Landscape History

For most of their existence the Fitzroy Gardens have been considered to be a showpiece rivalled only by the Royal Botanic Gardens.

They were created by the Colonial Government in the burst of activity following the gold rush and did not pass to the sole control of the City until 1917. More than for any other public garden, the history of their development summarised the story of the parks and gardens of Melbourne.


1848 64 acres (26 hectares) set aside as a reserve (Fitzroy Square)
1855 Conservancy granted to Council by the Government
1856 Contract let for 'paling in' and providing gates
1856 Edward LaTrobe Bateman commissioned to produce designs for the garden
1858 Border of Fitzroy Square had been planted with Gums and Wattles
1858 Planting and Improvements under management of the Lands Department
1860's Numerous decorative statues and urns added
1862 Path system firmly established
1862 Fitzroy Square officially changed to Fitzroy Gardens
1862 Neo-classical band Pavilion built near Grey Street entry
1864 Four fountains and a fifth being build and Statuary added
1864 Small Tudor style gate keepers lodge built at south-west corner
1866 Sinclair's Cottage built on main walk
1865 Five gas lamps installed along main path
1870's Planting, maintenance and improvement continued through this period
1873 Neo-classical rotunda "Temple of Winds" built
1880 Scores of Blue Gums removed
1890 Every alternate Elm tree on Avenues removed
1897 Lombardy Poplar Walk planted in line with George Street
1901 Nursery and stable yard transferred from centre of gardens to present site
1902 Pine Avenue along Grey Street walk removed
1908 Development of "Mound" in centre of gardens planted with Rhododendrons
1908 Kiosk opened, half timber style building
1915 External picket fence replaced by stone edging
1917 Sole control of gardens passed onto City of Melbourne
1920's Dining room added to kiosk
1921 Work started on pollarding the Elm Avenues
1922 Large number of stone pines along Clarendon and Albert Streets removed
1923 Advanced specimens of Moreton Bay figs along Wellington Parade removed
1927 Plant Managers house built
1930 Conservatory for displaying glass-house plants opened
1934 Cook's Cottage erected
1957 Men's toilet block replaced
1960 Kiosk damaged by fire
1960's Central section of creek piped underground
1964 New kiosk opened
1964 Women's toilet block replaced
1970's Eighteenth Century Cottage garden added to Cook's Cottage

Government subdivision plans from the early 1840's show East Melbourne laid out in a rectangular grid from Gisborne Street to Hoddle Street, much as was Melbourne a few years earlier. However, unlike Melbourne, the grid was aligned about magnetic north. Fitzroy Street (now Hotham Street), named after Governor Fitzroy, was to continue through East Melbourne from the top of Collins Street. Similarly, Grey Street was to continue from the top of Bourke Street, Albert from Lonsdale Street and Wellington Parade from Flinders Street. These four streets all crossed an area of lower ground and a small creek which drained a part of East Melbourne to the Yarra.

This lower lying land was not the most desirable for building purposes, and by about 1848 the present 64 acre site of the Gardens had been set aside as a reserve on the Lands Office plans. The name of 'Fitzroy Square' seems to have been acquired by the reserve at about this time.

East Melbourne did not develop until the heady days of the gold rush. The first Crown Land Sale was held on 6th June, 1852. This and subsequent sales proved a bonanza for the Government, with unheard of prices being realised. The area was clearly destined to be a suburb of the elite. It had received the seal of approval in 1850 when Bishop Perry had been granted a site on Clarendon Street, overlooking the Square, for the future Anglican Bishop's Residence.

The new inhabitants of East Melbourne appear to have used the Fitzroy Street alignment through the reserve for easy access to Melbourne. A wooden bridge carried this pathway across the gully by 1856. It may have been by then a few years old. This little bridge was to become the focal point of the Gardens.

The Laing map prepared for the Corporation of Melbourne in 1849 shows Fitzroy Street severing the reserve in two, and it may have been the Corporation's intention at that time to carry a public road through to Collins Street. On the other hand, the Lands Office maps of this date show Grey Street passing through the reserve. Neither road was built, but by the early 1850's the Lands Office had laid out a curved easement for Grey Street, rather like a Nash crescent, through the northern end of the reserve, detaching two small triangular reserves on Albert Street. This crescent appears to have been used for a few years as an unformed public road.

Some of the privately printed maps of Melbourne in the 1850's show this street as part of a curious cartwheel design for the Square. This design seems to have been conjectural. Crescent and triangles were annexed to the Square in 1860.

In 1854, when pressing for the conservancy of Carlton Gardens and Fitzroy Square, the Mayor pointed out the need for 'suitable enclosure.' No garden was possible without stock-proof fencing. Conservancy was granted by the Government in 1855, and the following year a contract was let for 'paling in' the Square (290 pounds) and providing gates (29 pounds each). Another contract was let for trenching the ground and removing stumps. Extra gates were installed later in 1856 to re-open the path in line with Fitzroy Street after a group of East Melbourne residents protested over its closure.

In the flush of victory the Council set up a Committee of Park Lands to oversee the new responsibility, and one of its first acts was to commission Edward LaTrobe Bateman in 1856 to produce designs for both these gardens. The designs were presented to Council early the following year.

The background to Bateman's appointment is something of a mystery. He had come to Victoria in 1852 with a training in graphic art, but none, it seems, in landscape work. In the 1850's and 1860's he appears to have enjoyed some success as an interior and landscape designer in Melbourne. He was responsible for some of the interiors in the Public Library and his first landscape commission appears to have been to design and supervise the early work done on the grounds of Melbourne University in 1856. Bateman certainly had friends in high places and was a cousin of LaTrobe's. The Council engaged him again several years later to prepare plans for laying out Fawkner, Prince's and Yarra Parks and to alter the plan of the Carlton Gardens.

These early attempts at park development by the City appear to have been marred by a shortage of finance. The results were poor and exposed the Council to criticism. The Argus reported in May 1858 that the borders of Fitzroy Square had been planted with gums and wattles, but it was overgrown; the Carlton Gardens had been trenched but not planted.

In July it followed up with an article highly critical of the Council for their handling of conservancy, pointing out that the Council, having received custodianship in 1855, had -

    '… fenced their newly acquired possessions. When this task, however, was accomplished, and preliminary arrangements such as the drawing of plant etc. finished, the funds at the disposal of the Corporation were finished too, and so nothing was planted in the grounds, save such dead animals and cast off wearing apparel as the people in the neighbourhood had no further use for.'

By this time the Government had decided that the Fitzroy Square was too important to be left to the Council and was negotiating to take it back '… as a Parliament and Government Office garden', open to the general public, offering the Council a grant of 500 pounds for use on the Carlton Gardens. This was accepted, and in December 1858 the Argus confirmed that Fitzroy Square and Carlton Gardens were in the process of planting and improvement, the former under the management of the Lands Department and the latter under the Corporation.

The Government was concerned to create a colonial capital out of the rapidly growing town, with suitably prestigious buildings in appropriately laid out settings. The Fitzroy Square was important in this scheme because of its proximity to the new Parliament Buildings, government offices and churches springing up on Eastern Hill.

From 1860 responsibility for the government reserves was exercised by Clement Hodgkinson, the new administrative head of the Lands Department, who took a detailed interest in the planning and development of the city parks. Day to day supervision of work in the parks was under N. M. Bickford, the Crown Lands Bailiff (later to become Curator of Metropolitan Parks and Gardens). The 'Gardener' in charge of Fitzroy Square was James Sinclair, a Scot with a wide experience in landscape work who had arrived in Melbourne in 1854. The exact date of his appointment is uncertain but was possibly in 1858 when the Lands Department resumed control.

Work progressed quickly in the Fitzroy Square under its new management. By April 1859 the Argus was able to tell its readers that the Square was rapidly assuming the form of a well laid out park, although nothing had been done yet to the '… immense chasm which intersects the garden'.

By 1862 the path system which was the main structural element in the layout of the gardens was firmly established. An as-built drawing produced in that year shows that the changes made since then have been relatively minor. Bateman's design is a very different concept. His elegantly curving path system has the elaborate symmetry of a carpet or a book binding. This exquisite drawing is a decorator's effort, inappropriate to a site of 64 acres where the pattern would be lost.

It seems that Bateman's design was not so much modified as superseded when the practical men of the Lands Department resumed control in 1858. The Government had no commitment to his design; it had been commissioned and paid for by the City. The new layout appears to have been worked out on the ground without reference to a master plan for in February 1862 Hodgkinson was obliged to request that Sinclair provide '… a tracing showing the walks as now laid out.'

The new layout was a straightforward affair, which sensibly resolved the obvious difficulties and circulation requirements of the site. The principal physical barrier to overcome was the creek that ran down the middle of the site. This creek was being eroded to a gully in the soft clay subsoil by stormwater run-off from the new streets and houses which it drained. Pedestrian access to the city was catered for by the existing path and bridge on line with Hotham Street (former Fitzroy Street). Another path and bridge were built in line with Grey Street further north. Of these the Hotham Walk was the more central, and its bridge became the focus of the design. Diagonal through paths from the entry gates on Lansdowne and Clarendon Streets were laid out to converge on this bridge as the principal crossing point. This produced the often remarked on but entirely accidental resemblance to the Union Jack. Other paths were laid out around the perimeter, and one main path was constructed down the middle. When the Grey Street Crescent was abolished in 1860, the land was consolidated in the Gardens and the Crescent persisted as a curving double pathway.

Most of these paths deviated slightly from straight lines, apparently to achieve a more natural effect. In curious opposition to this aim, they were planted as avenues with shade trees placed rigidly at 20 foot intervals. Where important paths intersected, the gravel was widened to provide a public concourse. These intersections were later decorated with sculpture.

This layout has fundamental similarities to the other parks that the Lands Department was busily creating slightly later in the 1860's. The general belief that in the Fitzroy Gardens it is primarily the work of Sinclair is difficult to support from the historic record. Sinclair never achieved a status higher than 'Park Keeper' in the departmental hierarchy and his work was closely supervised by Bickford and Hodgkinson. He never held the title of Curator as is sometimes claimed. It seems unlikely that he would have been allowed carte blanche to design a public garden as important as this. Sinclair's latter-day fame originates from an article published in 1940 which drew on memorabilia provided by his grand-daughters. In his own day the plaudits went to Hodgkinson, as, for example, the following in 1963 from the Illustrated Melbourne Post:

    'Mr Clement Hodgkinson, the Assistant Commissioner of Lands and Survey, has taken a great interest in these gardens, and it is principally owing to his careful supervision that they have been made to look what they are now.

Several years later Hodgkinson outlines the reasons which determined the planting scheme used in the Fitzroy and Treasury Gardens:

    '… the chief desiderata were shade along the numerous paths therein forming important lines of traffic, and such dense and continuous masses of foliage as would tend to check the inroad of dust from the adjacent streets.

    'Consequently, in such reserves, strict adherence to the rules of landscape gardening, with regard to the grouping of trees, etc., had to be abandoned in favour of the formal lining of the paths with rows of umbrageous trees, and the planting in the background of dense masses of conifers, evergreen shrubs, fern trees, etc., small flowering shrubs and bedding flowers being merely introduced to mask the unsightly aspect of the grass in such reserves during summer…'

Keeping the grass down was a major maintenance task and by 1862 this work was being done by contract. The grass was valuable as hay, and a contractor paid 26 pounds for one year for the privilege. But his performance was patchy so he was terminated with a refund, and the Lands Department henceforth used its own labour to scythe the grass. When this could be sold it made a useful addition to the Parks Fund.

In 1862 the old name of Fitzroy Square was officially changed to Fitzroy Gardens when the Government tidied up the legal status of the reserve by designating it as 'temporarily reserved' as a site for public gardens.

The first of several decorative fountains, made possible by the Yan Yean main, was installed in that year. Its general design, of a river god on one knee bearing a clam shell basin aloft, was attributed to Hodgkinson and it was executed by the distinguished sculptor Charles Summers. (This was known variously as the Neptune or Old Man Fountain, and remained in the Gardens for nearly a century until it was replaced by the Fountain of the Birds in 1960). The Grey Street Fountain was built the following year. (This remains today, although the large rockery and pond have been greatly modified.)

In 1862 Sinclair was busy constructing a stone waterfall in the creek above the bridge, probably intended as an irrigation and erosion control device. His monthly reports are full of references to 'road repairing', 'spreading gravel', 'haymaking', 'preparing grounds for trees', 'planting trees', 'mulching trees', 'irrigating', 'clearing water channels', 'sloping banks of creed', 'laying down turf' and so forth.

Surveillance of the grounds was rapidly becoming a problem. Gangs of boys destroyed much of the gardeners' work, here, as in the other city parks. At Sinclair's request plain clothes and uniformed policemen patrolled the area regularly. The City pressed for gas lighting but this was deferred because of cost, and as a stop-gap measure the Government directed that the Gardens be closed at night. Five gas lamps were finally installed along the main walks in 1865.

Photographs of 1861 and 1862 show the appearance of the Gardens at that early stage. The area was still dominated by a thin canopy of craggy red gums. The paths were broad and graveled, but roughly formed and without side gutters. The grass grew rank. Young trees lined the paths by the hundreds in wide circles of mulching straw.

Even at this date the choice of trees for a public park was a matter of some public controversy. From 1859 the Argus complained regularly that too many gums were being planted; English trees were to be preferred. In fact, both native and imported trees were being planted in quantity, although in the early 1860's the available selection was still rather limited. In 1862 the Government paid the then extortionate sum of one pound each for five Norfolk Island pines from a private grower, since none were available from the Botanic Gardens which was the usual source.

Quick growing blue gums were favoured for windbreaks, particularly down the western side. The avenue plantings along the main walks were mostly elms, not just English elms (Ulmus procers) as is commonly supposed, but more often Dutch elms (u X hollandica), Huntingdon elms (U. vegeta), Scotch elms (U. glabra), or U. carpinifolia 'Plottii'. Willows were planted along the creek. The interspaces were planted with conifers of every available type.

By 1863 the Argus had changed its tack and was publishing complaints that the old gum trees in the Fitzroy Gardens were coming down. This goaded a very illuminating reply from Hodgkinson which the paper duly published:

    'The old trees to be removed form only a small percentage of the total number in the Gardens, and I may state that no persons are more impressed than the Hon. C. Gavan Duffy (the Minister) and myself with the importance of carefully preserving, in Fitzroy Gardens and in the other metropolitan reserves, the major portion of the indigenous vegetation.

In January 1864 the Argus was telling its readers that the Fitzroy Gardens were well worth a visit. 'The old unsightly gully' was now a 'floral enclosure'. There were four fountains and a fifth being built. Statuary had been added. (Probably bought from the Cremorne Gardens in Richmond which had been sold up the previous year). Later in the same year it gave another favourable description:

    'Broad gravel walks have been formed, the gully which once disfigured the scene has been planted and a pretty miniature cascade formed therein.'

Over this cascade, in fact, flowed a large portion of the sewage of East Melbourne. The rock-work became so badly infested with rats that the area was 'enclosed by a strong fence of wire netting' and strychnine baits were laid. The increasingly foul flow along the creek became a matter of public scandal that got intermittent attention in the press for the next half century. Foul or not, it was used as the principal source of irrigating water on the western side of the Gardens for many years.

In 1864, as a measure to improve night-time security, a small Tudor style gate-keeper's lodge was built at the south-west corner. Sinclair moved here with his young family. (This spot proved to be flood prone, and the lodge was demolished in 1907.) The neo-classical band pavilion near the Grey Street entry was also built in 1864, and the brick cottage on the main walk, two years later in 1866. This is known today as Sinclair's Cottage although he may never have lived there. Later in the century it was sometimes referred to as the Curator's Cottage, and it may have been built for Bickford.

Numerous decorative statues and urns were added during the early 1860's. Of these the most important was 'Diana and the Stag', which stood in the line of the Hotham Walk just east of the bridge, the centre of several radiating paths. A map prepared in 1866 shows that statuary was used more lavishly in the Fitzroy Gardens than in any of the others. 

Diana a La Birche circa 1890's

Keeping them painted and repaired was a constant worry. When, in 1909, a contractor tendered to repair them he inventories 42 items, all draped figures after antique models, and almost all made from cement. His list did not include the many fountains and masonry urns spotted around. Most of these figures had suffered grievously from the attentions of vandals, as for example:

    'No. 31. Discus thrower, large cement f., left arm missing with the discus, the right arm has a broken wrist, one finger is missing - 9 pounds 10 shillings'.

For all their lack of quality, in their youth these statues gave the Gardens a decorative charm which has since been lost. They served as markers and signposts along paths and invested otherwise unremarkable spots with a definite identity. When viewed against the pines and other conifers that started to dominate the canopy by the late 1860's, and particularly when looking west along the Hotham Walk towards the mock Farnesi Palace of the New Treasury, the general effect was reminiscent of an Italian villa garden. In the end the unceasing effort required to keep them looking smart was abandoned, and they were quietly removed and discarded during the 1930's.

The work of planting, maintenance and gradual improvement continued through the 1870's. The old external fences were renewed. Paths were properly formed and edged with channels of brick. Some were tar sealed. Vast numbers of tree ferns were transplanted along the creek which was re-developed as a fern-tree gully and became a very popular feature. An elegant little neo-classical rotunda, the Temple of the Winds, was built to decorate the city-facing slope in 1873.

The 1870's were a high period for the Gardens. They were well frequented and much admired. Bands played to the crowds from the bandstand on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. The trees had grown and furnished the bare spaces of a few years earlier. There were a few floral displays, but on the whole it was a garden of vistas, statuary, walks and trees, a colonial amalgam of English and Italian landscape idea, which was admirably suited to local conditions, local needs and a relatively modest maintenance budget. This is an era when public taste generally favoured a much more elaborate, floriferous and fussy style of gardening.

Certain changes were decreed in 1883 when the new Committee of Management inspected the City's Gardens. Hodgkinson had been brought out of retirement to sit on this committee, and this was probably his last opportunity to advise on the future of the public gardens he had done so much to build.

The Fitzroy Gardens had originally been planted closely with trees for shelter and quick effect. These were flourishing and becoming overcrowded, and it was now necessary to clear away the 'inferior kinds of trees' that were no longer required to protect the 'more choice trees', or that could be removed to improve the overall appearance. The idea was sound horticultural practice, invariably necessary in the large garden after its initial establishment. In fact, many of the more expensive exotic trees had to go too for lack of room. However, under succeeding Curators the policy was used to create a very different sort of Garden.

Scores of blue gums came down through the 1880's. Many were replaced by elms, but not invariably so. Existing oaks and elms received a hard pruning to improve their shape. In 1890, the year of Bickford's retirement, every alternate elms on every avenue was grubbed up and removed to improve the shape of the remainder. This was probably long overdue. ; In the same year the blue gums at the Albert Street end were replaced by an avenue of silky oaks (Grevillea robusta) backed by pittosporum.

After Bickford's retirement, the Metropolitan Parks and Gardens got an energetic new Curator in John Guilfoyle whose ideas were more in step with the current fashions in decorative gardening. He did not much like what he found in the Fitzroy and Flagstaff Gardens:

    'These gardens will require a judicious thinning out of worn out useless vegetation and this should be the first step towards improvement. Many of the trees are so crowded together that they have spoiled each other, and the axe should be freely used. By this means many beautiful views could be opened up, and opportunities would then be afforded for arranging flower beds in open spaced in the grass. … At present there is not only a scarcity of flowers, owing of course to the redundant foliage in the enclosures, but the soil is impoverished almost everywhere, and much nutrient therefore in the way of rich soil and manure will have to be supplied.

Guilfoyle was an enthusiastic flower gardener whose style appears to have been to scatter the lawns with bright islands of shrubs and flowers. His carpet bedding schemes, laid out as the map of Australia or on similar theses, were popular with the public. Substantial nursery and glasshouse facilities were needed for this sort of gardening. The Fitzroy Gardens nursery produced sufficient plants for the needs of most of the other City gardens.

Guilfoyle began the process of removing the iron railings which protected the lawns and flower beds. At first this was only an experiment, but the idea of opening up the gardens to the wider use of the public gradually took hold.

In 1897 Guilfoyle planted out the Lombardy Poplar Walk in line with George Street at the southern end of the gardens, describing it to the Gardens Committee, presumably without any sense of hyperbole, as '… similar to the Grand Avenue at Versailles in France.' In the same year he started to remove the pines along the Hotham Walk to develop a shrub and floral border. Today, the borders along this walk are the principal floral attraction of the Gardens.
Poplar Avenue circa 1938

By 1901 Guilfoyle had transferred the nursery and stable yard from the centre of the gardens to the present service area site. He had originally planned to excavate a lake on the old site, which was adjacent to the creek but in 1908, when filling became available, modified the scheme to include a substantial mount where he planted out a large collection of rhododendrons.

Unemployment relief workers were used in 1902 to take out an avenue of pines along the Grey Street Walk. This was planted with palms and 'tropical looking foliage plants'.

A Kiosk was opened in the centre of the Gardens in 1908. This half-timber style building incorporated tea rooms, a band stand, a residence for the proprietor and public toilets. A dining room was added in the 1920's. The Kiosk was the first such facility in the public parks and appears to have been an immediate success.

Kiosk circa 1910

By the early 1900's sewerage was being installed to the residences of East Melbourne. The creek through the gardens, which in 1896 had been described by an engineering inspector as being in a '… filthy and unwholesome condition' and a '… menace to the health of the public using the Gardens', would have gradually sweetened in consequence. Much later, it was piped underground for the greater part of its length.

By 1915 the external picket fences were coming down to be replaced by stone edging. This programme was completed by the end of the War. The shortage of manpower caused by the war years left large tracts of the Garden in a 'rough and uncultivated condition', and this was gradually put to rights in the period that followed.

In 1922 under the new Curator, J. T. Smith, a large number of stone pines were removed along Clarendon and Albert Streets. These were replaced with lawns planted with Gingko, Limes, Palms and Silver Birch. He seems to have had a particular dislike of Moreton Bay figs (shared by many gardeners) and an avenue of advanced specimens along Wellington Parade was cut down in 1923. The figs on Clarendon Street came down the following year.

When work began on pollarding the elm avenues in 1921, with a view to improving their shape, a public outcry ensued. The project was abandoned half completed. The Committee's announced intention of cutting down alternate elms along the avenues was also abandoned at this time, in a rare failure of nerve. This decision has had unfortunate long term consequences for the health and form of these trees, which are becoming evident today. Their branches are drawn up from weak crotches which makes them very prone to wind damage. Several have been removed after losing most of their branches, and the gaps increase the exposure of the remaining trees.

The 1920's seem to have started a long era when landscape planning was lost sight of in the rush to add facilities and features to the Gardens. The Fitzroy Gardens did not receive the usual quota of tennis courts and playgrounds but received, instead, a new conservatory for the display of glass-house plants. This was the pet project of the Chairman of the Committee, Councillor Kent Hughes. It was opened in 1930 after a prolonged public debate over the merits of alienating open space for this sort of facility. The plant nursery manager's house had been added in 1927.

In 1934 'Cooks' Cottage' was erected in the Gardens close by the conservatory as the gift of the Grimwade family. The cottage and conservatory, today, form a popular tourist attraction in the south western corner which is a 'must' for all the guided tours of the City. In the late 1970's a carefully researched eighteenth century cottage garden was re-created as a suitable setting for the cottage.

When the old Kiosk was damaged by fire in 1960, plans were prepared to a modern replacement which would have incorporated a quality licensed restaurant. After the old building was demolished, the project met with opposition from various quarters, partly because of the parking problem it was thought to generate. The Council compromised for a less ambitious facility and thereby lost a fine opportunity to bring people and activity into the Gardens. The new Kiosk opened in 1964 and like all compromise solutions satisfied no-one and has not been particularly successful. The women's toilet block was replaced with the present unlovely structure in the same year. (The men's block had been replaced in 1957).

Modern maintenance methods and machinery have gradually changed the appearance of the Garden. Many garden beds have been removed to open up the lawns to multi-cylinder gang mowers. Paths have been kerbed to take the weight of heavy vehicles. The old rockeries and rough rock kerbing which required so much hand trimming have mostly been eliminated.

In the late 1960's, when the central section of the creek was piped underground, the opportunity arose to reorganise, extensively, this part of the Garden. The store yard facilities were moved to a site alongside the nursery, and the cleared area with its gully was re-developed as a modern water garden running through granite boulders after the style of Ellis Stones. The artificial falls and stream here now flow with clear water circulated by an electric pump, but they occupy the old creek bed, which was so determining a factor in the early development of the Gardens.