Discover the rich history of the Fitzroy Gardens and how they have changed throughout the last century and half.
The Wurundjeri landscape (pre 1850)
Before arrival and settlement by Europeans, the land where the Fitzroy Gardens is located was characterised by the winding Yarra River, billabongs and wetlands, and woodlands of red gum and yellow box.
Access to fresh water was critical for the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, who lived in the area. The central stream in the gardens, a minor tributary of the Yarra River, flowed intermittently throughout the year.
The Wurundjeri history of the gardens can be seen on the scarred river red gum tree, that has had bark removed to make something such as a shield, container, baby carrier or other item. The deep spiritual connection to this land by the Wurundjeri people continues today.
Establishment of the gardens (1850-1890)
Fitzroy Gardens was reserved as parkland in 1848, by Governor Charles La Trobe responding to public request. As well as recognising the public benefits of gardens, the colonialists of the day were also interested in the potential of trees and plant species from the 'New World', particularly blue gums, conifers and cedars. Public gardens were just one place to plant and test these new specimens.
Over the next 40 years, works to create a garden included the layout of paths, planting of many tree, including elms, and construction of the Band Pavilion and a gardener's residence (Sinclair's Cottage). These works set the template for the gardens' current design.
Reticulated water from the Yan Yean Reservoir arrived in Melbourne in 1857. Five fountains were constructed on the east side of the gardens – a convenient spot to access the water main on Clarendon Street. The River God Fountain (now at the northern end of the gardens) was installed in 1862 and is now Melbourne's oldest surviving public artwork.
Sub-tropical plantings (1890-1900)
In 1891, a change of curator led to a shift in horticultural emphasis. John Guilfoyle favoured a more decorative approach to garden presentation. Like his brother William (curator of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens), Guilfoyle favoured sub-tropical plants – such as palms, ferns, agaves and shrubs with variegated leaves – common to New Zealand, the South Pacific and Queensland.
Earlier tree plantings were thinned or removed and the amount of flower beds and lawns increased. A nursery area was created (where the visitor centre stands today), and a pond and elevated mound (rockery) were installed at the northern end of the gardens.
Horticultural excellence (1920-1930)
In the 1920s, horticultural fashion changed again and presentation and displays became a major area of activity. Skilful plant propagation and the use of glasshouses enabled a greater volume and variety of plants to be grown.
The nursery at Fitzroy Gardens became the centre of this activity, with displays of annuals in the gardens becoming more common and magnificent and complex floral displays being created for major civic functions hosted by the City of Melbourne.
A house was built for the head propagator in 1928, followed by the Conservatory in 1930. This was opposed by public figures of the time, due to the building's size and location on one of the best lawns in the gardens. However, it proved to be popular and it was hoped that its displays would encourage the public to try different plants and gardening styles at home.
Visitor attractions (1930-1980)
Many of the well-known features of Fitzroy Gardens were installed after 1930. Cooks’ Cottage arrived in 1934, one of many gifts made to the people of Victoria by philanthropist Sir Russell Grimwade. Artist Ola Cohn carved a river red gum stump to create her Fairies’ Tree.
The Model Tudor Village was a gift to the people of Melbourne in 1947 from the citizens of Lambeth, England, in appreciation of the food sent to England during World War II. The model structures were made by Londoner Edgar Wilson, from fragments of wood, brick, ceramics, lead and glass – likely picked up from the streets of London during the war.
The 1970s saw the arrival of the Dolphin Fountain, the creation of a playground and an extension to the rear garden of Cooks’ Cottage.
The gardens today
Horticultural fashions continue to change, driven by economic efficiency and the need to conserve natural resources. The Melbourne drought from 1998 to 2007 highlighted the issue of water scarcity and the challenge of protecting, maintaining and renewing historic gardens such as Fitzroy Gardens.
The move to contracted horticultural services reduced the need for nurseries and depots and freed up space in the gardens. The implementation of a major stormwater harvesting system led to a series of projects including the construction of this centre and a new garden area on the site of the old nursery.
Fitzroy Gardens Visitor Centre
This visitor centre was designed to meet a high level of environmental performance. The exterior 'green façade' of climbing plants and natural air circulation remove the need for air conditioning. Instead, air is drawn in and cooled via a rock store under the floor, distributed by sweep fans, and released via high louvre windows.
Numerous energy efficient building techniques have been used including high thermal mass in the floors, double glazing, LED lighting, and wide verandahs for shade, and a combination of rainwater, cleaned stormwater and mains water is used for toilet flushing.
A table in the visitor area has been crafted from an English Elm and a Gingko tree which fell over in a storm in the Fitzroy Gardens in 2005. This beautiful table shows how resources can be re-used, and provides another connection to the past.