Bill Gray’s Garden – Allwood House
In 1894 Fred and Catherine Hurst had a weatherboard Victorian style dwelling moved from an inner Melbourne suburb to its present site on their Allwood property. Mr Charles Verso, builder and farmer, reassembled and refurbished the home for the Hurst’s. In 1897 Fred and Catherine’s daughter Frances married William (Bill) Gray of Cottlesbridge and the newlyweds moved into the new house while Fred and Catherine Hurst moved into Mia Mia, a pretty cottage on the other side of the Diamond Creek. Bill and Frances went about establishing the Allwood Nurseries and by 1900 Bill had put most of the Allwood property under orchard, largely apples, pears, cherry plums and peaches and had developed an extensive nursery, growing seedling stock for supply to other local orchardists and the overseas market. Special apples, late autumn varieties, were grown to supply Apple Cider manufactures and Bill’s own Cider Factory. During the season the Allwood fruit was marketed on three days each week. Teams of men would work non-stop picking, packing and driving covered fruit wagons to market. In the very early 1900’s Bill had an Acetylene Gas generator installed in a shed at the rear of the House the gas was collected and piped to both the house, and more importantly, to the packing shed for lighting during the busy growing seasons, packing could continue almost around the clock.
A glass house was erected where Bill propagated a variety of ornamental and exotic plants suitable for the home gardener. Bill’s annual mail order Fruit Trees Catalogue also included a variety of garden shrubs, roses and trees and later tomatoes, seedlings and seeds.
Due to the loss of overseas markets during the First World War and competition from extensive newly established orchards at Doncaster by the early 1920’s fruit growing in the district was on the wane. Several local growers tried tomato growing as a marketable adjunct to their orchards. Bill developed his own varieties the ‘John Bear’ and the ‘Allwood’.
Although not formally trained as a nurseryman Bill learn’t much by working with his father at the family’s ‘’Clair Hills’’, Cottlesbridge orchards and developed an interest and passion for plants of all sorts.
By the early 1900’s the garden at Allwood was established. In 1913 Bill had a large dam constructed on the Allwood property (now Christians Road-and now referred to as Bourke’s dam). Primarily constructed as a water supply for the orchards and nursery it was also instrumental in the development of the Allwood, garden – along with several neighbors gardens.
During the Edwardian era in England plant collecting had become almost an obsession and wealthy collectors financed expeditions in search of rare or different plants. New and exotic plants became available to gardeners. Many of these were from the Americas or China, – Agave Americana, Cordyline, etc. Bill selected these and other tough sculptural plants like Prickly Pear, Agapanthus, Holly and Japonica for the Allwood garden while mixing in a variety of Bush roses, bulbs, including Camassia, a North American native, and annuals, creating, in effect, a mini Botanic Garden. A wide carriage way was created along which Sweet Pea and roses greeted the visitor.
Peppercorns from Africa were planted at the rear of the house in the farm yard along with Cyprus and, two Canary Island palms placed in the centre of the front garden along with a row of a taller variety along the drive/carriage way.
Like all gardens it evolved – later additions were Japanese Spindle Tree, a row of Seville orange trees that graced, and still grace, the side of the drive way (now a pedestrian walkway). Still later were the addition of Camelias, Mexican Hawthorn and Wisteria, all of which are suited to the dry, but frost prone conditions.
Bill died in 1942 and although the garden, went through periods of neglect and many of the original plantings have been lost through drought or old age, the bones of the original garden remain, and the garden continues to be refreshed with additional new plantings and ideas.
Eltham Shire purchased the property from Sheila (nee Hurst/Gray) Ferguson in 1984 for use as a Community House. Allwood Neighbourhood House opened in 1985 and the garden has since been maintained by some wonderful volunteers and committee members. Now a public place, Bill’s garden has hosted festivals, wedding receptions and many other activities while still providing a quiet, reflective retreat as gardens everywhere do.