrawal symptoms in the aftermath of the gala Scottish National Exhibition, an earlier version of the modern Expo’s.  For six months over three and a half million people have thrilled to the massed bands, gingerly tried the exciting and daring roller coaster ride and marvelled at the side show exhibits.

 Now that the exhibition has ended a group of local town councillors wonders if Edinburgh might be ready for a permanent amusement park. A public subscription is taken up and a committee formed to create a fun park that would be the envy of Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

It is built not on the site of the National Exhibition but way across town on the seashore at Portobello and will be known as the Edinburgh Marine and Zoological Gardens. Some of the National Exhibitions buildings and amusements are salvaged and carted across town.  

This ambitious project, using much of the infrastructure from the National Exhibition is opened on May 31st 1909.  A former stalwart from Blackpool’s Amusement Park in the south of England, Mr William Holland is appointed General Manager and the Marine Park gets under way.

The park is a success and before long it becomes necessary to appoint extra management staff.  In May 1911 Directors of the Park appoint Mr T.H. Eslick as Advertising and Amusements manager.

Eslick marked his sojourn in Edinburgh with witty advertisements full of throwaway lines and French phrases written in the first person style. He treated readers as favoured friends with flippant invitations to write back, join in, be part of the fun he had organised just for them.

It was an advertising style he would hone and perfect over the years to come. 

But when, just a few months later the newly crowned King George V made a visit to Edinburgh, though didn’t visit the Portobello Marine Park and Gardens, a whole new horizon appeared before Thomas Henry’s eyes. India.

Newspapers at the time made much of the fact that the King was shortly to leave for India to attend the great Delhi Durbar where he would then be crowned Emperor of India.

As it turned out the King wasn’t the only one heading off to India!



This period in his career could well go down as the first day of the rest of Thomas Henry Eslick’s life:  Immediately following the King’s visit to Edinburgh, on 23rd of August, 1911, it is suddenly announced he has been given the task of organising the forthcoming monumentally huge and prestigious Indian Durbar to be held in December of 1911. 

Imagine!  An advertising man in Edinburgh, barely 33 years of age,  a man responsible for the park’s publicity blurbs, has been handed such a magnificent  and responsible position virtually out of the blue.

Of course everyone at the Marine Park is thrilled at the news and Eslick is immediately released from his contract by the Directors of the Gardens, leaves Edinburgh for London on the same day, and sails for Bombay the very next week.

I hesitate to sound cynical, but if Thomas Henry Eslick arrives in Bombay in September and the King arrives in December that allows only three months to put together the extremely complex and expensive Royal event that this particular Durbar turned out to be.

Nevertheless, whether his participation was fact or fiction, or even faction the prestigious Durbar becomes the focal point of each and every publicity handout T.H. will distribute to the press;  and in the years to come there will be quite a few.



Eslick’s arrival in Australia in January 1912 signifies the beginning of a myth that propels him into the realms of fame and success.

I can find no proof that Eslick actually attended the Durbar much less directed it, but his claim to Durbar fame becomes indelibly imprinted on the opening publicity brochure for Melbourne’s great Luna Park. 

Keep in mind a tyranny of distance in those early years of the 20th century was also an incredible advantage; especially when it came to gilding your own particular employment history.

Only a matter of months following the Durbar, Eslick pops up in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda where the American, Jason Dixon Williams Amusement Company is building their new Luna Park venture. 

And this is where Eslick’s past becomes tainted with myth. 
In publicity hand-outs and even today in public records rehashed by journalists and historians writing about Luna Park, T.H. Eslick is credited with being the fun park’s chief designer and builder. That is hard to believe.

I imagine even as I write a lot of  either very annoyed  or amused people are doing a lot of turning over in their graves. 

A brochure from later years  states ... 

...The chief designer/ builder was T. H. Eslick who had worked in the amusement park industry for over 14 years in many countries. The Scenic Railway is reportedly a replica of the roller-coaster he built for The Great Durbar Exhibition of Old Bombay for the visit of King George V in 1911.His stay in India is thought to be the inspiration for the Moghul/ Moorish entrance facade and flanking towers built at Luna Park.

For a start Melbourne’s Luna Park Scenic Railway was designed by LaMarcus Adna Thompson of New York who was responsible for the world’s first roller coaster at Coney Island in 1884. Besides Eslick himself didn’t arrive in Australia until January 1912 which wouldn’t have given him much time to design and build a complex roller coaster. (Later Eslick would claim he had been apprenticed to Thompson for some years.)

Somehow or other history and Thomas Henry have conveniently shunted aside the expert crew J.D Williams brought with him from America, the three highly experienced Phillips Brothers,  and the brilliant Louis Corbeille who was Luna Park’s first manager.

As a brochure clearly shows, at that time T.H. Eslick was in charge of the publicity department. Though in a souvenir booklet written by T.H. Eslick himself he is stated as being the Park’s Consulting Engineer and Publicity Manager.

By the time Eslick showed up in Melbourne I’m pretty sure a great deal of pre-planning and infrastructure was already in place.  Besides wasn’t be pretty busy organising the Delhi Durbar in 1911?  And would he suddenly up and depart immediately the Durbar was over?  No hanging around for a spot of tiger shooting?



The next few years sees Thomas Henry Eslick moving between Sydney and Adelaide.  His latest project is the creation of an amusement park very much on the same lines as the Portobello Marine Park back in Edinburgh. The creation of ‘White City’ has proved a success in Sydney, now he looks to  a repeat performance in Adelaide.   

He calls a press conference to announce his new proposition.  But before he can get his ‘White City’ fun park up and running he must first part the Adelaide City Council from a hefty portion of a city park, and then raise £20,000 from local investors. For those days that is a great deal of money.  It’s no surprise the good people of Adelaide didn’t want to part with their park much less with their cash.

He is already running a twin White City in Sydney at Double Bay, probably started with the same premise.  But my main interest in this particular exercise lay with the added information he supplied, off the cuff I would think, to attending reporters at the Adelaide press conference.

Sydney's White City about 1914


It’s really quite a breath taking account of his life, as he saw it. 

For instance, he starts off announcing he was born in India but brought up in Lancashire; is a civil engineer by profession and served his apprenticeship at Coney Island under Mr. L.A. Thompson the inventor of the switchback railway.  Partly true! Mr Thompson actually designed and created the St Kilda Luna Park scenic railway, and for all we know Eslick was his apprentice.  

But then T.H. goes on to tell reporters he himself built the first scenic railway in Europe on Blackpool Beach and pleasure parks in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Vienna, Cologne, Paris, Madrid, Nancy and Cairo.  He goes on to add he superintended the erection of the Bombay? Durbar exhibition of which he became its director general.  For a start the Durbar was held in Delhi.

Hold on! There’s more, he informs the press that he holds diplomas from the Institute of Civil Engineers, is an honorary member of the Academie Francaise, is a civil engineer in New York and is a life member of the Indian Civil Service.  At this point he fails to advise he is a graduate from the International Correspondence Academy...nor does he volunteer the field he studied in, architecture, engineering, advertising?  Maybe all three.

All these diplomas apparently accumulated in either the lead up to, or in the interim between his appointment as an advertising and amusements manager in Edinburgh and his arrival in Melbourne in 1912.

But unbelievably there are even more strings to his bow; in 1917, Thomas Henry Eslick in a fit of political fervour, contests the seat of Paddington in the New South Wales elections. 

Not surprisingly he is beaten in the elections, and as well the Adelaide scheme dies a natural death.

 Back in Sydney the General Manager of The Great White City is busy writing adverts for the Palladium Dance Hall, all with his ‘Radiantly Yours’ signature, and at the same time involving himself with Harry Rickard's latest interest, the Tivoli Roof Garden Theatre in Brisbane.

Of course my eyes lit up when I saw the name Rickards.  The same man who set my errant Grandfather of the dual identity on his initial show biz career in both Australia and New Zealand.

And here Rickards was, now associated with Thomas Henry Eslick.  In fact they appeared to be extremely close friends.
What is that old saying – birds of a feather flock together?

Has  Harry Rickards  named his latest offspring after T.H.?

In 1917 a babe in arms makes his first public appearance at Sydney’s White City to be presented with a loving cup,  Eslick Holman Rickards, named after a showman, a musician and a politican.... publicity stunt or what?

At least my Grandpa didn’t name any of his kids after Harry Rickards!


During the next few years Eslick is kept busy darting around the country with a revue company he calls Eslick’s Radiants and later as a Special Commissioner for Paramount Theatres publicising and showing the latest Hollywood talkies.  

His old boss at Melbourne’s Luna Park, Jason Dixon William’s is now the man behind the Warner Brothers Film Company in Los Angeles and maybe this latest Commissioner gig is a case of a job for one of the boys.
Eslick moves constantly between Adelaide and Rockhampton, travelling as far north as Innisfail in Queensland with frequent stops in Melbourne and Sydney where the White City venues continue to operate.

I hope you’ve all noticed, in the past few years he hasn’t needed to utilise his other talents, engineer or architect...but he’s about to make up for lost time.

Early in 1921 after a decade of constant publicity in Australia, T.H. Eslick suddenly drops out of the Aussie limelight to reappear three years later in California’s seaside fun city Santa Monica.  

A consortium of businessmen have bought an amusement pier at Los Angeles beach playground of Santa Monica and have commissioned the architect, T.H. Eslick to design a ballroom at the very end of the pier.  Its mentioned in the publicity blurb that Mr Eslick has created similar attractions throughout the world. (Including of course the old chestnut, the Delhi Durbar.)

Eslick sets to work, choosing a Spanish theme for the building’s exterior and a French Renaissance design for the interior.  This is to be a gigantic ballroom, large enough to accommodate over 5000 patrons, (some claimed 10,000)  at any one time.

In 1924 the La Monica Ballroom is opened with all the fuss and hoo ha that only America could stage, the wealthy and the famous including several Hollywood screen stars arrive in a procession of limousines.  Dance music is provided by a twenty piece orchestra.

Original held in  Santa Monica Public Library
A journalist at the time writes- ‘The architect's simple yet perfect system of checking wraps, many spacious entrances to the dance floor, numerous ticket booths, a beautiful promenade and a mezzanine balcony furnished with upholstery chairs and divans gave everyone a pleasant experience. Refreshments were available at the La Monica Fountain and Cafe located on the east side of the mezzanine level.

The ballroom's 15,000 square foot hard maple floor had beautiful inlaid patterns to break the monotony of its immense surface. Thirty-six thousand strips of maple in ten foot lengths were used to achieve the effect. Beneath it was a 'spring floor' made by layering the dance floor on an especially constructed sub-floor.

     Thirty-six bell shaped transparent chandeliers were suspended from the ballroom ceiling by gold ropes. The wall decorations, painted by Russian artists, depicted a submarine garden. The effect gave patrons the illusion of dancing on coral. The final cost of the building exceeded $150,000.’

T.H. has excelled himself, adding yet another illustrious leaf to his brag book, from humble beginnings in publicity, to engineer, entrepreneur, dance hall manager and now architect.  By now he must be the International Correspondence Academy’s star pupil.

But disaster is on the way in more ways than one.

In February 1926 a huge storm comes close to demolishing the pier, its reported that the pier has lost so many pilings beneath the ballroom that it was now supported by less than two thirds of the pilings necessary to support its huge weight.  $75,000 worth of repairs will be needed to make the structure safe.

Thomas Henry isn’t present for the storm, he has his own catastrophe to contend with in far away London.  But before Santa Monica and before his London appointment with destiny he had another stopover.



The La Monica Ballroom wasn’t Eslick’s only gift from the gods.  A few years earlier he had cosied up to a prominent Florida land developer, David Paul Davis and landed a lucrative job designing buildings for a proposed new development on an island in the historical precinct of St Augustine. 

Davis, the developer, however is sailing close to the wind.  He is having great trouble raising the capital to complete a grand complex that will include tennis courts, swimming pools,  two golf clubs, 5 star hotels and luxury homes.

Eslick’s fame has spread from the Pacific coast across to the Atlantic. Davis commissions Eslick to build what reportedly became the largest enclosed coliseum in the South East of the USA.  The building is completed in 1925 and will go on to host dances, concerts and even automobile shows.

No doubt at this time T.H. has been promised long term and continuing participation in the ongoing St Augustine scheme and may even have invested his own money.

But  in 1926 Davis, after taking out hefty life insurance controversially disappears from his cabin on a Cunard Liner while enroute to France and is never seen again.

All this happens around the same time Eslick is in the UK appealing his bankruptcy in London’s High Court of Justice.

Strangely by 1928 he is back in Santa Monica managing the re-opened and repaired La Monica Ballroom.  But that may have had something to do with the American wife he has acquired.



When T.H. arrived back in Australia with his wife and her children from a previous marriage, he needed to feel his way.  Find new sponsors, create new schemes.

In 1937 he is in Sydney advertising for door to door salesmen to sell educational items, perhaps encyclopaedias.  This turns out to be either worth while financially or incredibly boring because by 1939 he is back in Brisbane, this time fronting a consortium of Directors selling the prospectus for a new Luna Park in Queensland’s capital.

The same old chestnuts are dragged out, the Delhi Durbar, Melbourne’s Luna Park.  No mention in publicity about door to door selling, not a whiff of bankruptcy in England, no suggestion of vaudeville advertising, hawking movies in the north or for that matter a dicey diploma gained through correspondence schools.

It is a shame that emerging world events over which he had no control would ultimately sink any chance Brisbane’s Luna Park had of succeeding.

Personally I think he was an exceptionally clever man.  His passion first and foremost the field of entertainment.  One historian describes him as the forerunner and creator of today’s Theme Parks.

Maybe, maybe not.  Remember the Portobello Marine Park was well established by the time he joined them as their Publicity Manager;  and that  1909 Marine Park embodied all the characteristics of today’s modern theme parks.

Whoever he was, whatever he really was, I would love to have met him, listened to him reminisce about the good old days, his triumphs, even his failures. 

 I think my Grandfather would have liked him as well.  In many ways there were very alike.  In fact his very last scheme was something my Grandfather had already attempted, as those of you who read that story will remember.


Brisbane’s Luna Park is a failure, bankruptcy and ruin are staring him in the face; T.H. makes one last despairing foray into the world of make believe.

Sydney Morning Herald Jan 1941

 Thomas has sunk into a melancholia of failure.  He dreams of an escape to a tropical island, but not alone.  He needs others to finance this new desperate last gig.
With that newspaper interview he reveals his deep despondency and disappears into Luna Park’s sunset, never to be heard from again.


This Eslick story has taken over my computer.  Just when I promise myself I’ve gone about as far as I can a little niggling doubt creeps in;  is there a record out there somewhere in cyberspace that throws some light on Thomas Henry Eslick’s origins.

When Eslick is described as an architect, perhaps  he is more of a facilitator.  The person who creates the image, both exterior and interior.  His designs in America all lean to the Spanish influence. But was he the professional Architect and Engineer we are  led to believe?

In brochures and in interviews he tosses in the names of clearly influential men in their field,  La Marcus Thompson for instance,  C.F. Cullen, J.H. Iles.  These could be the men he studied under, associated with, they may even have been friends.

It’s hard though to imagine a qualified engineer or architect resorting to a job in advertising, and that appears to have been his major activity in Australia at least.

In the case of the White City attractions he is credited with creating he was in reality the front man, the manager who oversaw the amusements, enticed the punters, and in the case of Brisbane’s Luna Park which appeared to be one last desperate attempt to financially succeed, he ultimately and personally paid the price of failure.  


Thanks must go to Tana and Aaron Theile who have safeguarded their step-grandfather’s collection of memorabilia, posting them on a website for public viewing.  I hope my account has added to their knowledge of an exceptionally talented man.

Regarding Tollemache Heriot.  I promised you a theory, but really it’s all guess work.     That name is first mentioned in the 1926 bankruptcy hearing in London with it’s last outing in the Queensland Law Courts in 1943.  The name is an English one, there is for instance a record of a baby Tollemache Henry born in England in 1877, coincidentally the same year Thomas Henry claims birth.

Was this his birth name? Did he change his name?  Was he born in India, if he was I can find no record.

Perhaps the name change coincided with a new showbiz challenge.  Maybe someone out there can solve the mystery.  I do hope so.



Nearly a year after publishing the story of Thomas Eslick yet another reader has posted a comment.  This one though is very different,  it comes from a gentleman related to the man himself and both clarifies and vindicates the story I have built.

Matthews comments.....

Thank you very much for posting this, it is a very interesting read about a very interesting man!

T H Eslick was my great uncle, you correctly traced him to Lancashire although I believe he was born in Wales whilst my great grandfather was working as a station master there, and grew up in Liverpool.

According to my father's stories he began his amazing career in the amusement park industry as a humble labourer on a scenic railway (Blackpool perhaps?). The foreman of the project left or was fired and T H Eslick took over the project and completed it by working from the original plan. Apparently his method for checking that the track was safe was by travelling in it with his workmen at full speed and without using the brakes, which on one occasion reulted in a crash and several broken bones. He then proclaimed himself a scenic railway designer and got the job of designing the railway at the Crystal Palace, using the same design he had followed for his last job! It seems that when he emigrated the rest of my family lost contact with him somewhat and my grandfather didn't seem to know much about his older brother's life abroad, only that he was successful in the amusement park business.

I hope these stories are of some interest to you, I have found your blog extremely interesting as indeed my father would have. It is difficult to know the real true story about this larger than life character as it was well known within the family that he was not averse to bending the truth in his favour!


Matthew   Sept 30. 2012

Next – Back to my Ancestors...Grandfather’s earliest Quakers

Robyn Mortimer ©2011