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.
Fitz: the man
Last August, Canberra amateur 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,” she 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.”
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 ‘motorists terror’ – the imposing Fitz’s Hill.”
Riders of the Fitz’s event will know only too well the determination required by even the most robust of athletes. Take comfort knowing a similar degree of grit was required of Canberrans past – the Bootes family of early last century reportedly told the kids to get out of the car and walk, to lighten the load. Other locals are recorded as saying they would always rest up overnight nearby before tackling Fitz’s by horse and wagon, lest their exhausted steed fail to ascend the hill.
Alright, so we know the hill is big, but who was Fitz?
Delving deeper into Trove and reaching out to contacts in the Canberra and 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, and then NSW Railways, before taking up farming in the Queanbeyan district,” Frances revealed.
Mr Fitzgerald was a successful farmer and grazier who exhibited stock and produce at the Queanbeyan Show, and won many prizes over the years. His property was named Glenannar, and it will surprise no one to learn it included a very large hill.
“He built a small dam for irrigation and was able to successfully grow potatoes and other vegetables in even the most severe periods of drought,” Frances said. “He also supported Queanbeyan for the site of the Federal capital at a 1900 public enquiry”.
In 1920, Glenannar (and its large hill) was resumed by government, and Mr Fitzgerald moved to Sydney. He died many years later at 78, and was survived by his wife, 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 next take on the Fitz’s Challenge, 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).