The Ferguson nurseries and the urban fringe
The 20th-century story of Ferguson’s Australian Nurseries is about their location within Sydney’s rural-urban fringe.
Sydney’s urban fringe is a zone of transition that is constantly being shaped and re-shaped by the forces of urbanisation and a host of competing forces. (Willis 2014)
Plant nurseries arrive in the fringe, and competing forces eventually drive them from it after a time.
In this space, the Ferguson Australian Nurseries came and departed Sydney’s urban fringe as it moved with urban growth over the past 170 years. Shrewd business judgements ensured that the nurseries survived and thrived in this dynamic space and place.
Double Bay outlet
Ferguson’s nurseries arrived on Sydney’s fringe at Double Bay in the 1870s when Sydney was still a ‘walking city’. Horse trams, and later steam trams, started to appear in the city and travel out to Double Bay.
Double Bay was sparsely settled, and there was an array of colonial villas and mansions like Alexander Macleay’s colonial regency mansion Elizabeth Bay House (1839).
As Sydney grew in population, there were land sub-divisions from the 1840s. (Sheridan 2021) (SLNSW)
By the early 20th-century, land values had risen with increased residential development (Sheridan 2021). The land was more valuable for housing than a nursery, so economic forces gathered for its relocation.
By this time, Annie Henrietta Ferguson ran the nursery following the death of her husband FJ Ferguson, aged 48 years, in 1899. Annie had married FJ Ferguson in 1875.
Annie managed the Double Bay outlet until 1902, closed it by 1905 and moved the nursery to Hurstville. (WCL 2021)
Annie’s daughter, Margaret Elizabeth (Lizzie), born at Campbelltown in 1876, had married Alfred Denison (AD) Little at All Saints Woollahra in 1902. (WCL)
By 1903 Lizzie and AD Little had moved back to Camden from Double Bay with the birth of their son Sydney. AD Little was to play a leading role in the nursery’s management and became a partner in the business. (WCL 2021)
In 1902 the Sydney press reported a fire at the Camden Nursery that destroyed a packing shed full of equipment. The same report stated that AD Little was now one of the proprietors, the mayor of Camden (1904-1905) and a presiding magistrate. (Daily Telegraph, 15 August 1905)
The oldest nursery
The Camden News boasted in 1905 that Ferguson’s Australian Nurseries were the ‘oldest fruit nursery and garden in Australia’. (Camden News, 17 August 1905)
Hurstville nursery outlet
By 1904 the Double Bay nursery had been relocated to Hurstville on Stoney Creek Road. (Morris and Britton 2000)
The Hurstville area was a sparsely populated farming area with the first land subdivision in the 1880s. By the early 20th century, the urban fringe of Sydney had reached the site, and there were a series of residential land releases. (SLNSW)
The Camden press reported in 1913 that Ferguson’s nurseries were being run by AD & FB Little, and land had been leased at Elderslie, where 150,000 grafted apple trees had been planted out. (Camden News, 7 August 1913)
In 1915 the business was being managed by Fred Little. (Gosford Times and Wyong District Advocate, Friday 21 May 1915)
Nurseryman Eric Jurd recalls, ‘Fergusons grew open-ground stock at a site in Peakhurst’. Jurd believed that Ferguson’s had extensive land holdings in the Kingsgrove and Peakhurst. (McMaugh 2005: 251-253)
The Hurstville nursery site was purchased by the New South Wales Government to establish Kingsgrove High School on the corner of Kingsgrove Road and Stoney Creek Road in 1958. (SRNSW)
The nursery continued to expand, and by 1915, a report in the Gosford press indicated that Fergusons were operating from four sites:
- Hurstville – a 40-acre site which was a general nursery and despatching centre for sales
- Camden – a 60-acre site mainly producing fruit trees
- Gosford – a 40-acre site a nursery for grape vines and fruit trees
- Ronkana (Ourimbah) – a 100-acre site under preparation. (Gosford Times and Wyong District Advocate, Friday 21 May 1915)
In the early 1920s, there were extensive land releases in the Hurstville area, including the King’s Park Model Suburb of 600 lots adjacent to Ferguson’s Nursery on Stoney Creek Road. (St George Call (Kogarah) 22 September 1922) In 1926 the Simmons Estate next door to Ferguson’s Nursery was offered for sale. (St George Call (Kogarah) 5 February 1926)
By the interwar years, the Hurstville nursery site was a well-known landmark and often referred to by correspondents in the press. For example, a press report of Tooth’s Brewery purchase of a site at Bexley (Construction and Local Government Journal, 13 July 1927), and the NRMA used the nursery as a prominent and well-known landmark in their tourism promotion for road trips in and around the Sydney area. (Sun (Sydney) 18 November 1927).
The nursery business continued under the control of AD & FB Little until the 1930s, and they were followed by Arthur Bruce (AB) Ferguson (1889 -1949). (Little 1977)
Fruit trees and vines
Ferguson’s nurseries sold fruit trees and vines to new producers in the emerging horticulture areas throughout Australia and New Zealand.
Large quantities of grapevines had been supplied to the Yanco Irrigation Area in 1915. (Gosford Times and Wyong District Advocate, Friday 21 May 1915)
In 1926 an article in the Leeton press mentioned that Fergusons Nurseries had fruit trees for sale. (Murrumbidgee Irrigator (Leeton, NSW: 1915 – 1954), Tuesday 16 February 1926)
Agents for the nursery were often keen to promote that stock of fruit trees, vines and flowering plants were available for purchase, as indicated by a story in the Tumut press. (Tumut and Adelong Times, 28 May 1929)
A reliable water supply is essential for horticulture and the nursery industry.
In 1922 an irrigation licence was issued to Alfred D (AD) Little, a partner for Ferguson & Sons, Australian Nursery, Camden, to pump up to 150 gallons per minute on the right bank [Elderslie]. (NSW Government Gazette, 11 August 1922)
The next generation
In 1927 FB Little died at Hurstville, and in 1933 AD Little died at Camden and is buried in St John’s Cemetery.
In 1932 the Australian Nursery site on the Nepean River, known as The Nursery or the Camden Nursery, part ownership passed to Stanley Nigel (SN) Ferguson. (Sanders 2008b) After World War II, SN Ferguson’s son, Bruce (1916 – 2008), inherited a half-share in The Nursery site. (Sanders 2008a)
In 1935 Ferguson’s nursery purchased land owned by Mr W Moore between the Old South Road and the Hume Highway. (Camden News, 11 April 1935)
Following this period, the Camden nursery moved to Broughton & Little Street (Nixon 1989) at the rear of the Camden District Hospital until the business was sold in the mid-1960s. (Nixon 1991)
Little, S. F. (1977). Correspondence to CHS 17 February 1977. Ferguson File, Camden Museum Archive.
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, R. E. (1989). File notes for correspondence to CHS from Helen R Dick 18 July 1989, Camden Museum Archives.
Nixon, R. E. (1991). The Rose Festival. Rose Festival File, Camden Museum Archives.
Sanders, G. J. (2008a). Distinguished in war and peace, Bruce Ferguson, Obituary 31 May. Sydney Morning Herald. 31 May 2008.
Sanders, G. J. (2008b). Eulogy for Bruce Ferguson. Ferguson File, Camden Museum Archives.
Sheridan, P. (2021). Sydney Art Deco and Modernist Walks Potts Point and Elizabeth Bay. Sydney, Bakelite and Peter Sheridan.
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.
Willis, I. (2014). “Townies Exurbanites and Aesthetics: Issues of identity on Sydney’s rural-urban fringe.” AQ, Australian Quarterly(April-June 2012): 20-25.
Updated 9 January 2022. Originally posted 5 January 2022.