AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL BOTANIC GARDENS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
TAPE NO. 3387/2 - JIM WEBB
INTERVIEWED BY MATHEW HIGGINS
12 DECEMBER 1995, AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL HERBARIUM
HIGGINS: This is Tape 1 of an interview with Jim Webb by Mathew Higgins for the Friends of the Australian National Botanic Gardens Oral History Project taking place at Jim’s flat in Curtin on Tuesday 12 December 1995.
Jim thanks very much for agreeing to do an interview and it’s good to catch up with you while you’re up here from Wagga and I’m looking forward to hearing some of your memories of early days of the Gardens.
WEBB: Thank you Mathew. I’m also looking forward to recalling these days which for me was a very pleasant period in my life.
HIGGINS: Now we might go back to 1947 when after the War you participated in the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Training Scheme in a horticultural scheme I believe.
WEBB: Yes that’s right. I was discharged from the army. Of course in those days we had what they called a ‘points system’ and the longer you were in the Army you got a certain number of points. If you were married you got extra points. Me being single and I had been in the Army at the end of the war eighteen months so I didn’t have a lot of points. So I knew that I would be stuck in New Guinea or even worse for quite a period before I was discharged so I volunteered to go to Japan with the occupation forces. When I came back I had intended going to university but all the places were occupied. All the universities were full of Commonwealth Rehabilitation people like myself; soldiers, I shouldn’t say soldiers, they were defence personnel who had taken up this opportunity. So I looked around for what else I could do. One option I had considered was fisheries and I had always liked boats as I liked sailing when I was a youngster. My father and I had done a lot of fishing and things like that.
HIGGINS: That was around Sydney, was it?
WEBB: Around Sydney yes. I thought well that would be an interesting career and the only other option that I had was to come to Canberra as a trainee gardener. I was always interested in gardening. My father died when I was, I forget the exact age, I think I might have been about thirteen and I was then the man of the house as it were, doing the garden and so forth and I took a great interest in it. OK that was something that I thought I was interested in so I chose to come to Canberra. That was in 1947. I think it was around about June.
HIGGINS: And so who were you studying under.
WEBB: This scheme was put together I think by Lindsay Pryor. He was the main person behind getting these trainees to come to Canberra. His idea was to train people who could take over middle management in the Gardens. There were two intakes. I was in the second one and the first one was six months before, that was in 1946 but we teamed up together. We had six months full time at the Canberra Technical College but we also had other lectures from people like Nancy Burbidge. She was then Miss Burbidge. She later became Dr Burbidge at the CSIRO. She was in botany. Katy Helms who was later Dr Helms from the CSIRO. We had entomologists from CSIRO also. Dr Hillson, Lindsay Pryor and others. We had a very thorough education in horticulture. We were also on a scheme whereby we had ……
HIGGINS: Now that scheme, that ran for about six months, didn’t it?
WEBB: No we had six months full time and then we were also studying the syllabus from Ryde School of Horticulture in Sydney except I think the Canberra syllabus was autonomous and there for example we had arboriculture which wasn’t included in the Sydney one. So in fact we did the Sydney Horticultural Certificate together with the arboriculture which was specific to Canberra. Then for the next three years we worked with City Parks, Parks & Gardens as it was then four days a week and then we had one day tuition together with one night and that went on for three years.
HIGGINS: So you were almost a full time employee with Parks & Gardens.
WEBB: Yes, a full time employee with Parks & Gardens on the four days and then one day off for training and then at the completion of course we were offered a position. We were assured a position in Parks & Gardens as a Gardener Grade 1 which was the top. I think there were Gardeners Grade 4, 3, 2 and 1. So we were given these positions. Indeed a lot of people now would be classified much higher but even people like Dr Gauba I believe was classified as a Gardener which in terms of classifications that was the only way there was really under the set up of the Public Service. We weren’t permanent public servants. I think they called it ‘day labour’ or something like that. It was a different pay structure.
HIGGINS: Yes so you had this four days a week as a Gardener Grade 1 and it was in that context that you came to the Botanic Gardens site.
WEBB: Yes in those days of course, I’m not sure exactly I can’t put an exact date on it, but it was whenever the Botanic Gardens first kicked off. Now I might add that we also moved around. That is we had three months in a particular area learning a particular job. For example on the golf course or bowling greens in Canberra, Yarralumla Nursery we worked there. I’m not quite sure when this happened, I can’t relate it to a specific time. I have some photographs, or at least I have one photograph which I took. I was obviously involved with the first plantings on the gardens. These are the mature plantings and that was at a time when the small plantings couldn’t take place because the actual site of the Gardens as we know it now formed part of a grazing lease. I think the chap ‘s name was Smith. I think it was Sunnybank, I’m not sure of the name of the station but …
WEBB: Oh Springbank.
HIGGINS: Because the island in the lake is named Springbank.
WEBB: Well that was his sheep. He had, I suppose you’d call it a contract or an agistment right to graze the sheep up to a certain time. While ever his sheep were grazing there of course it was not possible to plant.
HIGGINS: So where did you put in these plantings?
WEBB: These plantings went in on the then perimeter of the Gardens. Now the perimeter of the Gardens then as envisaged by Lindsay Pryor, I mean he did the plantings with the idea of forming the boundary. Those plantings are still there today, part of them. They’re not recognisable by most people but they are opposite Cambia I think, you know the CSIRO computing ….
HIGGINS: Yes on Clunies Ross Street.
WEBB: Yes that’s right. Opposite there is the Plant Culture Facility, I think for the university.
HIGGINS: So on the opposite side of the road from Cambia.
WEBB: The opposite side of the road yes. Now at the rear of that there’s a stand of blue gums and there were about eight rows I think something like that were planted and then they continue down at the rear of Ursula. A lot of them have been removed for car parks and things like that. Then they go down, a lot of them have been removed but you can still see this line or lines I should say of trees that were planted down behind John XXIII and then on the banks of Sullivan’s Creek further down there were Casuarinas because you know the land gets swampy down there. That formed the boundary of the Botanic Gardens site as then.
HIGGINS: So would those plantings have been amongst the earliest put in.
WEBB: Yes they were the earliest and I have photographic evidence of this. As a matter of fact I’m looking for the negative. I have a slide of it. Sorry a picture. I’ve got it, it’s just a matter of going through lots of black and white negatives. We’ll be able to blow that up.
HIGGINS: The Gardens would love a copy.
WEBB: Oh yes. Well it is the first even though the site now belongs to the university, it was the first planting of the Gardens.
HIGGINS: Would you be able to hazard a guess at the year that that was. Would it be 1948? Was it before the official planting by Salisbury and Chifley in 1949.
WEBB: Oh yes, yes. It was well before that. It was while I was a trainee and as I say unfortunately I’ve got nothing to tie the date to except I have this photograph which I took and it must have been perhaps ‘48/’49, something in that order.
Really I can’t say. I think you will appreciate that there were no fixed jobs in those days as far as I was concerned. I was rotated all around the place. I went here, I went everywhere. For example I was an assistant to Alf Southwell who was the Parks & Gardens supervisor and I used to travel around with him to various jobs. I used to relieve certain jobs that required a supervisory capacity. For example I relieved the Head Gardener when they went on leave at the Prime Minister’s lodge. Arthur Rigg at Government House for a fortnight or so while they went on leave. I had a lot of moving around and the Gardens of course was one of these where I sort of moved around.
HIGGINS: Just thinking about the state of the site at the time that you first became familiar with it. Now there was grazing going on so it wasn’t at all recognisable as any sort of garden site at that time.
WEBB: Oh no, no not for a long while. Even when it was planted it wasn’t recognised. There were no official notices up or anything like that. Of course you realise it took a while for these plants particularly the ones that were planted from what we call ‘tube stock’. Just little tubes. It took a long while for them to get up to be noticeable as part of a garden and not part of the natural flora of the area.
HIGGINS: Well just talking a little bit now about Lindsay Pryor and his role. Obviously there had been some precursors to Lindsay. There was the Dickson Report in 1935 and do you think Lindsay was the right person at the right time in that he had the will to get this thing moving which had been in abeyance since Dickson’s time.
WEBB: Definitely yes. Without Lindsay it wouldn’t have got off the ground I’m sure because Lindsay had this vision and I think I shared in that too. I could foresee that this was going to be quite an asset to Canberra. I was very interested in the concept of being in on the start of what I could imagine in my lifetime would be quite a …. in those days of course I couldn’t have imagined what it would be like then as it is know. My wildest dreams couldn’t have foreseen the development that did take place.
Yes I think a lot of credit has to go to Lindsay for that. He had a lot of problems in terms of funding for the area but he had particular votes of money that he could use that were not committed for a particular thing. He was able to put men and materials to that without officially being … this is what I understand. For example there wasn’t a vote specifically for the Botanic Gardens site so you can well imagine unless Lindsay was dedicated to this concept of the Gardens then there is no way that he would have put money allocated to that that could have been used elsewhere.
HIGGINS: So right through the time that you were associated with the site, so through to 1951, there was no formal approval?
WEBB: Well look I’m not competent to judge that. I was only a gardener there. This is a policy matter. As for the concept you mentioned, when was it, 1936?
HIGGINS: Ah 1935, the Dickson Report.
WEBB: 1935 yes. I would think that there would be very few people who would know about the concept of the Gardens. On Burley Griffin’s plan of course he had the Gardens on the Yarralumla, I forget the name of it but below the Yarralumla Nursery there.
HIGGINS: Yes, Weston Park. I think he may have had this continental arboretum as he called it with trees from around the world stretching possibly from Black Mountain Peninsular right across. Now obviously Lindsay was pretty enthusiastic about the Gardens and a feature of the Gardens of course is that it is all native plantings. It wasn’t necessarily to be all native right at the beginning?
WEBB: No. At the beginning as I understood it, and in fact I worked on this particular aspect also, the area south of the road that went up Black Mountain was designated as the overseas botanic area. I think I remember in discussions Gauba saying it was going to be divided up into various continents. In other words we were going to have exotic plants from the American continent, from Europe and various things like that. A lot of these plantings were done and in fact I was involved with some of them. One in particular the first planting which was south of the quarry. The quarry I’m referring to was just immediately south of the road going up Black Mountain.
HIGGINS: And that road is the same road we use today to go up to Black Mountain Tower?
WEBB: Ah no. It was further over towards where the present road into the Gardens is. That was the original road going up there. That other road that we go up now was put in a bit later, a bit closer to the quarry. Anyhow just south of the quarry I was involved with the planting there of a group of American plants known as Ceanothus and I think Lindsay Pryor when he was overseas had collected a number of seeds of Ceanothus species or he had them sent to him. I don’t know the actual particulars but we had many species of Ceanothus. These plants are indigenous to California and the climate in California is very similar to parts of Canberra and these were planted out there and I was actually supervising the planting there. Unfortunately none of those survived but I know the exact spot where they went in.
HIGGINS: Is that spot within the current Gardens boundary? Is it north of the …
WEBB: No, no it’s south. It’s not in the current boundaries as I understand them being used now. There was talk I think back in the eighties there was a public submission for the extension of the Gardens and I put a submission in about that area because there were a couple of features in that area that I want the Gardens to be aware of. Perhaps we can talk about that later.
HIGGINS: Well no why not put it in now?
WEBB: Well in that submission I drew attention to the fact that in the area that was going to be the extended gardens there were a couple of features that most people would not be aware of and I thought it was valuable that they be noted and perhaps care taken to do something about them. One of them was the presence on Black Mountain of a eucalypt hybrid.
Now this was a hybrid with the trees, the ribbon gums, the Eucalyptus viminalis that grew once along the Sullivans Creek. I remember on the golf course, you know on the Molonglo River there before the lake, there were a couple of these ribbon gums natural pre-settlement ribbon gums growing there. They all disappeared of course when the Sullivans Creek …. I never ever saw them on Sullivans Creek. As I say I only remember a couple on the golf links and they all disappeared with the lake but on the Black Mountain slopes there just up from the quarry there was a hybrid between the Eucalyptus viminalis and the maculata sorry maculosa?? another gum that grows on Black Mountain.
I proposed that would happen was that that tree should be preserved, seed collected from that and then by a process of selection we could go back through the original to the particular trees that grew there, they could be selected from that progeny of the hybrid. I thought that would be a valuable thing to have in the Garden to show that one could resurrect, if you like, a species which had been preserved in the form of a hybrid. Mind you it would take a long while, many generations, but it could be done. So I pointed that out in my submission and another thing that I pointed out was, and this had been shown to me by Alf Southwell.
Now Alf was a very old Canberra identity. He had worked originally on the construction of Parliament House, he goes back that far. He was the supervisor and he showed me on one of our excursions up to Black Mountain there was a quarry of the sandstone. Actually there were two quarries. Because I showed interest he also showed me the other one on Mt Ainslie and both of these quarries were very small and you would hardly recognise them as such but that was where the stone came from for St John’s Church, both the sandstone and the bluestone. So I knew where these two actual sites were even though they wouldn’t be recognised.
So I thought that this was historically important that this site should be recognised as such. Anyhow I did receive notification that both of my submissions had been accepted whereas there were a whole lot of other submissions that had come in and they weren’t accepted so they’re on record there somewhere. Another thing about that quarry, later on when I was appointed as a ranger and of course these days rangers go round with a uniform on and that’s their job but this was just another job in addition to my other duties. I had a little card signed by the Minister who was at that time Anthony, that’s Doug Anthony’s father. He was the Minister for the Interior. So I’ve still got that. I’ve still got that ranger’s card. It’s got a crown on the front of it and I produced that if I was cautioning anyone about doing the wrong thing.
HIGGINS: So you were a Parks & Gardens ranger?
WEBB: Well I was employed by Parks & Gardens but I was a ranger, yes. But that wasn’t the big thing. It was only an additional part of my duties and yes, I was a ranger. Later on of course I was a ranger for NSW for what was then the Fauna Protection Panel, a name like that. But anyhow that’s not important.
Because I was a ranger I had occasion to investigate on Black Mountain one of the builders, perhaps I shouldn’t mention his name but he was a very prominent builder at the time and he decided that he wanted some sandstone for a building. I don’t know which building but anyhow he decided to get some sandstone and of course it was near this area where the St John’s sandstone had come from.
In the process of doing this of course he exposed a lot of rocks and when I was at one stage up there having a look at this site to see what damage had been done I noticed some fossils in the rocks, some crinoids and some other shells. Crinoids are coral stems and some brachiapods which are basically shells. I noted that and later on I read a report by the Bureau of Mineral Resources. They were based in Canberra here, and they had produced a map of Canberra, the geology of Canberra, in detail and they had the Black Mountain sandstone and because there were faults all the way around the sandstone and there’s a classical fault up there near O’Connor. It’s pointed out as being a significant geological fault.
Anyhow there was no way that they could date it geologically because of the stratigraphy, there wasn’t a sequence that they could find and they hadn’t found any fossils. So I took these fossils up to the Bureau, or at least I told them that they were there and they didn’t believe me. Anyhow they came out and had a look and as a consequence they were able to date the Black Mountain sandstone, Lower Devonian I think it was, from those fossils that I had found in that site which was the original. So to me it had an historic significance.
HIGGINS: OK now we have been talking about the development of this all-native policy, now are there any surviving exotic plantings from this early period that you know of?
WEBB: Yes, yes there are. The whole area south I think down to the peninsular, I couldn’t be quite sure of that because that came later after I’d left Parks & Gardens. Some of those plantings were done when I was still there but I wasn’t intimately involved with those however I do know that on the south of Black Mountain there was a large visible grass area which now is not terribly evident. That was planted with a number of exotic trees and indeed there are some survivors you might say. Now there’s an area if I can just remember the actual name of the roads, but Lady Denman Drive and Parkes Way, I think Parkes Way is the expressway isn’t it?
WEBB: Now there’s an area between Lady Denman Drive and Parkes Way where there are some survivors. There are three, there’s a group of three Tilias, these are lime trees and I’m not sure but there some ash or Fraxinus there. But certainly the Tilias are the leftovers from those exotic plantings. They were left there, a lot were removed when both Lady Denman Drive and Parkes Way went through. Now the ones up on the hill I believe some of them were removed, the ones that had autumn colours because I know at one stage those were taken out. There were some maples and things like that. I haven’t been up there, I intended going up there yesterday but I was doing other things. Time ran out. Also at the entrance to Black Mountain Peninsular there’s a couple of oaks there on the left which may be, I’m not sure. But there’s a couple of oaks there that could well be from those survivors.
HIGGINS: So these plantings of exotics, they were going on in the late forties and the early fifties?
WEBB: In the fifties. These were more into the fifties.
HIGGINS: So when was it that the policy of natives only came in and what was responsible for that?
WEBB: Well the policy was right from the start. Lindsay Pryor had selected the area close to the CSIRO where the Gardens are now as being the one suitable for native plants. Because of the sandstone the drainage was ideal for Australian native plants. The other areas where the exotics were planted weren’t as favourable for native plants and I would agree with that and I think part of the success of the Gardens was the choice of that site for the native gardens. The initial concept, as I understood it, was that the Gardens were to be very large and they went right down to the peninsular and in fact may have even included the peninsular but that was before the days of the NCDC. I think once they got into operation things changed from the original concept that Dickson had proposed and then Lindsay had tried to implement.
HIGGINS: OK so it’s really through the cutting down of the size of the site that the Gardens became purely native gardens in that the early exotic part was left out.
WEBB: That’s right. Most people considered then that the Australian native section was all there ever was. As a matter of fact I heard criticism of Gauba at a public address that was given by a member of the Gardens staff who criticised Gauba for planting exotics because from the records he discovered that there were exotics. He just didn’t understand that that was part of the original concept and he shouldn’t have attacked Gauba on that score.
HIGGINS: Where do you think this desire to have a particular native area, where did that come from?
WEBB: Well Lindsay Pryor of course was an expert particularly on eucalypts but also on other Australian plants and I’m quite sure that Lindsay had the expertise and he was able to, I think, push that forward.
HIGGINS: There had been some influence from his trips overseas and seeing gardens overseas which had a focus on their native plants. Santa Barbara, Gothenburg and Edinburgh.
WEBB: That’s right and I think he recognised that there were no Australian botanic gardens at that stage that were devoted entirely to native plants and I think he thought here was the ideal site and this could be the first.
HIGGINS: Can we say just a bit more about the changes in the boundaries because obviously these changes had quite a major impact on the Gardens that we know today.
WEBB: They certainly did. Well the ANU of course annexed that section I was talking about previously where the boundary plantings were. A road went through which wasn’t there previously. I forget the name of it.
HIGGINS: Is that Dickson Road?
WEBB: Yes Dickson Road, that’s correct. Well Dickson Road was put in and the university ring roads and things like that all went in and at that period of course that was annexed. Well when I say annexed I suppose it was never formally part of the Gardens but obviously in Lindsay’s mind it was to have been part of the Gardens. Of course the CSIRO had also a section where the computing section is now. Incidentally that area there when I first went there was a big rubbish tip. It was a wash away gully and that gully was used as a rubbish tip. Indeed this gully extended over the road into what is now that plant culture area of the ANU.
When I was working with the ANU of course that was the Botany Department. It was solely for the Botany Department. Later it became the Plant Culture Facility for the whole of the university. I remember there at one stage there was some digging going on in the grounds and we unearthed a whole lot of rubbish which had been buried in what was obviously a drainage channel which had eroded out. Out of that came some enamel number plates which had FCT Federal Capital Territory so these go back quite a while. So it was used as a rubbish tip for quite a considerable period based on the evidence of those FCT number plates. I wish I had kept some of them.
HIGGINS: Yes they would be worth a bit now.
WEBB: Well they were cut. Actually they had been handed in. They used to destroy them by cutting them in two but I fiddled around a bit and I matched a couple up. I don’t know that there are many of those FCT plates around at all.
HIGGINS: I don’t think so. As far as the loss of that southern end of the Gardens and the Black Mountain Peninsular etc was that simply due to NCDC coming in? Because the NCDC was formed about 1957 or so.
WEBB: Look I couldn’t comment. I wasn’t in a position of having access to the policy making and things like that. Lindsay Pryor would know. I think you’d better ask him about those sorts of details. I was concerned with ‘on the ground’ as it were.
HIGGINS: Well we’ll move on to your actual physical work shortly. The Gardens as envisaged, there seems to have been a very strong emphasis on their research and scientific role and they weren’t seen initially as a place of public recreation so they were to be rather different to botanic gardens say in other capital cities?
WEBB: That’s correct yes. Although I think the original intention of botanic gardens was for scientific purposes and certainly the Sydney Botanic Gardens was originally like that, but I think through public pressure and urbanisation of the areas surrounding these gardens there was a need for people to have areas where they go to not only look at the plants but to picnic and have lawns and things like that. I think that it’s true that the Canberra Gardens were conceived with that policy of being strictly for the plants. There was no provision in the early days, any thought indeed of having anywhere where there could ball games or lawn areas.
The plants of course were laid out in areas. That is all of the particular families were grouped in taxonomic areas. Mainly in family groupings. In other words all the Myrtaceae plants would be in one particular area, Proteaceae plants in another and a lot of this was based upon the suitability of the site for the bulk of these plants. We can talk more about this when we come to the business about laying out the gardens, paths and so forth.
HIGGINS: OK. You mentioned that grazing was still going on and people were coming in to take sandstone, so obviously there were quite a few threats, if you like, to the site of the Gardens at that time. Can you tell me how you dealt with those or whether there was a policy or means to try to counteract say people coming in to take fire wood or whatever.
WEBB: Yes there wasn’t much that could be done. There was a presence there during the week but on weekends there was no presence. It wasn’t a really bad problem. There was some rubbish dumping, a little bit of that occurred. Really it wasn’t a really bad problem. People were still dumping rubbish in the rubbish dump that was alongside the CSIRO in the wash away. Depending on what type of rubbish that went in there, it was no great threat to the Gardens as such. Later on of course that was completely filled in and I’m not quite sure exactly where it is now they’ve done such a good job on covering it over.
HIGGINS: All right, well what about natural impacts on the Gardens site, dealing with rabbits and kangaroos?
WEBB: Regarding the early plantings, each plant had to have an individual circle of netting around it. That was to keep the rabbits out mainly because those plantings didn’t go ahead until the sheep were removed. There was a fence, of course, but there was a road in, it was only a dirt track …
HIGGINS: In off where? Where Clunies Ross Street is now?
WEBB: Clunies Ross Street yes. Of course there was a road in there and the other thing about the Gardens the site where the buildings are now. When I say the buildings, the cafeteria and all those buildings. That was a gravel pit there and there was another gravel pit further up and the road continued on up to the top gravel pit which is now the area where all the plant cultivation area is. That was all levelled out. Actually it was quite fortunate because on a sloping area it provided a large flat area which was essential for the building of glass houses and things like. They were two big gravel pits. People yes did come in and get a trailer load of gravel or something like that. It wasn’t really gravel, it was sandstone scree, small bits of sandstone. That didn’t really cause any great problem. The area was a bit like a moonscape, there was no regeneration to speak of. It had all been taken out by the scoops. In those days they had, oh I’ve forgotten the name of them now but they were a scoop that operated from the truck.
HIGGINS: Berriman loader?
WEBB: Yes a Berriman loader, that’s it.
HIGGINS: So that was a well known source of gravel for Canberra builders?
WEBB: Well I don’t know whether it was builders but certainly residents would go up there with a trailer and pick up a load if they needed some clean fill because it was good well drained material. It was suitable for filling. I think it was used by the departments mainly for road working and so forth.
HIGGINS: OK if we can move on more now to the actual work that you recall doing there and one of the great challenges of course to the Gardens to establishing plants from all around the nation at one site is dealing with the local climate and questions like water and particularly frost. For example how did you deal with those? Was there a policy of retaining existing eucalypts as cover for the younger plants?
WEBB: Well the bulk of the area was grassland, that’s why the sheep were there. Adjacent to the gravel pit there was a line more or less of native eucalypts that is mainly Eucalyptus rossii and maculosa and on the CSIRO side there was another line of these trees. In between they had been cleared and that was basically grass so there was no protection there. They were on their own as it were and that is where Lindsay Pryor on one occasion gave me instructions of what to do in terms of the maximum grades that were needed, to put in a line of pegs in the centre of the paths so as to survey the paths to more or less follow the contour but not exceeding a certain grade and keep a certain distance between the paths. I forget the figure now but it was so many yards, or so many feet between the paths and this was to be the planting area.
Now having pegged those areas that’s where the first small plantings were made and this was where the Melaleucas and Callistemons were originally planted. All of those were planted there and the reason being that there was a natural water course coming down there. At that stage of course there was no water on the Gardens and the plants that were to survive the very hot summers without water of course would be those that would exist where there was a bit of help. That’s why that area was the first one planted. Later on when water came on there was a single pipeline put through as an extension from the CSIRO and there was one tap.
HIGGINS: Was that done in your time?
WEBB: No. That was later on. Of course I had gone to the CSIRO Plant Industry right next door and during my lunch hours I used to come over and just see how things were going because I was interested in these plants and the development of the Gardens. I came over and I used to speak to Stan Kirby who was there and other people and just see what had gone on with those plants, how they were going.
I might add that a very early interest in the Gardens in fact was way back when I used to take Dr Gauba out on collecting trips. I used to take him up to places like Penrose which was out of Mittagong. We used to go there. The reason being that that was sandstone area and also to Nerriga and places like that where there was sandstone because that was where there was a wealth of plants. Now a lot of these plants that were collected on those trips of course were taken to Yarralumla Nursery. We collected seed and they were grown there and a lot of them formed the first plantings in the Gardens. I had been involved with some collection of the seed, not all the seed but some of it. Rudolph Willing used to grow them out at the Yarralumla Nursery and then they came in and they were planted.
HIGGINS: And those collecting trips, would it be just you and Erwin Gauba?
HIGGINS: Would Lindsay be with you.
WEBB: No, no. This was during the week. Lindsay used to go off with Erwin at the weekends. They used to go off weekends to the Brindabellas mainly collecting up there. Oh and other places. It was vital for Gauba to do it during the week. Unfortunately I lost that job after a while. I think my driving was just a little bit too fast. Dr Gauba couldn’t drive and of course he liked to proceed along at a very very slow pace so he could observe all the trees and I’m afraid I was perhaps a little bit too quick on the driving so I was given other jobs to do so. I had a number of trips with him.
HIGGINS: Would you camp out overnight?
WEBB: Oh no these were day trips. No there wasn’t provision under the terms of our employment in those days. There was no such thing for ordinary day labourers to have travelling allowance and all that sort of thing. That restricted us. The furthest we went would be to places like Nerriga and Penrose and the Brindabellas, places like that.
HIGGINS: You were talking about laying out the paths and following the contours. I have seen a reference to you doing contour ploughing at the lower slopes of the site in 1949. Is that right? Were you actually ploughing the ground up to put the paths in?
WEBB: No, what happened was that I did the pegging and then the instructions were for somebody, I don’t know who. I’m not sure whether it was a Howard rotary hoe, that is a tractor-driven one or a hand one, I’m not sure, but they were to follow the line of pegs and mark it with a plough as it were, with a rotary hoe. This would put a line of pegs into the grass that would translate into a visible path. I think at the time I might have had to supervise. In other if the pegs were missing … I’m a little bit vague on that but I do remember certainly the hoeing but just who carried it out or how it was done, I’m not quite sure but I do know that was the base of the paths.
HIGGINS: Of the paths themselves?
WEBB: Yes, the paths themselves.
HIGGINS: Not the garden beds?
WEBB: No. The garden beds were the inter-paths.
HIGGINS: Well were they rotary hoed as well? They must have been cultivated.
WEBB: No. The first thing was that the paths had to be established and then the area between the paths was the planting area. As I recall the planting area was done by hand individually and there were, as I said, netting guards put over the plants. The initial plantings were in that lower area, Callistemons and Melaleucas and Eucalypts of course. There was a diagonal path which went from that area up to an area where it was designated Acacias so there were a lot of Acacias planted. Now a lot of those Acacias of course reached maturity and have long since gone and I think there was an over-planting of Acacias and some of those were removed in fact later on to make way for other plants.
HIGGINS: And the areas that we are talking about here are basically those areas extending out from the buildings like the kiosk and that office block?
WEBB: They were occupying the original grassy area which went virtually straight up the hill but there’s a couple of other roads that were put in also that went straight up from alongside the buildings.
HIGGINS: Just looking at a map of the site today and if you like that’s the car parks and that’s the kiosk and the buildings here and the Eucalypt Lawn is up here and the nursery, so the areas that we’re talking about are …
WEBB: Yes, these areas in here. These paths. You can see those there. Later on there were supplementary paths put in see all those little connecting ones. Now some of them may have been eliminated.
HIGGINS: I’ll just say for the sake of the tape we’re talking about Sections 2/13, 14, 15, 16, 17, that sort of area and 64, 146, 160, that area.
WEBB: And also the area I was speaking about in the Acacias … what is that one there?
HIGGINS: I’m not sure. Oh that was for a recent display there, a sculpture display. It could be the nursery actually that area.
WEBB: Would that be the nursery? The buildings are here, these roads going up the side here, there were roads going up there too. The Acacia area was up in here.
HIGGINS: Ok, up behind where John Wrigley’s house was later built?
WEBB: Yes to the north west of John Wrigley’s house.
HIGGINS: There must have been quite a lot of hand watering going on. You said there was a water course running down the hill, but without any water pipe to the site. Was there a tanker coming in the summer time.
WEBB: Yes there was but there was soon a pipeline put across from CSIRO, just a single half inch pipeline which you can imagine. A single tap and there wasn’t a lot of water. I remember the first gardener, he was a Dutchman, his name was Jan Poulhous and he was there full time and his job was to make the circular netting to put over the plants. He used to have to water them and generally look after them. He was a very busy man because there was a lot of walking and a lot of plants.
HIGGINS: So he was there full time even at this early time, the late forties?
WEBB: Yes. Later on Stan Kirby took over I think. Yes, so that was his job and he initially had no shelter there even. When he first went up there, the first couple of weeks, he was virtually there by himself with nothing.
HIGGINS: And what sort of shelter was put in for him?
WEBB: I think from memory there was a shed put there, but before that he was virtually sheltering under a tree. One of my jobs was to collect time sheets. I remember once I went up there and it was raining and I had a job to find him. He was crouched underneath a tree. It was pretty primitive in those days.
HIGGINS: Well just on that question of the staff, you have mentioned him, Jan Poulhous, Erwin Gauba, how many others were there who had any sort of significant association with the Gardens at this early period? Were there many others?
WEBB: I think some of my fellow trainees on rotation may have worked there but I don’t think so because I can’t recall. You see one of the things was that everybody was fairly mobile. There were more things to be done than there were people to do them. So one had to move around and do all sorts of things, particularly as we were being trained as supervisors. We were supervisors in fact. We had to be here there and everywhere. At certain times of the year for example there were plantings gangs, a gang of gardeners, and they would have to be supervised insofar as provision would be made for them to work in a particular area and to carry out a mass planting somewhere. So I think there were a couple of those sort of mass plantings organised but I wasn’t involved in that.
HIGGINS: So as far as staff who were specifically dedicated for the Gardens, it was really only Jan at that stage?
WEBB: Yes in the early days. I wasn’t there full time. As I said I only came in there to do this initial layout and I was also involved obviously with the plantings.
HIGGINS: Well as far as that layout goes and following the contours, was there any sort of real design behind it apart from following the shape of the hill?
WEBB: Well you must realise that this was the preliminary. At that stage the whole concept of where the design of the Gardens was going to be perhaps Lindsay Pryor would know that, perhaps not put it on paper. I think had it gone on paper and been officially approved it might not have been allowed. Lindsay kept lots of things pretty close to his chest and then implemented them. All I did was to do what I was asked and that was to do those initial paths and later on they were modified and of course they were supplemented. I think a lot of the subsequent plantings, particularly when John Wrigley was there, John put them in once again like Lindsay having regard to what those particular plants needed and they were planted accordingly.
HIGGINS: From what you have said I assume that there are plants still in the Gardens today that you would have been associated with the planning of at that time.
WEBB: Oh yes.
HIGGINS: So a lot of those Melaleucas that you mentioned …
WEBB: Well a lot of those have gone. Because they were fairly closely planted a lot of them grew up and became very large and later on there was fairly constant pruning to keep these plants in shape as it were but in those early days they were let go and some of them became very large. I remember back in the seventies a lot of them were removed or had to be removed.
Also there was a very bad phase in the Gardens later on. I think this occurred when I was away from Canberra when the lake was going in and there was a whole lot of black soil, black silt which somebody decided it was a pity to bury or maybe it needed to be removed to give sufficient depth to the lake. I think that was the reason. You know the lake had to be a minimum depth and I think that meant excavating a lot of that black soil. This was totally structurally unsound. It was silt. It was a very bad structure. Unfortunately there were truck loads and truck loads taken in and dumped on those beds particularly in that area I’m talking about.
HIGGINS: Well you would think with alluvial soil it would be good quality.
WEBB: Oh no it wasn’t. It was silt. It was deposited and the silt had no sort of structure in other words it impeded drainage and at that time it had a very bad affect. It should never have been added to the Gardens. I think later on John Wrigley got rid of it all. That was an exercise which cost money getting it in there and money getting it out. It should never have gone there. That was after I ….
HIGGINS: Yes that was in the sixties.
WEBB: Yes but I remember at the time saying that this was a bad thing to have happened when it was happening. Well it’s all gone. I think there again that was when the NCDC was, I think, putting in the lake. I’m not sure about that. I suppose it was fair enough. There was the question of here’s all this soil, what are we going to do with it? A lot of it was put around. I know I was living in Ainslie at the time. A lot of it was spread on the nature strips. Of course that led to a lot of paspalum coming in. You know there’s a lot of paspalum down on those river flats and all the seed and everything came up. So all the nature strips had a top dressing of this black soil and up came the paspalum. That’s still with us.
HIGGINS: When we were talking earlier about those early plantings that are down at the ANU, now that was obviously after you had begun there, post 1947. Do you know whether there were any plantings before that time?
WEBB: I’m not aware of any, no. I’m not aware of any at all because we would have done them. No Lindsay Pryor wouldn’t have gone out and planted them himself and there was no staff. At that postwar period there was an awful lot to be done with gardens and Lindsay Pryor of course had a lot of other areas to plant. A lot of the mature plantings you see around Canberra were planted in those early days. There was an awful lot of planting going on. In those early days hedges were in operation in new developments, new housing developments. For example in O’Connor, I remember being in a gang there where we were actually planting hedges. That was back in 1947.
HIGGINS: We mentioned briefly the initial planting by Chifley and Salisbury. I think Chifley planted an oak and Salisbury planted a Eucalypt, a nice national symbol, in 1949. Now you were at that ceremony.
WEBB: I was at that ceremony yes and I was able to confer with Lindsay Pryor on this one because the story got round that Chifley planted the gum but in fact I knew that he didn’t. I talked this over with Lindsay and I think we convinced the people who published this that in fact it was wrong. Chifley in fact reciprocated. He planted the oak. That oak was sitting outside the boundary of the Gardens as it is now and it was sitting there. I used to drive past and I’d see this poor oak sitting there and I wondered about it. It just got sicker and sicker and finally it disappeared. I made some enquiries and I found that it had been transplanted. I thought it had just been pulled out but it had been transplanted. It was a very sick tree at the time it was shifted and it didn’t survive. The Salisbury one of course survived. It’s still there today.
HIGGINS: Yes with a plaque beneath it. Can you remember the actual day?
WEBB: I do remember the day. I got there late with Alf Southwell. There were about thirty-odd people there and there were some speeches.
HIGGINS: So was it considered to be an exciting event?
WEBB: No, no the people who were there were basically Parks & Gardens people and people from the Department of the Interior. As I recall there was no public. There were only Parks & Gardens people and the Department of the Interior.
HIGGINS: Was there any public knowledge about what was going on at the site or any interest in it at this stage?
WEBB: I’m not sure. There might have been a paragraph in the Canberra Times. I don’t know, you’d have to check that one out.
HIGGINS: But you aren’t aware of any strong interest?
WEBB: Oh no no there was no interest at all.
HIGGINS: It was just another garden?
WEBB: Another garden yes. There were lots of plantings going along and I’m sure that most Canberra people would think that an area like that which was practically visibly bush, was of no great concern.
HIGGINS: Now the other week when the unveiling of Lindsay Pryor’s plaque was undertaken, I understand that a number of people, including yourself, gave talks on that afternoon and perhaps that included some anecdotes and maybe you have already said some of those this morning on the tape, but are there other stories or experiences that you would like to tell me about now?
WEBB: Well one of the things I always recall on that site was the prevalence of snakes. I was talking about this drainage channel that came down. It wasn’t an erosion gully or anything like that, it was just a depression where the water used to accumulate and come down. At the bottom of that there was a wire fence and just before the fence I think Smith had excavated a little bit of a dam and there was water there and also there were snakes. I think we had seen up to six or seven snakes in one day. We were always very very careful. I also recall down at the rubbish tip that the snakes used to be sunning themselves there and then they would disappear into the rubbish. I was always very wary of the area because we saw lots and lots of snakes around.
That’s one of my early anecdotes, well maybe not an anecdote.
HIGGINS: Oh yes, it’s an aspect of the site.
WEBB: An aspect of the site yes that’s what I remember most about that particular site.
HIGGINS: Are there any particular experiences that you had there that you would like to tell me about now? Funny things that happened or just things that stick in your mind which might say something about the nature of working there at that time?
WEBB: No, no I’ve got some funny experiences later on when I wasn’t working there but this is relating to the launch of Sputnik but I won’t go into that.
HIGGINS: There was a herbarium being built even at that time. In fact Erwin Gauba I think played a major part in that. Could you talk about that?
WEBB: Yes these collecting trips that I spoke where we collected two things: we collected specimens of plants and this was for the herbarium which Gauba of course identified and these are still around and they have been incorporated into a major collection I think, the National Herbarium. In addition to collecting the seed, it was given a code and to start off the code was what went on the labels in the Gardens. For example the first two figures were the year that the seed was collected. It took a while of course for that seed to be grown and Rudolph Willing was doing most of that propagation of those seeds at Yarralumla Nursery. He was a very fine horticulturalist and he was charged with that job and he was most meticulous about his plant raising and he later on of course was in charge of the nursery at the ANU. Those 48 I believe refers to the seed. I’m not quite sure about that but I think that’s correct. It may be that it was modified after they were grown. When they were planted that was the 48 but I really don’t know. You’ll have to check on that as to the actual …. Certainly it referred to the age of the tree. Whether it was the age when it was planted … What I’m saying there is that the tree could be six to twelve months older than when it was planted. That’s something I’m not quite clear on.
HIGGINS: The seeds or specimens that were collected to make the herbarium collection, where was the herbarium physically located?
WEBB: Well the herbarium when I first knew it, Gauba was situated in the Acton Parks & Gardens office which is now where the nurses’ quarters are of the Canberra Hospital, around about there. It was a weatherboard building and Gauba was there and that’s where the herbarium first was. When Lindsay Pryor in 1960 went to the ANU …
WEBB: 1959 yes, then it moved to the ANU Botany Department and then later on from there it went to the Botanic Gardens where I think it is now.
HIGGINS: Most of that collection went to the ANU I think say during Betty Field’s period they were getting another herbarium collection going.
WEBB: Yes. Well anyhow because I was involved with the Botany Department at the ANU I know that the herbarium there became simply a teaching herbarium. All the significant plants were taken out and they went elsewhere. I’m not sure whether some went to the CSIRO. There were a number of type specimens that Gauba had collected that went away from the ANU collection because the students had access to it and it was considered too valuable to be just there for the students. Although they didn’t have free access to it but you know they might not have been as careful of the precious specimens as they …. perhaps they weren’t aware. I know for a fact that students aren’t always aware.
HIGGINS: Did some of the collection stay with the Gardens after Gauba went to the ANU and after Lindsay went to the ANU? Or did the whole lot go across?
WEBB: Oh look I wasn’t actually working in the herbarium so you would have to ask someone more connected with it.
HIGGINS: At the time, say in 1951 when you left Parks & Gardens to go into the CSIRO Plant Industry, what were the expectations of the Botanic Gardens at that stage?
WEBB: Well I think the original concept was there but it was recognised that there was a great shortage of money and it was on the backburner. There weren’t funds but when funds became available that the Gardens would go ahead. In the meantime the work that had been done, those trees that had been planted were growing and the initial plantings were all selected for those plants which could survive without any particular care like happened later when we had shade houses, glass houses things like that. In the early days there were none of those what one might term ‘delicate plants’. It was only those tough hardy ones. Once they were established they could only get bigger and better. It was just a question of when would the money become available.
HIGGINS: One of the major features of the Gardens today is the Rainforest Gully and another the Eucalypt Lawn. What state were they in at that time?
WEBB: In the early days that was an erosion gully. In other words when it rained heavily on Black Mountain there were torrential creeks came running down those gullies and they just got deeper and deeper. That was what happened in that gully. There was virtually nothing done with it until the rainforest gully was established. I remember it as being mostly fairly dry except occasionally when it rained there was a torrent down there and then it would stop and that would be it. Because of the nature of those gullies there was very little growing on them, a little bit down where the water ran but the side of them were bare.
HIGGINS: They were steep?
WEBB: Yes, they were steep and they were bare. Now of course they are still just as steep but they’re planted. It’s a marvellous transformation and a very effective use of what could have been considered something to be filled in. It’s really that that concept of the rainforest was used.
HIGGINS: When you visit the Gardens today, what are your feelings and thoughts as you walk around there?
WEBB: Well in my mind’s eye I go back to what it was. I can put my mind back to what it was and I’m just amazed at the way things have developed. I must say that I really feel now that I was justified in my early feelings about the Gardens. I had the feeling that these were going to be something that I probably wouldn’t see, but I’m glad that I did.
HIGGINS: Do you have a favourite part of the Gardens today? Is there one part of it that appeals more than any other?
WEBB: Well I suppose I am, of course, interested in that section that I talked about. That first section that was laid out. Every time I go the Gardens I like to start off there and then wander up and look at the other places and look at the new plantings. So no, I like all of the Gardens.
HIGGINS: After you finished in 1951 you said when you were with CSIRO you would go over there at lunch time and see how things were going. Did you have any professional involvement? Say either then or subsequently with the Gardens?
WEBB: Yes I did when I was working in the ANU. I eventually became the Head Technical Officer in the Botany Department. One of our jobs was to prepare material for students in the Botany Department and I had liaised with the Gardens to collect certain plant material when needed. That was a professional involvement I suppose. Also when I was part-time teaching at the Weston TAFE I was teaching Australian Plants there. I had a big involvement with Australian plants. At one stage I was the President of the ACT Region of the Society for Growing Australian Plants and at one stage I was the Federal Vice President. John Wrigley was the President and I was the Federal Vice President of the Society for Growing Australian Plants so I had a big involvement with Australian plants. The Gardens were always somewhere where I spent a lot of time.
HIGGINS: Do you think it’s a good thing then that the exotic section didn’t end up surviving?
WEBB: I think that the exotic section still could be built and I’m disappointed to see that it wasn’t as an adjunct to the School of Horticulture out at Weston. I feel that those two could have been combined. That is we could have an exotic botanic gardens using exotic plants other than Australian plants and a lot of these of course would be ornamental and I think this would fit in very well with the Horticulture School. But of course I can’t see that happening. That would have been a good concept.
HIGGINS: We’ve covered most of the questions I had in mind Jim, is there anything further either in the notes you’ve made there or anything further you’d like to say?
WEBB: No I don’t think so. I think I’ve covered most of the points about my connection with the early days of the Gardens. My only regret is that I didn’t keep a diary or something like that where I could be more specific as to actual dates.
HIGGINS: OK, well thanks very much Jim for your time this morning.
WEBB: Thank you Mathew.