Michael Guilfoyle

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During the second-half of the nineteenth century a number of nurserymen set up in business in the fertile Double Bay valley. These retail enterprises were typically launched as sidelines to their proprietors’ work in the evolving landmark gardens in the district’s estates, but nevertheless developed into notable establishments in their own right : George Mortimer’s Cross Street Nursery, Messrs J and W Gelding‘soutlet in the same locality,and Francis Ferguson’s Australian Nursery on the New South Head Road.

Mortimer, Gelding and Ferguson were following in the footsteps of Michael Guilfoyle, the founder of Double Bay’s ‘Exotic Nursery’, who was the first to establish a nursery business in the bayside locality. Guilfoyle’s acknowledged supremacy went beyond this pioneering status; his work on a number of the most important local properties had conclusively established his credentials in garden design, and he was respected especially for his horticultural knowledge, his success in the acclimatisation of introduced species, and in propagation and plant breeding - on all of which the garden fashions of the day particularly depended. It was said of him in one obituary: He was especially expert in the difficult art of hybridization, and his triumphs in that direction would have gratified a Darwin himself.
(Freeman’s Journal 19.4.1884 p. 9)

The name of Guilfoyle gained further local regard through the achievements of William Guilfoyle, Michael’s son, whose career made the family’s name a household one further afield. William was responsible for the transformation of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne into a world class example of its type.

Further to the contribution which Michael Guilfoyle made to the area through his landscaping work and the success of his local business, he also participated in the life of the area through his service as an alderman on Woollahra Council, which extended from December 1861 to July 1873. Sole among the local nurserymen, the Guilfoyle’s family is commemorated in a street named in its honour, and in the immediate vicinity of Michael’s nursery. However, Guilfoyle’s true legacy is found wherever examples of his landscaping eye survive, or where plants derived from his nursery’s stock still flourish.

Family background – France, Ireland, England

Australian author Richard Pescott in his study of Michael Guilfoyle’s son William traced the Guilfoyle family origins to France, from where one branch is supposed to have moved to Ireland early in the Irish Mediaeval period (between 1250-1600) to work in the linen industry. By the 18th century, according to Pescott’s account, the relevant branch of the family was settled in the village of Mountmellick – a centre for cotton and woollen manufacturing in that era, located in in County Laois. Pescott claims with some certainty that the grounds of Summer Grove, a notable estate west of Mountmellick, are attributable to Guilfoyle ancestors who were already involved in horticultural and agricultural pursuits (Pescott p. 1-2).

Despite the level of detail apparently available for the early history of the Guilfoyle family (with all the variant renderings of its name as McGuilfoyle and Kilfoyle) no unambiguous record of the nineteenth-century birthdate, birthplace and parentage of Michael Guilfoyle, the nineteenth-century nurseryman of Double Bay, has been traced.

Pescott assumes that the relevant branch of the Guilfoyle family had already settled in England before Michael’s birth (Pescott p. 2). This is at odds with the detail in at least two other sources. One is an obituary for Guilfoyle published in Freeman’s Journal, which gives Michael’s birthplace as County Tipperary. The other is the entry for Guilfoyle on the passenger lists compiled in 1849 for the voyage of the Steadfast to Sydney, which shows the detail supplied by Guilfoyle himself at the time of his assisted passage to Australia. Here Guilfoyle’s place of birth is listed as the small Irish village of Moneygall, Kings County, and since Moneygall lies on the border between County Offaly (modern-day Kings County) and County Tipperary, this minor confusion of county boundaries seems immaterial. The consistency in broad terms between the Freeman’s Journal obituary and the shipping record supports the probability that Michael Guilfoyle was in fact born in Ireland, possibly travelling to England independently, as a young man – as asserted in the Freeman’s Journal obituary (FJ 19.4.1884, p. 9).

There is also discrepancy among sources concerning the year of Michael’s birth. The Freeman’s Journal obituary states that Guilfoyle was born in 1809, and was 75 at the time of his death in 1884 – the age at death matching the detail recorded on the NSW Registrar General’s Index (4632/1884). However, the ages given for Guilfoyle on a series of English Census returns from the 1840s are consistent with the age recorded on the lists of assisted passengers on the Steadfast, suggesting that 1814, not 1809, was the year of his birth.

Given that no civil registration record for Michaels’ birth has yet been traced, his parentage remains unknown. The Freeman’s Journal obituary wrote of a father who was a ‘well-to-do member of the middle-class of farmers’ whose circumstances allowed the young Michael to travel to England to ‘acquire the firm basis of that competent knowledge of agriculture which characterized him.’ However, no name or other detail of occupation has been discovered regarding either Michael’s mother or father.

Michael Guilfoyle was clearly living in England when he married Charlotte Austin in Kensington, London in 1839 (Marriages, England and Wales 1837 – 1915 ref 3/275). Charlotte had been born c1818 in Camberwell, Surrey – this birth detail sourced as for Michael’s from the details recorded on the lists of assisted passengers for the Steadfast’s voyage to New South Wales. There are conflicting records relating to Charlotte’s name and paternity. She married Guilfoyle as Charlotte Austin, but the record of her death in Melbourne in 1885 suggests that either her middle name was Delafosse, or that her sur-name was Delafosse-Austin, while her father’s name is recorded as Alpho Delafosse – a connection Richard Pescott makes much of, due to the famous Count Louis Delafosse, adviser to Louis XIV apropos his hobby garden.

Available records, however haven’t confirmed the intriguing suggestion of Charlotte’s Delafosse connection, and neither has any record been traced of an earlier marriage for Charlotte Guilfoyle (ie as a Miss Charlotte Delafosse marrying a Mr Austin) which would have seemed the most likely explanation for the conflicting information on surnames.

Training in England and transfer to Australia

It is generally accepted that Michael Guilfoyle trained in England under Joseph King and James Veitch, gaining not only invaluable experience, but the credentials of employment at London’s Royal Exotic Nursery in the King’s Road, Chelsea. Richard Clough, in the entry he prepared for Guilfoyle in the Oxford Companion to Australian Gardens, refers todocumented conversations between William Guilfoyle and J H Maiden of the Botanical Gardens, Sydney as his source of information on William’s father’s training and early career (Clough, p. 279). Richard Pescott tells the same story (Pescott p. 4).

According to both accounts, Guilfoyle had a number of worthwhile British landscaping commissions to cite by way of introduction when he left England, proving the confidence placed in Guilfoyle by his superiors, who were ready to send him out to take charge on these assignments (Pescott pp 3-5).

What is certain is that Michael Guilfoyle arrived in the colony with an established career in horticulture and landscaping, or he could never have cemented his Sydney reputation as rapidly as he did, as soon as the right opportunities and contacts presented themselves.
Interestingly, Michael gave his calling as ‘gardener and farmer’ in the details he supplied for his assisted passage to Sydney (List of Immigrants – Steadfast p. 291) perhaps assuming that practical farming skills might be favourably considered as being more useful to a fledgling colony, which he might have expected to find struggling to feed itself. If so, there is a certain irony that the greater part of Guilfoyle’s work in New South Wales was centred on horticultural refinements rather than agricultural necessities – specializing in the ornamental and the indulgent.

The catalyst for the Guilfoyle family’s move to Sydney is unknown. Michael and Charlotte had four children when they sailed on the Steadfast: William Robert, an 8 year-old; Ellen, aged 7, Mary-Ann, 5 and Elizabeth, 3. The children’s births or baptisms had been registered in a succession of parishes and registration districts: Fulham, Middlesex; St John’s Wood and the youngest child in Chelsea – the latter place of birth consistent with Michael’s connections with London’s Exotic Nursery (List of Immigrants – Steadfast p. 291). In a census taken in 1841, when William was 6 month’s old, the family was recorded as living in Fulham Road, and Michael had given his occupation as ‘man servant’ – perhaps in fact working as a gardener.

Nevertheless, Guilfoyle struggled in his first Sydney venture, a nursery in Redfern, hampered both by a lack of local knowledge and a dearth of reliable labour in the wake of the gold rushes.

37 South Street Double Bay
37 South Street Double Bay

The influence of Thomas Sutcliff Mort

Michael Guilfoyle’s meeting Thomas Sutcliff Mort through the Horticultural Society was a piece of good fortune for both men. Mort gave Guilfoyle the task of creating the gardens of his newly-built Greenoakes, and the use of the Double Bay land on which Guilfoyle established his famous Exotic Nursery, an association marked today by the street-name Guilfoyle Avenue. In making this arrangement, Mort was securing the services of a landscaping artist who would create something exceptional for his landmark house. By the 1860s the garden of Thomas Mort’s Greenoaks at Darling Point, initially shaped by nurseryman and landscape gardener Michael Guilfoyle, was considered ne plus ultra – the best private garden in Sydney.
(Morris, Colleen  Lost gardens of Sydney p. 88)

For his part, the commission handed Guilfoyle the challenge that he needed to prove himself in a new country. More practically, the relationship with Mort gave Guilfoyle steady funds, the lease to land on which he established his nursery, and a roof over his head.
Guilfoyle came to Double Bay c1851 to attend to the lay-out of the grounds of Mort’s Greenoakes. It would seem he lost no time in establishing the Double Bay Exotic Nursery – named in honour of the Chelsea establishment where he had trained –, as in that same year Guilfoyle issued his first catalogue, listing almost 1500 plants. By 1857 Guilfoyle, describing himself as ‘Nurseryman, Florist and Seedsman, Ornamental and Landscape gardener’ was declaring: That he has the most extensive collection of all sorts of ornamental trees and shrubs, and also of flowering plants of every description which was ever offered to the public to select from since gardening was known in the colony
(Sydney Morning Herald 4.4.1857 p. 2)

Guilfoyle’s nursery was set up on land owned by Mort to the north of New South Head Road, on the former crown land ‘Village of Double Bay’ release. Bound by Cross, Ocean and South Street, and occupying some 3½ acres of well-watered land. His family lived in a Mort-owned house –two-storey, brick and shingle - which still stands on the north-eastern corner of Ocean Avenue and South Street, at No 37 South Street. The abundant water source, so advantageous to a nursery, could be destructive in ‘rogue’ seasons, such as Sydney and suburbs experienced in April 1867, a Herald report telling of a ‘terrific rush of water’ through Double Bay, and the damage it left in its wake: A large portion of Mr Guilfoyle’s exotic nursery was submerged, and the destruction among the flowers and tender plants was very great.
(Sydney Morning Herald 13.4.1867 p. 5)

Guilfoyle now found himself operating within a locale highly suited to his expertise, where his horticultural knowledge and design skills were recognised and highly respected. Under his management, Guilfoyle’s exotic nursery became widely known for the importing and propagation of many exotic and rare species, for which his local clientele had both an appetite and the means to support. His supplies were also sourced from further afield, including, in its formative stages, the trustees of the Adelaide Botanic Garden (Aitken, Jones, Morris p 23).

Michael Guilfoyle has been credited with introducing both the camellia and the jacaranda to Australia, although the truth is perhaps more complex and more difficult to establish. Professor E G Waterhouse, a noted authority on the history of the camellia in Australia, maintained that William Macarthur of Camden Park was the first to grow the plant in New South Wales, and since his establishment was issuing lists of camellia varieties in the early-to-mid 1840s, before Guilfoyle arrived in Sydney, this would seem to make a claim for Guilfoyle’s introduction unsustainable (Waterhouse p. 20).

What Waterhouse also records, however, is that Guilfoyle rapidly gained an ascendency in the local camellia trade, by using grafting rather than layering as his method of propagation, and thus raising robust stock which withstood unpredictable local conditions. By the mid-1850s, Michael Guilfoyle was carrying off a large share in the awards on offer for camellia exhibits in various competitions. (Waterhouse pp. 20-22).

Guilfoyle is also known to have bred a number of varieties which can be considered his own. Waterhouse quotes from the 1877 catalogue of Victorian firm of Taylor & Sangster which listed a number of camellias described as ‘superior seedlings raised by Michael Guilfoyle’. Waterhouse notes also that a number of those listed in the catalogue had been confirmed closer to home by ‘the late Mr. Mortimore, a well-known gardener’ – and it might have been added, a fellow Double Bay nurseryman, albeit not operating at the same time as Guilfoyle was trading from the Bay. We are also indebted to Mortimore for the charming detail that one of Guilfoyle’s camellias, ‘Tabbs’, was named for his cat. (Waterhouse  pp. 20-22).

There seem also to be competing claims to Guilfoyle’s for the honour of having introduced and acclimatised the Jacaranda mimosifolia, a South American tree now so common in sub-tropical regions of eastern Australia that it is often taken be a native – a fact that belies the repeated failure of early attempts to establish the tree in Sydney. The fact that a flourishing specimen at Drummoyne House was observed as a notable phenomenon by visiting English horticulturalist John Veitch in 1864 (Morris Lost gardens p. 76) attests to the tree’s comparative rarity in Sydney gardens during the period when Guilfoyle was operating from Double Bay. Even as late as 1876, Messrs. Ferguson’s nursery at Camden was reminding its customers by circular that there was ‘no second mature specimen in the colony’ to back up the ‘fine’ established Jacaranda in the Sydney Botanic gardens (Australasian 6.5.1876 p 25).

Guilfoyle appears to have been credited – or perhaps credited himself – with overcoming these early difficulties in propagation. A notice which appeared in the Sydney press in November 1868, after referring to the persistent problems which had ensured the local rarity of the tree, explained that ‘This difficulty has been solved by the well-known firm of Messrs. Guilfoyle and sons, Exotic Nursery, Double Bay’(Buckland pp.116-117, citing SMH 9.11.1868.)

A paper on the subject of propagating the Jacaranda, presented to the Horticultural Society of New South Wales soon after this boast was published, makes interesting reading – as much for what is omitted as what is included. The paper was presented by George Mortimore, then the gardener to T S Mort at Greenoakes, who made the following comment: I am glad to see, by a recent notice in the Sydney Morning Herald, that the difficulty of the propagation had [sic] been overcome, and Jacaranda mimosifolia, instead of being rare and scarce, will now be within the reach of all who love a garden.
(SMH 3.12.1868 p.2)

However Mortimore (at least as summarised by the press) makes no reference whatsoever to the work of Guilfoyle in solving the problem, and moreover, in speaking of his own success with root grafting the plants, indicated that it pre-dated the recent claim: I have much pleasure in stating that I propagated plants last year, and have succeeded with every graft this season; so the difficulty was overcome at Greenoakes twelve months since.(SMH 3.12.1868 p.2)

Mortimore’s paper to the Society continued to expound on the benefits and disadvantages of the different methods of propagating the Jacaranda – layering, grafting, working from cuttings etc – and perhaps paid understated tribute to Guilfoyle in two allusions. One was to the fact that the Jacaranda at Greenoakes had been successfully grown from a cutting twelve years earlier, which places this achievement within the period when Guilfoyle had been the head gardener at Mort’s property. Also, when speaking of his own successful grafts from that same tree, Mortimore notes that ‘having a fine tree to work on, I have an advantage in this respect’. (SMH 3.12.1868 p.2)

There is no doubt that Guilfoyle was among the early suppliers and successful propagators of the Jacaranda, and presumably he introduced the tree to the gardens of Greenoakes -by Mortimore’s estimation,c1856. One fine early specimen attributed to him occupied a special place in the outstanding grounds of Sir James Martin’s Clarens at Potts Point - prized by its owner among all his collection of horticultural rarities as ‘the dream tree’. This example was specifically claimed by a descendant (interviewed in the 1970s) to have been supplied by Guilfoyle’s Exotic nursery (Morris Lost gardens p. 91). Of the plentiful examples of thriving Jacaranda in the Woollahra area, no doubt many owe their existence to the work of Michael Guilfoyle, which is no small legacy for the nurseryman to have left behind.

Departure from the Double Bay Nursery

In July 1874, the Australian Town and Country Journal carried an item, half-information, half-advertisement, advising that: Mr M Guilfoyle, the well-known nurseryman of Double Bay, has notified his intention of relinquishing his business in this city, which has been carried on so successfully by him for the last twenty years and has advertised the sale of his splendid nursery …The only reason for this step being that his nurseries and coffee and sugar plantations on the order of this colony and Queensland require all his attention. The Exotic Nursery is so well-known not to need any comment… We are assured that just now it is a sight worth seeing. There are thousands of rare and choice plants and flowers, and anyone visiting this nursery will be sure to be highly gratified.
(Australian Town and Country Journal 11.7.1874, p. 32-33)

Michael Guilfoyle’s decision re the sale of his nursery coincided with, and was perhaps precipitated by, the move to Melbourne of his son William.

Guilfoyle’s years at Double Bay had been rewarding ones. Not only did he achieve through his life’s work, but he found time for community involvement, and served as an alderman of Woollahra Council for several years. During his time at the nursery, the career of his son William, a keen botanist as well as landscaper, had its first promising beginnings, when as well as making his own botanical investigations and experiments, he enjoyed the honour and experience of inclusion in a scientific expedition to the South Seas on the HMS Challenger in 1868. William was also mentored by some of the leading scientific authorities of the day in Sydney and Melbourne, their interest in him proving an early measure of his abilities.

In 1873, William Guilfoyle was appointed curator of the Melbourne Botanic Garden, and in a controversial move designed to balance the scientific with the aesthetically pleasurable, undertook a major landscaping work which, over decades, transformed the garden into its current form. His landscaping eye elevated the institution’s status to an internationally recognised example of the picturesque type – ‘absolutely the most beautiful place’, was the assessment of the visiting Conan Doyle (Pescott p. 132). Not ignoring the scientific and educational purpose of the garden, William also developed botanical collections, and managed to make time for private commissions and self-educating travel. He retired in 1909, and died in Melbourne in 1912, survived by his wife and only son, William James.

Another of Michael Guilfoyle’s sons, John Austin would also go on to have a horticulturally-based career, eventually taking on the curatorship of the reserves managed by the City of Melbourne, and helping to ensure the name Guilfoyle is well-remembered.

Death and legacy

Michael Guilfoyle died at his home Athelstane in Windsor Street Paddington on 9 April 1884. (Evening News 10.4.1884) and was buried in the Catholic section of Petersham cemetery. Charlotte, who survived him, died aged 66 in 1885 in Victoria, while visiting her son William (BDM Vic 3495)
Michael Guilfoyle made his mark on many enduring features of the landscape, both within and beyond the Woollahra area – not only in gardens directly shaped through his landscaping work, but in the plants and seed which he distributed within the neighbourhood and exported further afield. His presence in the bayside locality was an important part of the areas early economic and social history.

Sources

  • Buckland, Jill Mort’s cottage, 1838 -1988. Syd., Kangaroo Pr., 1988.
  • Clough, Richard ‘Guilfoyle, Michael’ Oxford Companion to Australian Gardens/ed by Richard Aitken and Michael Looker. Melb, Vic., Oxf. Univ. Pr, / Australian Garden History Society, 2002.
  • Gross, Alan 'Guilfoyle, William Robert (1840–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, Melb. Univ. Pr., 1972.
  • Morris, Colleen  Conservation management strategy for Overthorpe …Colleen Morris Landscape Heritage 2010
  • Morris, Colleen  Lost gardens of Sydney Syd., HHT NSW, 2008.
  • Pescott, R T M W R Guilfoyle, 1840-1912 : the master of landscaping. Melb, Oxf, Univ Pr, 1974.

Unpublished sources or archive collections

  • WMC Rate Books
  • WMC Minute Books
  • Trove – Newspaper collections, National Library of Australia

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