Since commencing my academic journey at The University of Melbourne’s Burnley Campus in the year 2000 it has surprised me how few people know what a botanical wonderland there is hidden away on Yarra Boulevard in Richmond. Even when the school offered a multitude of classes for certificate, degree and post grad studies the gardens themselves remained a quiet oasis within a stone’s throw of noisy freeways and train lines.
The gardens have been created and recreated: horticultural organisations, educational institutions and student experiments have shaped the way the gardens have evolved. In some eras they have been a hive of activity and interest in others they have suffered neglect and all but abandoned. Regardless of the many changes they have always been open to the public.
In this series of articles I will introduce you to the people who established the original gardens and others who have been influential in the ongoing shaping of the heritage listed botanical delight we enjoy today. In 2013, Associate Professor Don Garden and I conducted some research on the Burnley Gardens; Don was primarily responsible for recording the early history of the garden’s establishment and I appreciate his generosity in sharing his research material for this story.
Victoria is known as ‘The Garden State’ and the establishment of a horticultural training institution at Burnley (most often referred to as just ‘Burnley’), in 1891 certainly gave Victoria a distinct advantage. The gardens have always fulfilled a variety of purposes with an emphasis on horticultural research, horticultural demonstration and horticultural education. They are one of the oldest, most beautiful and important public gardens in Victoria. In 2013, the Burnley Gardens celebrated their 150th birthday. The gardens include about 3 hectares or so of ornamental plantings, they are heritage listed and in 1997 became part of The University of Melbourne.
Many people have been involved in the design, creation and maintenance of the gardens over those years but there have been a dozen or so who have been particularly influential. They are a mixture of working gardeners, landscape designers, horticulturists and academics. The one thing they all have in common is a love of gardens and plants and a passion for passing on their knowledge to others to advantage fledgling horticultural industries and to aspiring professional garden makers.
The Burnley Gardens are situated on a peninsula of land bounded on three sides by the Yarra River, about six kilometres east of the city of Melbourne. The land’s first European use was as the Richmond survey paddock which was reserved in 1836 to graze survey department animals. In August 1862 most of the area was reserved as public parkland, Richmond Park.
By then a section had been granted to the Horticultural Society of Victoria which had been established in 1849 and from 1885 would have the prefix ‘royal’. Its principal roles were to experiment with and facilitate the acclimatisation, ‘improvement’ and distribution of introduced flora – essentially fruit trees, vegetables and exotic garden plants. To do this well the society needed a substantial piece of land and in late 1860 the Minister for Lands granted the society about 10 hectares in the paddock. Various changes occurred from the 1860s to as late at the 1930s resulting in the size and configuration of the Burnley Gardens, The University of Melbourne Campus, we see today.
The Horticultural Society ran a garden design competition in 1861 and awarded the prize to Alfred Lynch, a Prahran nurseryman. He produced a very formal and geometric design that has been described as both as Italian in style and as showing Dutch influence. It was never fully constructed, but it essentially set the geographical parameters within which the site and the gardens would be developed. The gardens were officially opened on New Year’s Day 1863. By this time Lynch’s plan was taking shape and some initial planting had been undertaken, especially of trees, some of which are extant including a Sequoia sempervirens.
A Scot, George Neilson was responsible for most of the subsequent development in the 19th century. He was a gardener in Scotland and England before migrating to Victoria in about 1853-54. Neilson worked at the Society Gardens prior to being appointed Curator in 1872 and thereafter lived in the Curator’s Cottage at the entrance gates. Neilson continued as Curator until 1897 and over those twenty-five years his influence on the design, planting and development of the gardens would have been greater than anyone else in the nineteenth century. In particular, he would have been responsible for the extension of the ornamental gardens towards and around the pavilion which was opened in October 1884 – with a rose show.
In 1891 the financially struggling RHSV gave up its grounds so that the government could establish a horticultural school or college on the site to take advantage of the existing wonderful gardens and orchards. George Neilson was retained as Curator and also became the instructor in practical horticulture until June 1897 when he retired. The curator’s cottage was then extended and converted to be a residence for a new principal Charles Bogue Luffman (principal1897-1907).
Luffman had significant influence on the establishment of gardening as a profession for both men and women with his modern approach to landscape design and horticultural education. He was largely responsible for the much loved ornamental component of the Burnley Gardens. Luffman was an exotic fellow about whom there are many stories and much speculation. English born in 1862 he arrived in Victoria in 1895. He worked for a period in Mildura advising on the dried fruit industry.
Instruction was expanded during his decade as principal to include a range of farming activities including some animal husbandry and dairying. He also had an interest in gardening which led him to include garden design in the curriculum. Although he left no known plan, he converted the gardens to his own design. The cohort of students was expected to be involved in all the practical activities required to manage this large garden so subsequently they experienced his design concepts first hand.
He outlined his ideas on appropriate Australian garden design in his publication, The Principles of Gardening for Australia, published in 1903, and through a series of public lectures. Luffman promoted what he saw as a ‘natural’ style that complemented the architecture of the house it was near. He wanted the more free-flowing forms of the landscape style advocated by the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain as represented by such people as William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll and Edward Lutyens. Geometrical beds were out, curving irregular borders and shrubberies were in.
He created all of these elements at Burnley, treating it somewhat like a large domestic garden, set around the residence and the pavilion with use of low curving paths, expanses of lawn, and shrubberies around the trees. The pavilion was removed in 1950 to make way for the new administration building but the ponds retain the same shape and continue to be surrounded by shrubberies, curved paths and soft grass.
[Preview Part Two: The next article will explore the mid century landscape designed around the new administration building by Burnley graduate, landscape architect and writer Emily Gibson and the rockery designed by fellow Burnley graduate garden designer Hylda Kirkhope.]