“Some of the Choicest Specimens of Plant Life”: Tree-Planting by Government Railways in Australasia pre-WWI

André Brett

A pseudonymous columnist of the Western Australian Railway Gazette devoted a paragraph in November 1900 to praise “the park-like appearance” of East Perth railway station. This scribe, “Wayfarer”, wrote that it was “tastefully laid out, and produces some of the choicest specimens of plant life”. The next month, another pseudonymous author, “Daphne”, submitted a letter thanking “Wayfarer” for recognising the “exertions put forward by the staffs at different stations to make the platforms, etc., pleasant for passengers”. “Daphne” narrated an anecdote of an elderly man who disembarked from a train at an unnamed station and walked up and down the platform. On being offered assistance, he needed none. “Ah! man,” he replied, “I have not seen a flower or a blade of grass for eight years”. He had just returned from the goldfields, and the pleasant station delighted him.

Australasia’s first steam railway opened in 1854, linking Melbourne with its port. In the subsequent 25 years, railways began operating in each of Britain’s Australasian settler colonies—the six that federated as the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, plus one that stayed out, New Zealand. Colonial governments owned almost every mainline railway, and by the early 1890s, these fast-growing networks had become the primary form of land-based transport. They made heavy use of timber resources. Historians have discussed various aspects of this. Warwick Frost and Tom Griffiths, to take two quite different examples, show the importance of railways and tramways to sawmillers in thick forests. Lionel Frost bookends a chapter on the rural economic role of railways with the example of a railway line that enabled a nursery in Gembrook, near Melbourne, to sell ornamental trees throughout Australasia. I have previously attempted to quantify the timber carried and consumed by railways in Victoria and studied disputes between railway officials and foresters. But railways were not only consumers and enablers of consumption prior to WWI: they also engaged in tree-planting.

Colonial railways typically obtained cut timber—such as sleepers, piles, and firewood—externally rather than maintaining plantations. Some governments proclaimed railway timber reserves, but these generally set aside trees to be cut exclusively for railways rather than encouraging planting. This article focuses on the trees, shrubs, and grasses that Australasian government railways planted for purposes both ornamental and utilitarian. It commences in the 1870s, when planting first appeared in annual reports, and runs through to WWI, which disrupted railway operations substantially. Much planting occurred for what would today be dubbed public relations: beautification. Senior officials and junior staff alike began to beautify station precincts through tree-planting as their networks matured. Some railways introduced station garden competitions while others employed gardeners to tend shade trees. There were also more utilitarian plantings, such as windbreaks and grasses to stabilise embankments. This article includes examples from all seven government railways of Australasia, culminating in a case study of Western Australia, where senior officials reported in detail on their diverse goals in planting.

Beautification and shade

Many of Australasia’s first railways were built quickly and cheaply, with rudimentary station precincts that were often dusty. Planting was initially for the personal satisfaction of a local railway employee, rarely earning official recognition. The first railway garden in New South Wales, for example, was probably established in 1882 at the Eveleigh workshops on local initiative. Staff at Granville received belated praise in 1900 for “cultivat[ing] a nice plantation of shrubs” over “many years before there was any mention of prizes”.

Figure 1. Rakaia, on the main line from Christchurch to Dunedin, became known for its garden. It is seen here on 29 March 1950. Credit: J.F. Le Cren, Archives New Zealand AAVK series 6390 item B58.

Queensland Railways (QR) made early strides to improve the appearance of its stations, as trees had a practical purpose in a humid subtropical climate: shade. Henry C. Stanley, chief engineer of the large railway system emanating from Brisbane, employed a gardener to tend shade trees in 1876. Not only was the expense “trifling” and the shade welcome, “the improvement to the general appearance of the various stations is already very marked”. Stanley did, however, encounter difficulties during 1877, especially with introduced species. He obtained trees from the colony’s Acclimatisation Society, but up to 100 died out of 150 planted that year, so he turned to native plants. Subsequent annual reports, unfortunately, do not report outcomes, and it appears this scheme fell into abeyance.

As the railway networks matured during the 1890s, interest turned towards beautification. Stationmasters of Victorian Railways (VR) received a memorandum encouraging beautification in 1893. They submitted 215 requests to Macedon State Nursery for ornamental trees—the second-most of any group, behind 329 from farmers in dry districts. VR became one of the largest recipients of trees from the nursery in the 1890s and 1900s. It also acquired trees from the Burnley Horticultural Gardens and Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens in the 1900s. The railway commissioner offered a prize for the best station garden, which in 1897 drew judges from VR’s traffic department and the Lands Department’s forest branch.

Foresters and locomotive drivers alike criticised some planting. George Perrin, Victoria’s conservator of forests, wrote in 1894 that:

This question of planting railway stations, however, requires more attention than it has received, as I have in many places noticed a disposition to place trees where they may become dangerous to traffic or an encumbrance to the lines, whilst some of the trees have been planted without any regard to their future size and height.

He re-emphasised this in his next annual report, reporting that “not much success” attended station beautification. Perrin implied that VR had taken too lightly, or even ignored, instructions on where to plant trees and how to maintain them. VR briefly suspended planting for ornamental purposes shortly thereafter, though the acting commissioners averred that this “rigid economy” was in response to Victoria’s persistent economic depression.

In the 1900s, VR redoubled beautification efforts and established a nursery, setting aside 1.5 acres at Kensington between the Essendon railway line and Moonee Ponds Creek. It contained 25,000 plants, shrubs, and young trees in May 1908, worth about £350. These included deciduous trees for well-watered localities, pines for areas with poor soil, and a range of hardy plants for dry districts such as acacias, grevilleas, and pepper trees. In the year ended 30 June 1909, VR planted 30,000 ornamental and shade trees statewide, then 70,000 the next year. The nursery moved to Royal Park during WWI.

NSW’s railway commissioners built on endeavours by the Railway Institute, a society for staff education and welfare. The Institute opened in March 1891 and began an annual flower show the next year. At the eighth show on 20 October 1899, the chief commissioner of the NSW Government Railways (NSWGR), Charles Oliver, announced a prize for the best station gardens, with Granville the inaugural winner. Oliver claimed that the commissioners “had always been anxious to improve the appearance and surroundings of the railway stations” but did not explain how this anxiety had manifested in any previous measures. The next year, after awarding Rookwood first prize, the judges drew attention to multiple stations. One citation reprised the theme of shade and the practical purpose of beautification. Thornleigh received praise for a “well grown camphor tree … [that] forms a pleasant shade in a suitable place, and is a feature which might be repeated at many stations”. Common trees and flowers in the 1890s included cabbage tree-palms, cypress pines, date palms, ferns, pigface, and native trailing plants. Variety increased in the 1900s, especially flowers such as begonias, petunias, roses, snapdragons, tulips, and wisteria. NSWGR later established a nursery, at Homebush in 1923.

Not all Australasian railways introduced prizes for gardens. Queensland waited until 1914. A generation after Stanley’s planting in the 1870s, chief engineer Norris Bell—best known for his subsequent tenure as the Commonwealth’s commissioner of railways—appointed a gardener to arrange flowers and shade trees at suburban Brisbane stations in 1913. Alison Clarke explains that across the Tasman a “climate of taxpayer suspicion” meant the New Zealand Railways Department (NZR) only offered behind-the-scenes support, permitting individuals and communities to beautify stations if they desired. When New Zealand’s first station garden competition began, in 1925, a women’s club oversaw the contest rather than NZR.

Even when railway authorities engaged actively in beautification, they were not always responsible for planting. People unhappy with the appearance of their stations often complained to local councils. The Western Champion in NSW, for instance, lamented during 1903 that the aldermen of Parkes had not planted ornamental trees to “improv[e] the dreary entrance to the town from the Railway Station”. Community groups took action when officials did not, such as in Lindfield and Wahroonga, north of Sydney. The Daily Telegraph quipped in 1901 that at Lindfield “the most suitable positions [for trees] would be in front of the advertisement hoardings which the Commissioners for Railways have erected”.

Figure 2. Undated photograph of Pialba station garden on the Hervey Bay railway line, Queensland. Credit: D.W. Evans, State Library of Queensland negative no. 54525.

Planting for other purposes

New Zealand, despite its cautiousness towards beautification, made early moves to plant for utilitarian purposes. Canterbury provincial councillor William Wilson in 1870 proposed planting oak, elm, and blue gum along the railway corridor to within eight feet of the rails. This never happened, but a decade later NZR had lineside nurseries in Christchurch suburbs Hillsborough and Sockburn. These trees were planted as hedges and windbreaks or felled for fencing. Output in the year ended 31 March 1892 totalled 113,100 trees: 79,900 were planted in Canterbury, 33,150 sent to other railway districts, and Christchurch City Council received the remainder. By 1899, NZR cultivated 1,660 acres nationwide. That year, however, it ceased further planting. An official explained why in a letter to Western Australian colleagues. First, the cost. Second, and more importantly, the sites were unsuitable—they were too close to railway lines and locomotives set plantations on fire.

Victoria sowed wattles beside the railway from Melbourne to Geelong and Colac. In the 1870s–80s, this was Macedon State Nursery’s responsibility. William Ferguson, inspector of forests, reported in 1883 that some trees were growing well but criticised indiscriminate planting and poor maintenance. The wattles also impeded sightlines. One farmer, hit by a train at Birregurra in 1885, blamed them for obscuring the approaching engine. VR revived wattle-planting in 1907, again planting alongside the Melbourne–Geelong Railway. It intended to strip the bark for commercial sale so that tree-planting activities could become financially self-sufficient.

Grasses played an important role in maintaining the integrity of railway earthworks throughout Australasia. They were sown along the sides of embankments and cuttings to aid stability. Specifications from 1874 for Western Australia’s first public railway, between Geraldton and Northampton in the Mid-west region, mandated that these slopes be sown with introduced couch grass. In Tasmania, where some slopes had not been sown with grasses, the railway authorities in the late 1880s encountered high labour costs to remove soil that washed into lineside drains. South Australian Railways experienced considerable problems with shifting sands around Watson’s Gap on the railway between Port Elliot and Victor Harbor. The local superintendent during 1871 planted windbreaks with bushes of unspecified species and had the sand sown with “aloes, prickly pear, castor oil, acacias, tobacco trees, and several kinds of grasses”. Most instructions about grasses in staff manuals describe weeding and controlled burning, as lineside foliage had to be kept low to avoid locomotive sparks causing fires.

Planting in Western Australia

When the Western Australian Government Railways (WAGR) considered planting schemes in the late 1890s, it viewed the possibilities broadly—both for beautification and departmental needs. It consulted government foresters and sought advice from New Zealand. Senior officials began modestly in June 1899, endorsing a prize for station gardens, and in November 1900 they resolved to plant trees at other lineside locations, such as maintenance camps and water reserves. The prizes not only recognised the best garden in each railway district, but also included “best kept station” awards in “those districts where the climate and conditions are not congenial to the growth of flowers, etc.” The officials hoped to stimulate “a spirit of emulation amongst the staff to improve and beautify their stations”.

WAGR obtained young ornamental trees from the Forestry Department and distributed seeds, plants, and cuttings from thriving station gardens. The Western Australian Railway Gazette in June 1901 noted that stations such as Bayswater, Brunswick Junction, and Picton Junction were following East Perth’s example. Columns with gardening advice became regular. Permanent way staff—the men responsible for maintaining physical infrastructure—planted the trees and tended to them. Chief engineer William Dartnall observed that they “display a keen interest in the welfare of the young trees”. They also harvested “luxuriant” grasses in railway reserves along the main line from Perth to Kalgoorlie—typically water reserves for replenishing locomotives—which the department’s stables used as fodder for horses. There were proposals in 1906 to plant vines and figs near lineside camps for beautification and to expand the diet of local staff. WAGR planted one hundred vines of unspecified type in the Geraldton district that year, but annual reports for the following decade do not indicate if it pursued this idea further.

Some staff had problems growing plants in dry climates, while others found thieves a great impediment. The pseudonymous “Daphne” asked the Railway Gazette in December 1900if management could “find some means of protecting our work against the sneak thief. We are continually losing plants, etc., which are wilfully pulled up or cut down.” Somebody had, for example, stolen an entire box of maidenhair fern from one station. The success of lineside planting beyond station precincts was patchy. Cattle destroyed trees along the Eastern Goldfields line to Kalgoorlie. The 1906 annual report proclaimed tree-planting in the semi-arid lands along the Kalgoorlie–Laverton railway “a failure”. Near Geraldton, high coastal winds caused different challenges, though carob beans, tree lucerne, and cape lilac were “fairly successful”, an interesting mix of introduced and native plants. WAGR did, moreover, enjoy success with planting inland towards Northampton, and along the lines radiating from Perth.

Although WAGR’s initial efforts emphasised beautification, it did not lose sight of hardwood needs. Annual reports in the mid-1900s bemoaned sluggish delivery of timber and competition with exporters. It obtained a small jarrah reserve near Nannup in the 1905/06 financial year, but this proved uneconomical and officials sought a larger reserve exclusively for railway use and replanting to secure supplies long-term. In 1909/10, WAGR established a sawmill at Dwellingup in the Darling Range and obtained shared control of 740,200 acres with the Public Works Department. Three years later, WAGR opened a second, larger mill at Dwellingup. These operated under its control, separate from the State Sawmills established contemporaneously.


Railway station beautification in colonial Australasia at first relied on local initiative. Some early planting had official support, such as shade trees in Queensland and plantations near Christchurch, though these efforts were halting—an easy expense to cut during economy drives. The outcomes were, consequently, uneven. Some plants suffered from poor maintenance; others grew too close to the track. Railway officials increasingly supported beautification in the early twentieth century, some introducing prizes for the best gardens. Planting had utilitarian purposes, too. All railways sowed grasses to stabilise earthworks; some grew trees for windbreaks or to strip bark for sale. Although cut timber mostly came from external sources, railway officials and employees planted for a wide range of purposes with introduced and native species alike. Activities varied significantly between the networks, but by the 1910s interest and ambitions had become much greater throughout Australasia.

About the Author

Dr André Brett is a historian at the University of Wollongong. He is the author of three books (Otago University Press and Melbourne University Publishing), with two manuscripts currently in preparation: an enviro-economic history of railways in Australasia, 1850s–1915, and an account of New Zealand’s shrinking passenger rail network, 1920–2020. He has been the historian for the SBS/Mint Pictures ‘slow TV’ travel documentaries, including the Ghan and Indian Pacific train journeys.

Email: abrett@uow.edu.au / andredebrett@gmail.com

Further reading

URLs accessed 30 September 2020

André Brett, “‘Playing Sad Havoc with Our Forests’: Foresters Versus Sleeper Hewers in Late Colonial Victoria”, in Australia’s Ever-Changing Forests VII, eds Sue Feary and Rob Robinson (Canberra: Australian Forest History Society, 2016), https://www.foresthistory.org.au/2015_conference_papers/17%20Brett%20-%20’Playing%20Sad%20Havoc%20With%20Our%20Forests’%20Foresters%20Versus%20Railway%20Sleeper%20Hewers%20in%20Late%20Colonial%20Victoria.pdf  

André Brett. “Railways and the Exploitation of Victoria’s Forests, 1880s–1920s”, Australian Economic History Review 59:2 (2019), 159–80.

Alison Clarke, “Beauty amidst the engines: railway station gardening competitions in New Zealand”, paper presented at the New Zealand Historical Association conference, Wellington, November 2019, https://clarkesquill.com/2019/12/09/beauty-amidst-the-engines-railway-station-gardening-competitions-in-new-zealand/

Lionel Frost, “The Railway Corridors”, in Outside Country: Histories of Inland Australia, eds Alan Mayne and Stephen Atkinson (Kent Town: Wakefield Press, 2011), 159–76.

Warwick Frost, “Farmers, Government, and the Environment: The Settlement of Australia’s ‘Wet Frontier’, 1870–1920”, Australian Economic History Review 37(1), 1997, 19–38.

Tom Griffiths, Forests of Ash: An Environmental History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), chapter six.

Jim Longworth, “Clarence Railway Station Garden: An Example of Edwardian Institutional Landscape Gardening”, Australian Garden History 3:5 (1992), 7–9.

Christopher Betterridge, “The SM’s Pride and Joy: Some Notes on Railway Station Gardens”, Historic Environment 10:1 (1993), 18–23.