Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney

We hold a number of records relating to the two-hundred year history of the Royal Botanic Gardens. Some of these have been highlighted and discussed here in context, in celebration of the Gardens' bicentenary in 2016.

Government Farm

The land at the head of Farm Cove operated as a Government farm in 1788, covering "six acres of wheat, eight of barley, and six acres of other grain"1 on the eastern side of the creek which flowed down into the centre of the cove (see Fig. 1).2 The poor soil soon caused this purpose to shift to the more fertile land around Parramatta.3 The date traditionally used to signify the birth of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, is 13 June 1816, the day Mrs Macquarie's Road was completed.4

First Colonial Botanist

Governor Lachlan Macquarie issued instructions in his own hand, to “Private Charles Fraser of the 46th Regiment of Foot, Botanist and Gardener” relaying Private Fraser’s part in the expedition led by John Oxley to trace the course of the Lachlan River.5 Referred to as ‘Colonial Botanist’,6 Fraser was to collect “rare and new plants and seeds” for Governor Lachlan Macquarie (see Figs. 2-3),7 while assisting the King’s Botanist, Allan Cunningham, who had been sent to New South Wales with instructions from famed Botanist Sir Joseph Banks, to send specimens back to England.8 Although there had been plantings made before 1816,9 many of Fraser’s specimens from this and other expeditions presumably helped establish the Gardens as distinguished from crops.

Figures 2-3

Richard Cunningham

The next Colonial Botanist was appointed in 1833, being Richard Cunningham, the brother of the King’s Botanist, Alan Cunningham. He prepared a report on 11 July of that year which provided details of the Gardens, including their layout across four sections (see Fig. 4 with proposed paths along the eastern shore of Farm Cove, compared with Fig. 5 from the same period). The report included recommendations for improvements such as vine-growing, creating a new thoroughfare bypassing Mrs Macquarie’s Road, ornamental bridges across the stream, and the building of a stable, storeroom and cart shed.10

Cunningham continued to report on developments in the Gardens until March 1835 when he accompanied Major Thomas Mitchell on an expedition to the Bogan River. The Botanist became lost on 17 April while straying from the main group in search of specimens, and after days of wandering made contact with an Aboriginal tribe, who had fed and allowed him to camp with them. No doubt suffering from exposure and malnourishment, Cunningham repeatedly rose during the night in an apparent delirium around 25 April, and was clubbed to death due to confusion over his behaviour.11

In 1920, a letter was sent to Director of the Botanic Gardens, Joseph Henry Maiden by George Colman Green,12 a teacher from Dandaloo Provisional School who otherwise practised as a ‘scenic artist’.13 Green had travelled to the location of Cunningham’s grave, providing a detailed map of the location of, and inscription on, the grave of Cunningham (see Figs. 6a-b).

Figures 4-6b:

Charles Moore

With the appointment of Charles Moore in early 1848, came instructions to establish the Gardens as an institution of botanical and horticultural study, as well as a “pleasant place of resort to the inhabitants of Sydney”.14 Moore took to fulfilling these expectations, including converting one room in the ‘sheds’ building in the western end of the upper garden (which included the stables and seed store) into a lecture room in 1850 (see Fig. 7),15 among other improvements such as a house for the head gardener (see Fig. 8), and labels for plants (see proposed label Fig. 9 and implemented labels photographed in the 1860s Figs. 10a-c).

Figures 7-10b

In addition, he began the three-decade task of the literal growth of the Gardens through land reclamation in Farm Cove. This process began with the building of a sea wall in 1848 (see Figs. 11-12), in part using stone from the old Government House which stood on Bridge Street, Sydney.16 The land was filled in using a range of materials, including silt deposited by the Tank Stream at the head of Sydney Cove.17 The second stage involving the construction of a stone dyke (see Figs. 13-14), was first put to tender in 1863 and finally approved in late 1867.18 The initial filling-in behind this dyke consisted largely of “blue clay from the bottom of Darling Harbour”.19 Whenever plantings were made in the reclaimed area, the ‘silt soil’ which was “strongly impregnated with salt”, had to be removed to a depth of three feet to allow ideal conditions for plants.20

Figure 11 shows Farm Cove in circa 1860s lined with the 1848 sea wall, the Director’s residence amongst the trees, and the obelisk monument to Allan Cunningham sits to the right of the bridge over the mouth of the Gardens creek (see detail Fig. 12).

Figures 11-14

An aviary was opened in the eastern side of the middle garden in late August 1860,21 a year after the Secretary for Lands and Public Works requested it to house the donated bird collection of Alfred Denison (brother of Governor General William Denison).22 A ‘zoo’ was added in the Aviary Paddock in early 1862, which Charles Moore offered as assistance to the Acclimatisation Society of NSW by ‘taking charge’ of a selection of animals which were deemed not to risk interfering in the running of the Gardens.23 This agreement ended with most animals being moved to the Zoological Gardens at Moore Park, which opened to the public on 28 July 1883.24

The photograph in Figure 15 (below) is attributed by the State Library of Victoria to photographer William Hetzer, taken in 1866. It shows the Aviary Paddock, with the ‘elaborately decorated’ ridge-capping of the main aviary’s roof to the far-right, one of two large fountains that stood either side of the path leading to the aviary (see aviary layout on eastern end of middle garden in the 1871 map, Fig. 16), and a number of animals including wallabies, a duck, and what is probably a large marabou stork standing on a fence post.

Figures 15-16

Garden Palace

The building erected for the International Exhibition of 1879, the appropriately named 'Garden Palace', sat in the Inner Domain between Macquarie Street and the Botanic Gardens. The enormous building was visible from many parts of the Gardens, as much as the Gardens provided a beautiful outlook from the Palace itself. Although not part of the Botanic Gardens at the time, the task of landscaping and preparing the grounds surrounding the Palace sat with Charles Moore (see Fig. 17).25 Even after the exhibition had officially closed, Moore was charged with placing marble and bronze statues purchased at the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880, inside the Garden Palace in Sydney interspersed with ‘flowering shrubs’ in November 1881 (see Fig. 18).26

On the morning of 22 September 1882, a fire destroyed the entire building and its contents in forty minutes,27 taking with it a number of NSW Government records and most of the surrounding plants with which Moore had decorated the Palace grounds.28

Figures 17-18

Centennial Celebrations

Nearing the middle of the Great War, on the morning of 13 June 1916 the official centennial celebrations commenced at 10:30am beginning with an historical overview delivered by Director of the Botanic Gardens since 1896, Joseph Maiden. The Director believed that another century into the future, the Gardens would not be destroyed by progress, but would be more beautiful and within a “cleaner and more beautiful city”.29

Speeches were also made by Governor Gerald Strickland, Premier William Holman (see Fig. 19), and NSW Minister for Agriculture, William Calman Grahame.

Figure 19

The Governor then declared open the Captain Cook, Sir Joseph Banks, and Governor Phillip vistas; the Agriculture Minister’s wife Emily formally named the Centenary Rosary; and a total of sixteen memorial trees and shrubs were planted along the new vistas by “representatives of the Empire and Allies”. In closing, a series of patriotic tunes and ‘national airs’ of allies were played by the band of the National Rifle Reserve.30

See the colourful Plan of the Botanic Gardens as they were in 1914 below (Fig. 20 and detail in Fig. 21), just prior to the anniversary.

Figures 20-21

The 'Royal'

The importance of the visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on 13 February 1954 (see Fig. 22), was reflected in the suggestion made by one Mrs A Thornhill of West Ryde in November 1954, to change the name of the Gardens to ‘Queen Elizabeth Gardens' (see Fig. 23). In response, Chief Botanist Robert Henry Anderson put forth an alternative of adding the prefix ‘Royal’ to the title of Botanic Gardens (see Fig. 24).31 Anderson’s suggestion was not adopted until 13 January 1959, when Premier John Joseph Cahill advised permission had been given by Her Majesty for the Gardens to be designated the ‘Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney’ (see Fig. 25).32 The designation was confirmed in the Government Gazette, 4 February 1959.

Figures 22-25:


[1] Government Printing Office of New South Wales. (1978) ‘Historical Records of New South Wales, Vol. 1, Part 2: Phillip 1783-1792’, Mona Vale : Lansdown Slattery & Company, p. 189

[2] Gilbert, Lionel. (1986). The Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney: A History 1816-1985. Melbourne : Oxford University Press, p. 11

[3] Gilbert, Lionel. (1986). The Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney: A History 1816-1985. Melbourne : Oxford University Press, p. 13

[4] Gilbert, Lionel. (1986). The Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney: A History 1816-1985. Melbourne : Oxford University Press, p. 25

[5] State Archives New South Wales: Colonial Secretary; NRS 897 Main series of letters received, 1788-1826, [4/1814], John Oxley, Surveyor-General, 1810-1826, pp. 7-9

[6] SANSW: NRS 897, [4/1814], John Oxley, Surveyor-General, 1810-1826, p. 27

[7] SANSW: NRS 897, [2/812], John Oxley, Surveyor-General, 1810-1826, pp. 7-9

[8] Gilbert, Lionel. (1986). The Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney: A History 1816-1985. Melbourne : Oxford University Press, p. 28

[9] Gilbert, Lionel. (1986). The Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney: A History 1816-1985. Melbourne : Oxford University Press, p. 26

[10] SANSW: Colonial Secretary; NRS 905 Main series of letters received, 1826-1982, [4/2171.2] Colonial Botanist, 1833, enclosing 33/4537

[11] The Library Committee of Commonwealth Parliament. (1923). Historical Records of Australia, Series I, Vol. XVIII, July 1835-June 1837. Sydney : Government Printer, p. 236

[12] SANSW: Botanic Gardens; NRS 20161 Unregistered correspondence files, 1897-1972, [17/8620], The grave of Richard Cunningham, Tyrie Station Dandaloo, enclosing letter George Colman Green to Joseph Henry Maiden, 20/6/1920

[13] SANSW: Department of Education; NRS 15320 Teacher career cards, 1908-1987, Green, George Colman; National Archives of Australia, MT1486/1, GREEN/GEORGE COLMAN

[14] SANSW: Botanic Gardens; NRS 13110 Letters received and minutes of proceedings of the Committee of Management of the Botanic Gardens, 1836-1896, [4/7577], p. 39, Colonial Secretary to the Committee of Management of the Botanic Gardens, 7/3/1848

[15] SANSW: Department of Public Works; NRS 12419 Special bundles, 1846-1963, [2/640 B], ‘Lecture Room in Botanic Gardens’, 11/4/1850

[16] Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Council, 1849, Vol. 2. ‘Report from the Director of Botanic Gardens, Sydney,’ p. 1

[17] Gilbert, Lionel. (1986). The Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney: A History 1816-1985. Melbourne : Oxford University Press, p. 94

[18] SANSW: NRS 12419, [2/895A] enclosing 67/2711

[19] Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Assembly, 1870-71, Vol 4, ‘Botanic Gardens. Report on Present Condition of Establishment’, p. 1

[20] Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Assembly, 1878-79, Vol 7, ‘Botanic Gardens and Domains. Report on Present Condition of’, p. 1

[21] Sydney Morning Herald, 1/9/1860, p. 6, ‘The Aviary at the Botanic Gardens’

[22] SANSW: NRS 12419, [2/640 B], ‘Aviary and Botanic Gardens’ enclosing 59/362, 16/8/1859

[23] Sydney Morning Herald, 18/3/1862, p. 2, ‘Acclimatisation Society’

[24] Evening News, 27/7/1883, p. 1, ‘Zoological Society, Moore Park’

[25] Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Assembly, 1878-79, Vol 7, ‘International Exhibition Building. Letter from Under Secretary, Colonial Secretary’s Office, to the Colonial Architect’, 4/1/1879

[26] SANSW: NRS 12419, [2/896 B], Colonial Secretary’s Office to Colonial Architect, 28/11/1881

[27] SANSW: NRS 905, [1/2527.2], Garden Palace, 1879-82 (Part 1), enclosing 83/6815, letter Colonial Architect to the Principal Under Secretary, Colonial Secretary’s Office reporting destruction of the Garden Palace by fire, 23/9/1882

[28] Gilbert, Lionel. (1986). The Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney: A History 1816-1985. Melbourne : Oxford University Press, p. 137

[29] Sydney Morning Herald, 14/6/1916, p. 12, ‘Botanic Gardens. The Centenary.’

[30] SANSW: Premier's Department; NRS 12060 Letters received, 1907-1976, [9/4733], B16/2500 enclosing copy of ‘Programme: Centenary of the Botanic Gardens, Sydney. Tuesday, 13th June, 1916’.

[31] SANSW: Botanic Gardens; NRS 13115 Correspondence files, 1894-2009, ASF 54, Request for Sydney Botanic Gardens to be designated the Royal Botanic Gardens – Sydney, 18 Nov 1954 – 10 Nov 1965, enclosing M54/793

[32] SANSW: NRS 13115, ASF 54, enclosing letter Premier Cahill to Minister for Agriculture and Food Production, R B Nott, 13/1/1959

Published on 

The 1954 Royal Tour

On 3 February 1954, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh arrived at Farm Cove in Sydney to commence their Royal Tour of Australia

Garden Palace Fire, 1882

The Garden Palace, in the Royal Botanic Gardens, was built for the Sydney International Exhibition which opened on 17 September 1879

The story of how to move a zoo

In the early hours of Sunday, 24 September 1916, an elephant named Jessie walked out through the gates of the Zoological Gardens at Moore Park in Sydney’s eastern suburbs and began an extraordinary journey through the city

Original glass plate negatives from the NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive arranged on a lightbox.

Glass-plate photography

The collection of glass-plate negatives held in the State Archives and Justice & Police Museum are endlessly fascinating and revealing