Near Limeburners Point

Not all the stories of the Geelong Botanic Gardens and Eastern Park are about Gardens, trees and the way the Botanic Gardens were managed. Some, like this one that I came across during my research are about the people who visited the Park or Gardens and what they did next.


This looks interesting; I wonder what the “mystery” is? My mind runs through unexplained holes appearing in the hillside, crop circles, strange lights… time to read on…

Some days ago a motor party

1912 – early enough in the development of the motor car to be worth noting their mode of transport. These people must have been well-to-do too.

– going the round of the Eastern Park saw a coat hanging to a tree near the gateway to Limeburners Point. There was no sign of the owner.

My first thought was that someone had left it behind after a picnic and that the next walker through the area had picked it up and put it in a more prominent position. But wait there’s more…

To the back was attached what appeared to be a piece of paper, and from the proximity of the spot to the bay the probability of a suicide was suggested. Really – not just a lost coat?

Eastern Park has been the site of occasional sudden and unexpected deaths as well as a couple of rather nasty accidents. Is this article going to be another item for my (imagined) chapter on the darker side of the Park and Gardens?
Mind you – given that the water depth in this area is pretty shallow, suicide by drowning could be a bit tricky. Time to read on

The city police were apprised, but could not find the garment.

The mystery deepens…perhaps the next passer by helped themselves to the coat?

It has since been ascertained by the East Geelong police that the coat belonged to an invalid who is under-going open-air treatment in that locality.

So not a suicide. I bet the people in the car were quite disappointed.

What was mistaken for a piece of paper was a pocket handkerchief hanging from the pocket.

So just an invalid who got a bit warm in his coat – this was February after all – and who left his handkerchief behind while he went for a stroll.
I bet the local constabulary hope that next time the sticky-beakers in that motor vehicle either stick their noses in a bit deeper (and thus discover that what appears to be a suicide note is nothing of the kind), or pull their noses out all together.

From the pages of the Geelong Advertiser (1912) where even a “no news” story was worth the telling.

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In the beginning …

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 (

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.

Panorama of Geelong Botanic Gardens c 1864

Panorama of Geelong Botanic Gardens c 1864

Plan of Geelong Botanic Gardens 1864

Eastern Park 1864

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

Raddenberry's stone pillar

Raddenberry’s stone pillar

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.

Mr Bunce and a very naughty girl

Mr Bunce and a very naughty girl

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Follow your nose – to the Geelong Botanical Gardens

What’s that smell?

Today it is definitely Spring (although that may not be the case tomorrow). The sun is shining, the birds are active and plants are starting to put on a bit of spring growth, even if it is not their flowering season.

On a walk through the Geelong Botanic Gardens, my senses are stimulated by a wonderful array of smells. However, to call these perfumes might be overstepping the mark. My favourite is the wonderful aroma of the freshly spread “euchy mulch” in the restored fern glade. There is also the perfume of the Michelia flowers along the camellia walk, and soon there will be the scent of cut grass and the heady aroma of roses from the heritage rose bed.

The prevailing aromas in the Gardens and wider park were not always quite so enticing. Geelong, like other urban areas in the 19th Century had a problem with … let’s call it poo. Horses contributed largely to the “street sweepings” which were much prized for giving a boost to the municipal garden beds, but the odour of horse dung pales into insignificance compared to the “nuisance” of nightsoil (aka poo). The problem was, what to do with it?

By 1850, Corio Bay was considerably less pristine than prior to European settlement, as the bulk of the domestic waste from the northern part of town simply flowed, via the open drains, into the Bay (south of the ridge waste flowed into the Barwon River). The resulting smell was considered a “nuisance”. This pre-dated any scientific awareness of just how dangerous human waste was in the spread of disease – hence referring to the disagreeable odours as a “nuisance” rather than as a dangerous health hazard!

As the town of Geelong grew, so a system of collecting and disposing of the euphemistically named “nightsoil” developed with carters coming by night to change the tins in the dunny and cart the waste away for disposal.

The eastern edge of the town of Geelong, on the Bay side, then as now, was the Eastern Park or Botanical Gardens. The shortest route out of town was along the Portarlington road, past the Gardens towards Moolap. The general practice was to take the nightsoil away from town and to deposit it below the high tide mark, outside the town limits, and for the sea to do the rest. In 1856 a directive was given that rubbish, including nightsoil was to be deposited in the Bay to the east of Limeburner’s Point. It seems that the favoured site to tip your buckets was in Stingaree Bay behind the rifle butts – once situated on the site where CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratories are now. Unfortunately, not all the nightmen wanted to travel that far and there were complains of nightsoil being deposited along the road-side with its consequent “nuisance” in terms of smell and health.

In 1876, the Council decided that they needed to have a proper “Manure Depot” to deal with the nightsoil problem, just like Melbourne, and the Mayor of Melbourne was brought down to advise on the best possible site. This turned out the be the Botanical Gardens (now Eastern Park) “bounded by the south carriage drive on the north, and the park fence on the west, south, and east sides” – in other words, hard up against the Friendly Society Oval (now the soccer pitch on Howard Glover Reserve) and adjacent to the Corio Oval – home to both the local football and cricket teams. As you can imagine, local opinion was not favourable!

“Citizen” (Geelong Advertiser 1/3/1876) wrote,—Why make a manure depot of the Botanical Gardens, when the Market-square is so much a better place. How handy for market gardeners; after depositing their produce, they could at once load up with manure. It is a wonder that this simple idea did not strike the heads (?) of some of the enlightened members we have in our Town Council.

But, “where there’s muck there’s money” – and well treated nightsoil was a potentially valuable commodity. The councillors settled on a scheme whereby trenches would be dug and the nightsoil deposited and covered over to prevent too much nuisance from the smell, which would be further abated (!) by the planting of a belt of trees. The Garden’s curator, John Raddenberry was strongly in favour of the scheme, claiming that the ground would be made valuable and productive by the addition of the manure and that there was sufficient land for 30-40 years of treatment in this way.

Despite the protests, a Manure Depot was developed within the Eastern Park – but only as a temporary solution, although temporary turned out to well over 10 years and the depot was reopened again around 1900 – much to the annoyance of visitors to the Corio Oval who complained bitterly of the smell. It was not until 1916 that Geelong got a sewerage system and the nightmen became a thing of the past.

In the meantime, the Council charged 2 shillings per load of nightsoil deposited and sold “deodorised” nightsoil to farmers for use as manure at the princely sum of 2/6 per yard. From time to time, private contractors found these rates attractive and ran their own manure depots, but these frequently failed the “nuisance” test.

The dangers of untreated human waste were not confined to the “nuisance” of the smell or the potential spread of disease. The manure trenches must have been a thoroughly unpleasant place to work, being both damp and smelly. To add to this, most of the work was done at night as the nightmen were prevented from collecting when the rest of the townspeople were going about their business (hence the name). In April 1880, Mr Edward Jones, an employee of the Corporation (a forerunner of Geelong City Council), met his death by suffocation through falling into a nearly full trench while working alone on a damp night at the Manure Depot in the Botanical Gardens. The coroner’s inquest suggested that his untimely demise might have been averted if he had not been alone at the time.

When I next have cause to visit one of the more “agricultural” toilet facilities in the Gardens, I will spare a thought for Mr Jones and his untimely death and be thankful that at least most of Geelong, though sadly not most of the Botanic Gardens’ toilets, are connected to the Black Rock sewerage treatment works and that open nightsoil pits are a thing of the past.

Also – the smell in the Gardens today is distinctly more fragrant.

Thank God for Thomas Crapper

Thank God for Thomas Crapper

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Lies, damn lies and (tall) stories

(with apologies to Mark Twain )

Being inculcated with the traditional stories of the Geelong Botanic Gardens was part of my “training” as a volunteer guide at the Gardens. I learnt to tell how they came to be and when and why particular buildings came to the Gardens. As I came to know the place better, I started to develop my own stories to illustrate aspects of the Gardens’ history.

One such story is that of the Dragons’ Blood Tree (Dracaena draco). This tree wears a distinctive “collar” as it was moved from Eastern Park to its current site in the 21st Century Gardens in 2002. There are many stories surrounding the Dragon’s Blood Tree including one written specifically for the school’s program, however that particular story did not sit well with me so I developed my own story to help answer children’s much asked question: how did the tree get here?

The Dragon's Blood Trees in the 21st Century Garden

The Dragon’s Blood Tree in the 21st Century Garden

Our Dragon’s Blood Tree is native to the Canary Islands in the North Atlantic Ocean. These islands were on the route for sailing ships travelling between England and Geelong. Ships would stop in the get water and fresh fruit and vegetables, before continuing south to Cape Town. Many ships’ captains would supplement their income by carrying a portion of their lading as their own private cargo. The seeds of the Dragon’s Blood tree, though large, would not take up much space amongst the cargo.The captain, if he were a regular visitor to Geelong, would be aware that Mr Bunce, the first curator at the Geelong Botanic Gardens would welcome seeds of this unusual plant.

Imagine the early days of Geelong, before any dredging in the Bay. The ships that came had to stand off Point Henry to unload. Passengers and cargo were rowed ashore in lighters which could cope with the shallow water near the township. I like to imagine a ship’s captain, who had finished unloading his ship, walking up the hill to the Botanic Gardens and dropping in on Mr Bunce for a quiet drink and a chance to trade some seeds. One of these seeds grew and was planted out in the beds that formed the original Botanic Gardens in what is now Eastern Park.

When the 21st Century Gardens were planned, the Gardens staff decided that this tree would be perfect as a focal point for the new garden. When we move plants, they have to be supported, and because this tree is old, the gardeners made a permanent support for it in the form of a collar.

It’s a nice story, but that is all it is. I do not know when the Dragons’ Blood Tree was planted, although the collected wisdom of the volunteer guides asserts that it was planted by Daniel Bunce. I do not know if it came as seed or seedling, though I suspect the latter as the seeds are fleshy and probably do not store or travel well. And I do not know who brought the original plant material to the Gardens. But I do know that Daniel Bunce traded in plant material before he became curator of the Gardens and that many people gave plant material to both Mr Bunce and his successor, John Raddenberry, and that they planted them out into both the Gardens and Eastern Park.

Some years after developing this story, I was surprised to hear other volunteer guides telling the same story but passing it on as fact. My story had developed a life of its own.

Maybe some of the other stories that form the basis of the collected wisdom about the history of the Gardens are also more fiction than fact. How can we tell?

For a long time, I have been doubtful about the age put on many of the Gardens significant trees – especially the stand of bunyas (Araucaria bidwilli) on the southern side of the Gardens. Their story is a topic for another blog, but it is enough to note that their reported age on the significant tree register is inconsistent with the early photographic evidence.

My reservations about some of the “facts” coincided with the beginnings of the National Library of Australia’s project to make available digitised versions of Australia’s early newspapers through their Trove project. At last, it was possible to look for some documentary evidence for what was happening in the Gardens (many of the original Council documents being unfortunately been lost) and to combine this with the patchy, uncertainly dated photographic record. Along the way, I have uncovered many stories of the Gardens – sometimes about the plants, but often about the people who lived and worked at the Gardens. These stories combine to build up a picture of what it was like in Geelong’s Botanic Gardens and Eastern Park during their first hundred years. It is these stories that I aim to tell through this blog.

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A perfect Place for a Picnic

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”.

The Picnic Place

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.

At Music in the Gardens 2013

At Music in the Gardens 2013

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It’s a good day to get started

Welcome to “Stories from the Geelong Botanic Gardens”, my personal collection of stories about (one of) my favourite places.

I first visited these Gardens in 1982, but since 2003, they have become my second home. Over that time, I have been collecting stories about the Gardens, and using them in my work with school students visiting the Gardens and also as a volunteer garden guide. The stories I’ve collected help shed light on the  history and development of the Gardens and the importance of plants that grow there.

Over time, I came to mistrust some of these stories; how old is that tree? who was responsible for that feature?

Digging deeply into the records using Trove, as well as images collected by the State Library of Victoria and the Geelong Heritage Centre, I’ve come to to discover that not everything we thought we knew was strictly true and some was downright wrong. I’ve also discovered little gems of stories that shed light on how things used to be, and even come across some modern ones.

This blog is my place to share these stories with an audience wider than my immediate family and a handful of interested staff and volunteers from the Geelong Botanic Gardens.


Jenny Possingham

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