Colin Mills, compiler of the Hortus Camdenensis, died in late November 2012 after a short illness. As he always considered the Hortus his legacy, it is his family's intention to keep the site running in perpetuity. It will not, however, be updated in the near future.

A Brief History of the Camden Park Gardens

William Macarthur, born at Parramatta, New South Wales in 1800, was the youngest son of the colonial pioneers John and Elizabeth Macarthur. He became an accomplished agronomist, horticulturist, viticulturist and gardener, but above all he was a plantsman. Although he certainly sought to create a pleasant gentleman’s garden at Camden his real interest was in growing useful, unusual, exotic and beautiful plants for their own sake as well as for their utility. He established his first garden at Camden in 1820. More than 3000 species, hybrids and cultivars were grown in the gardens up to 1861, all of them described in the Hortus. Many more were grown in the succeeding decades. Of course not all of these plants succeeded at Camden. William was an innovator and put much energy into determining which plants could be acclimatised and which could not and he became an authority on the subject, his expertise sought by such bodies as the Queensland Acclimatisation Society, founded in 1862.

The historic value of the Camden Park gardens is almost inestimable.  Many changes have occurred in the gardens in the almost 200 years since they were first laid out, but the basic framework of the gardens remains with many historically significant trees and shrubs surviving. Over the years the diversity of plants in the gardens has naturally diminished. This has occurred mainly since World War II, partly due to a lack of labour to maintain and replace the more sensitive species and varieties. The economic conditions of today make it very difficult to manage extensive private gardens but John and Edwina Macarthur-Stanham, the present owners, have done much to halt and reverse the post-war decline, and there is a very real desire on the part of the family to maintain and develop the gardens.

Camden Park Gardens – an Australian Colonial Treasure

John and Elizabeth Macarthur are best known for their pioneering role in the development of the Australian wool industry.  A remnant of the original Merino flock still survives on the Camden Park estate, the portion now owned by the NSW Department of Agriculture and occupied by the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute.  On John’s death in 1834 the Camden property, by then some 28,000 acres, passed to his two younger sons, James and William, who had been responsible for the completion of the magnificent mansion house and for the development of the property into one of the most successful agricultural enterprises in the fledgling colony.  Camden Park is also well known as the first commercial winery in Australia, an enterprise of the younger brother William. 

Less well known is the very important role played by William Macarthur in the development of horticulture and gardening in Australia.  The Camden Park garden can fairly lay claim to being the best preserved colonial garden in Australia.  It is also one of the oldest, having been started in 1820 by William.  By 1824, ‘William’s garden’, now known as the Lower Garden, was described by his brother Edward as ‘fast completing’, and the first vineyard was in production.

By 1830 the Lower Garden, of some five acres in extent, was in a finished state, with vegetables, fruit trees, ornamental trees and shrubs and flowers, laid out in a formal, geometric pattern with raised and gravelled walks.  Sadly this part of the garden is no longer in use, part now used as a cow paddock. The cambered gravel paths, with brick edges and gutters, were an impressive feature, with William’s sister Elizabeth noting that she was able to walk around the gardens in complete comfort and with dry feet even after the heaviest rains. They have largely survived, although only now visible in small areas.

The mansion house was not completed until 1835 although the gardens surrounding it were commenced some time before this.  The Austrian nobleman Baron von Hügel wrote in April 1834: ‘We first visited the new house, as yet uncompleted, which stands on a fine site. […] Mr. William Macarthur is devoting much trouble and labour to constructing a good road to his house and to laying out a park around it.’

William’s prowess as a gardener and horticulturalist was well known within Australia, and later in Britain and Europe.  Baron von Hügel described the completed Lower Garden and commented on William’s abilities as a gardener: ‘From here [the new house] we visited the garden almost a mile away, which filled me with astonishment.  Laid out as an orchard and kitchen garden without landscaping, it had splendid wide paths and magnificent plants.  Although these are still growing in the plant nursery, their luxuriant growth is a delight and shows what a garden can be like here.  Ericas, rhododendrons and Camellias flourish magnificently under the skilled care of their owner, and bulbs from the Cape are growing like veritable weeds.  Mr. W. Macarthur is the only man in the colony who is interested in horticulture and who has a large collection of rare and beautiful Australian flora.  I can honestly say that I have not seen its equal since I left my own garden.’  Twenty years later George Francis, Superintendent of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens wrote in a letter to The Gardeners’ Chronicle of London: ‘And first permit me to allude to some letters which you inserted last year from Mr. Macarthur of Camden.  His favourable remarks, though all true, must not be taken as a criterion of that place [Australia].  He possesses, perhaps, the very best and oldest garden in the whole colony, and in the best situation.  His orange trees are superb; his fruit selected with great care and treated with much judgement; he is the A1 of wine makers and of producers.’

By the early 1840s the colony of New South Wales was in deep recession.  In 1844 William wrote: ‘In these hard times I am compelled to either make the garden pay for itself or to give it up’.  Such was the reputation of William Macarthur that he received requests for plants from all over Australia.  He published a Catalogue of plants grown at Camden in 1843 and began what became an extensive and profitable wholesale and retail nursery business.  In 1845 the nursery made £450, of which £150 was clear profit.  Other catalogues were published in 1845, 1850 and 1857. An updated catalogue was planned for 1861 but never published. This only survives in fragmentary handwritten notes. The Camden Park nursery helped to establish the wine industry and horticulture in all of the fledgling states of Australia, Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland. 

William imported plants from all over the world, mostly on a barter system.  On a number of occasions he sent one or more large glazed (Wardian) cases filled with Australian native plants to the Royal Gardens at Kew, to the London Horticultural Society, now the Royal, or to leading English nurserymen such as Conrad Loddiges and later Veitch and Sons of Exeter and London.  In a covering letter he included a list of plants that would be acceptable to the colony, his desiderata, and the Wardian cases would generally be returned filled with many of the plants he had requested.  The nursery concerned would in turn include a list of desiderata.  There were also regular exchanges of plant material with other Botanical Gardens around the world, including gardens in Calcutta, Mauritius, France, Ceylon, Madras, Batavia, Cape Town, Jahore, Singapore, New Zealand and the USA.  On one occasion William sent seeds of Eucalyptus globulus to the University of Georgia and these were distributed throughout the state. In the 1970s I enjoyed a barbecue at the Athens campus of the University, under the shade of a large, spreading Eucalyptus globulus, resonant with the sound of thousands of cicadas, but I knew nothing of Camden Park at the time.

Although William’s great interest was in exotic flora he did not neglect Australian native plants and had a substantial collection, as noted by Baron von Hügel. [See the essay on Australian Native Plants in the Hortus]. He befriended the young German nobleman Ludwig Leichhardt, and when the latter embarked on his ill-fated second expedition he entrusted the bulk of the seeds collected on his first expedition to William, who succeeded in germinating seeds of many of the plants and raising seedlings to maturity.  At least two of these, a native bauhinia, Lysiphyllum hookeri, and the Queensland Bottle tree, Brachychiton rupestris, are still growing in the garden today.  Mature specimens of Araucaria bidwillii, A. cunninghamii and the Queensland Kauri, Agathis robustus, were probably also raised from seed collected in the wild, this time by John Carne Bidwill.

William was also an accomplished plant breeder and hybridist, working closely with his friend, the skilled horticulturalist and botanist the aforementioned John Bidwill.  Some of the Camden Park-bred camellias are still grown today, perhaps the best known being the beautiful ‘Aspasia’, now somewhat unfortunately, and quite misleadingly, known as ‘Aspasia Macarthur’.

William’s garden flourished and grew until his death in 1882 and only really began to decline after World War I due to changed economic circumstances, a decline accelerated after World War II.  The mansion house and the several acres of ornamental gardens known as the House Gardens are now in the care of John and Edwina Macarthur-Stanham, the seventh generation of Macarthurs to have lived there. The basic garden layout is much as it was on the death of William.  Many magnificent and rare plants survive and thrive, but there has been an overall decline in the range and diversity of plants, due mainly to ageing of trees and shrubs and a lack of resources to maintain the more delicate specimens.  The economic conditions of today make it very difficult to manage extensive private gardens but John and Edwina have, in a few years, done much to halt and reverse the post-war decline and there is a very real desire on the part of the family to maintain and develop the gardens, not as a museum but as a living, changing entity, just as they were under their founder, William Macarthur.