Early days of local parks
It was a wild and barren landscape of sand hills, sandstone outcrops and scrub, but within a few years a European gardener with a magic touch transformed it into a flourishing plant nursery, with lush gardens, shady trees and green lawns.
It was not an easy task, but for many years afterwards Baptist Gardens in Surry Hills (now Redfern) were known as the horticultural showplace of Sydney. In the Victorian era, fashionable families flocked there on Sundays to picnic on the lawns.
John Thomas Baptist (1804-1873), born in Portugal as Jean Baptista, came to Australia as an emigrant aboard the ship Tees in 1823. He worked as a cook on ships and later as a butcher in Goulburn Street, Sydney. Tragically, his first wife Mary, aged 25, and their two young children died in 1829.
In 1832, Baptist purchased part of a grant owned by Edward Smith Hall, editor of the Monitor newspaper. “He obtained possession of a tract of sand, it could be called nothing else then, at the southern end of Bourke Street, this with skill and patience he converted into a nursery and market garden,” wrote “Old Chum” (J.M. Forde) in the Sydney Truth newspaper.
Over several years, Baptist gradually bought or leased more land until he owned 40 acres (16 hectares). “The original garden was devoted to growing vegetables, but as time passed, ornamental trees, shrubs and fruit-bearing trees of every description were cultivated, and the seed business engaged in,” according to the Souvenir of Redfern Municipality, published in 1909.
In 1840, Baptist added roses and hydrangeas to his Account Book and in 1841, navel and “common” oranges, fruit trees and three varieties of the fragrant flowering shrub Buddleia, called “butterfly bush”, because it attracts butterflies. Baptist sold his market garden produce at a stall in Shed D of the George Street Markets, on the site of the present Queen Victoria Building.
The John Baptist City Nursery and Market Garden, Bourke Street, Sydney advertised fruit trees and seeds for sale in the Sydney Herald in 1849. In 1861 and 1862, he published “a catalogue of fruit trees, bulbous rooted, flowering and ornamental trees and flowers cultivated for sale by John Baptist”. Copies of these two printed catalogues are now in the Mitchell Library, Sydney. The nursery offered about 70 varieties of vegetable seeds, including cabbage, brussel sprouts, borecole or Scotch kail [kale], cauliflower, white broccoli, carrot, parsnip, turnip, Swedish turnip [swede], radish, onion, leek, endive, celery, lettuce, spinach, beetroot, cucumber, vegetable marrow plus seven varieties of beans and eight of peas.
In 1860, Baptist received orders for Australian tree ferns and palms from Belgian plant dealer Amboise Vershhaffelt of Ghent and in 1868 a consignment of seeds worth £98 sterling was shipped from Marseilles to Baptist in Sydney by the famous French seed house M.M. Vilmorin-Andrieux of Paris, which had been established in 1815, the year of the battle of Waterloo.
“To Baptist’s Gardens, in those days, Sydney principally looked for its supply of green vegetables,” wrote “Old Chum”, adding, in the racist White Australia sentiments of the times, that this was “long before the Mongolians [Chinese gardeners] monopolised the cabbage industry and practically pushed the white cultivator out of the market”. After the 1850s gold rushes, industrious Chinese, who cultivated market gardens in Redfern, were deeply resented because they worked on Sundays and grew cheaper and far superior vegetables than their lazy rivals.
John Baptist died in 1873 and was succeeded by his son John Thomas Baptist, who slowly cut up and sold most of Baptist’s Gardens as building lots. In 1879, two acres (0.8 hectares) of the nursery, near Baptist Street, Redfern, was purchased for Surry Hills South Public School, which was abandoned in 1884.
“Streets of terraces now flourish where once were acres of flowering plants, shrubs and vegetables of every known kind,” wrote “Old Chum” in a later article in Truth (July 18, 1920). Streets that cover the former gardens include Baptist, Boronia, Kepos, Telopia and Zamia. The Redfern Police Barracks and horse stables were built on the site of Baptist’s house, once a garden owned by a Mr Clarke.
According to Freda MacDonnell in Before King’s Cross (1967), Baptist also owned 20 acres of parkland that later formed the White City Tennis Courts and Sydney Grammar School’s Weigall Sports Ground at Rushcutters Bay.
In 1888 John Baptist Jnr donated the beautifully carved circular stone “fish” fountain still bubbling in Hyde Park, close to Park Street.
Keith Vincent Smith is a curator and historian of Sydney’s coastal Aboriginal people (Eora). In 1972 Keith and his wife Irene founded Earth Garden magazine, for which he still writes a quarterly column “The Edible Garden”. Books currently in print are: Keith and Irene Smith, Grow Your Own Bushfoods, New Holland, 2nd edition, 2013, and Keith Vincent Smith, MARI NAWI: Aboriginal Odysseys, Rosenberg, Dural, 2010.