My first writing about the Geelong Botanic Gardens was “A Perfect Place for a Picnic” published in the Friends of Geelong Botanic Gardens quarterly newsletter, Jubaea (July 2011). Since writing that article, I’ve discovered a lot more about the Gardens and Eastern Park and how the people of Geelong and further afield used the area as a haven from the dust of “town” and a place to relax and celebrate.
Below is an updated version of that article.
A Perfect Place for a Picnic
The people of Geelong have always considered the Geelong Botanical Gardens to be the perfect place for a picnic. In the beginning, Eastern Park was laid out with paths and carriageways, planted with hardy plants and referred to as the Botanical Gardens. The area that we now call the 19th Century Gardens was called The Nursery.
Even before the first curator, Daniel Bunce arrived on the scene, the Botanic Reserve was seen as the perfect place for civic celebration. The fall of Sebastopol in December 1855 was celebrated in grand style with a public holiday. Arrangements were made for a grand parade from Market Square to the Botanic Reserve where dancing, football, cricket, foot racing, and archery would be held. Refreshment booths were erected, and in the evening they lit an immense bonfire for which the people of Geelong were urged to contribute firewood and tar barrels.
The arrival of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh in 1867 sent the colonies into a whirl of festivities. Each town set out to outdo its neighbours in the magnificence of its celebrations. The Prince had less than 24 hours in Geelong, but there were civic receptions, a parade through the town and a ball. The following day, the Prince started the Geelong Regatta before leaving for the Western Districts. The ordinary people were not forgotten in the celebrations; a Free Banquet was provided for all-comers in the Botanical Gardens, although The Prince had already left. Those with any sense could have foretold that this was not going to turn out well, especially after the debarkel of Free Banquet Melbourne. People started to arrive at 9am, although food was not expected to be served until 2 pm. Children were entertained with supplies of balls and skipping ropes and volunteers gamely supplied 5-6,000 people with free meat and bread and plum pudding. What really brought things unstuck was the supply of five hog’s heads of ale, and four quarter-casks and one hogshead of red and white colonial wine. By 3 pm, most of the food had gone, but there was still a considerable quantity of beer and wine – and a significant number of the crowd considerably the worse for wear. The sole committee member brave enough to attend resorted to pouring the remaining drink on the ground in order prevent those who had imbibed too freely from obtaining any more. Unsurprisingly, a riot broke out, but happily the Gardens were not damaged.
After the Free Banquet, open-air picnicking assumed a more genteel complexion. In 1868, a grand Temperance Festival, where some 3 -4,000 people sat down to tea in 2 vast marquees, was held in the Botanic Gardens on the “gentle undulations near the artificial lake” (near today’s storm-water harvesting dam). However, there was no report of this gathering getting out of hand!
The vast majority of picnic parties in the gardens, then as now, were more modest affairs, though not entirely without incident. An “emu-sing event” was reported in 1870 when a young man attending the Christian Doctorine Societies picnic took a quiet stroll with his book and was accosted by one of Bunce’s “tame” emus. Thinking the book was something to eat; the emu chased the young man up a tree and kept patrol around it until the man was rescued by his friends.
Many of these events took place in the area around today’s picnic shelter. By 1875 the gardens had become so popular with picnic groups that an octagonal picnic pavilion in the shape of a large, closed in doughnut was erected on the hillside opposite today’s PlaySpace. The area around the pavilion featured in postcards of the era as the “picnic place”.
Sporting activities were an integral part of large picnics with the newspapers of the day frequently reporting race results in considerable detail. What was not so often reported is just what the picnickers’ were eating. The Free Banquet had meat of various kinds, bread and plum pudding as well as beer and wine, and they drank tea, lemonade and ginger beer at the Temperance Festival – but what of the provisions provided to the children of the Sunday Schools and orphanages? Reports of this food are harder to find, but the children of the Orphan School in 1861 were liberally supplied with buns, cakes, gingerbeer, &c.
By the mid-twentieth century, more formal events were happening inside what we now call the Botanic Gardens with it being a favoured site for Mayoral Gardens Parties and more recently as a venue for the Longest Lunch. The Friends’ Music in the Gardens also provided an opportunity for alfresco dining while enjoying the now discontinued summer concerts. A peek into picnic baskets revealed everything from a bag of chips through cheese and crackers to a shared spread that would make the picnickers of 1910 proud.