Charles Scoborio - William Donald - Duncan Leitch - Laurence McPhee - Terry O'Sullivan  - John Sheely

Through the 115 years from 1872, four Curators attended to the Gardens. Charles Scoborio was the first of this remarkably long-serving succession, being Curator from 1872 to 1905. William Donald held the position from 1906 to 1931, Duncan Leitch from 1932 to 1958 and Laurence McPhee from 1959 to 1986. Terry O'Sullivan from 1995 and now John Sheely 2007

These long periods of consistent curatorship have provided a background on which to trace the development of the Gardens;

Ferdinand Mueller, then Director of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens, confirmed a request to provide seeds and plants for the site. The nurseryman Thomas Haines was the delivery agent for plant stock from Mueller to the Warrnambool steamer. In June 1859, Haines wrote to confirm the delivery of 'two packages of plants and shrubs' for the botanic garden.

Guilfoyle's plan was approved by the Borough Council on 30th April 1877. The Warrnambool Standard described the plan as ".....a natural and picturesque design, having broad winding walks, pleasant lawns, with clumps of trees dotted here and there under which doubtless seats will be placed, rockeries, and a lake ....." Although the design embraces the whole of the ground, and will cause a re-arrangement of beds and trees, it is not intended to interfere with the beds and rockery near the house, as they form a pleasant feature in the foreground as seen from the high road".

CHARLES SCOBORIO (1859 - 1905)

Charles Scoborio was born in Cornwall, England in 1827. As a youth, he was a student of Dr. John Lindley of the English Royal Horticultural Society and was the first to receive a travelling scholarship from the Society and this enabled him to study landscape gardening in Europe. On his return to England, he secured a position as head gardener to the country gentleman.

(photo on right:  The first curator of Warrnambool Botanic Gardens)

In 1857 Charles Scoborio with his wife Elizabeth and his small son Thomas Henry left England for Australia and came to Warrnambool in that same year. For a short time he was employed by Briggs and Naphine and in the Warrnambool Examiner of 25th June 1858, he advertised that he would lay out gardens.

Three years earlier a site for the gardens had been chosen next to the cemetery on the west bank of the Hopkins River. The site of 10 acres was poorly protected from western gales, the ground was poor and most of it rocky. By 1859 the site was fenced and a cottage built for the curator. The ground had been grubbed and cleared and roads to its entrance marked and cleared.

The gardens were not a success, plants and trees were severely handicapped by the frequent gales. Nor was the council generous with funds. Public criticism brought forth a defence from the Examiner of 7th August 1860, which said the gardens were now looking "quite fresh". Many of the walks and beds had been cleared and planted "and when we say that over 600 plants, shrubs and trees have been planted during the last few weeks it will be evident that the one man has not been idle". Scoborio persisted for about six years, then resigned. In the following few years, Charles Scoborio obtained a position as head gardener and planner for J.W.M. Aitken at Ellerslie House, Koroit Street and later took up a similar position with Joseph Ware at Minjah.

During that time the council was granted twenty acres of "howling wilderness" heavily timbered bushland and dense scrubby undergrowth, ferns and tussocky grass. Charles Hortles was its first curator from 1869 - 1872 Scoborio again became curator of the gardens at a salary of 3 pounds per week and when he supplemented this by serving as a waiter at the races and town balls he was brought to task.

Difficulty with the site and problems with funding plagued the early years. Scoborio's report to the Borough council in March 1875 brings home some of the curator's problems which do not arise today.

In 1875 Warrnambool had no reticulated water supply and the summer and been abnormally dry and he told the council that he was afraid of losing many newly planted trees as the well water, on which he depended, was hard and it could not be left sufficiently long in casks to soften. [At the time he had 300 young plants in pots and a stack of pine tree seedlings].

Further items from his report are:- Garden paths cleared of grass. Five seats procured, painted and placed at convenient places along paths. If council would allow him a man for a fortnight the cost could be retrieved during the winter. This would also give him more time for planting and improving the gardens.

Finally in 1877 a dissatisfied council commissioned William R. Guilfoyle to design an appropriate layout. Eventually in 1879 council accepted a plan which incorporated wide curving paths, large sweeping lawns dotted with specimen trees, glimpses of water, dense shrubberies displaying a rich variety of plants and focal points composed of plants of dramatic form and colour such as Yucca, palm, bamboos, and other variegated plants.

During Scoborio's curatorship:

  • Gardens entrance and paths improved
  • Well and Windmill installed, thus ensuring a continuous water supply
  • 1885 Lake completed
  • 1886 The lake bridge was constructed
  • 1888 Fernery planned but not completed till the early 1900s
  • 1893 Merri River Water scheme opened and reticulated water available to the gardens
  • Maze constructed
  • 1897 Gardens gazetted
  • Gas lamps installed in the gardens

Charles Scoborio also constructed all the rockeries in the gardens from limestone rocks from the "20 acres wilderness" asking the council for extra to complete his task. The knobbly limestone rockery and fountain which still remains is a monument to his work and where one can linger and enjoy all the senses of an enclosed area.

As well as maintaining the gardens Charles Scoborio had to look after public recreation grounds and street trees.

Well over the age of seventy years Charles Scoborio would have been feeling the stress of overwork as in 1903 and 1904 extensive tree planting took place in the streets, a double row of Norfolk Island pines in Raglan Parade east, a row of pines on the south of Pertobe Road, pines in Henna Street and olive trees and evergreen oaks in Henna Street.

At the age of seventy-nine years Charles Scaborio retired on the 31st March 1906 after forty years as curator. In that same year his wife, Elizabeth died and on the 8th December 1912 Charles Scoborio died. They are both buried in the Warrnambool cemetery.

After toiling long hours at the gardens one wonders how he found time to be a member of the militia for twenty-six years. The volunteers were a feature of town festivals and for several years Charles Scoborio 6'5" tall of magnificent build with a long white beard was the drum major.

He was also a committee man for the Horticultural Society which was formed in October 1863. For many years they held annual shows before combining with the Agricultural Society.

Today we remember the curator by the naming in the 1980s of the reserve at the corner of Otway and Hopkins Road, "Scoborio Reserve".

His photograph is on the pioneers' honor board in the Public Library.

by Marie Johnstone

William Donald (1902 - 1931) 

William was born 01/03/1867 in Closeburn, Dumfrieshire, Scotland. 

At 14 he migrated to Canada with sister.  Then to Australia as a young man.

He was a qualified gardener and married the daughter of a gardener Ellen Hastings in 1890 when he was 24 years old.

William went to Kalgoorlie goldfields at the end of C19th.  Then some time later was a gardener in Mt Macedon. During this time he propagated all the seedlings for the Melbourne Botanic Gardens.

Following the death of second daughter Nellie in 1904 in Macedon they moved to Warrnambool and William took up the position as curator in 1906 until 1932.

William Donald was a Scottish horticulturalist.  He respected the earlier design of the Gardens and was keen to plant more deciduous trees as well as native species from all Australian states. He had links with the Fitzroy Gardens and with Melbourne Botanic Gardens and exchanged plants with them.

He introduced new ideas in the set out and development of the flowerbeds.  A heated propagation house and a separate glasshouse were constructed to allow expansion of floral displays.  He was able to introduce carpet bedding because of the improved water supply. He also extended the limestone walks and developed a rose garden with fifty different varieties.

The rose garden it seems resulted from a proposal by The Standard in 1906.  It was supported by the Mayor, who also suggested that the Curator be given more assistance, by, say apprentices, thereby providing the opportunity for youths to learn the trade of gardening.  The Mayor also said he was sorry to hear of the theft of flowers from the Gardens, chiefly by ladies who appeared to be under the impression they could take as many flowers as they wished.

The gardens became a venue for social and community activities.  The band rotunda and teahouse was completed in 1913 and band recitals and moving picture shows became popular.  A formal farewell to forty volunteers in the AIF was held in 1914, while to mark selection as Victoria's ideal town in 1928, the citizens of Warrnambool held a riotous celebration in the gardens.

Donald was in no way a menagerie man, and the bird and animal section gradually disappeared.  The last to go was the kangaroo - presented to the Melbourne zoo.  The maze was also removed at the direction of Council in 1927.

In 1906 the curator's cottage had been enlarged by the addition of a bedroom, a washhouse and a new kitchen to accommodate the Donald family of six children.  There was no bathroom and in 1924 William Donald wrote; "I wish also to bring up for your consideration the need of a proper bathroom in the cottage at the Gardens. I may mention that I had to buy and install at my own expense the bath that is here, but it is leaking so I cannot use it, beside the place the bath is in at present is not suitable as a bathroom and I would appreciate the convenience of a proper bathroom and wash house. There is a copper built in, but no washing troughs and if these were put in it would add greatly to the comfort of the household".

It seems all the family were committed to the gardens.

A feature of this era was the provision of afternoon tea for visitors at the summer house in the cottage garden where William Donald's daughters served the fruit cake and scones for which their mother was noted.

Donald was a careful manager who respected the heritage of the gardens while fostering the greater civic role they assumed through an era of war and depression.

by Marie Johnson

Duncan Leitch (1932 - 1958)                                                                          

Duncan came from Melbourne and brought with him new ideas.  Many of the early plants had by now reached their life span, and in replacing them Guilfoyle's plan was no longer strictly followed.

Leitch introduced eight new tree families.  He emphasised deciduous trees particularly poplars, together with willows, oaks, elms, birch and plane trees. The tropical theme was not supported and garden spaces were planted with specimen trees.

The George V memorial gates were installed in1936. Memorial tree plantings were another feature of the time.  The "Lone Pine" was dedicated on the 21st January, 1934.  The Warrnambool Standard records that the tree is one of four pines grown from a cone taken from the Lone Pine at Gallipoli.  Mrs. Emma Gray of Grassmere, grew the tree from a cone given to her by her nephew, Sergeant Keith McDowell.  The three other trees were planted at the Shrine of Remembrance and Wattle Park (Melbourne) and at the Soldiers Memorial at The Sisters.

The toilet block was built after the completion of the town sewerage scheme in 1934.  About this time, motor mowers replaced horse machines to cut the grass.  The fernery collapsed in 1936 and was rebuilt the following year.  A picnic ground was developed with a shelter shed and a gas copper to heat water.  Leitch attended the annual tree planters conventions of the municipal parks movement rather than the earlier networks that existed between the curators of botanic gardens. His brother Dugald was curator of the Colac Botanic Gardens.

During this period band recitals, Scouters' Field Days, church and school picnics, local hospital and ambulance fund raisers and similar events were held in the gardens.  In 1947 a Floral Festival was held to celebrate Warrnambool's centenary.

Fundraising functions in the Gardens increased.  During this post-war period there was a subtle shift from the focus on a botanic garden towards the role of the gardens as a municipal park.

Duncan Leitch retired in 1958.

by Marie Johnson

Laurence McPhee (1959 - 1986)

McPhee introduced new species in the existing tree families, and some new native species, as Donald had done.  He planted lone specimens in garden spaces, and seasonal display beds were either simplified or removed.

During the period 1960-1968 concrete curbs were installed.

In 1969 the second fernery collapsed.  At this time too, the perimeter fence was removed, as was the boundary planting along Queen Street.

During Laurence McPhee's curatorship, the gardens benefited from the Sesquicentennial Provincial Gardens Rejuvenation Program as well as from funds donated by several German/Australian companies.

Laurence McPhee supervised substantial work on the buildings in the Gardens.  Major alterations were made to the Band Rotunda following a National Trust report.  The timber upper floor was replaced with a concrete slab and the external timber staircase replaced with an internal concrete stairway.  The fernery was reconstructed, based on a drawing of the earlier structure.

The plant collection was also renewed and repaired.  A collection of ferns from the Otways was established in the fernery, and tree identification, assessment, surgery and labelling was undertaken.  When the massive Dutch Elm, east of the lake, developed a crack that threatened to split it in half there was wide spread concern for its survival.  Tree surgeon John Ashton was called in to cable and brace the crack, and the tree remains a talking point today, solid, secure and shady.

Laurence McPhee and his family lived in the curator's cottage.  It has been said that the cottage is haunted by a friendly ghost.  Reports of a piano playing in the evenings, and of a pretty fair haired girl who wore a pink sash, and made nightly visits, and of a lady in a black cape, create images of the past, for those with a good imagination.  Laurence McPhee claimed he never saw or felt anything. In the Gardens he left a much more substantial legacy.

by Marie Johnstone

Terry O'Sullivan (1987 - 2007)

From 1987 Terry O'Sullivan has had responsibility for the maintenance and development of the gardens.  It has been a period of significant change in local government with the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering, restructuring and the concept of user pays.  However it has also seen renewed community involvement, support and recognition.  The Friends of the Botanic Gardens formed in 1989.  The Gardens were registered by the National Trust in 1990 and added to the Register of the National Estate in 1992.  The National Trust also registered the Garden's significant trees, the commemorative Lone Pine and the Solidad Pine.  It is expected that the Gardens will soon receive protection from Heritage Victoria which is at present considering their classification.

Works since 1987 include, restoration of the perimeter fences and the reconstruction of the timber entrance gates.  The fountain has been restored and the sundial, and one of the original gas lamps repaired, new seats and bins provided and maintenance of the fernery completed.  The assistance of the Friends and other local groups made much of this work possible.

1988 saw the commencement of an ongoing tree removal and replanting plan in consultation with the Department of Conservation and Environment.  The pinetum has undergone many changes with the removal of ancient pine trees and some replanting. In 1995 a bore water line was put through to the pinetum area.

A Growers' Group uses the small hot house behind the cottage and have revitalised some of the ancient fruit trees in this formal garden area.  They have worked with garden staff to replant the entrance bed.

In recognition of the significance of the Gardens the City Council commissioned the Warrnambool Botanic Gardens Conservation and Development Plan, which was launched in 1994.  This brought together information on the history of the Gardens and its botanical and social significance, and made recommendations for the future.  This plan is currently being reviewed. Input from the community will be welcomed by Terry at the Council Offices, or by any of the Friends.

As in the past the Gardens have continued to provide a venue for many community events.  Sunday afternoon concerts, a Federation Fair, Carols in the Gardens, Teddy Bears' Picnics, music performances and presentations by the Holiday Actors, guided walks through the Gardens and just enjoying a family picnic bring thousands of people to the Gardens each year.

There have been commemorative tree plantings.  Mr Jim Guilfoyle, a grandson of William Guilfoyle planted a Norfolk Island Pine in 1996, while in 1997 on the 150th anniversary of the establishment of Warrnambool, Mrs Lesley McGarvie, wife of the Governor of Victoria, planted a Manna Gum.

Following in this tradition the Friends will host a planting by William Scoborio, great grandson of Charles Scoborio on Sunday 9th November, and serve afternoon tea to visitors as the family of William Donald did years ago.

Scoborio fenced the Gardens to keep out the kangaroos and wallabies. Terry O'Sullivan and his staff need more than a fence to repel the Corellas and the Fruit Bats (Grey headed Flying Fox) and Possums in addition to the more common pests of plants and flowers.  It is all a part of the challenge the Curators have met over almost a century and a half of botanic gardens in Warrnambool.

by Marie Johnstone

John Sheely - 2007

The Friends of Warrnambool Botanic Gardens were very active in agitating for the appointment of a curator after big changes in local government, including competitive tendering, left the Gardens without a dedicated curator.

In 2006 we were most fortunate in having John Sheely appointed to that role.

When he took up the position of curator in 2007, the Gardens, while attractive, were in maintenance mode only.  John has worked steadily and systematically to sustain the existing Guilfoyle structure and plan and plant for the future.  Trees are now mulched, garden beds revitalized and appropriate stock sourced for replanting.  His knowledge and experience in heritage properties have ensured his sympathetic approach to our heritage listed garden.

John has worked cooperatively with The Friends and together we have constantly updated our database, web page, newsletter and internal communications.  Through his membership of BGANZ he has both represented and reported back to WBG. He is an excellent presenter and can promote the Gardens to the wider community.

John and his team have rejuvenated the WBG and supported and sustained The Friends.  Their open welcoming approach attract locals and visitors alike.

John moved from NSW with his family in late 2006 to commence work within Warrnambool Botanic Gardens (WBG) in January 2007.

John holds the following qualifications:

  • Bachelor of Applied Science (Parks and Recreation)
  • Diploma of Horticulture (Turf Management)
  • Diploma of Horticulture (Arboriculture)
  • Diploma of Business Management
  • Advanced Certificate in Urban Horticulture
  • Certificate IV in Frontline Management
  • Certificate IV in Training and Assessment
  • Certificate III in Arboriculture
  • Certificate III in Bush Regeneration
  • Certificate III in Urban Pest Control

During John’s time at the gardens the WBG team have undertaken the following:

  • Shrub bed restorations
  • Extensive mulching of trees and shrub beds
  • Creation of water-wise beds
  • Interpretative signage
  • Metal edging of display beds
  • Replanting of the Pinetum
  • Community engagement
  • Introductions of vegetables into display beds
  • Underplanting of trees with bulbs
  • Improving and extending irrigation

John and his team are passionate about WBG and believe in actively managing it for the future.

The WBG team have a saying "Know it, Grow it and Show it"