Thomas Shepherd's Landscape Gardening in Australia (1836)

By Crittenden, Victor | M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia, August 2007 | Go to article overview

Thomas Shepherd's Landscape Gardening in Australia (1836)


Crittenden, Victor, M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia


In 1836 in Sydney bookshops there appeared a book entitled Lectures on Landscape Gardening in Australia by the late Mr. Thomas Shepherd. The book was published by William McGarvie, a Sydney bookseller, and the operator of a subscription library in George Street, Sydney. This was the second book by Thomas Shepherd a Sydney horticulturist and the proprietor of the Darling Nursery, the first of its kind in the colony. The book on Landscape Gardening came about as the result of a series of lectures on that subject that was planned to be given at the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts. Shepherd gave the first lecture but died before he could complete the series. The publisher McGarvie then took the lectures which Shepherd had fortunately written and published them. The result was this important book on a subject that might be thought surprising in the young colony of New South Wales.

Thomas Shepherd was a Scotsman and was born in 1779 at Kembark in the lowlands to the north of Edinburgh. His father was gardener at Struthers, the seat of Lord Crawford and Lindsay. The young Shepherd grew up in the garden at Struthers but became aware of the art of landscape gardening by seeing some plans drawn up for that purpose and he determined to become a landscape gardener himself. He outlines his plan for educating himself in this art, which included drawing and painting and poetry, in addition to other skills such as surveying and horticulture. He then worked for landscape business of Thomas White in Scotland and England. This was in the period following Charles Bridgeman and Capability Brown who had revolutionised landscape gardening in Great Britain.

This was also the time of Humphrey Repton and it would appear that Shepherd was strongly influenced by Repton who had modified to an extent the work and concept of Capability Brown by reintroducing some garden elements adjacent to the house. Shepherd records how he worked on a property next to one being developed by Repton and he commented on Repton's lack of expertise in surveying and the work on levels in the garden. Shepherd also ran a nursery at Hackney near London so as to be able to supply trees and shrubs for his landscape business. However general business in Britain was not at all brisk in the 1820s after the end of the Napoleonic Wars and many men looked about for some other occupation or emigrated to the colonies to establish themselves in a place where opportunities were much greater.

Shepherd set out from Scotland in 1825 with a group of Scottish settlers to establish a new colony on Stewart Island in New Zealand with the object of growing flax. Shepherd was to be the supervisor. The proposed new settlers did not find Stewart Island very suitable for a colony and searched New Zealand for a better site. The indigenous population was not very welcoming and they all finally sailed for Sydney where they were accepted as immigrants.

Ralph Darling the Governor of New South Wales at the time welcomed Thomas Shepherd and persuaded him to set up a commercial nursery in Sydney. Most of the trees for the colonists had previously been provided by the Sydney Botanic Garden and Governor Darling felt that these were expensive items and that the government should not be providing them flee to colonial landowners. The Governor allocated land to Shepherd on what was then the outskirts of Sydney, opposite what is now the grounds of Sydney University and on the southern banks of Blackwattle Creek. Here Shepherd struggled to prepare the land working long and hard himself with the assistance of some convict labourers, to fill in holes where rocks had been excavated. The stumps of trees that had been cut down had to be removed as well. It was hard labour for a man no longer in the flush of youth. Shepherd then started to plant vegetables to give him some income while he organised the propagating of trees and shrubs for his business. He built a house for his young family. …

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