I was privileged to go to Burnley in the early 1990s. It was not through good planning but I lived in the right area where Burnley students were drawn from. It is one of those special places where people find their calling. Burnley Campus (known to everyone as Burnley) is a hidden treasure of Melbourne and is one of the city’s best kept secrets. Not many people know that the gardens are public and anyone can come in and enjoy them. Burnley Gardens are situated 6km east of Melbourne on the banks of the Yarra River and many Melbournians used to travel to the gardens for picnics by ferry but unfortunately this no longer happens.
This year is our 150 birthday. We started out as the Victorian Horticultural Society (VHS) when the entrepreneurial John Pasco Fawkner (who was convicted of aiding and abetting the escape of seven convicts) held a public meeting in December 1848 at his premises Queens Head Hotel in Little Collins Street (he was renowned for making money). The VHS collapsed probably due to the discovery of gold. It reformed in 1855-56 under the new name of the Horticultural Society of Victoria (HSV). Both societies had many prominent men of the times such as His Honour, Superintendent Charles La Trobe as Patron (VHS), Mr. Redmond Barry as Vice President (VHS) and Baron von Mueller (HSV). The HSV still exists today with the prestige title of Royal before its name. Mueller donated many seeds and today they are mature pines trees in which the black cockatoos sit and drop bits on the walkers by.
Land was set aside in the Richmond Survey Paddock and a competition was held where first prize of ₤15 was awarded to Alfred Lynch, a Landscape Gardener from Prahran. For many decades it was thought that the Lynch Plan was never implemented but through research in the 1990s we discovered it was. Six acres was laid out in geometric and highly decorative style prevalent at the time of Louis Quatorze. This style was in fashion in England and this example was thought to be unique in Australia. Work on the gardens started in 1861 and culminated in a grand opening on 1st January, 1863. Thousands of tons of soil were moved to build 4 circular terraces and remnants of the first terrace still remain today. On the great day of the opening a Sequoia sempervirens syn. Taxodium sempervirens (California Redwood) was planted in the middle of the bed and today is one of the gardens favourite trees. Unfortunately, later in the year a great flood came down the Yarra River and washed it away.
Over the next forty years the main purpose of the gardens was to trial fruit and timber trees to find out which ones suited the Victoria climate the best and would have economic value for the expanding colony. Many prizes were won for good quality fruit in London but in the 1890s a depression struck Victorian and the gardens returned to the Government which, in its wisdom, turned it into the first horticultural college in Australia.
The second principal was Charles Bogue Luffman (1897-1908) and he redesigned the gardens into a more naturalistic style. His signature designs were curved garden beds with sunken paths, separate winter and summer gardens and large grass expansions with uninterrupted views (no paths, they were sunken and disappeared.) Luffman built himself and his suffragette wife Lauretta Luffman (nee Lane) a Principal’s residence which was a mock Tudor villa which was the heart of the gardens. Unfortunately, it fell over (it was deliberately pushed) in the 1980s and from that moment the gardens lost their focal point.
Luffman had instinctive knowledge about nature and understood that Australia had a different climate to England and that we should always choose plants that suited the growing conditions rather than the other way round.
He was charming, knowledgeable, jealous, self centred and always controversial. He allowed women students, which was an outrageous act in the minds of the late Victorian Board members. The women often fell in love with him and were one of the reasons he clashed with the conservative board members. But women students still prevailed and many talented students graduated from Burnley such as Olive Mellor, Edna Walling and later on Grace Fraser. Many of the early principals such as Mr. John McLennan and Mr. Alex Jessup went on to become directors of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne.
Luffman’s central gardens today are registered on the Victorian Heritage Register and still remain with their charm and grace. The sweeping lawns, the beautiful lily pond and ring of old trees are reminiscent of the contributions Baron von Mueller made when he was Chairman of the HSV in the 1860s.
Unfortunately many of the old trees have become infirm and had to be removed. We now have 6 registered on the National Trust’s Victoria Register of Significant Trees. We had 7 but, unfortunately, one was deemed dangerous and was removed. But with help from the Friends of Burnley Gardens (formed in 1998) the huge old Sugar Gum (Eucalyptus cladocalyx) c.1887 was fashioned into a beautiful table and now has pride of place near the site of the Principal’s House.
Students have always worked in the gardens. One of the well-known students of the day, Hilda Dance, did a preliminary garden design in 1947 for the new Administration Building and then Emily Gibson (a staff member and another former student) finally implemented the design that is still there today. The building was designed by Percy Everett and was controversial in its modernist design.
Today, Burnley Gardens are part of Melbourne University’s School of Land and Environment. Students still work in the gardens and today in the Field Station there are many Master and PhD students’ experimental plots. The most recent development has been turning the flat roof of the ground floor of the Main building into a Roof top garden and the creation of The Green Infrastructure Adaption Centre.
The roof’s transformation has been amazing. The Staff Room (1st floor) looked out over this horrible bitumen roof. The view was dull and I often felt exhausted by this hot uninteresting view. But through this innovative project, the roof has been transformed into an amazing inspirational green roof demonstration garden. The researchers have looked at the planting media, the drainage, the structural requirements of building a roof top garden and the fertiliser requirements and where runoff ends up. There are different growing zones, one of succulents, one of vegetables and one trialling natives.
Together with the University of Melbourne, the Friends of Burnley Gardens are planning a full year of celebration. One day you may be particularly interested in is Open Day (used to be Pruning Day) on Sunday 14 July 2013, where there will be workshops on pruning, lectures and tours of the gardens. For more information log onto: