Botanic Gardens Trust, Sydney, Australia

Australian Botanic Garden

Birth of a Garden

Mount Annan Botanic Garden, near Campbelltown, south-west of Sydney

There is no known record of a cocktail party to celebrate the official opening of the Sydney Botanic Garden (in the singular).

Lionel Gilbert has traced ‘public works’ on the Sydney site leading up to the completion of Mrs Macquaries Road on 13 June 1816. Governor Macquarie noted in his diary that on the completion of the road:

Mr. Delaney and his gang of 10 men were provided with five gallons of spirit [rum] with which to celebrate this achievement.

This date was taken by Joseph Henry Maiden, Director 1896 – 1924, as the date of the Garden’s inauguration. Sydney, in 1816, was still a penal colony, with budget constraints and a depleted A-list, so an opening party may not have been warranted. The Governor and his Lady may well have had a toast one afternoon, while inspecting their ‘Domain’, but no record has been found.

Maiden had his Government Nursery at Campbelltown, and dreamed of an arboretum (botanic tree garden) somewhere west of Sydney in the lower rainfall area, as it was so much harder to grow some of the Western Australian species in the higher rainfall area of the Sydney Garden.

In the early 1980s Ed Wilson was editing the ‘Blue Book’, a ‘Guide’ to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, that was published in 1982, with a colour aerial photograph of the Gardens on the cover and a Foreword by the Premier, Neville Wran. Dr Lawrie Johnson, Director, had cultivated a strong professional relationship with the Premier, on the philosophy that whenever they met he never pushed for specific projects, but tried to establish rapport. The Premier was therefore always happy to chat with him. It was a time of great interest in growing native plants and many people had been saying that the Gardens should have a place to grow more Australian plants. Lawrie Johnson had requested that Maiden’s dream be included in the ‘Guide’:

In 1888, on the first centenary of European settlement in eastern Australia, the Government of New South Wales established Centennial Park. A hundred years later, we seek support for the Gardens to establish a large Arboretum, a botanical tree garden of some 500 hectares in the outer region of greater Sydney. There is suitable land there; money and support are needed to acquire and develop it.

The Botanic Gardens Trust had considered plans to try to raise a million dollars (a lot of money in those far distant days) to purchase some land in western Sydney. Meanwhile there were plans for the extensions to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, soon to occur on the sloping ground to the east of the Art Gallery. We understand that the Botanic Gardens Trust, which was also responsible for the Domain, had again expressed its hope for additional land for the Gardens for an arboretum. The times had been propitious, for as well as having a Premier who was interested in cultural institutions, the western and southern expansion of greater Sydney was about to take off in a big way, with increasing pressure on green belts and reserves.

Lawrie Johnson was on some months of sabbatical leave from administrative duties, arranged with the Trust and NSW Premier’s Department. Barbara Briggs was Senior Assistant Director (Scientific) and deputy to the Director but for part of 1984 had been Acting Director in his place. Lawrie was working in the Gardens full-time on his eucalypt research, but could be called on for an especially important or urgent matter.

The Premier had been invited to launch our 1984 Spring Festival, ‘Spring in the Gardens’. To our delight, a letter came from Premier’s Department saying that the Premier would be available on a certain date (22 September 1984), but also referring to the Trust’s interest in obtaining land for an arboretum in Sydney’s south-west, and ‘would the Gardens have anything to announce?’ This letter arrived a few weeks prior to the nominated date, and was too good an opportunity to miss, but required immediate action.

Barbara spoke to senior officers of the NSW Department of Environment and Planning, especially to John Whitehouse, to see if his department could identify what parcels of land could be made available by the State Government for the purpose. Meanwhile, Barbara and Don Blaxell (Assistant Director, Living Collections) also talked to officers of other departments who identified a number of places. Barbara and Don visited these, but they were not suitable for a Botanic Garden as they were mostly already covered with good bushland, and would have been much more appropriate as reserves.

John Whitehouse was next away at a conference and not contactable (in the days before mobile phones), and when Barbara eventually spoke to him again there was a week and a few days to go. Meanwhile Whitehouse’s officers had combed through the available land, and had identified four of the most promising sites. 

Barbara, Don, Lawrie and Doug Benson (Ecologist) inspected these sites on the following Monday with a senior officer of the Department of Environment and Planning. The first site was at Mamre, with a Samuel Marsden historical connection in the Penrith District, near South Creek, with a heritage house on the property. The site was relatively small, the land was considered to be too saline and subject to possible flooding. The second site was near Cecil Park and a little larger, with a woodland of Spotted Gum (Eucalyptus maculata) on low hills. The third site was part of the Elizabeth Macarthur Farm and is now included in the Agricultural Research Institute near Camden. It had been extensively used by livestock, so the soil would have been too enriched for immediate use growing native plants adapted to low nitrogen and phosphorus levels.

The last site was approached from the southern side, walking up the hill from near the railway line, as there was no road access from that side. All were very impressed, as the best had obviously been saved to last. The land had earlier been acquired by Government as part of a ‘scenic hills’ green belt, and was vacant except for a riding school at the northern end and a small dairy. This one was obviously the superior site, for its physical beauty, accessibility, size, variety of landscapes, and was mostly cleared (with pockets of Cumberland Plain Woodland), and with ready access to a water supply. The major disadvantage was a subterranean pipeline for natural gas and the presence of high voltage cables on the north-south axis (but these tended to be lost in the greater scale of the place).

Barbara drafted her report in the car on the way back to the city, incorporating comments from her colleagues. Early on the Tuesday morning there was a call from the Premier’s Department asking if the report was ready yet. The reply was it was being typed and that a runner would soon be on the way, and that the report made a definite recommendation of the preferred site, giving reasons for the choice. A second choice was also nominated, and the advantages and disadvantages of all four sites were listed. Barbara thought it would be almost too good to be possible that the first choice would be accepted - as happened without delay.

On the Wednesday a general costing was asked for, and Ed was asked to produce a mini display with text and photographs in just two days (before computer printing technology was available at the Gardens). Barbara had some photographs taken when they first saw the site. Ed had suggested the name Mount Annan Botanic Garden for this mini display, from having seen the name of the largest hill on a survey map, and this had a certain ‘symmetry’ with Mount Tomah Botanic Garden. Barbara, independently, had suggested this name to the Trust Chairman.

In the mad rush leading up to the announcement, in what had been the most exciting week in her professional life, Barbara had not been able to contact all the Trustees (once more in the days before faxes and answering machines and mobile phones). John Ferris had been notified and was enthusiastically on side; and others were buttonholed in the half hour before the Premier spoke.

On the morning of Saturday 22 September 1984, Neville Wran announced that some 400+ hectares of land near Campbelltown would be the place for the establishment of a Native Botanic Garden and Arboretum that would be open for the Bicentennial in 1988. The jaws of management dropped, as they were flat out with a projected Mount Tomah opening for the same deadline. Lawrie queried the Premier about the bicentennial deadline and he said ‘Yes, it will open then’, so money would be available.

On the Monday after the announcement there had been a small mention in a Sydney newspaper. Alan Leishman, then at the Government Printing Office, rang Barbara on that same day to ask if he could arrange for a bird survey before the new plantings, so that subsequent changes could be monitored. The Riding School started a letter writing campaign to the Premier, against their closure, with drawings by children of their horses, until they found an alternative venue.

At the Trust Meeting on the following Monday, Barbara said she would arrange for a site inspection as soon as possible – before being whisked away in a Commonwealth car (those were the days) to be taken to the airport – to attend a meeting in Canberra. The Trust was not happy with the lack of full consultation in those hurried days, and queried the suggested name ‘Mount Annan’, as they had argued it must surely be a small hill. When they made their climb to the top of this ‘hill’, also approaching from the south, they too were impressed and agreed that the name was suitable.

One of the first tasks was to secure the site with a basic wood and meshed wire perimeter fence, and more land was later donated (in the region of the Banksia Garden) by Clutha Mines. Some more land was also requested and made available by the State Government to preserve stands of native vegetation and improve the boundary line.

From the experience of Mount Tomah, Don Blaxell had costed the project at ten million, but Barbara asked for six, fearing too large an ask would be rejected. By the opening, the project had come in at ten million dollars, the prevailing high rates of inflation transforming the granted six million into ten. The experience gained from the landscaping for Mount Tomah had also helped considerably.

Some months previously, also while Barbara was Acting Director, there had been a critical time for the Mount Tomah Botanic Garden. The Gardens Trust had been seriously concerned at the rate of progress there, with a commitment to open in 1988 getting ever closer. She had discussed the Trust’s concerns with Lawrie Johnson, who was on a research field trip in the Northern Territory. With Lawrie’s agreement she had then approached Andrew Andersons of the NSW Government Architects Branch, who put them in touch with David Churches and Oi Choong, of the Special Projects Branch of the Government Architect’s office, their own special landscaping team. Neither Barbara nor Lawrie had realised until then the extent of expertise available in that Branch.

David Churches had worked on the rebuilt Gardens Restaurant in Sydney and had worked on Dubbo Zoo. The executive flew to Dubbo to inspect the Zoo landscaping, to get an idea of the type and scale of work done there. With this additional support the Trust was more confident in taking on such a large project to be completed in such little time, for to have this project up and running by the bicentennial would be a superhuman task. Don Blaxell and David Churches later went on a world trip of botanic gardens, on a wide-ranging expedition seeking ideas from the world’s best large botanic gardens. The experience David gained at Mount Annan further consolidated his expertise with large project management, and led to his later role in planning the site for the Olympics in Sydney in 2000, and further substantial Olympic involvements. He also wrote a scholarly thesis on the cultural significance of Sydney’s Botanic Gardens.

Ed Wilson first visited the site on 5 July 1985 and climbed Mount Annan. He found it to be an exhilarating experience; the countryside beyond the garden to the west was then green pasture land as far as the eye could see (now cluttered with houses).

Compared with the 30 hectares of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney the sense of scale was overwhelming. Mount Annan Botanic Garden, with 416 hectares, had wonderful topography with wonderful contours, and could be something special in a hundred years, with scope for the development of a whole range of microclimates, from water plants to rainforest gullies. There had been some regrowth of the Cumberland Plain Woodland in places, and some clumps of prickly-leaved paper barks, a few kurrajongs, some pepper trees associated with old homesteads, and a developing weed problem from African wild olives (escapees from the Camden estate).

The first year was occupied with planning, drawing up a detailed proposal and landscape plan, for approval by the Trust and Premier. David Churches worked closely with Don Blaxell on plans for roads, paths, lakes, gardens, nursery, watering systems and a visitor centre. Director Lawrie Johnson approved the plans before they were submitted to the Trust and Premier. Meanwhile the riding school had vacated the site and then the Trust was given access to it.

A little over a year after the Premier’s announcement, the first Open Day at Mount Annan was held on Saturday 17 August 1985. A road had been pushed through the middle of the northern part of the Garden, turning off from the Narellan Road. Rain on the Thursday night made it a boggy mess, so truckloads of crushed sandstone were mixed with it to help ‘cement’ it down.

A large marquee had been set up on a cleared flat area of land, on the edge of where the nursery now stands, and Neville Wran was ferried in by helicopter on the day, landing on the hill above the Terrace Garden where the water reservoir now stands.  The guest list included Trustees and Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens, local dignitaries and Councillors from Campbelltown and Camden, plus State and Federal representatives from both sides of government, and the situation was complicated by the fact that the Camden/Campbelltown divide went through the middle of the Garden. At one such occasion Barbara’s special task was to seek support from relevant parliamentarians for the NSW Department of Education to provide a demountable classroom, so that education classes could be started, as this rapidly growing outer suburban area was being settled with many young families. The first Education Officer, Allen Powell, was then appointed.

The building of the reservoir and nursery area was one of the next big projects, along with the laying of water pipes. Steve Corbett had been recruited from the National Botanic Gardens in Canberra, which specialised in Australian plants, as the first Superintendent of Mount Annan. As Assistant Director (Horticulture), Don Blaxell had overall management of our three gardens, with Mount Tomah and Mount Annan in rapid development and the Royal Botanic Gardens getting what time was left in those exceptionally busy years. What was achieved depended greatly on Don's ideas, and on his talent for ‘thinking big’, as well as on David Churches’ plans. Director Lawrie Johnson gave great support and encouragement to them throughout these stages, but had handed over to incoming director, Professor Carrick Chambers by the time the Garden was officially opened.

Lawrie Johnson was anxious to have some plants in the ground early on and had a large collection of mostly Western Australian seedling eucalypts in the Royal Botanic Gardens nursery, grown to study juvenile foliage as part of their classification, and the tube stock were becoming root-bound. He asked Ed Wilson to organise a tree planting at Mount Annan. A western-sloping hill in the north-eastern part of the garden had been prepared. The first plantings of about 30 of these seedlings took place on 30 October 1985. Lawrie Johnson, Barbara Briggs, Don Blaxell, Steve Corbett and Ed Wilson were present, and the local press turned up. Ed Wilson recorded he planted a Eucalyptus misella (accession 832774). A photograph of Steve Corbett planting a tree on this day was published in the 1985-1985 Annual Report. Few of that original planting survived, without staff resources to care for them in the early years.  

The first official Arbor Day plantings took place some nine months later, on 28 July 1986. A narrow strip of ground had been ripped with a tractor, on a high ridge on the north-western side of the Garden, parallel to where the road runs now, and local schoolchildren planted out seedlings. Considerable advances had now been made, including the road system and dams, and a start on the depot and nursery area. As with the Mount Tomah Botanic Garden, many excellent staff members started there through unemployment relief programs. At community meetings Trust executives emphasised the potential of the project to boost local employment.

Nearly a year later (12 June 1987), remarkable progress had been achieved. The Depot region was nearly ready to go, the water had been connected a week or so ago, and electricity in the last couple of days. Steve Corbett was all fired up, like a general in a war zone, marshalling his troops to literally move mountains, and the scale of the operations was almost beyond belief; Steve would not wind down until after 1988. He took the morning off to show some of us around. The dams were finished and his team was working on the Terrace Garden, behind the temporary Visitor Centre. We went for a drive on the southern loop road, past the various plantings for the picnic areas – the bottlebrush, acacia, and banksia sites – and finished on reservoir hill. They had changed the shape of half the hill on the eastern side for the Terrace Garden, and earth-moving continued apace. A continuous concrete retaining wall would be extruded here, to hold special soil types with improved drainage and controlled acidity, to grow South Australian and Western Australian species.

The ABC TV program, ‘Countrywide’, filmed at the Arbor Day plantings of 27 July 1987, and Mount Annan was included in the National Tree Care Award Program for that year. The plantings gave another dense belt of trees and shrubs parallel to the current access road in the north western part of the Garden.

Another trip was recorded on a very hot day on 15 January 1988, with Jennifer Stackhouse and Georgina Bassingthwaite of the Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens, and we came away inspired with what was happening. The Sydney Volunteer Guides had a picnic day at Mount Annan on 24 May 1988. We drove all around the site in the Mount Annan minibus, and saw that planting in the Terrace Garden (or the ‘Hanging Gardens of Campbelltown’) had started. A massed planting with local schools was recorded for Arbor Day, on 25 July 1988 with the Garden looking green after autumn rain.

The Terrace Garden was virtually fully planted now, with fast-growing ‘shielding’ Acacias used a ‘nurse plants’ to shade the smaller plants, and turf was being laid beside the lake. The toilets and the shelter sheds/pavilions were going up/or had been constructed on the southern loop road. At the Friends Invitation Day, on 4 September 1988, just prior to the official opening, more trees were planted in the Terrace Garden. It was understood that the plantings were too close, and would be thinned out over time.

It was hot and windy on the day of the official opening by the Duke and Duchess of York on Sunday 2 October 1988. Their presence assured publicity and there was planting of a Lilly Pilly on the lawn near the northern-most lake, as well as an official luncheon in an adjacent large marquee. Environment reporter Joe Glascott, in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald said we’d all been present at the ‘birth of one of the great gardens of the world’, given ongoing funding and continuity.

The lead-up to this launch had really been an amazing and exhausting period; we have had the privilege of working at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney and have witnessed the birth of such a massive baby garden.

By Edwin Wilson & Barbara Briggs (July 2006)

Ed Wilson had spoken to Dr Barbara Briggs in the early 1990s about the story of Mount Annan, in the car coming back from a visit there. After his retirement, Ed Wilson was going through some of his notes from this period and came across a number of dated references to Mount Annan leading up to its opening. He then spoke to Barbara again on 22 August 2005, and this joint account is a summary of our recollections of those heady days, to record this remarkable story for anyone in the future who may have wondered how Mount Annan Botanic Garden came to pass.

Damp Melbourne Cup Day picnic at Mount Annan, November 1984.
From left: David Churches, Ingrid Mather (Landscape Designer), a member of the Public Works team, Susan Crick (Assistant Director Community Relations, Royal Botanic Gardens), David Bedford (Executive Assistant Scientific, Royal Botanic Gardens), Don Blaxell, Lawrie Johnson. 
Photo: B. Briggs.

View to the north-west, Mount Annan area, February 1985. (Weeds in foreground.)
Photo: B. Briggs.

View of Mount Annan, February 1985.
Photo: B. Briggs.

Road building and old track, April 1986.
Photo: B. Briggs.

First plantings of eucalypts at Mount Annan, Barbara Briggs, Lawrie Johnson, Don Blaxell, left to right, November 85.
Photo: Ed Wilson

Steve Corbett in front of earthworks for the Terrace Garden (‘Hanging Gardens of Campbelltown’).
Photo: Ed Wilson

Early plantings in Terrace Garden. June 1988.
Photo: Ed Wilson

More plantings in Terrace Garden. June 1988.
Photo: Ed Wilson

Ed Wilson and his eucalypt. June 1988.
Photo: Steve Corbett.