The discovery of gold at Clunes and Ballarat in 1851 changed forever the future of this district from an isolated squatter settlement to, a place which was at one stage, the richest urban area in the world. In 1858, two years after the municipality was formed, a decision was made to convert the Ballarat Police Horse Paddock into a botanical garden, and at the same time to construct a road on the west side of Yuilles Swamp (Lake Wendouree) to be known as Wendouree Parade.
A competition for a design for the garden was won by Messrs Wright and Armstrong, who received a prize of ten pounds. George Longley, trained in horticultural at Lowther Castle, England was appointed at a salary of three pounds per week to convert Wright and Andersons design into a reality.
Contractors were employed to clear trees from the site at 1/- per tree, and soil was carted from Yuilles Swamp at 7 pence per dray load.
Longleys first abode was a tent pitched approximately on the site of the Robert Clark Centre. Works progressed under the guidance of the Committee of Management, established in 1858, and the 1860s saw the establishment of the principal tree plantings that still give the gardens their unique character. Plants and seeds were received from the Melbourne and Geelong Botanical Gardens and Longley set about a substantial propagation program in a nursery ground that he laid out in 1859.
In the prosperous 1880s, the Gardens were much improved and in 1884, the Camellia House was extended to create the 'gothic fantasy' of the Batten Fernery. The Fernery was extended in stages until its completion in 1898, when it became a 'uniquely Ballarat' structure with an outstanding fern collection, cool grottos and fish ponds. Remnant footings remain exposed in the gardens west of the current fernery. The rock-walled lily pond on the south side of the Fernery was constructed in 1916.
The Maze in the North Gardens was built in 1888 to the same design as the one at Hampton Court Palace in London. It was finally removed in 1959. An earlier maze existed from 1862 until 1881 when it was cleared to make way for a large conservatory.
Lawns were laid between the the Gardens and the Lake and it became a favoured place to promenade. Every Sunday afternoon the citizens of Ballarat paraded in 'frock coats and top hats while the ladies looked fascinating in their bustles and small jet bonnets'.
Through an association with Baron von Mueller, plants and seeds were received from the Melbourne and Geelong Botanical Gardens and Longley set about a substantial propagation program in a nursery ground that he had laid out in 1859. In the 1860s the principal tree plantings that still give the Gardens their unique character were established. Of particular importance is the South Avenue of Giant Redwoods, which was planted in 1863.
In the 1870s, there was a fascination with exotic species from around the world and avid 'plant hunting' resulted in a collection of great diversity. It was at this time that the Ballarat Fish Acclimatisation Society was founded and a zoo, with deer and aviaries, was established. Construction works included a timber Camellia House and nursery buildings.
The Stoddart Statues
In 1884 Thomas Stoddart presented an impressive gift of 12 classical Italian marble statues to the City of Ballaarat for the Ballarat Botanical Gardens. Within two years several other wealthy citizens followed his example and large sums were bequeathed in appreciation of their good fortune on the goldfields of Ballarat.
The Thomson Bequest
The Statuary Pavilion, in 1888, is of national historic and architectural significance. Inside are four fine white marble statues in classical poses - Ruth, Modesty, Rebeka and Susannah. The larger than life 'Flight From Pompeii' is the centrepiece of the Thomson Bequest.
As well as the Statuary Pavilion and its contents, the Thomson Bequest also provided sufficient funds for the statue of Sir William Wallace, the great Scottish hero of the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. This was chosen as a tribute to Thomson's birthplace. James Russell Thomson was a Scottish miner who arrived on the diggings in 1852 and made his fortune from goldmining. At his death in 1886 he left 3,000 pounds for statues at the Gardens.
Other items of interest
The Maze - The first maze, recorded in 1862, was in the vicinity of The Conservatory. A second maze, built in 1888 in the North Gardens was rejuvenated in 1922.
The Claxton Memorial Fountain - The Foundation was erected at the main entrance to the fernery in 1890 by public subscription. It was a tribute to Frederick Moses Claxton, Councillor and Mayor of Ballarat (1872-1877), who was devoted to beautifying the Lake and Gardens.
Morey Gates and Marble Lions - The ornate iron gates at the main entrance to the Gardens were a gift of the Hon. Edward Morey MLC in 1894 and the pair of marble lions situated just inside the gates were presented by the Hon. David Ham MLC in 1893.
The Sundial - The sundial was presented in 1912 by Cr T.T. Hollway after his Mayoral year in office. It was constructed under advice of the Government Astronomer of the time.
The Ballarat Zoo - There are two roads in the North Gardens, Nursery Drive and Zoo Drive, which is a legacy of the zoo which was there for 43 years from 1917 to 1959. Some historic concrete structures from the 1940s are the remnants of the animal enclosures. In 1912 a former Ballarat citizen, Henry Ben Jahn, died in his native Germany. In his will, much to everyone's astonishment, he left his entire estate, about 10,000 pounds, to the City Council for the purpose of establishing a 'menagerie' in the Botanical Gardens.
McDonald Gates - The southern entrance gates with their ionic pillars were erected in 1921 with funds from the McDonald bequest.
The Reflection Pool - The Pool dates from 1938 when it was presented by the Protestant Alliance Friendly Society to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the City of Ballarat in 1868. The chrome sphere was placed on the granite obelisk in 1969, replacing the original bowl.
The Floral Clock - was presented to the citizens of Ballarat in 1954 by the Ballarat Begonia Festival Committee and was moved to its present site from the Sturt Street Gardens in 1980.
The Adam Lindsay Gordon Cottage - This Cottage was relocated to its present position from Bath Lane near Craig's Hotel in 1934. It was occupied by this great Australian poet and horseman in 1868-69. Ballarat Y's Men's Club, which undertook its restoration in 1989, has a continuing interest. In 1992 the Cottage was opened by the Ballarat Crafts Council as an outlet for locally produced crafts.
The Sensory Garden and Fountain - The Garden and Fountain were installed in 1987 as part of the Rock Garden project with funding from Victoria's Sesquicentnary celebrations. The area was further developed in 1993 by the City of Ballaarat with assistance provided by the Frank Pinkerton Estate and the Zonta Club of Ballarat.
The Robert Clark Centre - The Centre was the result of a $2 million bequest from Bob Clark, grandson of Robert Clark, co-founder and proprietor of The Courier. The Conservatory and the Community Resource Centre opened in 1995 and are a permanent memorial to his grandfather.
Conservation Analysis and Masterplan - In 1994 a detailed study was undertaken to ensure that future management and development within the Gardens would be in accordance with the shared objectives of the community, the National Trust, the Council and the Historic Buildings Council.