Botanical Gardens Talk by Ray Seward

Ray Steward came to Brisbane in 1967 and was appointed as Assistant Parks Manager BCC, and then as Parks Manager from 1970 to 1992. Ray had had previous experience working at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, the Adelaide Botanic Gardens and the Albury City Council Parks Department.

After 25 years, he retired in 1992, and became a volunteer guide at Brisbane Botanic Gardens Mt Coot-tha.

The following memories of working at the Gardens were presented by Ray to the members of the Toowong and District Historical Society in 24 September 2010. He also shows photos of the gardens on a Powerpoint display.

Ray begins his talk by thanking Guest Speaker Programme Organiser Bruce Sinclair for inviting him to share his memories, and commenting that he had enjoyed the earlier discussion on aspects of Toowong’s history.

Thank you for having me here… and [it’s] great to hear all that history about the Toowong area. I’m only going to talk about the history that goes back to the beginning of the new botanic gardens at Mt Coot-tha.

I can’t do it without saying a little bit about myself and telling you a little bit about where I came from.

I came here in 1967 as the assistant manager to the Parks Department in the City Council. Of course, the Greater Brisbane City existed in those days and I knew nothing about all the councils that were amalgamated. I knew they had been amalgamated, but I knew nothing about it and the job I held was virtually in charge of the operation of the Parks Department; now I held that job for 3 years.

1970 came. The manager that was there left and I became the manager and I stayed the manager for a long time

…For the last 20 years I have been retired, but I have still been interested in the Botanic Gardens because I’m a volunteer guide at the gardens and make it my business to know what’s happening in the Brisbane Botanic Gardens at Mt Coot-tha.

Now let’s go back to 1970. In the [Brisbane City] Council, Clem Jones was the then Lord Mayor. The Botanic Gardens in the City was a functioning botanic gardens and the curator was Harold Caulfield.

Harold was one of my staff…and Harold and I talked about a new botanic gardens and never got real serious until the politicians of the day—in fact Clem Jones was the only one that did really show any interest. Politicians of the day decided to let out feelers that we’d have a new botanic gardens.

So we got busy and persuaded the operation to start a new botanic gardens and the first thing that happened—well, there had been moves to make a second botanic gardens in Brisbane at Long Pocket, but that happened many years before when Harry Oakman—do you know Harry Oakman? Have you heard about Harry Oakman? He was director of Parks and Gardens or the manager of parks and gardens for a long time after the war—he was interested in starting a new botanic gardens. But the system was never able to support it and it never happened—and that was to be at Long Pocket.

We actually tried…we put Long Pocket in the system again in the 70s and said, well this is a good site… here is another site. And the site that was chosen was the one at Mt Coot-tha.

‘Coot-tha’ means ‘Honey Bee’—and that’s a honey bee hive that’s being referred to. They are native bees and they don’t sting and they produce honey. The current curator Ross McKinnon has introduced a lot of hives into the gardens.

When the garden first started, it was opened in 1970. We know it was open then because that plaque was unveiled by Clem. I haven’t got a photo of that here today. Now on the rear of that plaque—has anyone ever seen the stone?

Audience: ‘No’

No, I know you haven’t—it’s still there, but it has actually been turned around and put back in and with shrub, with another shrub and trees close by, and you can hardly see it for trees and plants. And that’s what happens to signs in public places when somebody gets re-inventive and they put up another sign, and the other one goes.

But this one is still there. On the rear of this sign there is another plaque with all the names of the citizens of Brisbane that were on a committee that was formed that worked to support the start-up of the new botanic gardens and there were judges and aldermen and judges… I read the names last night so I could remember who they were, but I can’t remember the judge’s name….

There was a landscape architect who lived around this area somewhere by the name of Barbara van den Broek[i]. She went down to Sydney subsequently and worked down there. There was Harold Caulfield and there was me… and that committee met a few times, and we actually had a master plan done of the gardens.

Ray referred to a photo on his Powerpoint presentation, and said:

This is an early aerial photo of the gardens. The master plan was drawn by a man named Dean Miller. Dean Miller was the landscape architect in my department and he drew the master plan. And the actual plan, the design and functioning of the gardens as you see it today is still that master plan. And the master plan included the quarry over the back and it also included Anzac Park. Anzac Park became the first part of the garden that was developed.

I don’t have any photographs of Anzac Park. You will just have to look at this one for a minute while I tell you about Anzac Park. I know you want to know this story…I want to tell it anyway.

…we started work in Anzac Park; we put the roads in; we took out the house; we took out the scout den; and we built a big nursery. It was a very modern first class nursery of that day. Dean Miller, who designed that nursery had worked in England—he’d worked at Kew Gardens and at a lot of nurseries and he knew what he was doing. It was one of the best designed little nurseries of that time. It was the best, there is no doubt.

A member of the audience commented: ‘We had [the smell of] the straw and flies …we lived just down the hill.’ Ray replied, I’ll tell you about the flies later, just remind me, and then continued:

When the nursery was operating, it had a line of glass houses; it had an outdoor area; and a big potting shed—it was right where the dog park is now. It was a great little nursery. However, in the early days of developing Anzac Park as a garden, the plan included a tunnel under the Western Freeway… that’s not unusual for a garden to have a tunnel under a big freeway; it’s been done in other parts of the world and we were keen to do it and Main Roads were ready to do it.

Anyway, one Friday afternoon—this is the start of history, this is—one Friday afternoon Clem Jones said, ‘I want to meet you’. And I met him on the corner of Wool and Dean Street and we had a plan on the front of his car—and there was me and another officer. And he said, ‘why are you developing Anzac Park?’

I, well, I was, you know, an officer—er, does anyone know Clem Jones? I was just one of these junior officers—I don’t know what I said, but we immediately stopped work on developing ANZAC Park. That park never went back into the plan for development.

Subsequently it has been developed into another park—quite a good one. But we would have liked the nursery to stay as the nursery. It was taken down in the 80s when the economic rationalists, accountants in other words, got control of the council and it was costing too much. You could do it another way! You couldn’t do it other ways! I wasn’t the manager by that time; I’d been given another job.

[Showing photo of the sign]: Dean Miller designed the frontage and designed that sign—after Dean was here for 5 years, he went down to Wollongong council as director of parks there, and was involved in the Wollongong Botanic Gardens. If you go to Wollongong Botanic Gardens you will see the same sign. It’s got ‘Wollongong’, but it’s exactly the same: it’s a replica. That doesn’t exist anymore—it’s changed.

[Next group of photos:] That was the entrance in the early days. There’s the entrance now—much more classy, isn’t it? I think it is anyway. The palms were planted by the volunteer guides actually some 20 years ago.

A member of the audience asks: ‘Do you know if the council kept the old sign?’ Ray answers: No it was completely destroyed—that was one of the signs of the day. The standard wasn’t too good—that one was exceptional in those days.

A member of the audience asks: ‘When was the planetarium built?’ Ray answers: The planetarium was built from day one of the gardens—the planetarium went in—one of the early things that went there.

Referring to a photo on the Powerpoint display, Ray says:

That’s one of our rainforest walk signs, and you’ll notice young trees and mulch in behind. That’s part of the Australian rain forest which is just inside the gate on the right hand side.

The first curator of this garden was named Barry Dangerfielfd and he remained in the gardens for 5 years. Barry was a single man who lived in the gardens. He was a very dedicated horticulturalist and a very dedicated man for the botanic garden and he was quite a cultured gentleman. You’ll see him later on. I will show you a photograph of him.

Showing another photo, Ray explains:

That’s early construction and early planting of the gardens included the development of the pathways using granite crushed granite and concrete mix dry and spread and rolled and that’s how these paths were built. Those paths are still there and are the basis for the bitumen sealed paths that are still in the gardens.

[Showing another photo]: Another scene of the Australian rainforest area. The bamboos were just about endemic to that area, but they were planted by one of the families—we say they were planted by the Watkins Family, but whether they were or not, that could be fiction. We don’t know, but they are not native; they were put there. The story is they were put along the creek at shade for the local kids who went swimming in the creek, in that creek there.

Comment from the audience: ‘There are more down at Anzac Park.’ Ray replies: Yeah…it could be that they just spread down. A whole lot was done, but I can’t remember which mayor it was done under. I don’t know that story. I can’t remember it off hand.

Referring to the next set of photos, Ray continues:

Ok, now, that’s at the opening of the auditorium and the administration building on the 28th of June 1975. Five years have moved on from 1970, and in that photograph Clem Jones and the man with his finger pointing is Barry Dangerfield.

Ian Brusasco is the man with the European look and he was fairly supportive of what we were doing—he was our chairman later on. Without Clem Jones, that garden would never have existed because for the whole Lord Mayoralty he was supportive of the garden and what we did. And at his memorial service Ian Brusasco mentioned the fact that Clem had built this garden, and I think that this was a very significant thing. Clem was very much involved—not from the day-to-day action of what we did, but as a policy he supported the idea.

[Next photo]: The Administration Centre: now that’s changed a lot—now there is a herbarium up behind that—another big building.

The planetarium was under construction, finishing up on—I don’t recall the date of the opening of the planetarium, but it was fairly close to ‘75. It looks a lot different.

This entrance Information Centre was built from day one. For many years it had a council officer in that Centre and 20 years ago the volunteer guides started both at the City Botanic Gardens and at Mt Coot-tha. They started manning this particular building and they are there every day except Christmas Day and at Easter, I think—they are the only 2 days there’s nobody there.

Ross McKinnon came in the 80s, but before Ross Mckinnon, Barry Dangerfield. I’ll keep talking about each one of them as we go for a while.

Ross came in the Gardens in 82, and Ross is still there. He’s been Curator for a long time and what we see up there now is result of Ross’s work. [Showing photo]: That’s him there in the tie if you know him…

Audience: ‘Who’s the fellow in the pink shirt?’

Ray replies:

I don’t know! I think the guy with the shorts on is still working there—he’s the only other one I know. The others, I’m not familiar with them, but remember I was Ross’s boss in those days. We had a staff of 300 to 400 depending on what day it was.

The plan for the gardens was divided into zones of the gardens. And this is one of the first zones [showing another Powerpoint slide]: Australian rainforest area which I showed you earlier. [Showing another slide]: This Fragrant Gardens is one of the second areas that we planted—it’s all fragrant plants, and incidentally, a lot of the fragrant plants are all the same plants they used for herbs and medicinal purposes and has been the case for a 1000 years. I say 1000 because 500 years seems a bit short!

[Showing another slide]: This is the fragrant lawn and in behind here is a little water feature that was designed by Dean Miller and it no longer exists. Lovely, isn’t it? But it was just attached to the mains water. There was no pump or anything and water was just running away and it started to leak, so Ross got rid of it. I think it’s got plants in it now.

[Showing another slide]: The exotic rainforest: the big area of the first part of the garden was an exotic rain forest. See the sort of country that is. Now to develop that as a garden, what Barry did—because he supervised all this—Barry Dangerfield supervised the early part, put in the tracks following the contours, cleared some of the site of trees because in those days the usual way to plant rainforest was to plant them under something. Very soon after we started this, that method—we soon discovered—it was not necessary to plant rainforest species under the shade of other things. And nowadays it’s not done. The rainforest goes in, and off they go—but this is where your problem with flies arises.

One of the things we used to do—we used to gather organic matter, no matter where it came from, and a lot of it was sewage sludge. It was spread on the ground in all these places and not little thin layers. It was mulch and the mulch in all these areas was put in that thick. We cultivated it as best we could and then used thick mulch—and part of the mulch was the sewage sludge. And in time, with sewage sludge, were the flies.

And we would get inordinate complaints about the flies, and we would treat the area, and I think it did get rid of the flies. [To member of the audience: Did it get rid of flies in the 80s? Audience: ‘I can’t remember. I can remember before my kids were born, they were pretty bad. Someone said they ripped the straw from the stables full of cow and horse manure and urine and sometimes, you could smell it.]

Ray continues:

It wasn’t decomposed. It was just spread on the ground. You’ll just have to wait till it all breaks down’. Did we say that to you? He was an old hard case type who didn’t mince his words. Said you just have to wait till it all breaks down—we call it ‘tough love.’

One incident in particular—a real bad incident—I was going in my car up Mt Coot-tha and I had an accident in my car chasing these wretched flies.

Anyway, that’s what we used to do—that was our process for getting those gardens underway. It was Brisbane schist on that side of the hill. In fact, it’s all Brisbane schist—probably the poorest country in Brisbane to try and grow anything.

[Showing another slide with a photo from the Powerpoint presentation:] That’s taken in the same spot [as the previous photo]—so you can make a difference, can’t you?

Audience: ‘Crystal Creek…that’s what the locals call that creek. Crystal Creek’. Ray: I’ve never heard that name. Person in audience: ‘Some people have told me that. Ray: You could be right.

Ray shows the next few slides and provides a brief explanation about each:

Right, continuing up the hill from that last photograph, we get to the exotics, then through the exotic rainforest, and there’s a lookout. That was the original lookout designed by Dean Miller and built by Works Department engineers, and it no longer exists because there’s another lookout higher up the hill associated with the big lookout at the top of the hill.

[Next slide:] And it looks like that now—there’s no lookout; there’s trees all around.

[Next slide]: Another spot in the rainforest area. One of the things that Barry Dangerfield did was to build features in the creeks. These creeks were like that top one on the middle right going up the hill, and [next slide:] that’s what they look like naturally. They’ve been cleared a bit. All the creeks were augmented with rock features all the way up and the water reticulated back down.

Keep your eye on that white stone here [pointing to stone]—just keep your eye on that one. [Showing next slide:] That’s what it looks like now.

And you can see that more stone has been put in—the quarry being next door was a wonderful asset. If we’d had to pay to cart stone long distances, then it would have made it a very much more costly job.

[Next slide:] This is the site of the Dragon Bridge just below the exotic garden.

Now this area looks nothing like what you see there now. That was a wooden bridge that went in, and that palm (pointing out a palm tree)—you will see a dual palm in front of the truck that was moved by Barry Dangerfield very early in the life of the gardens from the university—they had it. It was a rare palm and it’s still there.

That’s below the Dragon Bridge.

[Re next slide:] That’s the Dragon Bridge completed, and that palm is on the left-hand side there.

On the right-hand side of that now is a huge fig tree—no, that’s not it! That’s what the creek augmentation stone looked like in the early days. There’s the Dragon Bridge now in 2005.

[Re next slide:] Now that’s Barry Dangerfield—Barry was very interested in singing and when he died several years ago, we suddenly discovered he’d written poetry, and some of his friends put his poetry together in a volume which I’ve got at home and I must get it out. He did write some poems while he lived at the gardens and they’re about the gardens. I must get them out. I should let people hear them.

That’s one of the features of the waterfall—of the rock treatment of the waterfall. It’s there still working like that. One of the features we were pleased with was the water system that was installed in this garden.

Many gardens have water systems installed that break down—and never go again. This one was put in by the Council water supplier and it was certainly over planned—but it still works today and that was Harold Caulfield did! And Harold was instrumental in that. [Re next slide:] After Barry left, Harry was instrumental in keeping the exotic rainforest going and developing—that’s him standing amongst it, and he did a lot of hard work and a lot of planting in that area.

[Quickly showing several more slides]: That’s another scene in the exotic rain forest and another one.

This is taken in the horticultural area—with what’s known as the—on this side it’s all been changed—on this side now, this is South African plants, and this has horticultural plants from all round the world.

Now the first lagoon came in ’75 and was built by engineers who were at a conference. More scenes of the lagoon…lagoon again…wonderful stepping stones… we are not allowed to use anymore because somebody might fall off them.

There’s Harold Caulfield and his team building the pathway around the lagoon. That pathway is still functioning and has not caused any problems, which is very good.

[Final slides]: The glasshouse which was built opened in ’77, and looking at it today from the same spot.

[i] Barbara Ruth van den Broek (22 August 1932 – 24 August 2001) was a New Zealand-born Australian architect and landscape architect.

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