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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