Caught and Coloured: Zoology Illustrations from Colonial Victoria


As the Professor of Natural Sciences at Melbourne University, Frederick McCoy lectured botany, biology, geology and palaeontology.

In Museums of Victoria, a paper presented to the Philosophical Institute soon after his arrival in the colony, McCoy set out his grand plan:

Collections for the exhibition of classically arranged plants are of two sorts; 1st Botanic Gardens for living specimens; 2nd, Herbaria for dried plants. Both kinds should be fostered...1

At heart McCoy was a taxonomist who spent his life classifying and ordering species. From the inception at the University's Botanic Garden in 1856, his desire to direct every aspect of it drew McCoy into protracted territorial struggles, until control was finally wrested from the visionary but testy Professor in the 1880s.

For several decades however the Botanic Garden gave McCoy the opportunity to set out an idealised plan within a perfectly circular form (1.6 hectares) defined by both concentric and radial paths. For McCoy this plan reflected and represented a conceptual purity he could never achieve within the bricks and mortar of the National Museum.2

Each Class having a large bed to itself, with a label bearing its name in the centre, of such size that it can be read from any part of the margin: this bed being divided by small fences into smaller divisions, containing each one of the subordinate Orders of the Class, these again being divided into Families; and these into compartments for the Genera; each subordinate division in the classification being marked by a conspicuous but smaller, label, until finally the Species placed in each generic compartment have ordinary sized labels, setting out Genus, Species, Locality and common name of each.3

Labels dominate in McCoy's 'gridiron-like order of a strictly scientific Botanic Gardens'4 and from his own description plants seemed almost an optional extra.

McCoys sketch of the layout of his University botanic gardens.
McCoy's plan grows: the System Garden at its peak, c.1870s.


1Frederick McCoy, 'On the Formation of Museums in Victoria', Transactions of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria, 1857.
2George Tibbits & Anne Neale, 'The System Garden: also known as the Botanical Garden', University of Melbourne: a historical analysis, Parkville: Australian Centre, University of Melbourne, 1998, p. 21.
3Frederick McCoy, 'On the Formation of Museums in Victoria', Transactions of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria, 1857.