The Western District has many historic botanic gardens, most established from the 1850s to the 1870s when it was the thing for a town to do, if nothing else, to keep up with the neighbouring town. For some it was scientific purposes, to acclimatise plants and sometimes animals, as with the Hamilton Botanic Gardens. There is a sense of history walking through each garden and the tall specimen trees such as oaks, redwoods and pines whisper the tales of times past.
The Portland Botanical Gardens, like the rest of the town, ooze history. Each botanic garden is unique in some way and Portland is no different and is unlike other gardens I have visited including Hamilton and Geelong.
Land for the gardens was first marked out in 1851, but it took a few years of public meetings for the gardens to be established. In 1853, the Honourary Secretary remarked on the “advantages of a botanical garden, and the study of botanical science”.
At a public meeting six months later, on February 4, 1854 chaired by James Blair, Stephen Henty proposed that a committee be formed to get the gardens up and running.
Works began in 1858, assisted by Alexander Elliot from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, however a lack of funds was slowing progress.
By November however, the gardens were beginning to take shape and the curator’s cottage was under construction.
In 1859, a letter to the Portland Guardian questioned the practice of allowing horses to graze in the gardens overnight. “Delta” wondered why the committee could keep their horses at the gardens while “the great unwashed are warned at the gate, Dogs not Admitted”
If you visit the Portland Botanical Gardens, look up at the tall trees and think of those that planted them or as you walk the paths consider the hands that carved them. The story behind these features is my favourite story about the gardens.
At a meeting of the Portland Historical Committee in 1932, the secretary told the story of the Chinese prisoners and their work at the Portland Botanical Gardens.
On the wall of the curator’s cottage is a plaque recognising previous curators of the gardens from the kindly William Allitt in 1861 through to Colin Ellingworth, curator from 1982-1987.
At one time both croquet and tennis were played at the gardens and there were often tensions between the two groups and any other group that hoped to share the space.
Croquet won out and is still played today. The tennis courts were converted to rose gardens. The rosary was first proposed in 1930 but it was 1931 before there was further action.
“Wandering Willie’s Wife” visited the Portland Botanical Gardens in 1926 and felt compelled to write a letter to the editor of the Portland Guardian on the subject of a nameless lifeboat on display in the gardens. Could it have been the lifeboat, captained by James Fawthrop, used to rescue survivors from the wreck of the S.S. Admella ? Why wasn’t there a name plaque?
Three years later, “Wandering Willie’s Wife” wrote to the editor again, prompted by the announcement that a “tablet” with the story of the lifeboat Portland would be placed beside the boat.
The lifeboat is now removed from the elements and is housed in the Portland Maritime Discovery Centre.
ABC Southwest broadcast a story about the Portland Botanic Gardens in March 2009. The story, including audio and better photos than my own (excluding the wonderful historic photos I found at Trove) can be found by following the link http://www.abc.net.au/local/photos/2009/03/26/2525642.htm