Select Page

Victoria’s first garden

George Bass was an early visitor to today’s Victoria, naming Western Port in 1797, the ‘westernmost port’ known at that time. He sailed into the inlet in an open whaleboat with a crew of six men following Governor Hunter’s orders to explore the coast south of Botany Bay.

Western Port

A few years later, on 28 March 1801 James Grant of the sloop HMS Lady Nelson, on the direction of Governor King, began a survey of the southern coast from Cape Otway to Wilson’s Promontory. The ship had left Sydney on 6 March 1801 and returned on the 14 May. In Western Port, Grant’s crew constructed a blockhouse on Churchill Island, the first built structure erected by Europeans in today’s Victoria. Grant also established the first European vegetable and fruit garden in Victoria. His name for the island commemorates a gentleman from Devon who had donated the seed with the proviso that his gift be used ‘for the future benefit of our fellow men be they Countrymen, Europeans or Savages’ [1,2]

‘The ground was now prepared, and I sowed my several sorts of seeds, together with wheat, Indian corn, some grains of rice, and some coffee berries; and I did not forget to plant potatoes. With the trunks of the trees I felled I raised a block-house of 24 feet by 12, which will probably remain for some years …’[1]

Among the fruit seeds were apples, peaches and nectarines. A few seeds were also planted in the poorer soil of Margaret’s Island (now Elizabeth Island).[1] Lady Nelson left Westernport one month later, on 29th April.

George Caley (plant collector for Banks) was on this survey and Grant (1803) mentions several botanical collecting forays. However, Caley’s specimens, if any remain (he was wary of sharing information and specimens), are unlocated. So, potentially the first recorded plant collection in today’s Victoria could also have occurred in early April 1802 when Leschenault de la Tour, botanist on Le Naturaliste, of the Baudin expedition (1801 to 1803) put in to Western Port (a visit commemorated by the name French Island), although, again, there is no record of Leschenault’s collections. [1]

Port Phillip

This was followed immediately by the collections of Robert Brown and Matthew Flinders of the survey sloop HMS Investigator in the adjacent Port Phillip Bay at Arthurs Seat a few days later on 27 April[4] as Flinders was charting the southern shores between 26 April and 3 May 1802. The ship’s party included Kew gardener Peter Good and the artist Ferdinand Bauer.

The earlier Flinders and Bass circumnavigation of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in the Norfolk in 1798–99 had proved that a strait, now Bass Strait, existed between the mainland and Van Dieman’s Land.

On 8 December 1802 John Murray, who had succeeded Grant in command of the Lady Nelson, visited Western Port’s Churchill Island, eating some of the vegetables. Wheat, corn, a few potatoes and two onions had survived. The exact site of the garden and blockhouse is not known. [5] Further seed was sown in 1826 by Captain Wright who established a Western Port settlement in 1826. [5]

Gardener-botanists would remain an integral part of exploration and survey teams, both on land and sea. In early 1803 a survey team was sent out in HMS Cumberland under Charles Robbins to assist Surveyor-General Charles Grimes in assessing King Island for settlement, also the lower reaches of the Yarra and Maribyrnong Rivers (English presence, it was assumed, would also discourage French territorial ambitions), and the basalt plains to the west of Port Phillip. The team included convict gardener James Fleming who kept a journal recording his observations of the vegetation, but if plants were collected there is now no record of them. At today’s Dight’s Falls near native huts and fish traps they planted seeds, probably an assortment of wheat, corn, radish, cress and mustard.[6]

Fleming returned to England from Port Jackson on HMS Glatton in 1803 as the gardener in charge of ’19 boxes of Plants and Shrubs’ bound for Banks in London, together with a letter of commendation from Rev. Samuel Marsden to Banks, which introduced Fleming as ‘a good Gardener and Botanist’. Fleming delivered the plants to Banks personally, but Banks was sick in bed. Governor King had also asked Fleming to make a list of all the non-indigenous plants of the colony of New South Wales, adding the names of those that might be of future use. Fleming’s list was duly sent by King to Lord Hobart. Ducker notes that ‘this list of agricultural and garden plants is most astonishing in its diversity . . . surprising . . . that such a variety of fruit trees and garden plants were already in this young colony’[6] Australia was already playing a role in the globalisation of cultivated plants.

Collins’s penal colony

In October 1803, to discourage French settlement in the Port Phillip district, an attempt by Lieutenant David Collins to establish a penal colony of 450 prisoners, free settlers and marines at Sullivan Bay near Sorrento was abandoned in January 1804 due to lack of water, the entire contingent moving to Hobart.[4][7]

Henty brothers & Batman

No further attempts were made to settle this region until graziers Edward Henty and his brother Stephen moved from Van Diemen’s Land to occupy arable land at Portland Bay in 1834 (previously occupied by whalers) and in the following year, on 6 June 1835 a syndicate from Launceston, Tasmania arrived at Port Phillip Bay headed by John Batman who, in exchange for trinkets, obtained an ‘agreement’ from the local Aborigines for 600,000 acres of land around the Yarra River. Then in the first week of September John Pascoe Fawkner’s schooner Enterprize under captain John Lacey arrived with three settlers and four servants who immediately built a store and cleared land for a garden on the Yarra River at the head of Hobson’s Bay on the site now occupied by the city of Melbourne.[7]

Today’s Melbourne occupies land of the Kulin Nation, an alliance of five distinct language groups, the land appropriated by John Batman is now known as Narrm, and the local clan the Wurundjeri.[8]

Following Victorian settlement, reports of its quality grazing land reached Sydney. This attracted land-hungry squatters and within eight to ten years central and western Victoria were occupied by flocks of sheep grazing the native grasses.[8]

Colonial botanic gardens were a vital coastal link to empire and in December 1845 Governor Charles La Trobe, supported by the Town Council, formed a Committee of Management for a future botanic garden. Then, in February 1846, about a decade after Melbourne was settled, the land was reserved and announced, marking the formation of the RBGV (which would become ‘Royal’ in 1858, one year before Sydney’s botanic garden) [9] Work then began on a two-hectare plot of land fenced off by the first curator John Arthur beside a tea-tree swamp on a curve of the Yarra River where an Aboriginal mission had previously been built.


First published on the internet – 15 September 2020

Page Menu


... Western Port

... Port Phillip

...... Collins' penal colony

... Henties and Batman


Print Friendly, PDF & Email