Wistaria Gardens- Head Gardner

The Wistaria Gardens were perhaps at their greatest beauty and maturity from the late 1930s until around 1980. During this time over 100,000 annuals bloomed each year for the Wistaria Fete. The gardens were described in one publication as “one of the last ‘real’ flower gardens of Australia”. The gardens were entered into gardening competitions from the early 1960's and every year judged as finalists in the Sydney Morning Herald Gardening Competition – more often than not being awarded the gold plate. (Photograph courtesy of Mrs Paull Terry Smith Collection)

These awards were largely the work of Mr. Reginald Paull, a former poultry farmer from Carlingford who became head gardener of the hospital in 1964. During his time the use of patients for labour was abolished, however a small group of former patients continued to work voluntarily in the gardens for a small stipend (on top of their invalid pensions) until the mid-1970's. Mr. Paull retired in 1976 but continued to work in the gardens as a volunteer with a diminishing number of volunteer and increasingly elderly ex-patients until his death in 1985. Mr. Paull’s ashes were scattered in the Wistaria Gardens by his wife without ceremony in a circular garden bed next to the bridge over Domain Creek. Mrs. Paull’s ashes joined those of her husband a few years later. 

After Mr. Paull’s tenure as head gardener the gardens went into decline. In 1986 the government promulgated the Health Services Act whereby all hospitals were placed under local Area Health Service Administrations. This meant that decision making by individual hospital management was slowly eroded in favour of Area Health Service bureaucrats, who rarely had any connection to individual hospitals nor understood their cultures and traditions. Whereas hospital administrators might find ways to support activities such as the hospital fete and garden maintenance, the area health service administrators were always keen to point out that such activities were not core activities of health services!   (Photograph 1989 Terry Smith Collection, bridge over Domain Creek, plantings having been removed.)

Over time individual hospitals lost control of their budgets being increasingly placed at the mercy of health service bureaucrats. Subsequently over the next few years, the budget for grounds maintenance was severely curtailed which reduced the full-time gardening staff from five to two! Then in 2012 the gardeners were reduced to one! As a direct consequence the Wistaria Gardens had many beds grassed over, the hundreds of rose bushes were ripped up and many trees were cut down and not replaced as they aged. Lost were many perennial plants such as canna and other lilies as surviving garden beds were narrowed to try and keep at least a spring annual flower display for the fete. Large areas of wistaria were also torn up. An arbor of Wistaria that covered Domain Creek next to the bridge was unceremoniously demolished its’ supporting pillars pushed into the waters of the creek (including one with a memorial that was unrecorded before its destruction). Other arbors were demolished rather than repaired as was sometimes necessary, their maintenance had become impossible as budgetary constraints squeezed tighter.  

Worse still, in 1990, rumours began that a large area of the Wistaria Gardens were to be bull-dozed as part of a hospital redevelopment! These rumours were always officially denied. However in October 1990 it was admitted that there had been plans to demolish Glengarriff, but they had now been put on hold. This reversal did not happen spontaneously or by chance. A group of concerned staff and Parramatta citizens had formed the “Friends of Wistaria Gardens” earlier in the year, and quickly gained community support and well as support from heritage groups and historical societies and the Environmental Defenders Office. (Photograph c 1948 Joyce Compton Terry Smith Collection.)

The ‘Friends” began lobbying in earnest for information and commenced a public campaign to protect Glengarriff and the Wistaria Gardens. The campaign raged for the next six months but led eventually to an agreement for a Conservation Plan for the gardens to be developed by the Heritage Group of NSW Public Works Department. It was agreed that both sides would accept the recommendations of the Conservation Plan. In a long discussion of the environmental heritage with historical, social architectural, aesthetic and landscape significance, the Conservation Plan upheld the assertions of the Friends group and further talk of demolition was shelved. However, in a show of co-operation, the Friends group agreed to allow an area near northern border of the gardens to be used for the construction of a new ward and a hall for patient recreational activities.

This area had already been heavily damaged with the large rose gardens ripped out and grassed over a few years before, and the hall was to be built on the site of a late 1960's tractor shed with no historical significance. A large weatherboard shed built for gardening staff and equipment in the early 20th century was demolished. The “trade off” was the reconstruction of an old collapsed lych gate on the western border of the gardens with Parramatta Park. There was also an agreement that the gardens would be better funded and maintained into the future and perennial flowering plants returned to the gardens. (Photograph over Domain Creek Reginald Paull 1970.

Copyright Terry Smith 2017

Historian and Author