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A century of horticulture for a local nursery

Ferguson’s Australian Nurseries

In 1883 the Double Bay outlet of Ferguson’s Australian Nurseries at Camden was described in the Sydney press as a ‘well-ordered establishment…covering three acres…laid out in a most systematic manner’. (Illustrated Sydney News, 14 April 1883, page 3)

The Double Bay nursery was one part of the Ferguson horticultural enterprise, which started in the 1850s at Camden. Sales encouraged opening a  second nursery at Campbelltown, later moved to Double Bay. The 20th century brought more changes and eventually new owners.

Ferguson’s nursery and William Macarthur’s Camden Park nursery were part of a British imperial horticultural network that satisfied the Victorians’ insatiable demand for plants. The industry was driven by plant hunting expeditions and a Victorian fetish for orchids, ferns, palms and other new plants.

The burgeoning colonial nursery industry in the Cowpastures was an integral part of British imperialism and the settler-colonial project. The Enlightenment notions of progress and development were good for business and re-enforced the dispossession and displacement of Dharawal people from their country.

 Nurseryman Francis Ferguson

The Camden nursery was established in 1857 by Englishman Francis Ferguson on a 50-acre site fronting the Nepean River. Francis originally came out to New South Wales as an assisted immigrant in 1849 on the John Bright after working at Chatsworth Estate in Derbyshire and other English estates. Initially, he worked for Sir Thomas Mitchell, laying out his estate at Parkhall (later Nepean Towers, St Mary’s Towers) at Douglas Park. (Morris and Britton 2000)

Historian Alan Atkinson describes Ferguson as ‘a man of education, some capital and mercurial habits’. (Atkinson, 1988)

Signage at the entry to Ferguson Lane the location of the former Ferguson’s Australian Nursery at Camden (I Willis 2021)

Ferguson was head gardener at Camden Park Estate for William Macarthur (later Sir William) from 1849-1856 and could be styled as a Macarthur protege. (Reeve 2017) The Camden Park website maintains that William Macarthur ran one of the most important nurseries in 19th century New South Wales. According to visiting English nurseryman John Gould (JG) Veitch Macarthur was well known in Europe. Veitch Nurseries were reportedly the largest family-run plant nurseries in 19th century Europe.

Ferguson remained indebted to the patronage of William Macarthur (Morris and Britton 2000) and his experience at Camden Park and acted on Macarthur’s behalf when he was not in Australia. (WCL 2021)

In 1864 a 25-year-old JG Veitch (Financial Times, 27 September 2014), led a plant hunting expedition to the ‘South Seas’ and delivered several Wardian cases to Australian colonial contacts. While in New South Wales, he visited William Macarthur’s Camden Park nursery and Fergusons Australian Nursery, which impressed him. For a time Ferguson acted as an agent for James Veitch and Sons nurseries. (Morris and Britton 2000; McMaugh 2005)

Fruit trees, camellias and roses

Francis Ferguson opened the Camden nursery sometime in 1857 (Nixon 1991; Little 1977; Farmer and Settler, 8 July 1937, 15 July 1937) and it became the centre of a growing horticultural enterprise that extended well beyond the area.

The Ferguson nursery was located on the left bank of the Nepean River at the Macquarie Grove river crossing on the northern boundary of Camden Park estate. The nursery site had an east-west alignment with a 600-metre river frontage along its northern boundary ending at Matahil Creek to the east, with the Ferguson homestead on the rise to the southwest.

The homestead had ‘a fine view’ of the Camden township to the northeast with the spire of St John’s Church and allowed a ‘glimpse of Camden Park house in the distance’ to the southeast. (Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 10 January 1880, page 68)

According to Alan Atkinson, the Australian Nursery specialised in ‘trees “peculiarly adapted to the requirements of Australia”, together will shrubs and native seeds’. (Atkinson, 1988)

 According to an 1880 Sydney press report, the nursery was about eight acres in extent with ‘a long avenue’ terminating at a ‘large gate’ below the house ‘making a very nice carriage drive’. There were ‘very well laid out walks’ throughout the nursery, surrounded by ‘gigantic pines, araucarias, and poplars’. (Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 10 January 1880, page 68)

Remnant Araucarias that were on the southwestern boundary of Fergusons Australian Nursery. They made up the grove of trees that lined the driveway entrance to the Macquarie House that was next door to the nursery. (I Willis, 2021)

Reports indicate that in 1879 Fergusons sold over 60,000 fruit trees and 5,000 camellias (Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 10 January 1880, page 68). The nursery plant stock consisted of over 6000 camellias, 100,000 hawthorn seedlings. (Ferguson 1871)

From the outset, the Australian Nursery issued trade catalogues regularly, and one of the earliest was the 1861 Catalogue of Plants, Fruit Trees, Ornamental Trees and Shrubs.

In 1871 issued a series of five trade catalogues that listed plant stock for sale. The catalogues were:

  • New and Rare Plants
  • Hardy Trees, Shrubs and Conifers
  • Fruit Trees, with directions for forming the orchard.
  • Roses
  • Bulbs and Tubers. (Ferguson 1871)

The ‘Catalogue of New and Rare Plants’ listed over 950 individual plants and was a mixture of native plants from the Australian continent and exotics from worldwide. The catalogue listed a substantial selection of popular flowering plants, including roses, camellias, azaleas, pelargoniums and chrysanthemums, fuchsias, carnations, and dahlias. Utilitarian plants included ‘trees for avenues’ and ‘hawthorn for hedges’. Under the heading of ‘trees and shrubs’, details listed the plants’ ‘scientific name’,  ‘native country’, ‘height in feet’, and price. (Ferguson 1871)

Cover of Ferguson’s Trade Catalogue of New and Rare Plants for 1871 (NLA)

The Ferguson catalogue provided practical advice for the colonial gardener and a plant description. For example, ‘Araucaria Bidwilli – The Queensland Bunya Bunya, forming magnificent trees as single specimens’. Camellias were a favourite but hard to grow in the colonial climate, and details were provided on how to look after them. The hawthorn was a ‘favourite English Hedge Plant [and] thrives remarkably well in all parts of Australia, forming, undoubtedly, the best defensive hedge’. (Ferguson 1871)

Ferguson’s also offered advice on new and rare plants in the press. In 1876 the nursery published advice on the ‘rare’ Jacaranda mimosifolia described as ‘a singularly beautiful and rare flowering tree’. The report stated, ‘the Jacaranda mimosifolia is perfectly hardy in all but the very coldest districts of New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria.’ (Australasian (Melb), 6 May 1876)

Ferguson’s sold extensively across the colonial garden market in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and New Zealand, supported by 14 agents in locations ranging from Auckland to Wellington and Wanganui in New Zealand’s North Island and to Dunedin in the South Island. In Queensland, agents were listed at Warwick and Darling Downs, while those in New South Wales ranged from Bega to Mudgee and out to the Liverpool Plains. Ferguson claimed that there was an increasing demand for ‘Australian Timber Trees’ in Northern India, California, Southern Europe, and New Zealand. (Ferguson 1871)

Campbelltown Nursery

Condamine Street, Campbelltown

By the late 1860s, increasing demand and the distance from the Campbelltown railway station encouraged Ferguson to establish a nursery outlet at Campbelltown. (Ferguson 1871)

The Camden nursery was nine miles from Campbelltown Railway Station, and it took Mr H Ferguson in a buggy with a ‘fine stepper’ and an hour to get there. (Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 10 January 1880, page 68)

The firm opened the Campbelltown nursery in 1869 in Condamine Street, close to the convict-built water supply reservoir. (Reeve 2017)  It was stocked with 50,000 ‘well-grown healthy plants’ to supply growing demand from ‘up-country and adjacent Colonies’. (Ferguson 1871)

From 1874 the Campbelltown outlet was managed by Francis John (FJ) Ferguson, Francis’s son, who had returned from five years with English firm Veitch Nurseries at Chelsea and the firm now traded as Francis Ferguson and Son. (Reeve 2017)

Double Bay Nursery

Manning Road and New South Head Road, Double Bay

The business continued to prosper, and FJ Ferguson moved the Campbelltown outlet closer to Sydney. A site was chosen at Double Bay on a former market garden in 1876 and opened in 1878. (WCL 2021) (Reeve 2017)

The Double Bay Nursery site had ‘a large frontage’ on New South Head Road with ‘rich deep alluvial’ soil in a low lying area that drained into Double Bay. (Illustrated Sydney News, 14 April 1883)

By 1887 the nursery had two propagating glasshouses with impatiens and lasiandras, a bush house that accommodated a mixture of pot plants including camellias, bouvardias, magnolias, conifers and tree ferns. (Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 6 August 1887, page 278)

This is an engraving of Ferguson’s Nursery in Double Bay that appeared in the Sydney press in 1883 (Illustrated Sydney News published 14 April 1883, p. 17)

In 1885 the nursery opened a shopfront in Sydney’s Royal Arcade, which ran between George Street and Pitt Street and had been designed by Thomas Rowe in 1881. The nursery shop was successfully managed by Herbert Ferguson and specialised in plants, seeds and cut flowers. (Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 6 August 1887, page 278)

The Ferguson’s also ran a small nursery near Ashfield railway station to supply the Royal Arcade shop with cut flowers. (Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser 6 August 1887, page 278)

Ferguson Lane in the vicinity of the former entrance to the Ferguson Australian Nursery. The lane is lined with African Olive that is remnant vegetation with regrowth of an Araucaria emerging from the amongst the grove (I Willis, 2021)

The 20th century beckons

The beginning of the 20th century brought more changes for the Ferguson nursery business, and by the late 1960s, new owners.

References

Atkinson, Alan (1988). Camden, Farm and Village Live in Early New South Wales. OUP, Melbourne.

Ferguson, F. (1871). Catalogue of new and rare plants, hardy trees, shrubs, conifers &c. Camden NSW, Ferguson’s Australian Nurseries. (NLA)

Little, S. (1977), Correspondence to CHS 19 February, MSS, Camden Museum Archives

McMaugh, Judy (2005). Living Horticulture, The lives of men and women in the New South Wales Nursery Industry. Nursery and Garden Industry NSW & ACT, Sydney

Morris, C. and G. Britton (2000). Colonial landscapes of the Cumberland Plain and Camden, NSW: A survey of selected pre – 1860 cultural landscapes from Wollondilly to Hawkesbury LGAs. Sydney NSW, National Trust of Australia (NSW). 1 & 2.

Nixon, RE (1991). Camden Rose Festival. Typescript, Camden Museum Archives.

Reeve, T. M. (2017). “‘Rawson’, Condamine Street, Campbelltown, a private residence, formerly known as ‘Marlesford’.” Grist Mills 30(2): 25-32.

WCL (2021). “Double Bay as a nineteenth-century centre of gardening and horticulture.” Woollahra Local History/Woollahra’s Historic Landscapes. Retrieved 10 December 2021, 2021, from https://www.woollahra.nsw.gov.au/library/local_history/woollahras-historic-landscapes/horticulture-in-double-bay.

Updated 6 January 2022; Originally posted 25 December 2021.

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Jacaranda fever hits Camden

2018 Camden Jacaranda Festival

In 2018 the love of the Jacaranda in the Camden area extended to the launch of a new festival around the purple blossoms.

An example of Jacaranda mimosifolia outside Camden’s historic Victorian Commercial Bank building adds a layer of colour to its colonial facade. The banking chambers are in Argyle Street Camden. (I Willis, 2020)

The idea first germinated in 2017 with the support of Argyle Street Business Collective. (Camden Narellan Advertiser, 8 August 2018)

In 2018 Camden Council threw its support behind Business Collective’s Jacaranda Festival. Council withdrew support for the annual Light Up Camden festival conducted by the Camden Chamber of Commerce, Tourism and Industry.

The town’s Christmas celebrations were incorporated into the new Jacaranda Festival.

The current generation of Jacaranda trees and their flush of purple haze started with street plantings in the 1920s.

Specimens of Jacaranda mimosifolia with their purple display on the central island in Argyle Street, Camden. Jacarandas were first planted in Camden’s town centre in the 1920s and in recent years have suffered from traffic pollution and other problems. (I Willis, 2020)

First mention of Jacarandas in Camden

Going back further, the first mention of Jacarandas was from Camden’s Ferguson’s Australian Nurseries in 1876 in Melbourne’s Australasian newspaper.

Ferguson’s published advice on the ‘rare’ Jacaranda mimosifolia described as ‘a singularly beautiful and rare flowering tree’.

Ferguson’s described the Jacaranda mimosifolia specimen in the Sydney Botanic Gardens as

an erect, though umbrageous and handsome growing tree, 30ft. to 40ft high. Its foliage is, perhaps, the most beautiful of all exogenous trees.

It is soft, feathery, fern or frond like, and exquisitely elegant, while at the same time it is decidedly grand, both in its proportions, graceful arrangements, and symmetry.

It may be said of the species that even out of flower it has no equal amongst moderate-sized ornamental trees, while to give expression to the effect of its appearance when in fall bloom no words would suffice. It must be seen to be appreciated.

The blossoms are large, of a most striking and delightful blue, and produced in such profusion that, viewed from a little distance, the tree appears, as it were, a graceful and living cone of floral grandeur.

Though rare, as we have remarked, enough has been proved to warrant us in stating that the Jacaranda mimosifolia is perfectly hardy in all but the very coldest districts of New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria. (Australasian, 6 May 1876)

‘Under The Jacaranda’ was painted by Richard Godfrey Rivers in 1903 at the Queensland Art Gallery. The Jacaranda specimen was located in the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens. (Wikimedia)

The first Jacaranda tree in Australia

Ross McKinnon, a former curator of the Brisbane Botanic Gardens, told Jessica Hinchliffe  for ABC News, that

 ‘the first jacaranda tree planted in Australia was in Brisbane’.

“In the 1850s Queensland was sending wheat and grain to South America,” he told ABC Radio Brisbane’s Craig Zonca.

“On returning, they would unload at Kangaroo Point cliffs’ wharfs and the first curator of the gardens, Walter Hill, would row across the river and exchange seeds and plants with visiting sea captains.

“A visiting sea captain from South America gave Walter Hill the first jacaranda, which he planted at the rear of the city botanic gardens in 1864.”

Camden Jacaranda Festival

The 2018 Jacaranda Festival was the inaugural event under founder and Camden Hotel manager Andrew Valciukas. Mayor Symkowiak said the ‘festival cheer will remain a highlight and nothing has changed [from Light Up Camden]’. (Macarthur Chronicle, 21 August 2018)

The festival ran from 23-25 November and opened on Friday night with live music throughout the town centre, including hotels, shopfronts and the Alan Baker Art Gallery.

The Jacaranda Experience opened on Saturday afternoon and into the evening when the Christmas tree was lit followed by fireworks. There was a street market with stalls and outdoor dining along Argyle Street and a stage in John Street for ‘local school children, dance schools and local professional acts’.

Larkin Place featured a motocross demonstration and a display of ‘fabulous street metal’. Fireworks topped out the festivities on Saturday night. (What On Macarthur, leaflet, November 2018) (Camden Narellan Advertiser, 8 August 2018)

Camden Region Economic Taskforce director Debbie Roberts put together several short films with Camden personality and historian Laura Jane Aulsebrook. The Jacarandas featured along with Camden Cottage, Show Pavilion, Camden Library Museum, Macaria and other historic sites.

CRET’s films appeared on Facebook in the week leading up to the festival. They were popular and prompted a bus group from Sydney’s northern suburbs to visit Camden for a walk led by LJ Aulesbrook.

The Jacaranda Walking Tour Map highlighted the best spots to view Jacarandas in the Camden Town Centre with spots of Instagram selfies. The walking tours pointed out Camden’s historic sites and the view across the town centre from Broughton Street. (CHS, 2018)

Walks of town’s Jacaranda lined streets and historical sites were conducted on Sunday by members of the Camden Historical Society, including Laura Jane. The program of historic walking tours started at the Camden Museum. (The Jacaranda Walking Tour Map 2018)  

Camden Flower Festivals

Flower festivals were not new to Camden.

In the late 1960s, the Camden Rose Festival committee organised an annual festival and street parade, topped out with the crowning of Miss Rose Festival Queen. The celebrations were initiated by Camden community worker JW Hill in aid of Camden District Hospital. (Camden Advertiser, 11 February 2009)

Newspaper photographs of The Rose Festival Queen. The caption states: ‘The Rose Festival Queen, Miss Marilyn Fuller (left) receives her crown from last year’s Queen, Miss Michele Chambers. On the right, Miss Fuller thanks those who worked so hard for her success. Seated are Miss Hospital, Beverley Thornton and Miss Apex, Ngaire Davies’. Camden News, 30 October 1968)

The House and Garden website states,

The beauty, resilience and fragrance of roses have made it a favourite of gardeners and flower-lovers, as well as a symbol of love, for centuries. Roses are romantic and voluptuous, with their petals painted in beautiful colours.

Camden’s Ferguson’s Australian Nurseries had an extensive catalogue of roses and sold them all over Australia and beyond.

The 1930 trade catalogue for Ferguson’s Australian Nurseries which had their main propagation operations at Camden. Ferguson’s sold an extensive range of roses across Australia and beyond. (SLM/Ferguson’s Nurseries)

Flower shows were not new in Camden, and the annual St John’s Church Flower Show was held each year starting in the 1890s and continuing for many decades.

Neil McMahon writes in the Sydney Morning Herald that

our love of gardening, plants and soil can perhaps be attributed to the combination of the British heritage – reflected in a lot of garden design before modern trends and native practicality infiltrated our yards and apartments – and a climate that lends itself to spending time outdoors planting and pruning.

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Top gong goes to local architecture

Lost – a prize winning example of mid-century modernism  

The storyboard in Bell Tower Park states

The buildings were designed by Philip Cox and Ian McKay and they were the recipient of the Sir John Sulman Medal for Architectural Excellence in 1963. (Information board)

The Bell Tower Park storyboard has images of the 1963 Philip Cox designed buildings at St Andrews Boys Home (I Willis, 2021)

The Sir John Sulman Medal is one of the most prestigious architectural awards in Australia and is presented for excellence in public and commercial buildings in New South Wales by the NSW Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects. It was established in 1932 to honour the memory of Sydney architect Sir John Sulman (1849-1934).

In 1963 the Sir John Sulman Medal was awarded to Sydney architect Philip Cox and Ian McKay for their design of the Presbyterian St Andrews Boys Home.

The significance of the buildings on the boys home site was best summarised by the firm Archaeological and Heritage Management Solutions (AHMS) in a 2013 heritage study. They stated:

“The former St Andrew’s Home for Boys is a significant example of the Sydney School architectural style of the mid twentieth century, which was an influential style in its era and was practised by notable Australian architects. The former St Andrew’s Home for Boys was awarded the Sulman Medal (in 1963), the highest award for architecture available in NSW.  

Sydney architect Philip Cox designed the home complex with Ian McKay in 1962. Cox is a renowned architect and St Andrews Boys Home was his first project. Author Tom Holland writes that this project was one of number of Cox’s projects that

“The career of Philip Cox spans an era that was the making of modern Australia,” writes Bingham-Hall.

“As the 1960s progressed Australia did wake up, slowly and cautiously, in what might be described as a very Australian way, without recrimination and rancour, without fervour or foment, and without any overt display of neediness or self-reflection,” he adds.

“This survey of the work of Philip Cox treats the post-1950s emergence of modern Australia as its framework, as its posts and beams, and for this most public of architects, it is obliged to demonstrate how his work reflects that narrative, an insofar as it is possible for architecture, the extent to which it symbolised the nature of a national awakening.” (Holland 2020)

Bell Tower Park has three playful bronze sculptures of boys reminiscent of the young boys who were accommodated at St Andrews Boys Home. There are also a number of bronze sculptures of boys in the garden area of Emerald Hills Shopping Centre. (I Willis 2021)

Philip Cox described the home this way:

“St. Andrews Boys Home was designed as a country retreat for adolescent boys committed to institutions for juvenile offenders. It was built on pastoral land at Leppington to the South of Sydney, and provides accommodation for a small number of boys in residential dormitories.

The plan of the Home is based on a linear pedestrian spine, linking all the buildings together with a colonade [sic]. Through this extendable quality further expansion is easily accommodated. Each occupant is allocated some personal space in the form of sleeping alcoves grouped together around small courtyards.

The original homestead, “Emerald Hill”, has been retained and restored as the Warden’s residence. The additive quality of the new buildings complement the existing buildings and recall the traditional outbuildings of vernacular settlements. Construction detailing is derived from local vernacular techniques. The building structure is post-and-beam, with exposed roff [sic] trusses and intill panels of brickwork. Rough sawn timber roof trusses and expressed jointing details are drawn from the simple bams [sic] and woolstores of the surrounding countryside. (McMahon 2013)

Former entry to Emerald Hills Farm which operated on the former site of the St Andrews Boys Home before the farm site was developed for housing. (I Willis 2016)

St Andrews Presbyterian Agricultural College Boys Home, Hume Highway, Leppington

At the top of the hill in the suburb of Emerald Hills in Leppington NSW is a small park called the Bell Tower Park with three bronze statues of small boys.

The park commemorates the memory of the St Andrews Boy Home (closed in 1986) that once existed on what is now the housing estate of Emerald Hills.

The park was opened in late 2019 and is a memorial to the memory of the boys who stayed at the home.

In an adjacent space is a representation of a bell tower that once existed on the site.

The park storyboards outline the history of the boys home with accompanying images of the buildings.

The storyboard in the park states:

Belltower Park and the structures and statues in it celebrate and commemorate the presence of the St Andrews Home for Boys that used to be located on this hilltop.

The Home was established by the Presbyterian Church (now Uniting Church) in 1961 and it closed in 1986. The buildings were designed by Philip Cox and Ian McKay and they were the recipient of the Sir John Sulman Medal for Architectural Excellence in 1963. The Home originally came with a bell tower, from which this Park is named.

More detail on the Home can be found in the Archival Record of the property by Macarthur Developments and lodged with Camden Council.

The St Andrew’s Home for Boys was originally operated by the Presbyterian Church at Manly, NSW. The home was transferred to a 400-acre farm property at Leppington, on the Hume Highway south of Liverpool.

In 1961 the Presbyterian Church commissioned a newly graduated architect from the University of Sydney to design the new boys home on the Emerald Hills property at Leppington. The architect was  Philip Cox who collaborated with Ian McKay and set up the firm Philip Cox and Associates at North Sydney.  The home was their first commission and for their efforts, they won the Sir John Sulman Medal for Architectural Excellence in 1963.(McMahon, 2013)

The Leppington home catered for twenty boys aged ten to fifteen years. Residents were generally referred following an appearance before the Children’s Court on a care and protection application or in respect of some offence.

Bell Tower Park has a replica belltower designed by Place Design Group and completed in 2018. The designers note on their website that the tower has a Spiel-Bau Bell Tower play unit. (I Willis 2021)

Boys were admitted to the home following an assessment by a professional social worker. A feature of the program was its strong community links, with residents attending local schools and participating in community activities. Following the inauguration of the Uniting Church in Australia in 1977, the home came under the auspice of the Uniting Church. And together with Burnside Homes the institution was administered under the Burnside program.    (Thinee and Bradford (1998)  Online 2007)

The St Andrews complex was controlled by the Burnside Presbyterian Homes for Children (1955) which was formerly the Burnside Presbyterian Orphan Homes which first made an appearance in 1912.  

References

Holland, T. (2020). “A career celebrated in Philip Cox: An Australian Architecture.” Australian Design Review. Retrieved 1 November 2021, from https://www.australiandesignreview.com/architecture/a-career-celebrated-in-philip-cox-an-australian-architecture/.

McMahon, S. (2013). PHOTOGRAPHIC ARCHIVAL RECORD, St Andrews Boys Home (Burnside) Leppington, 1050 Camden Valley Way Leppington, Lot A DP 420395. Sydney NSW, Inspire Urban Design & Planning Ply Ltd.

Thinee, K. and T. Bradford ((1998)  Online 2007). Guide to Records,  A guide to help people separated from their families search for their record. Sydney, NSW, New South Wales Department of Community Services

Updated 16 January 2022. Originally published 2 December 2021.