The Wistaria Gardens and Wistaria Fete.

Cumberland Hospital, Parramatta – A history.

A major feature of Cumberland Hospital’s grounds is the Wistaria Gardens. These were established on part of the 1866 grant from the Governors’ extensive Parramatta Domain. The Gardens are sited in what is now Westmead defined by the Parramatta River to the east, bordered by Parramatta Park to the south and partly to the west, and with the former Parramatta Asylum farm (now Cumberland Hospital) west and to the north. Evidently the original grant from the Governor’s Domain was sought for the asylum farm as early as 1858 when the Medical Superintendent, Dr. Richard Greenup, was asked in an Inquiry whether or not he had taken possession of the land he had requested from the Domain. (Photograph Richard Greenup Fisher Library, University of Sydney)

Ironically the land on which the Wistaria Gardens was later sited was not part of the land granted to the Asylum at that time. This area was given to the Catholic Orphan School which stood next to the asylum on the opposite side of the river. It appears however that later in the 19th or early 20th century the land was re-granted to the asylum because the Orphan School was not making use of it. This is possibly why the site was utilised for the Wistaria Gardens and new medical superintendent’s residence in 1906, rather than integrated into the adjacent well-established asylum farm to the north at the time?

A new official residence for the medical superintendent became necessary because the old superintendent’s residence known as the “Vineyard,” which had been built by Rev. Samuel Marsden’s daughter Mary Betts in c.1825, enlarged by John Blaxland in the 1840s and bought by the government to expand the asylum in 1866, was in a somewhat dilapidated state by the turn of the 20th century. Also, due to the rapid development of the asylum in the late 19th century, it was now firmly sited in the middle of the many wards which had been constructed around it.

The government approved funds for the construction of a new medical superintendent’s residence in June 1904. The new residence was designed by the Government Architect Walter Liberty Vernon in the Federation “Arts and Crafts” style and constructed during 1906, with the layout of the gardens occurring concurrently. (Photograph Mary Ellen Betts 1837 nee Marsden State Library NSW)

The new residence was named “Glengarriff” in Gaelic meaning Rocky Glen and named after a region in Ireland that the then medical superintendent Dr. William Cotter Williamson, a native of Ireland must have held dear. Glengarriff served as the official residence of the medical superintendents until the end of 1963, when newly appointed Dr. William Barrett decided to reside in his own home. For the next 18 months Glengarriff was used as a half-way house for patients transitioning to home or community life after a long admission to the hospital. Glengarriff was renamed “Wistaria House” in 1966 when it became an addiction treatment centre under Dr. Stella Dalton, where Methadone (a synthetic opioid) was first used in Australia to manage heroin withdrawal and dependence. As the name Wistaria House had become synonymous with its twenty five year use as an addiction treatment centre, the original name was re-instated in 1996, four years after the house was refurbished as the Hospital Museum and a Coffee Shop for the patients.

(Photograph of Glegarriff Dorothy Warwick Collection)

Regarding the Wistaria for which the Gardens were to become famous, popular tradition has it that Dr. Williamson was the father of two daughters, Nightingale and Nora, both of whom belonged to an accomplished musical society. That Nora (1902-1994) was an accomplished musician is without doubt, as at the end of her studies at the Conservatorium of Music in Sydney in 1921, she was regarded as “talented.” During 1924, Nora left for Europe to study in Berlin under Carl Flesch. Subsequently, she became regarded as one of the world’s finest violinists in the 1930s and had a long career as a soloist as well as playing with a number of orchestras including the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Regarding Williamson’s other (and eldest) daughter, her name was actually Lucia D’Esterre (1901-1955) and no evidence has been found to suggest that she possessed the talent of her sister Nora. Dr. Williamson had been separated from his wife Clara Constance for many years and their daughters lived with her. It also appears that neither daughter ever married, Lucia caring for her mother until her death on February 28th 1945, predeceasing her estranged husband by only a matter of days.  

The traditional story suggests that Dr. Williamson accompanied his daughters on a musical performance tour of Japan in 1907 (Nora would have had to been something of a child prodigy as she was only about five years of age at the time), and it is said that on this trip that he acquired roots and cuttings of wistaria, which he bought home and planted. The veracity of this tradition is very dubious, as no firm evidence can be found to support the story except an article in the Sydney Morning Herald in September 1945 that states Dr. Williamson  

saw foaming masses of wistaria on a visit to Japan. He came back imbued with a desire and a conviction that “we can better it.”

 The ending comment in this statement should perhaps be seen in light of the surrender of Japan to Allied Forces just two weeks previously, thus ending the Second World War. Nora Williamson’s obituary in the Australian in March 1994 also states that Dr. Williamson went to Japan and erroneously claims that it was he who first introduced the plant to Australia. Neither article mentions that his daughters accompanied him or that the visit occurred in 1907. It is possible that he visited Japan in his earlier career as a Royal Naval Surgeon before coming to New South Wales in 1878. 

Dr. Williamson did indeed take an extended four month overseas trip in 1906, undertaken whilst his new residence was being finished, which may have fueled the story of a trip to Japan. Dr. Williamson himself spoke about this trip in an interview with the local newspaper which observed that it had taken quite some time for him to comply with their request for an interview. Dr. Williamson reported that he had visited Ireland, England, Marseilles, Gibraltar, Port Said, Aden, South Africa and Ceylon, but there is no mention of Japan. Dr. Williamson noted that he spent three weeks in Ireland and effused about the beauty of the Irish countryside. Perhaps his Gardens were in part influenced by what he saw and perhaps hoped to recreate around his new official residence.

History of Wistaria Gardens and Wistaria Fete 

Historian and Author Terry Smith Copyright 2017