After its inauguration in 1842 the Melbourne Town Council took up the call for the reservation of parkland. The Council expressed its view in a petition to Superintendent La Trobe “ it is of vital importance to the health of the inhabitants that there should be parks within a distance of the town where they could conveniently take recreation ”
Public Record Office Victoria / January 2015
Fitzroy Gardens Plan by Edward La Trobe Bateman, 1857

A Vision for Gardens

Soon after he arrived in September 1839 to take up the position of Superintendent of the Port Phillip District, Charles Joseph La Trobe began setting aside from sale large areas of land near the city that he described as being for “the public advantage and recreation.” 

La Trobe’s vision of a society was one not wholly dominated by commercial interests, but which encouraged and provided for social, educational and religious concerns.

The eight major gardens in Melbourne’s inner city are the Royal Botanic, Fitzroy, Carlton, Flagstaff, Treasury, Alexandra and Queen Victoria, as well as Birrarung Marr. 

Each garden has its own unique history and story to tell.

Royal Botanic Gardens

The Royal Botanic Gardens was established in 1846, after Lieutenant Governor Charles La Trobe selected the site on the southern bank of the Yarra River. 

At the time of its foundation, the site was an uninspiring mixture of rocky outcrops and swampy marshland, but it was not long before the foundations were being laid for one of the great gardens of the world.

Elevated view of the Royal Botanic Gardens, c.1870
Plan of the Government House Reserve, Botanic Gardens, 1864. Reproduced courtesy of the Map Collection, State Library of Victoria.
Royal Botanic Gardens today

Mueller's Gardens

In 1857, the Gardens’ first full-time Director, Ferdinand von Mueller was appointed. 

Mueller was to become one of the most acclaimed botanists of the 19th century. He established the Gardens’ scientific centre, The National Herbarium of Victoria, and amassed an extraordinary range of plants from every corner of the world.

In 1873 Mueller was succeeded by William Guilfoyle, who set about creating the Gardens’ world-famous ‘picturesque’ landscape style. Guilfoyle sculpted sweeping lawns, meandering paths and glittering lakes, creating a series of vistas offering a surprise around every corner. Guilfoyle was aided in his work by Melbourne’s mild climate, which allows an exotic mix of tropical and temperate plants to be grown. 

Today, the Gardens are home to more than 51,000 individual plants, representing over 12,000 species. They are a natural sanctuary for native wild life including black swans, bell birds, cockatoos and kookaburras. The Gardens are owned by the people of Victoria and managed by the Royal Botanic Gardens Board.

Baron Ferdinand Von Mueller, c 1867
William R Guilfoyle, Plan of the Melbourne Botanic Garden.
William R Guilfoyle, Plan of the Melbourne Botanic Garden

Fitzroy Gardens 

Located in East Melbourne, the Fitzroy Gardens are one of the city’s oldest public gardens. 

Named after Sir Charles FitzRoy, Governor of New South Wales, the land was considered undesirable for building purposes. It was set aside by the government around 1848, upon the advice of Superintendent La Trobe, to be developed as parkland. 

Until 1862 the gardens were known as ‘Fitzroy Square’. 

In 1856 the Melbourne Council commissioned Edward La Trobe Bateman (Charles La Trobe’s cousin) to design a layout for the gardens. His elaborate plan, however, proved too expensive and was never realised.

Fitzroy Gardens by Edward La Trobe Bateman, 1857

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

Clement Hodgkinson 1858

Melbourne from Wellington Parade East Melbourne looking north west, oil on canvas, 1872.
Fitzroy Gardens today

Showpiece of Melbourne

In 1858 Clement Hodgkinson redesigned the gardens, doing away with Bateman’s elaborate symmetry of winding curves, replacing them with vertical, horizontal and diagonal paths. 

Hodgkinson’s design has often been thought to resemble the Union Jack, but this similarity was not intentional.

By the 1870s the gardens were much admired and considered the showpiece of Melbourne’s public gardens. 

Under JT Smith, curator of the Fitzroy Gardens from 1921, changes were made. Many of the Stone Pines and Moreton Bay figs were replaced with lawns planted with Ginko, Limes, Palms and Silver Birch. 

When the Spanish mission style conservatory opened during the Great Depression, hundreds of people queued up to see the free floral displays.

AC Cooke, Carlton Gardens, wood engraving, 1862.
Carlton Gardens 1877

Carlton Gardens 

Often called the Exhibition Gardens, the Carlton Gardens were designed by Edward La Trobe Bateman in 1856. They were a World Heritage site. 

It was an ongoing battle to maintain adequate fencing around the site, with broken fences and gates failing to prevent the entry of goats, as recorded by gardener William Hyndman in 1859. Early plantings in the gardens comprised of cypresses, pines, gums, wattles, cordylines, poplars and willows. The overall effect was informal and was poorly regarded by the press.

“From end to end of this parallelogram there is little else but the very squalor of vegetation. The Corporation Gardener (WM Hyndman) has seemed always to be contemplating some brilliant success, but never achieving it.” 

The Argus, 28 April 1870.

Original Plan of Carlton Gardens 1874
Carlton Gardens today featuring the Royal Exhibition Building with straight diagonal paths

1888 Centennial Exhibition 

Hodgkinson’s hard work was obliterated when the gardens were redesigned for the 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition and the central third excised to accommodate Joseph Reed’s Royal Exhibition Building. 

The northern garden has many fine avenues of oaks, elms and plane trees dating from the period after the 1888 Centennial Exhibition. 

During the exhibition, the garden had been dug up to make way for exhibits, but was subsequently replanted.

Flagstaff Gardens, 1866. C Nettleton

Flagstaff Gardens

The gardens in the city’s west were laid out in the early 1860s on Flagstaff Hill, named after the flagstaff erected in 1840 to send messages between the town and harbour. For the first few years of European settlement, the hill accommodated Melbourne’s first burial ground until a cemetery was established on what is now Queen Victoria Market.

Flagstaff Gardens today
Plan of the Flagstaff Gardens, 1885

Once a Social Hub

An early resident, George Gordon McCrae, recalled Flagstaff Hill as a popular meeting place, where the latest ‘news from the Bay’ could be had and fine views enjoyed. It was also popular as a place to fight duels. In 1850 it was the scene of celebrations when news arrived of the impending separation of the Port Phillip District from New South Wales. Not long after, the electric telegraph superseded signalling flags and the hill lost its attraction as a rendezvous. In 1862 West Melbourne residents petitioned the government to transform what had become a derelict hillside into public gardens.

Flagstaff Gardens, a social hub. c 1866
Clement Hodgkinson, from The Illustrated Australian News, 1893. Originally decorated Flagstaff Gardens with copies of classical statues and densely planted with trees. Extensive lawns and flowerbeds have now replaced many trees, and tall neighbouring buildings now obscure views of Port Phillip Bay. 

Alexandra Gardens

The Alexandra Gardens are located on the south bank of the Yarra River. The gardens are part of the Domain parklands which stretch to the Royal Botanic Gardens and were first laid out in 1901 under the direction of Carlo Catani, Chief Engineer of the Public Works Department. They are listed on the Victorian Heritage Register due to their historical and archaeological significance. Originally this area of the gardens was used for timber cutting, cattle grazing and as a brick-makers’ field. Regular flooding occurred, until a new channel for the Yarra River was dug from 1896 to 1900 to straighten and widen the river. The spoil was used to fill the swampy lagoons and brickmakers'  pits and to help raise the height of the river bank where the Alexandra Gardens now stand. The gardens were planned and laid out ready for the visit of the Duke of York in May 1901.

Alexandra Gardens, c. 1900.
Alexandra Gardens, c. 1900
Alexandra Gardens showing boathouses

Then and Now

At the beginning of the twenty-first century the lower reaches of the Yarra flowed through Melbourne’s central business district and the Docklands, a regulated canal contained by artificial banks, weaving its way between office and apartment skyscrapers, sprawling industry and port facilities, and finally emptying out into Port Phillip Bay.

In recent years, with the creation of the Southbank and Docklands precincts, the banks of the lower Yarra have witnessed a transformation. In addition to being popular with Melburnians enjoying the outdoors in adjoining parks and gardens, the Yarra has become a focus for new recreation, dining, commercial and retail spaces.

Melbourne Docklands at twilight
River Yarra from Queen's Bridge, 1914

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