Sunday, 12 August 2012

Nurseries: Gelding's Victoria Nursery

With the recent decline of the plant nursery trade it's interesting to reflect on the state of the business in the 19th century. One notable example is the Sydney nursery of John & William Gelding. Just one look at their prolific plant list dispels the myth that nineteenth century Australian gardeners had little interest in growing plants.

Gelding's Victoria Nursery after renovation in 1883
image from Illustrated Sydney News

One of the earliest and longest running plant nursery businesses in Sydney's west was J & W Gelding's Victoria Nursery in Petersham (now in present day Dulwich Hill). This business was owned by John and William Gelding and operated from its site in Old Canterbury Road for over 30 years. Brothers John and William were prominent members of the New South Wales nursery trade and their life and work is of interest to both local historians and students of garden history.

The Gelding brothers were both born in London. John was born about 1828 while his younger brother William was born in 1839. John migrated to Sydney in 1853, while William arrived in 1858. After arriving in the colony John worked for many years as a senior gardener in several of the leading gardens in Sydney, including Elizabeth Bay House.

In 1861 the Gelding brothers went into partnership as J & W Gelding, General Nurserymen, Seedsmen & Florists and opened their first nursery in Rushcutters Bay on the eastern edge of the city.  About the same time the two brothers opened a retail seed and florist shop in the old George Street Market in the city centre.

The old George Street market
Gelding's city shop is on the right

Opening a shop in the city was common practice among the nursery trade in the second half of the 19th century. Within a short time the production nursery moved further east to Cross Street, Double Bay.

On 24 May 1869 the Gelding brothers moved their nursery business to the new district of Petersham on the western fringe of the city. They set up their new nursery on 12 acres of land on Old Canterbury Road. In the second half of the 19th century the establishment of nurseries in Petersham and Ashfield districts was popular for the same reason as garden centres of the city fringes are today: access to cheap land, reliable water supply and close proximity to the city. This was made possible by the new western railway line, and not by the road system that was still far from efficient.

Their first trip to the new nursery by bullock train from Double Bay took 13 hours. I thought I had travelled a hundred mile into the country wrote John’s fourth son Alfred in 1937. The site seems to have been cleared when they arrived and the area was a mix of cleared land, small farms and bush. Alfred Gelding went on to describe the area when John arrived in 1869:

You could count the dwelling houses on the fingers of your hands – a settler here and there ... With reference to rats, I have never in my long life seen so many as was at this 12 acres of land my father started his nursery - they were there by the tens of thousands. The land was full of old sheds, slaughter houses, etc. All the rooms in the dwelling-house were full of holes. At night time it was awful - no sleep for some time. It was years before we mostly got rid of them, and all along the creeks around Lewisham and Dulwich Hill it was alive with them, no account of the piggeries and slaughter houses.

The Gelding nursery produced an annual catalogue. Although none of the 1860s copies survive, many of the Petersham era catalogues have. These catalogues and an article on the nursery in the Illustrated Sydney News indicate that the nursery retailed a large and diverse range of plants and seeds. Unlike today, the nurseries of the 19th century grew most of their stock on site. 


Popular plant selections in the 1889 catalogue were:

Bouvardia (21 varieties) – now rarely grown

Camellia (approx. 100 varieties) – mostly European selections

Dahlia (approx. 250 varieties)

Fuchsia (approx. 80 varieties) – John Gelding wrote an article on growing these plants for The Horticultural Magazine

Pelargonium (approx. 200 varieties) - you would be lucky to find a dozen varieties in a modern nursery

Rose (approx. 300 varieties) – large rose selections are typical of Victorian nurseries and indicate the popularity of this plant

Apples (133 varieties) – no nursery today would have such a vast range of apples. The nursery list includes mostly English and North American varieties

Pears (approx. 90 varieties) – mostly French and English selections

Some of the other fruit plants listed include: Apricots (25 varieties), Plums (68 varieties), Nectarines (26 varieties), Figs (24 varieties), Gooseberries (18 varieties) and Grape Vines (63 varieties, mostly table selections).

One page from Gelding's extensive catalogue
private collection

During Sydney’s 1879-80 International Exhibition, the Gelding brothers were awarded six medals of merit for plants, cut flowers, and bouquets. The awarded badge of prize medallists appeared prominently on later Gelding Nursery catalogues.

The 1880s was a boom time for housing in the Petersham area and the Gelding brothers decided to sell half their property. The money from the land sales would have helped fund the major renovation of the nursery that took place in about 1882. After renovation the nursery comprised a number of modern glasshouses, designed for growing different types of plants.

After the nursery was modernized it became known as the Victoria Nursery. An article on Gelding’s nursery appeared in the September 1883 edition of the Illustrated Sydney News. This article gave a description of the nursery in the late winter of 1883 after the rebuilding of the nursery:

During the present winter the place has undergone a complete revolution. New ground has been broken up, the departments re-arranged or transferred, and the old and somewhat over-grown portions have had to yield to the progress of settlement, and been sold for building purposes. It is practically, therefore, almost a new establishment. The residences of the firm are just newly built – the conservatory, the stove, and propagating houses, and even the extensive bush-shed (some 270 feet in length) with the adjacent structures, are all the work of the present season, and largely supersede the older structures.

There has been a long tradition of the nursery trade being closely involved in landscape gardening and it seems that Gelding’s Nursery was in this business sideline. The firm touted for landscape gardening business in its annual catalogue. Landscape gardening continues to be a speciality with us, and can be undertaken either by contract or day labour, writes one of the Gelding brothers in 1889. The 1897 catalogue states: we still undertake laying out gardens, renovating and keeping in order old gardens, pruning in the winter months, and general planting.

Late 19th century photographic views of the nursery

On Wednesday 14 July 1897, William Gelding became suddenly ill in the nursery packing shed and died on the 16th. He seems to have died of a heart condition. He was 58 years old. His funeral service was at the Church of England Parish Church of St Andrew’s, Summer Hill. More than 200 people attended and he was buried in the Church of England section of Rookwood Cemetery. Among the mourners were prominent local nurserymen John and Frederick H Searl and their families. William was survived by his wife Rachel. He had seven children and at least four were alive at the time of his death.

Elder brother John died at home on the mourning of 8 March 1900. He was 72 years old. John had been in poor health during the previous six months after being knocked down by a buggy as he was about to board a tram in Park street in the city. He was buried at St Paul’s Church of England in Church Street, Canterbury. He was survived by his wife Mary and seven children (five sons and two daughters). Seven other children had died before him. His children later donated an avenue of trees for Petersham Park. This avenue planting may be the camphor laurels planted near the Anzac gates in Brighton Street. We know little of John’s personality but Alfred, in his unpublished reminiscences, writes with affection for his late father.

John and Mary Gelding’s eight room house Myannville (on the east side of the nursery) was sold in 1904 and was later subdivided into two lots. The John Gelding house survives despite the large number of owners since. Entry to the house is now by Hampstead Street. William Gelding’s house Finchley (on the west side of the nursery) continued in family ownership until the death of William’s widow Rachel in 1916. The house still survives.

Gelding’s Nursery was not the largest nursery in Sydney during the 19th century, but was large enough to offer a large and diverse range of plants to Sydney’s new western districts. The legacy of John Gelding is his comprehensive summary and description on the state of the Sydney nursery and horticultural trade in the second half of the 19th century through his published writings. This is invaluable to garden historians studying colonial plant selection as well as those researching the early history of Sydney’s horticultural and nursery trades.

© Silas Clifford-Smith 2012

This article is an abridged version of an article first published in Heritage (the journal of the Marrickville Heritage Society) in 2004. An electronic text based version of this article including references is available from me by request. I look forward to hearing from readers, especially members of the Gelding family, who may have information about the life and careers of these important early Australian nurserymen.

Click here to read Alfred Gelding's life story:


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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