History of Camberwell Green
Compiled by Dr. Bryony Cosgrove
Originally published in the Camberwell Historical Society newsletter, March 2019
The proposed site for Camberwell Green includes designated Crown Land which has been a meeting place not just for early settlers, residents, school children and town councillors, but also, from much earlier times, for the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation
The whole area was originally the hunting grounds of the Wurundjeri clan. A sacred Corroboree Tree, a fine old river red gum, until recently existed on land near the intersection of Camberwell and Reserve roads. This was a meeting place for Aboriginal ceremonies, initiations and celebrations. Such trees, of which there are now very few around Melbourne, held an important place in the life and memories of these people.
The tree on the badge of the Boroondara Scouts (left) represents all of the trees in the Boroondara area, but in particular, the special trees – the Corroboree Tree, the Canoe Tree and other ancient marked trees that played a key part in the ceremonial life of the Wurundjeri people. The Corroboree Tree is also represented on the coat of arms of the former Masonic Lodge of Hartwell (right).
Among the first Europeans to settle in the area were John Gardiner and his family, and his cousin Fletcher, who arrived in 1837. They laid claim to occupy some 15,000 acres beyond the ‘settled districts’ in what was termed the Commissioner’s District on Kooyong Koot (meaning haunt of water fowl) Creek, later named Gardiner’s Creek. Robert Hoddle surveyed the area in the same year and named it the Parish of Boroondara, a name taken from the Woiwurrung language meaning ‘where the ground is thickly shaded’. In the mid-19th century, the local council preserved open spaces and parkland, created children’s playgrounds, lawns, rockeries and flower gardens, and fields for many sports. The existing reserve at the rear of the new Town Hall and the Corroboree Tree alongside it, near the intersection of Camberwell and Reserve roads, were retained.
The reserve was at the time called the Town Hall Gardens. This 1882 engraving from the Illustrated Australian News shows the first building of the then 15-year-old Camberwell Primary School (to the left) surrounded by open fields and trees, which provided play space for the 326 students attending the school.
A subdivision plan (below) from the same year, 1882, titled The Seymour Park Estate, shows the whole area planned for Camberwell Green had been designated as a recreation reserve with a proposed pavilion in the gardens.
In his commissioned but unpublished ‘History of Camberwell’, local historian and poet James Alexander Allan referred to council minutes concerning the Town Hall Gardens: ‘In May 1897, the Camberwell Council voted £20 for additional trees for the area. Three years later the fine old gum was the subject of speculation. Fears which had been expressed that it was decaying were proved groundless after an inspection by the engineer, who reported that it was quite sound. During 1905 a new layout was planned, and the curator was authorised to remove such trees as he deemed advisable’. It should be noted, however, that even if the tree had been dropping limbs, there are trunks of Corroboree Trees in Richmond and St Kilda which were kept and protected even when the trees had died. There is also a protected Canoe Tree trunk at Heide in Templestowe.
Following the relocation of the sports ground to a new site in Camberwell Road in 1901, ‘the way was opened for a full scheme of beautification, the result of which is apparent today in the reserve’s winding paths and lawns’. A photograph (below left) taken from the Town Hall tower in January 1937, shows an extensive area of parkland attractively planted with trees and lawn and crossed by the winding paths described by James Alexander Allan.
More recently, a Department of Lands and Survey aerial photograph (below right) of Camberwell circa 1940, shows that the Town Hall Gardens (upper left) was still, at that time, a tree-filled public park that extended to Camberwell Road.
Former Mayor of Camberwell Neville Lee recalls debates in council in the 1960s dealing with the building of the Civic Centre, where the library and council offices are now housed. There was concern about taking over so much of the public space in the park. Yet having extended their premises in the late 1960s, the Boroondara Council then appropriated a large section of the public park behind the new building in 2010 for its own benefit. For eight years this area has been used for no-fee, all-day permit parking for council staff, even though it is designated a 2-hour public carpark. From Monday to Friday it is full of council staff’s private vehicles. On the weekends it sits empty and forlorn.
Boroondara Council’s own Community Plan, released in early 2018, identified the provision of well-utilised green open spaces as a dominant theme of its next ten years’ of planning. Council has expressed its commitment to identifying sites in which to create these green open spaces. One of these sites is right on their doorstep: the Crown Land that was once a well-treed and beautiful park and is now a council staff carpark, depriving local residents, visitors and school children of much-needed green open space. Camberwell currently has only 7 per cent of the green open space in the municipality.