In the beginning was a bare hillside to the east of the town…
The story of the origins of the Geelong Botanical Gardens (as it was then known) was first told by George Jones in his book “Growing Together, a gardening history of Geelong – extending to Colac and Camperdown.” (1984), and continued in 2 supplements in 1988 and 1996.The original book and at least one of the supplements are available from the Friends of Geelong Botanic Gardens (www.friendsgbg.org.au).
George was a careful chronicler of history, and the story of the Gardens is woven throughout the book(s).
It is this story cobbled together from George’s writing and his subsequent investigations which the volunteer guides tell to visitors to the Geelong Gardens.
The Geelong Botanic Gardens and what we now call Eastern Park had their beginnings in a series of meetings in 1848/9 by “gentlemen desirous of procuring the establishment of a botanical garden”. By December of 1849, they had successfully obtained agreement from the colonial Administrator, Charles LaTrobe, for government money to be provided to fence and layout an appropriate site.
There was a fair bit of discussion amongst the gentlemen of the town as to the best site for their gardens. The Western gully, incorporating what is now Johnstone Park and extending towards the waterfront, was one such site, however, by the time the reserve was proclaimed in 1851, the town corporation had fixed on Eastern Park. This site was also not without controversy as it was seen on the one hand as blocking the eastwards expansion of town and on the other as being a barren wasteland.
It seems that not a lot happened during the first six years of the Gardens. The site was fenced and a curator’s cottage was built (1854) and occupied by the keeper of the nearby powder magazine, and the carriage drives (Eastern Park Circuit) were laid out.
It was not until 1857 that Daniel Bunce was appointed the Gardens’ first curator that anything remotely “botanical” happen on the site. The traditional story is that he arrived to find a barren hillside with no accessible freshwater. To make a start, he established a nursery garden in a sheltered part of the site which is today’s 19th Century Garden. Daniel Bunce laid out the paths which still make up the general plan of this part of the Gardens today.
Daniel Bunce also laid out much of Eastern Park with labyrinthine paths and borders which can be seen in this photograph and in an 1864 map.
Daniel Bunce died in 1982 and was succeeded by John Raddenberry who consolidated the horticultural part of the Gardens in the nursery area, simplified the paths in Eastern Park and removed the unpopular and messy blue-gums planted by Bunce.
In 1884, Raddenberry commenced building a huge fernery in the centre of the nursery
gardens. The fernery dominated the Gardens for the next 50 years and the last relict – the stone fountain – can still be seen in the Gardens today . He also commenced replanting Eastern Park with conifers, leading to the pinetumn (an arboretum for conifers) which distinguishes the botanical collection in Eastern Park today.
Subsequent curators, James Day, Alexander Brown and William Walley presided over the gradual decline in the Gardens, planting colourful bedding plants while Raddenberry’s fernery gradually decayed until it was finally removed completely by Curator George Vafiopulous in the late 1950s.
Since the arrival of Mr Vafiopulous, the Gardens have seen a considerable renaissance, being expanded to include the 20th Century gardens, including the teahouse lawn, rose gardens and Walter conservatory in the 1960s; adding the new fernery and southern annex under Ian Rogers in the 1980s and extending forward towards the Bay with John Arnott for the 21st Century.
It’s a nice story. But is it true? What of the people who worked there and how old are the trees? Were the early 21th century curators really so lacking in influence?
Through this blog I hope to uncover and retell some of the stories of the gardens – like that of Edward Jones who drowned in a nightsoil pit in Eastern Park (Follow Your Nose Sept 2014), or the “lady” depicted in the Bollards that great visitors as they enter the 20th Century Gardens.