Our first Director's vision for a University Botanical Garden

Professor Sir Frederick McCoy (c. 1817–1899), the first Director of the National Museum of Victoria (now Museums Victoria) and the first Professor of Natural Sciences at the University of Melbourne, had a vision for what he called a Botanical Museum.

The tower which formed the centre of an octagonal glasshouse in The System Garden.
The System Garden tower, part of the original conservatory.

Originally known as the University Botanical Garden in 1856, it was later renamed to the System Garden in the 1900s. The 160th anniversary of the System Garden at Melbourne University's Parkville Campus was celebrated in 2016.

The System Garden is back in the news this year due to the University of Melbourne's plan to reduce the garden by 10% to make way for additional buildings on campus.

Over the past century the System Garden has been reduced to a quarter of its original size. In June, 'the final stage of tree removals' was carried out and by November this yeari, Building 142, Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Science, will be demolishedii.

1856: a System Garden is born

Portrait of Professor Sir Frederick McCoy, c.1870
Portrait of Professor Sir Frederick McCoy, c.1870

In McCoy's early career he was instrumental in establishing the natural history collection at the Museum, and equally importantly, establishing a System Garden with genus, species, locality and common name labels:

A garden well labelled in this manner will teach the principles of botanical classification, even if but poorly furnished with plants, and the eye of the visitor will familiarise him insensibly with the natural alliances and affinities of the various groups of plants, suggest the relations which the scientific botanists have detected and used for their classification, even when as yet we may be deficient in many of the typical specimens. These, I have every hope, however, will not long be wanting.iii - extract from McCoy’s "On the Formation of Museums in Victoria" (1857).

These labels are visible in the photograph below, which captures what the System Garden looked like in its early years. The roof of the National Museum of Victoria is visible in the top left corner of the photograph. The Museum was located at Parkville Campus from 1856 to 1899.

System Garden, University of Melbourne, c.1866
System Garden, University of Melbourne, c.1866

An inscription on the cover to this board-mounted photograph reads: 

'The University Botanic Gardens. This view is of a portion of the Botanic Garden of Four Acres laid out by Professor McCoy, the Professor of Natural Science in the University, on a novel plan shelving all the Natural Orders of Plants in the consecutive order of their affinities to illustrate the Botanical part of his courses. The aquatic plans and even the sea weeds are grown in tanks between the terrestrial orders they are most allied to. All the order ends are labelled with name and chief characteristics, and all the plants fully labelled'.

McCoy and Mueller discuss plant selection

Baron Ferdinand von Mueller (Government Botanist of Victoria 1853 to 1896, and Director of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens 1857 to 1873) sent a letter to Professor McCoy dated 22 June 1859 about the 124 plants he sent to McCoy for 'your class ground to begin with'iv.

Mueller had created a similar garden at the Melbourne Botanic Gardens (now Royal Botanic Gardens) prior to 1856.

Letter from Baron Ferdinand von Mueller to Professor Sir Frederick McCoy, Victoria, 22 June 1859.

The correspondence between Mueller and McCoy in the Museums Victoria Archives encompasses the period 1857 to 1891, almost the entire period that Mueller was Government Botanist. 

These letters often include discussion about the acquisition and identification of specimens, such as timber, shells, birds, small mammals and plants  Mueller’s interests were broad and extended beyond botany to other areas of scientific study.

In the photographs of Mueller's letter to McCoy above, you can see the list of plants Mueller sent to McCoy for the System Garden. The plants listed are historical groupings, no longer used by botanists. This letter is important as it is evidence of the sharing of botanical knowledge and expertise between Mueller and McCoy.

The garden's design

Edward La Trobe Bateman designed the University campus and it is likely that he also designed the circular layout of the System Garden. 

McCoy drew plans for drainage of the System Garden dated November 1861. The inscription on the top left of the plan below is in McCoy’s hand: 'The dotted lines indicate the position of the pipes, the double dotted lines refer to the main drains'.

Sir Frederick McCoy’s Plan of Drainage of the University Botanic Garden, November 1861
Sir Frederick McCoy’s Plan of Drainage of the University Botanic Garden, November 1861

The drainage pipes measured and distributed outwards in a radial pattern from the inner circle to the outer circle make up seven circles in total, are symmetrical except for three irregular lines which dissect and link between pipes on the north-west and south-west sections of the garden.

What does the future hold?

The System Garden at the University of Melbourne is a significant site in the history of Melbourne. 

It is testament to McCoy's vision for teaching the principles of botanical classification, and the strong connection between the University, Museum and Botanic Gardens from our earliest foundations.

Let us hope that the System Garden lives on for another 160 years for future generations to study and enjoy.

Purple flowers in the System Garden
The System Garden in full bloom.

Written by Nik McGrath, Archivist at Museums Victoria.

University of Melbourne 2017, The Western Edge Biosciences Program June Update, viewed 13 June 2017, https://ourcampus.unimelb.edu.au/index.php?cID=408.

ii University of Melbourne 2017, The System Garden, viewed 13 June 2017, https://ourcampus.unimelb.edu.au/system-garden.

iii McCoy, Frederick 1857, On the Formation of Museums in Victoria, Goodhugh & Hugh, Melbourne p8.

iv Von Mueller, Baron Ferdinand 1859, MV Archives – National Museum of Victoria – Inwards Correspondence – Bardon Ferdinand Von Mueller 1858 to 1889 (Oldersystem~02614), in possession of the Museums Victoria Archives.

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