A Brief History

A Brief History – By Anne Beggs-Sunter

The Buninyong Botanic Gardens are a treasure of one of Victoria’s oldest  townships, nestling at the foot of the extinct volcano Mount Buninyong.  The gardens date from 1860 and are part of a picturesque historical precinct that includes the Catholic Church (1858), brewery (1855), former court house (1858) and former police station (1859). The gardens consist of two sections; the upper gardens surrounding the Gong, an early reservoir that dammed up the springs in the area to provide water for the township. The formal lower gardens feature the Queen Victoria Rotunda (1901), an ornamental pool with an island, and the old swimming baths which have been turned into an attractive sunken garden.  The old court house and police station on the edge of the gardens are a tangible reminder that this precinct formed the administrative centre of the newly discovered goldfields from late 1851.

Administrative Beginnings

White settlement of the Buninyong district began in 1838 with the arrival of the first Scottish-born squatters and their households.  By 1842 a township was developing at the foot of Mount Buninyong. Dr. Richard Power established his medical practice here in 1842, and five years later the Rev. Thomas Hastie brought the comfort of religion and the boon of education to the village. This led to the survey of the township in June 1850 when surveyor Malcolm set aside land for public purposes which would become the future court house and gardens. He identified the area on his map as ‘tea tree and springs’.

The first of July 1851 marked the separation of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales and the proclamation of the Colony of Victoria. Almost immediately, gold was discovered in Victoria, turning the fledgling colony upside down. Following the discovery of gold by Thomas Hiscock just outside the township in August 1851, the government proclaimed a court of Petty Sessions at Buninyong on 30 September 1851 and a Police Camp was established on the site reserved for public offices in the original town survey.

On 3 February 1852 the Buninyong Court sat for the first time in temporary premises.  There were continual complaints about the inadequate buildings, which were demolished by July 1856, a busy year when over 400 cases were held in one quarter, and sixteen police were stationed at Buninyong. The cause of the increase in business was of course the opening up of the goldfields surrounding Buninyong, including Green Hills, Black Lead, Chalk Hills and Hard Hills. Crimes involved theft of horses, money, hay and food, particularly from tents, and a number of cases relate to “disorderly houses” being kept on the goldfields.

On 22 December 1857 a contract was let by the Government for the building of a Court of Petty Sessions at Buninyong. The court was built of stone, quarried at the nearby Stone Quarry Lead.  A further contract was let on 18 June 1858 for a Mining Warden’s Office where the local Court of Mines could be conducted, and for a new police station.

Establishment of Local Government

The foundation stone for the court house was laid on 22 January 1858 by Governor Sir Henry Barkly, who was presented with a memorial address, asking for the establishment of local government. The Governor promised a positive response, and on 9 July 1858, the Buninyong Roads Board was proclaimed. This was followed by the Municipality of Buninyong year later, and from that moment plans for municipal gardens were high on the priority list of the new council. An area of 50 acres was first temporarily reserved for gardens purposes on 13 February 1860. This was officially gazetted on 12 November 1861.

One of the most pressing concerns of the new municipality was the issue of providing a good water supply to the growing township. From the first the good mineral springs of the upper gardens reserve were seen as the best candidate for a permanent water supply, and the Gong was conceived as a reservoir to supply the township, with water directed through the Botanical gardens to users lower down in the township, particularly to market gardens and to industrial users like the Buninyong tannery. The Roads Board was interested in the matter, and at its meeting on 30 September 1858 moved £1500 be sought for a bridge across the spring at Cornish St. and that £2000  be sought for erection of a court house in Buninyong. This is interesting, given that the police court had recently been constructed.  It seems that the councilors thought that the sandstone building did not meet the needs of the growing municipality. One of the early decisions of the Municipality was to install a pump for the spring in the Upper Gardens until a reservoir was made (Buninyong Borough Council Minutes, 10 Oct. 1860)

Beginnings of the Gardens
The first practical moves came during 1861, with the council adopting a plan  and erecting fencing to prevent the ‘trespass of geese, goats pigs etc’. In 1862 council asked Dr Daniel Bunce from the Geelong Gardens to supply plants, and a potato crop was planted to prepare the soil, and to provide a cash crop to supply funds. The gardens really began to evolve in 1866, when Dr Ferdinand Von Mueller, Director of the Melbourne Botanical Gardens, provided plans and seeds, and local nurseryman Francis Moss began to supply trees and seedlings.

The first curator was appointed in 1872. Conrad Fegbeitel from Germany won the job, and the Borough councilor Robert Allan, the son of an architect, provided plans for the ponds and path layout.

As well as the gardens, other recreational facilities were incorporated. The first of these was the construction of public baths, fed by the pure and invigorating mineral spring water that flowed from the Gong reservoir.

In 1872 the Buninyong Bowling Club was formed, and took over a portion of the gardens

Later a tennis court was added, thanks to the efforts of Dr Hardy in 1886.


The late nineteenth century was the era of acclimatisation – the movement to ‘domesticate’ the landscape by introducing beloved flora and fauna from ‘home’ (England). So we read in the  Buninyong Telegraph of 23 February 1894 that Mr. D. Stewart of Learmonth has presented a pair of black ducks, and a pair of teal ducks. Earlier in 1887 in an attempt to foster Australian fauna, a koala, cockatoo, two black swans and a wallaby were presented to the gardens.

The Butter Factory

With the opening of the new Town Hall, council office and Court House in 1886, and a new police station in the same year, the old administrative buildings adjoining the gardens were left vacant. The red brick police building would be rented out as a residence until the 1960s. But a new and economically important use was found for the old court house. In November  1892,  the  Buninyong  Butter  Factory  was  registered as a co-operative, and commenced operations in the  old sandstone court house. (Ballarat Star, 24 Nov 1892)  The butter factory recognized the important contribution of the legion of small farmers who had taken up land in the Buninyong Shire following the Land Selection Acts of the 1860s and 1870s and who had established their dairy herds on the rich volcanic soils of the district – the same rich volcanic soil that nurtured the gardens.  The first consignment from the Buninyong Butter Factory reached the Melbourne market in early December 1892, where it topped the market, paying 10 pence halfpenny per pound weight. (Courier, 12 December 1892)  An article in the Buninyong Telegraph on 2 November 1894 described the ‘new additions’ in red brick to the factory, which was operating very successfully.  The manager Mr. H. Noack showed visitors the two new cream vats, capable of holding 600 gallons of cream. Below the vats was the churn, which was circular and worked on a pivot, and was capable of churning 600 lbs of butter. The churn was machine driven.

Around May 1908 the old building was declared  unsuitable,  and the decision was taken to move to a new location on the corner  of Cornish and Forrest Sts., where  a  two  storey  brick building  was  erected near the present pre-school  site. Once again the old buildings were abandoned.

The Old Swimming Baths

The Borough Council on 16 January 1861 agreed that a sum not exceeding £40 could be spent on a bathing house on the upper Botanical Gardens reserve.

The Baths were opened to the public in March 1872. In 1876 a Baths Committee agreed on fees of six shillings for a family ticket for a season, three shillings for an individual and tuppence for a single visit. It was part of the duties of the curator of the Gardens to also superintend the baths.

The basin of the baths was made of bluestone. At the end of World War One, Shire Engineer C. P. Wilson obtained a repatriation grant of £749 and organised a team of ex-servicemen to construct improved swimming baths, with pre-stressed concrete walls and changing rooms. This was a very early use of reinforced concrete.

Segregated bathing was enforced, and children from the next-door school came for swimming lessons. During the 1930s, the baths were closed due to a high E-Coli count. After World War Two, the Baths became overgrown with weeds.

After a visit to England in 1992, local councillor Derick Leather had the idea of re-vamping the old baths, and drew up a plan to make a garden, following an idea from Sidmouth in Devon. This was pursued, and the baths were transformed into a tranquil sunken garden, one of the last projects of the old Buninyong Shire Council.  Since then, they have become a popular location for weddings.

Queen Victoria Rotunda
Soon after the death of the beloved Sovereign Queen Victoria on 22 January 1901, the ladies of Buninyong met to raise funds for a memorial. The rotunda in the gardens was opened on 13 December 1901- the first public monument in the state of Victoria to Queen Victoria following her death. It was designed by Mr. E. Smith of Ballarat, at a cost of 75 pounds, to house 200 people. It was constructed by Howards of Buninyong. At the end of the ceremony those present gathered to be photographed by the local photographer, J.T. Moyle, and copies were available from the Buninyong Telegraph office for 2 shillings.

The entrance gates were added in 1911 and opened by Mayor John Ogilvie.

The first curator appointed by the Borough was Conrad Fegbeitel, from Ockstadt near Frankfurt, Germany. He served as curator from 1872 to 1889.

Robert McPherson became curator from 1889 to 1897 with a timber cottage provided in the gardens. He was also responsible for the care of street trees in the township. He was noted for his colourful displays of bedding plants. He received plants from the curator of the Ballarat gardens, George Longley. (Buninyong Telegraph,10 Aug 1891)  The local newspaper commented later that “if he wants plants, he doesn’t bother with Council, but sends to Yankee Land.” (Buninyong  Telegraph, 8 Sept 1893)  He resigned in 1897 to become sexton of the cemetery, where he continued to plant colourful displays of bulbs.

Samuel Livingston Fraser was curator from 1898 until 1920. During his time the kiosk was constructed, with two 20-gallon coppers to allow the sale of hot water to picnickers. A fernery was also developed near the bowling green. Mrs. Fraser taught the local school children to swim, with strictly segregated bathing.

John Ogilvie was the last Curator from 1924 until his death in 1939, when his wife followed him as caretaker and given permission to occupy the cottage rent-free. The cottage was finally removed in 1963.

Following the closure of the railway line to Ballarat in 1932, and World War Two,  the gardens fell on hard times. One rare initiative was the introduction of a windmill in 1949 into the upper gardens reserve, but Buninyong was described as a ‘ghost town’ in the 1950s, when its fortunes were at their lowest ebb.  But the district began to revive in the 1960s, with many new residents. The formation of a Gardens Restoration Committee in 1974 was an important move in the rejuvenation of the gardens. Also in that year the Shire Council established its depot in the old stone court house.

In 1983-5 the Buninyong Shire Council began a program to improve the gardens as part of the 150th Anniversary of Victoria celebrations, and the gardens received funding for arboricultural works and new plantings.

The bicentenary of white settlement of Australia in 1988 afforded more government support, with a grant for a new picket fence and gate near the kiosk, with a commemorative plaque and the planting of a Bunya Bunya tree.

With the removal of the shire depot in 1990, the public reserve area was fenced and a plan prepared for planting the area as an extension to the gardens. The old sandstone building was taken under the wing of the Buninyong and District Historical Society, and the Society secured grants for maintenance of the building and for an interpretative display.

With the reorganization of local government in 1994, the Buninyong Botanic Garden came under the administration of the Ballarat City Council.

To mark its important sesquicentenary, the  Friends of the Buninyong Botanic Gardens was formed in 2010, to prepare a program of celebrations and work for some tangible memorial to be placed in the gardens.

Anne Beggs-Sunter,
Buninyong and District Historical Society