Jungle atmosphere in the heart of Melbourne

By Dr Cheryl Griffin - Royal Historical Society of Victoria

When I first saw this atmospheric image of the Old National Herbarium at Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens, I was taken back to a time in the 1970s when I was fortunate enough to visit the ancient city of Palenque on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula early one morning as the ruins emerged out of a heavy jungle mist. I was blown away by the magical atmosphere I happened upon among the thick tropical vegetation.

There are no early morning mists or tropical jungles here, but the sense of mystery exuding from the ivy-clad facade of the Old Herbarium’s portico is palpable, leading one to wonder what treasures lie inside. The ivy is dormant, virtually leafless, adding to the feeling that this is a long-abandoned building.

The photograph, part of the Royal Historical Society’s images collection, was taken in 1933 and represents one of the last images of the Old National Herbarium, built in 1860 in the Melbourne of the time’s signature bluestone, with walls cleverly packed with seaweed for insulation. 

It was located in the King’s Domain on a site chosen by Governor Charles La Trobe in 1845. Towards the end of its life, the Shrine of Remembrance emerged on a nearby site, with the foundation stone laid in November 1927. The Shrine was completed in 1934, so it appeared just as the Old Herbarium disappeared from the landscape.

There are two men standing under the portico at the front of the building. One is J.W. Audas, who at the time of the photograph was senior assistant botanist and the go-to person for plant collectors around Victoria. He was a great collector of specimens himself and travelled widely throughout Victoria, writing prolifically about his botanical excursions. On his left is his assistant Patrick Francis (Frank) Morris, who later became the Gardens’ senior botanical officer. Morris was also a keen collector, with a special interest in grasses. Like his boss, he spent much of his leisure time collecting specimens. Audas retired in 1937 after working at the Herbarium for 40 years. Morris retired in January 1961 after 48 years. 

Greeted by the Argus newspaper as “one of the most interesting and important features connected with the Botanic Gardens” in 1861, the Old Herbarium was lamented as an “unsightly building” by 1933, just before it was demolished. By then it was run down, understaffed and too small for its burgeoning collection. Rescue came in 1934 in the form of a new building, the gift of philanthropist and confectioner Sir Macpherson Robertson. And so, the Herbarium moved from its original site to where it sits still, near Gate F at the corner of Dallas Brooks Drive and Birdwood Avenue.

Today, 175 years after the Royal Botanic Gardens (including the Herbarium) was founded by Government Botanist and first director of the Gardens Baron Sir Ferdinand Von Mueller, the Herbarium houses more than 1.5 million dried plant, algae and fungi specimens. As well, it is one of the participating bodies in the Australasian Virtual Herbarium which houses an amazing collection of more than eight million specimens.

Extended in 1988, a revisioning of the Herbarium’s future is now underway as part of the Gardens’ 20-year masterplan, including restoration of the 1934 building and the development of an underground herbarium •

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