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Royal Botanic Garden
The first farm on the Australian continent, ‘nine acres in corn’ at Farm Cove, was established in 1788 by Governor Phillip. Although that farm failed, the land has been in constant cultivation since that time, as ways were found to make the relatively infertile soils more productive.
The Botanic Gardens were founded on this site by Governor Macquarie in 1816 as part of the Governor’s Domain. Our long history of collection and study of plants began with the appointment of the first Colonial Botanist, Charles Fraser, in 1817. The Botanic Gardens is thus the oldest scientific institution in Australia and, from the earliest days, has played a major role in the acclimatisation of plants from other regions.
After a succession of colonial botanists and superintendents, including the brothers Richard and Allan Cunningham, both also early explorers, John Carne Bidwill was appointed as the first Director in 1847. He was succeeded the following year by Charles Moore, a Scotsman who had trained in the Botanic Gardens of Trinity College, Dublin. Moore, Director for 48 years (1848-96), did much to develop the Botanic Gardens in their modern form. He boldly tackled the problems of poor soil, inadequate water and shortage of funds to develop much of the Gardens in the form we see today. The Palm Grove, in the heart of the Royal Botanic Garden, is a reminder of his skill and foresight, as is the reclaimed land behind the Farm Cove seawall which added a significant area to the Royal Botanic Garden.
In 1862 Sydney’s first zoo was opened within the Botanic Gardens and remained there until 1883, when most of it was transferred to Moore Park. During these years much of the remnant natural vegetation of the surrounding Domain was removed and planted as parkland. The Moreton Bay Figs, one of the major elements of this planting, continue to dominate the landscape.
In 1879 a substantial area of the Domain, south of the Government House stables (now the Conservatorium of Music), was taken for the building of the Garden Exhibition Palace. This building, ‘an outstanding example of Victorian architectural exuberance, with towers and turrets deployed around a giant dome 100 feet in diameter surmounted by a lantern 200 feet above the ground’, dominated Sydney’s skyline and covered over two hectares. The International Exhibition held in the Palace attracted over one million visitors. However, the building was destroyed by fire in 1882 and the land, now known as the Palace Garden, was added to the Botanic Gardens.
Towards the end of his time as Director, Moore, together with Ernst Betche, published the Handbook of the Flora of New South Wales, further establishing the Botanic Gardens as a centre for the science of botany.
Moore was succeeded by Joseph Henry Maiden who, during his 28-year term, added much to Moore’s maturing landscape. He organised the construction of a new herbarium building, opened in 1901 (today part of the Anderson Building), and made major improvements to the Domain. However, the Botanic Gardens suffered from loss of staff positions during the First World War and, in the depression of the 1930s, the position of Director was lost. Both the Herbarium and the living collections languished. From 1945 Robert Anderson worked to reunify the two. In 1959 the title ‘Royal’ was granted and the Herbarium and Royal Botanic Gardens were administratively reunified under the title Royal Botanic Gardens. Knowles Mair (1965-70) achieved reunification and the Royal Botanic Gardens began its return to eminence.
In 1982 the new Robert Brown Building was opened to house the Herbarium. In 1986 Professor Carrick Chambers became Director and retired ten years later.
Dr John Beard (1970-72) and Dr Lawrence Johnson (1972-85) further developed the organisation, and the Robert Brown Building was opened in 1982 to house the Herbarium. The breadth of activities increased over these decades with the formation of the Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens; educational and ecological programs; the Flora of New South Wales; the scientific journals Telopea and Cunninghamia and programs of computerised documentation of both the living and herbarium collections.
Other initiatives, the Mount Tomah Botanic Garden (1987), Mount Annan Botanic Garden (1988) and the Tropical Centre (1990) glasshouses, were opened to the public after Professor Carrick Chambers became the ninth Director in 1986. The Royal Botanic Gardens celebrated its 175th anniversary in 1991. During Professor Chambers’ ten years as Director, the Rose Garden (1988), the Fernery (1993), the Herb Garden (1994), and the Oriental Garden (1997) were opened and the Rare and Threatened Species Garden (1998) was commenced to further enrich the experience of visitors. The Royal Botanic Gardens Foundation was established to seek a wider range of support for future needs.
In 2003 the business name of the organisation, comprising the three Botanic Gardens and the Domain and administered by the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust, was changed from the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney to the Botanic Gardens Trust. In 2011 the business name of the organisation changed back to the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust, and the names of the three botanic gardens became the Royal Botanic Garden, the Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan and the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden Mount Tomah.
The Sydney Domain was set aside in 1788 by Governor Phillip as his private reserve. It covered the area east of the Tank Stream to the head of Woolloomooloo (Walla Mulla) Bay and contains the site of the first farm in Australia. The farm had been established for growing grain, but was soon moved to Parramatta, because of the poor sandy soil. The Farm Cove (Woccanmagully) area was then leased out for private farming for the next twenty years.
Governor Bligh attempted to reclaim the Domain c. 1808, leading up to the Rum Rebellion. Governor Macquarie completed this task, extending the roads and gardens started by Bligh, and enclosing the Government Domain with stone walls and paling fences. The traditional foundation date of the Botanic Gardens is taken as the date of completion of Mrs Macquaries Road, on 13 June 1816. An enlarged and reorganised Gardens were opened to the general public in 1831.
Over the years the Gardens grew as the Domain was slowly whittled away, but remained an important buffer to the Gardens. The native vegetation was cleared and the gullies of Phillip Precinct filled. During the 1830s the expansive green space of the Domain was now opened to the public, who strolled and picnicked there. The Domain west of Macquarie Street was then sold to pay for the construction of new Government House and Circular Quay.
In the 1850s the Domain was used for military, sporting, and ceremonial events, and was subsequently used for soap-box oratory and political meetings. From 1860 the Domain was opened up at night to pedestrians, allowing people to use this valuable recreational space on summer evenings. It became known as `the Park where the Gates Never Close’. Carriage traffic however remained restricted after dusk for many years.
The growing city of Sydney put great pressure on the Domain. A major encroachment was the construction of the Garden Palace for the International Exhibition of 1879. In more recent years the problems have come from the motor car, with the building of the Cahill Expressway and the Domain Parking Station. The Cahill Expressway destroyed the close spatial relationship between the Gardens and Domain. It has now been proposed to reclaim the green link between the Art Gallery and Woolloomooloo Bay (as part of the revised design for the Eastern Distributor).
The Domain is administered by the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust. It is vital we preserve what remains of the Domain as a green haven in our city.
Reminding us of the early days, Mrs Macquaries Point and Chair mark one of the sought-after photographic spots in Sydney with views across the Harbour to the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. The Governor’s wife had the chair carved out of the rock so she could sit and observe the passing ships. Above the chair is an inscription recording the completion of Mrs Macquaries Road on 13 June 1816.
First Fleet Steps is the point where Queen Elizabeth II first set foot on Australian soil, and a commemorative wall plaque marks the event. The site is often used for large marquee functions with stunning views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge.