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Government Records about the Australian Capital Territory

Early horticultural history

Walter Burley Griffin's plans for Canberra included provision for a botanic garden and arboretum. The Afforestation Branch, part of the Department of Home Affairs, was established to develop an afforestation program for Canberra and the surrounding territory.

The first nursery was established at Acton in April 1911 following a visit to the site by Charles Weston (then Superintendent of the NSW nursery at Campbelltown). Weston made several more visits to Canberra before accepting a permanent position as Afforestation Officer in Canberra's fledgling administration in May 1913.

During Canberra's early years, Weston selected and tested a large variety of trees to determine which were the most suitable for the Canberra environment. A combination of native and exotic trees was used.

The Acton nursery (located on the site of the National Museum of Australia) was only temporary and a permanent nursery was established at Yarralumla in 1914. An area of 162 hectares was chosen, and Weston divided the site into four equal areas: nursery work, pinetum, arboretum, and an area for the permanent planting of Australian and New Zealand species. The latter was to be part of Griffin's planned 'Continental Arboretum', with sections for species from each continent.

The Yarralumla arboretum at Westbourne Woods was the first of many to be developed within the Canberra region to ascertain the most appropriate species for landscaping purposes, and to test the viability of trees for commercial forestry. The first trees were planted at Westbourne on 1 September 1914.

Griffin was keen to develop a local cork industry and a cork plantation was established at Green Hills (west of Black Mountain, adjacent to the Glenloch Interchange). Seeds were collected in 1916 and planted in 1917 using the quercus suber acorn. By 1920, there were 9600 trees covering a site measuring eight hectares. The plantation was never the commercial success Griffin had hoped, yet about 6000 trees still survive today. A series of redwood trees was also planted at Piallago in the late 1910s, many of which still survive.

Weston realised that a nursery would never flourish without windbreaks. At both Acton and Yarralumla, he planted windbreaks to protect the sites from the prevailing westerly winds. Trees were also planted on the lower slopes of Mount Ainslie and Black Mountain, as well as along Canberra's new avenues, such as Northbourne and Canberra avenues, while a total of 7000 trees was planted along Haig Park.

In 1921, the Federal Capital Advisory Committee recommended the creation of arboreal shelters around the newly emerging buildings, including the Hotel Canberra (now the Hyatt Hotel Canberra), Hotel Kurrajong, Parliament House, as well as the contours of the future Lake Burley Griffin.

By 1924, the Afforestation Branch had planted almost 1.2 million trees. On 14 October 1925, it was renamed the Parks and Gardens Branch as its functions began to focus more on the construction and maintenance of Canberra's parks and gardens, with less attention to the initial procurement, growing and planting of trees and shrubs. Weston was appointed Superintendent of the new branch until his retirement in 1927, when he was succeeded by his deputy, Alexander Bruce.

As with the Administration generally, the branch suffered from dwindling resources during the Great Depression. Nevertheless, increasing traffic in the 1930s and possible conflicts with low tree branches led to the establishment of a Visibility Committee in 1937. Its role was to address road concerns, providing advice about where trees and hedges should be planted and the manner in which they should be kept. Advice was also provided on potential problems with road construction around Canberra.

In 1938, the Consultative Committee on Parks and Gardens was formed. Its role, as defined in its first meeting held on 20 June 1938, was to provide 'help and guidance in the beautification of Canberra by tree planting'.405 Committee members were Charles Lane Poole (Chairman and principal of the Australian Forestry School), William Clemens (President of the Red Cross, Canberra Division) and George Romans (Parliamentary reporter).

Much of the horticultural work undertaken throughout this period was photographed by Jack Mildenhall and his photos, now in the custody of the National Archives of Australia, provide a comprehensive visual record of what took place.406

In 1944, Lindsay Pryor was appointed as Director of ACT Parks and Gardens and continued the work of Weston and Griffin until 1958, when he took up the position of Professor of Botany at Canberra University College. By the mid-1960s, more than 3 million trees were planted within Canberra and throughout the Territory.407 Indeed, the cost of their maintenance caused concern. In 1963, Treasurer Harold Holt baulked at a request for £1 million for annual maintenance of Canberra's parks and gardens, and reluctantly approved £750,000.408

Much of the work undertaken by Weston, Griffin, Pryor and others survives today, and Canberra continues to be widely regarded as a garden city. The majority of the Territory's parks and gardens are now the responsibility of the ACT Government's Parks and Conservation Service, although the Commonwealth still maintains control over the Australian National Botanic Gardens, Old Parliament House Rose Gardens and Commonwealth Park.409

Files of working plans for forests in the ACT and the States, 1927–46 AA1975/201
81/4291 81/4291
Cork oak plantation 80/1872
Transplanting Kurrajong by LA Pryor LF1085
Reports by arboriculturist – research (including annual reports) 61/86
Statistical records – Parks and Gardens LF1028
Town planning – depot accommodation – men and equipment – Parks and Gardens LF1037
Civic Administration – report by HJR Cole – comments by Supt Parks and Gardens LF1050
Parks and Gardens – organisation LF1074
Parks and Gardens – development and maintenance LF1075
Parks and Gardens – supervision and organisation LF1076
Parks and Gardens – Consultative Committee P&G142
Bulbs Dutch experimental P&G387
Areas maintained by Parks and Gardens – general matters P&G1961/151
Policy and function of Parks and Gardens section P&G1963/127
Parks and Gardens – floriculture P&G1967/289
National Archives
Reports on various matters made to the Superintendent, Afforestation Branch, 1912–26 CP209/24
Inwards correspondence, establishment and maintenance of parks and gardens, 1912–28 CP209/1
Outwards correspondence, establishment and maintenance of parks and gardens, 1912–28 A11952
Westbourne Woods, Banks and Hutchins Streets, 1912–80 A6664, L16
Plant testing record, 1913 CP209/23
Diary and notes of Thomas Weston, 1913–21 CP209/12
Papers, notes, records, correspondence relating to gardening and nursery matters, 1913–21 CP209/13
Record of official papers referred to Afforestation Branch, 1914–19 CP209/20
Walter Burley Griffin's plan of an arboretum, 1915 AA1966/33
Timber inspections, 1915–17 CP209/21
Cork oak plantations, acorns of quercus suber, 1915–19 A192, FCL1919/718
Instructions received by Thomas Weston from Walter Burley Griffin, 1915–20 CP209/16
Plantation areas, Red Hill, Cork Oaks and Mount Pleasant, 1918 A361, DSG18/264
Photographs of Park Pirie children's playground, 1918 CP209/9
Files relating to areas planted at Bullen Ridge, Mount Stromlo and Green Hills, 1918–23 CP209/11
Establishment of Federal Capital cork oak plantation, 1919–22 A1, 1922/7712
Westbourne Woods nursery, 1922 A192, FCL1922/694
Operations of permanent nurseries, 1923–26 CP209/26
Nursery operations Yarralumla, 1926–29 CP209/17
Diaries of Alexander Bruce, 1927–41 CP209/2
Plans showing plantings at the Government Group, Canberra, 1928 A12708
Estimates submitted to the Federal Capital Commission, 1929–36 CP209/3
Recommendations by the Visibility Committee and reports to the Committee, 1937–45 CP209/5
Visibility Committee, parks and gardens matters, 1937–40 A659, 1939/1/10527
Parks and Gardens Consultation Committee, 1938–51 A431, 1951/572
Organisation, Parks and Gardens Section, 1938–53 A431, 1952/391
Parks and Gardens Section, cooperation in town planning, 1939–42 A292, C19521
Parks and Gardens, cleaning up of Westbourne Woods, 1944 A659, 1944/1/2716
Minutes and agenda of the ACT Arboriculture and Gardening Industrial Committee, 1948–50 CP209/10
Correspondence files, 'P and G' (Parks and Gardens), 1961–75 A1144

One of the most significant groups of records documenting Canberra's early horticultural history is a series of 'plant cards' and 'ledgers'. There are more than 15,000 plant cards, which began in May 1913, recording acquisitions of seeds and cuttings and how they were propagated. The ledgers consist of three large volumes that record the acquisition of seeds and cuttings since 1948. Both the cards and ledgers have been digitised and are now available online.410


Chapter notes | All notes

405 NAA: A431, 1951/572.

406 NAA: A3560, Mildenhall collection of glass plate negatives, 1921–35.

407 National Capital Development Commission, Future Canberra, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1965, p. 97.

408 NAA: A5819, volume 20/agendum 780, 16 July 1963.

409 Historical notes in this section have been adapted from Lenore Coltheart, Nursery Tales for a Garden City: the historical context of the records at Canberra's Yarralumla nursery, Australian Garden History Society, Canberra, 2011.



Chapter 16
Parks and gardens