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From the Archives at the Plant Craft Cottage
In 1851, at the height of the Victorian gold rush, Henry Ginn, Colonial Architect, designed a 'handsome lodge' to be built at the western gate of the Botanic Gardens for use as an Under-Gardeners Cottage. This building, which would become known as H Gate Lodge, was home to a series of under-gardeners who, with their families, would live in it over the next 125 years.
A contemporary description was that the building of the cottage answered an urgent need for accommodation on the site....... while certainly very appealing in appearance, it was also very small, being a three-roomed symmetrical brick cottage with a central Day Room and flanking bedrooms. Study of the plan reveals no provision for a water supply, no washing or separate cooking facilities...... Although there are many decorative brick recesses on the external walls, very few of these actually housed windows. Only two small lead-lighted windows were provided in each bedroom, and two slightly larger ones in the Day Room. The light would have been barely adequate.
The first recorded occupant in 1853 is a gardener named Young; at that time Ferdinand von Mueller is referred to as a lodger, presumably because of his frequent absences on plant gathering expeditions. It is believed that between the years 1853 and 1856, Mueller lived there with his sisters.
Christian Gottleib Schneider, who worked closely with Mueller, lived there with his family between 1862 and 1883; a descendent remembered family picnics under a double-flowered horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) – near A Gate and Alexandra Avenue – as her g-g-grandfather’s tree!
In 1887 it became home to Bridget and James Slattery and their eleven children. There is a reference to Governor LaTrobe having frequently visited the gardens, coming down past Jolimont from the Government House and crossing by a boat which he used to hail, landing near Slattery’s house. One of the legends in the Slattery family is the story of a little girl called Nellie Mitchell who fell into the Yarra and was rescued by Bridget Slattery – she survived to become Dame Nellie Melba! Over the years, it has become a tradition for the descendants of Bridget and James Slattery to gather at the cottage for a regular family reunion.
Later came the Cronin family in 1891 with their four children and in 1912, John White and his family, whose granddaughter remembered fishing in the lake after the gardens were closed and how her grandfather used to go around all the gates at night to check that they were locked.
From 1912 to 1928 the cottage was home to the family of Alexander Shaw, a Scotsman from Inverness, who trained at Kew Gardens. Descendants spoke of their isolation. Once the Garden gates were locked at sunset, they were on their own, and while it was possible to lock the undesirables out, there was also the danger of locking them in! An outing which lasted until after dark meant a long and scary walk across the unlit Domain and through the Gardens to the Cottage.
The Williams, Perkins, Greig and Ralston families lived in the cottage between the years 1928 and 1957 when William Honey and his family moved in. His daughter Helen remembered that there was a wood stove and oven until, with the advent of bottled gas, a new gas stove was installed; there was a chip heater in the bathroom and the telephone number was connected to the central exchange which was operated manually – the number was Central 1032. The cottage, surrounded by trees, was cold and damp in winter, but cool and shady in warm weather. The last gardener, Terry Davies, moved out in 1977.
In November 1981, it opened as the Plant Craft Cottage and the stories of the 37 years of its life as a craft centre have become part of the long history of H Gate Lodge. It is now one of a number of buildings in Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens on the Victorian Heritage Register.
(In preparing this article I wish to acknowledge that I have drawn heavily on The Plant Craft Cottage, Janet Walsh (unpublished) June 1993).
Ferdinand Von Mueller