Unveiling an enigma: the man behind Fitz’s hill

13 Sep 22 | By pp-admin | Fitzs, Pedal Power

There are many ‘knowns’ associated with Pedal Power’s Fitz’s Challenge. Riders know for certain that each October, they will face some of the toughest hill climbs of any cycling event in the country. Riders know they’ll be supported by incredible volunteers from the moment they register to the moment they cross the finish line. Riders know they are going to ride through some of the ACT’s most spectacular scenery.

What they haven’t known, is who this ‘Fitz’ character is that has created such a stir.

Until now.

Fitz: the man

Last August, Canberra historian Frances McGee was enjoying a nice cup of tea while reading the paper, when she happened upon an article about the Fitz’s Challenge.

“There was an article in The Canberra Times about Fitz’s Challenge, named after Fitz’s Hill,” Frances recalled. “The spokeswoman for Pedal Power, Ms Emily Stacey, said she had tried in vain to find out who Fitz’s Hill was named after. As a councillor with the Canberra and District Historical Society, it was my challenge to find out!” she said.

And find out she did.

After taking a punt that Fitz’s Hill was named after someone, Frances began searching historical records for references to the hill, searching cross references to names beginning with Fitz. “I ploughed through books and articles, and came up with absolutely nothing.

“After some unsuccessful online searches, I searched through the National Library’s online research portal, Trove. I scoured tenancy registers, and found several Fitz’s – Fitzgibbons, Fitzroys, Fitzgeralds. But none appeared connected with the hill.”

‘The spokeswoman for Pedal Powersaid she had tried in vain to find out who Fitz’s Hill was named after. As a councillor with the Canberra and District Historical Society, it was my challenge to find out!’

Further research revealed the hill in question had been named Fitz’s since at least 1933. “I found a 1933 Canberra Times article which referred to the hill’s condition as ‘a motorists’ terror,” Frances recalled.

Riders of the Fitz’s event will know only too well determination required by even the most robust of athletes. Take comfort knowing a similar degree of grit was required of Canberrans past.

Locals are recorded saying they would rest up overnight nearby before tackling Fitz’s by horse and wagon, lest their exhausted steed fail to ascend the hill, while in later years the Bootes family reportedly told the kids to get out of the car and walk, to lighten the load.

Alright, so we know the hill is big, but who was Fitz?

Delving deeper into Trove and reaching out to contacts in the Canberra & District Historical Society, Frances got the lead she’d been searching for. “A couple of local hospitality workers in Canberra in the mid-1920s travelled the region on horseback,” she said. “They kept a journal of their travels, and included in these was a helpful page on the derivation of local names in today’s Namadgi. Bingo! Here I found out that Fitz’s Hill was named after landowner John Edward Fitzgerald”.

With name in hand, Frances contacted ACT Place Names, who provided a wealth of information about the hill’s namesake. “Mr John Edward Fitzgerald of Tuggeranong was born in 1859 in County Waterford, Ireland. He originally worked on a farm near Wagga Wagga, and then for NSW Railways, before taking up farming in the Queanbeyan district,” Frances revealed.  His property was named Glenannar, and it will surprise no one to learn it included a very large hill.

‘Bingo! Here I found out that Fitz’s Hill was named after landowner John Edward Fitzgerald’

“He built a small dam for irrigation and was able to produce high-yielding crops of potatoes and other farm products in even the most severe periods of drought,” she said. “He also supported Queanbeyan for the site of the Federal capital at a 1900 public enquiry”.

In 1914, Glenannar (and its large hill) was resumed by government, and Mr Fitzgerald moved to another property near Cooma, Murruma Station.  There he carried on grazing, mixed farming and growing lucerne.   

Mr Fitzgerald was a successful farmer and grazier who exhibited in the stock and farm sections at the Queanbeyan and Cooma Shows, and won many prizes over the years. He remained at Murruma until his retirement in 1920, when he moved to Sydney.   

He died in Sydney in 1937, aged 78, and was survived by his wife Margaret, four sons and five daughters.

Mr Fitzgerald’s obituary, published in the Goulburn Evening Penny Post of 18 August 1937, refers to the “well known resident of Queanbeyan and Cooma” as a “man whose judgement was always respected and his advice was often sought by those with whom he was associated”. May he rest in peace.

Pedal Power thanks Frances McGee for her work in unearthing the real Fitz.

 When you take on the Fitz’s Challenge on Sunday 30 October 2022, take a moment to think of the farmer who created a legend. (And take a page out of the Bootes family books, and be sure to rest well the night before).