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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.