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Beauty amidst the engines: railway station gardening competitions in New Zealand

AG Clarke (garden)

Alan Clarke (1900-1960), railwayman and gardener. From Clarke family collection.

This is a paper I presented at the New Zealand Historical Association Conference, Wellington, November 2019.

Railway stations have romance attached to them: they are places of meetings and partings and beginnings of adventures. But they can also be bleak and utilitarian, especially in rural or suburban locations. They are industrial, with huge engines roaring through and sheds for goods and rolling stock; every country station once had its animal yards. With all of that comes dirt and noise and odour; the grime was worse in the days of steam engines.

Railway Station  https://feilding.recollect.co.nz/nodes/view/20032#idx28695

A postcard of Feilding Railway Station, c.1910, conveys the contrast between the industrial space of the railway station and the garden next to it. Ruth McIntyre Collection, Feilding Public Library.

Some men working for the New Zealand railways in the early and mid-1900s made valiant efforts to transform stations into attractive environments, for their own sakes and for the benefit of the travelling public. These endeavours were promoted by railway station garden competitions.

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Alan Clarke and friend at Makarewa. From Clarke family collection.

My interest in this ‘brilliantly niche’ topic, as a colleague calls it, began with curiosity about my grandfather. Alan Clarke’s entire working life was with the railways as a clerk and eventually a stationmaster. These photographs show the garden he made in the gap between two single men’s huts at Makarewa, a few miles north of Invercargill, where he worked in the late 1920s. This extraordinary garden was located right next to the railway line and beside utilitarian buildings. The surroundings of railway huts were often scruffy. What prompted the creation of the Makarewa garden? Aesthetics probably played some part. Alan was quite a snappy dresser: if he had to live in a hut, he would make it a stylish one. More importantly, he grew up in a culture of working-class gardening. The Caversham project, which studied life in the working-class suburbs of southern Dunedin, revealed the huge extent of home gardening there – even renters with small sections cultivated substantial vegetable gardens.[1] A photo of Alan with his son outside their Ohakune railway house in the 1930s provides a glimpse of a productive back section.

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Alan Clarke with son Ross (b.1936) in the garden of their railway house, Ohakune. Clarke family collection.

Home gardening was frequently gendered, as some Caversham study authors write: ‘Fathers often produced impressive vegetables to feed the family, while mothers grew flowers and ornamental shrubs’.[2] But there was another tradition, too: working-class men were big participants in flower shows. Alan’s grandfather, bootmaker Walter Anderson, was a stalwart of the Tuapeka Horticultural Society. He won prizes for turnips and carrots and raspberries, but most of all for his flowers.[3] Alan spent his first few years in Lawrence, near this flower-growing grandfather, before the family moved to Christchurch. There the children were also encouraged in gardening at school. In 1911 Alan’s brother Erl, aged 8, won a prize for the floral buttonhole he exhibited at the Richmond School break up.[4] A photo from Alan’s album shows Erl standing proudly with vases of flowers, presumably prepared for a show.

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Walter Anderson (1850-1938) in his Lawrence garden. Clarke family collection.

Erl Clarke

Erl Clarke (1904-1987) with flower display, Christchurch. Clarke family collection.

The immediate prompt for the Makarewa garden may have been the competition held by the Southland Women’s Club Garden Circle for the beautifying of Southland country railway stations. Makarewa took third place in 1929; the judges found its efforts ‘very pleasing’.[5] Why, though, did the Southland women run this competition?

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Otago Women’s Club dinner, 14 August 1924. Otago Women’s Club records, AG-682-01/12/001, Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hākena, University of Otago.

Women’s clubs were very active in the 1920s: in 1926 the Southland Women’s Club had 287 members and the Otago one 800; there were clubs in many towns, including three in Wellington.[6] Although those numbers suggest they can’t have been extremely exclusive, their members certainly came from the more elite end of society. The judges of the 1929 Southland garden competition, for instance, were the wives or widows of a pharmacist, a land and insurance agent, and a doctor. The clubs held social events, raised funds for philanthropic causes and hosted talks; they entertained distinguished visitors, such as the wives of governors general. They had various interest groups: for instance, the Otago Women’s Club had literary, gardening, arts and crafts, civic and motor circles, among others.[7]

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Lady Ferguson and Sir Lindo Ferguson, 1925. Otago Women’s Club records, AG-682-01/12/002, Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hākena, University of Otago.

It was the Otago Women’s Club that inspired the Southland club to take an interest in railway station gardens: the Otago gardening circle launched New Zealand’s first railway station gardening competition in 1925. The idea came from Mary Ferguson, the club’s long-serving president. Lady Ferguson was a woman of standing in Dunedin. She was the daughter of a merchant, educated privately in Dunedin and then in London. She married ophthalmologist Lindo Ferguson, who subsequently became dean of the Otago Medical School and thus an important figure in New Zealand. The Fergusons were involved in many organisations; both were charming and renowned for their hospitality.[8]

Ferguson had perhaps seen or read about railway station gardens in other countries; New Zealand came late to this practice. In Britain and in Canada, for instance, station gardens became popular from the 1860s. Railway companies encouraged gardening and rewarded their gardening employees through competitions. Gardens beautified railway property and provided wholesome recreation for railway workers, but there was more to it than that. The Canadian Pacific Railway Company used gardens to promote development: they demonstrated the fertility of the prairie, encouraging immigration and greater use of the railways.[9] In New Zealand, too, railways played a role in colonisation, promoting the development of agriculture, industry and mining. Most striking was the construction of the North Island main trunk line, which opened up the central North Island to Pākehā settlement; it provided a route into the Māori stronghold of Te Rohe Pōtae, the King Country.[10]

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Gore Railway Station, 1900s. Joseph Crisp, the inspector of the permanent way, led the development of a garden there in the 1890s. Photographed by Muir & Moodie, C.014832, Te Papa.

However, it was in the south that station gardening competitions took place. Unlike many other countries, where railways were owned by private companies, in New Zealand they were government-run. The Railway Department paid some attention to publicity but it was subject to scrutiny over its use of taxpayer funds: some viewed gardens as an extravagance. When railway workers created a garden at Gore in the 1890s, it provoked grumbles. One local complained that surfacemen were distracted from their usual duties to load and unload wagons of soil; garden maintenance would take up the time of ‘an already hard-worked set of Officials’. It seemed, he wrote, ‘as if the Government placed more value upon the existence of macrocarpas, violets and pansies, than the safe conveyance of their patrons who have occasion to use the railway’.[11] Other community members were more supportive. On Arbor Day 1895 they turned out for the formal inauguration of the garden and helped plant 600 trees and numerous flowers.[12]

In a climate of taxpayer suspicion, the Railway Department didn’t devote significant funds to station gardens, but it was happy for others to contribute and offered support behind the scenes. Railway workers who wanted to develop new gardens received fencing materials, soil and manure (conveniently available from stock wagons) and the department offered free transport for plants and competition judges. It paid the Otago Women’s Club £10 each year in compensation for their provision of plants[13], and later supplied plants directly to station gardeners. It still had to defend itself over the gardens, though: in response to one enquiry in 1939 the Otago Daily Times noted that the railway gardens were ‘laid out and are maintained by the voluntary effort of employees at the particular station. There is no payment for the work done in the plots, and the only reward is the appreciation of the travelling public and a chance of winning one of the annual awards made by the Gardening Circle of the Otago Women’s Club.’[14] It was a labour of love for the gardeners.

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Auckland Railway Station, 1930s. 1/2-071820-F, Alexander Turnbull Library.

Things were different in some large cities – at its grand stations in Auckland and Wellington, opened in the 1930s, the Railway Department employed gardeners. As the Railway Magazine pointed out, the new stations ‘gave the Department an opportunity for expressing the value it places on aesthetic considerations not only in the design of the buildings but also in their setting.’[15] The Auckland station had a plant nursery on its roof, where head gardener Roy Thornton raised flowering annuals from seed and nurtured native plants, including kauri, manuka, and ferns. Princess Te Puea Herangi took a great interest and brought him tree ferns for conservation.[16] The station also featured an experimental garden for testing New Zealand-raised dahlia seedlings.[17] Dunedin had the glitziest station, opened in 1906; it is now alleged to be one of the most photographed buildings in the Southern Hemisphere. For many years, though, its frontage could ‘not reasonably be termed picturesque’, as the stationmaster noted with considerable understatement in 1927. He asked if a lawn and flower beds could be developed but his request was denied; its manicured gardens were a later development, cared for by the city council.[18] In Auckland, the council took over care of the gardens from the Railways Department in 1948.[19]

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The environs of Dunedin Railway Station, c.1910, were utilitarian by contrast with the grand building. Photograph by Muir & Moodie, C.012183, Te Papa.

Entries in the garden competitions for smaller stations depended entirely on the interests of the local staff, and since railways staff were a mobile group, the involvement of stations fluctuated. In 1932 the Otautau Standard reported just two entrants in the Southland competition: “This was due no doubt largely to the frequent changes in staff made recently since in past years as many as ten entries have been received.” The paper heaped praise on “the local staff for their painstaking work in creating a beauty spot in a flower garden and lawn out of what was a hole many feet deep. Mr Kelly has done hours of good work and promises better results for next year if privileged to be still stationed here.”[20] Kelly was the stationmaster, perhaps the person most likely to be interested in the station surrounds, but those who made station gardens came from a range of railway occupations. Ganger William Pickering was responsible for the Fairlie Station’s prizewinning garden of 1928, and bus driver M.A. Jackson for the Palmerston Station garden in 1947. George Johnson, an engine driver on the Southland line, created a prize-winning garden at Lumsden Station in 1929.[21] It was the signalman at Wingatui who produced a daffodil design which displayed the station’s name, the letters outlined with whitewashed stones.[22] In Waikouaiti the stationmaster’s father, James Rendel, tended the garden; in 1937 the department supplied  Rendel, who was about 80, with some piping and a tap for a watering system so he wouldn’t have to carry buckets of water to the garden.[23] Not all stations had a good water supply, making a big challenge for gardeners in drier districts.[24] At the smallest staffed stations, there was just the porter to create and tend a garden; the Otago competition had a special category for ‘very small’ gardens.

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Wingatui won second prize in the Otago railway station garden competition in 1928; this sign was visible all year around, but filled with daffodils in spring. New Zealand Railways Magazine, 1 June 1928.

Competition was a motive to create a garden, but it was not the only one. Charles Pope, a clerk, started a garden at Balclutha Station in 1918, before any competition; he had returned as stationmaster by the time Balclutha won first prize for its garden in 1930.[25] In Rakaia, stationmaster Hugh McDougall planted around 150 varieties of roses in the 1920s; he had retired by the time a Canterbury competition commenced, but others kept the garden going and Rakaia was the inaugural winner in 1930.[26]

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Porter M. Chapman with his garden at Horopito Railway Station. New Zealand Railways Magazine, 1 February 1931.

In the North Island, a few enthusiasts built gardens despite a lack of competitions. Some earned publicity in the Railways Magazine. A 1931 edition featured the station at Horopito, a small settlement on the main trunk line between Ohakune and National Park. The porter, M. Chapman, made a garden ‘under considerable difficulty, due to the presence of gravel’.[27] The Hawera Railway Station garden also featured in the magazine a number of times. A Wellington woman who described herself as ‘an old lady, very fond of flowers’, was moved to write to the stationmaster, Robert Allwright, after passing through Hawera on the train in the mid-1930s. ‘The bed of pansies and violas was wonderful and showed that even last summer’s heat had not killed them all, as in so many places. The hasty glance one had of other flowers made one realise that a real lover of God’s beauties must be trying to make one corner of His vineyard a place of joy and happiness.’[28] James Campbell, the Hawera mayor, was another fan: ‘Our citizens are as proud of the gardens as your own Department is’, he wrote.[29]

Hawera March 1937

Extensive gardens at Hawera Railway Station. New Zealand Railways Magazine, 1 March 1937.

Local pride was significant in the development of the station gardens. It was probably the chief motive behind the involvement of the Women’s Clubs, and was undoubtedly the chief motive in Canterbury, where station garden competitions were run by the Horticultural Society. The Society had already been running competitions for home gardens for some years when it started offering prizes for station gardens in 1929; factory gardens were also added to the schedule.[30] Under the guidance of this thriving society, the railway garden competitions survived the longest in Canterbury, continuing until the late 1960s. Roses remained a popular feature of station gardens in the region. When Papanui stationmaster Norm Chapple departed in 1970 he earned a headline in the local paper: ‘Pruned roses before leaving’. He was known for his success in the garden competitions.[31]

The Otago competitions ended in 1948: when there were no entries, the Women’s Club withdrew its cup and it does not seem to have made any effort to revive the competition.[32] If railway workers were losing interest in gardening for their employer, the removal of the competition exacerbated that. I can only speculate about why workers lost interest in station gardens. In the post-war period, many New Zealanders turned their attention to home life; presumably railwaymen were among them. Gardening in their own patch may have held more appeal than gardening at work. The growth of the union movement, together with the industrial tensions of the 1950s, perhaps made voluntary work for an employer less acceptable. A growing range of new pastimes also competed for people’s leisure hours. One of the most time-consuming, television, arrived in New Zealand in the 1960s.

Gardens had always been at risk of falling into neglect due to changing personnel; with the end of the competitions, reports came in of former prize-winning gardens in a sorry state. In 1953 the Port Chalmers Borough Council complained that a station garden which ‘for many years was a place of beauty and afforded much pleasure to residents and visitors’ had fallen back; neither railway staff nor council were willing or able to commit staff time to its maintenance.[33] Middle-class voluntary organisations picked up some of the slack: beautifying societies, amenities societies and service clubs were among those who leased land from the Railway Department at peppercorn rentals and tidied it up. In 1970, the Minister of Railways announced a new scheme to dedicate the increasing income from outdoor commercial advertising panels towards beautifying areas around stations and on other prominent railway land, preferably in joint arrangements with local bodies. ‘Modern society … had become increasingly sensitive to the need for the preservation of natural environment’, noted the press release, and the department ‘intended to play their part to this end.’[34]

The railway station gardening competitions provide a glimpse into a largely forgotten part of the world of working-class men. The railwaymen who participated loved flowers and used them to transform parts of their grimy workplaces into oases of beauty. Gardening is a science and an art, and they demonstrated both aspects. They turned some unlikely places into flourishing gardens by building up soils and carefully feeding and caring for plants. Their creative talents were revealed in the designs of their gardens, from the selection of colours to the layouts of paths. The element of competition was highly significant, and huge pride associated with winning. When that incentive disappeared, railway gardeners presumably turned their energies to their home gardens, and perhaps to local horticultural societies, which provided, as they still do, a different venue for competitive gardening.

As I briefly mentioned after I presented this paper, the staff of New Zealand’s various railway workshops were also keen gardeners. In the 1930s and 1940s all of the workshops established horticultural societies and held regular competitions for vegetable and flower growing. Reports showed tinsmiths winning prizes for violas, fitters for sweet peas and boilermakers for gladioli. 

[1] Barbara Brookes, Erik Olssen and Emma Beer, ‘Spare Time? Leisure, Gender and Modernity’, in Barbara Brookes, Annabel Cooper and Robin Law, eds, Sites of Gender: Women, Men and Modernity in Southern Dunedin, 1890-1939 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003), 172-173.

[2] Sites of Gender, 173.

[3] ‘The Gardens of Lawrence’, Tuapeka Times, 28 April 1897.

[4] Lyttelton Times, 22 December 1911, p.9.

[5] ‘Otago Station Gardens’, New Zealand Railways Magazine, 4: 2 (June 1929), 50. http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-Gov04_02Rail-t1-body-d21.html The women were named with their husbands’ initials – names and occupations traced through various genealogical sources.

[6] ‘Women’s Clubs: Growth in New Zealand’, New Zealand Herald, 8 October 1926, 7.

[7] Otago Women’s Club reports, in their archives, Hocken Collections.

[8] ‘Mary Ferguson’, NZ History, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/mary-ferguson; Rex Wright-St Clair, ‘Ferguson, Henry Lindo’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Te Ara, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3f3/ferguson-henry-lindo.

[9] Edwinna von Baeyer, ‘Rise and fall of the Manitoba railway garden’, Manitoba History, 31, 1996.

[10] Matthew Wright, Rails Across New Zealand: A History of Rail Travel, (Auckland: Whitcoulls, 2003); Kerryn Pollock, ‘King Country region – Te Rohe Pōtae’, Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/king-country-region; Nancy Swarbrick, ‘Rural services – Railways’, Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/rural-services/page-3.

[11] Bluegum, letter to the editor, Mataura Ensign, 13 August 1895, 2.

[12] ‘Arbor Day, 1895’, Mataura Ensign, 8 August 1895, 3.

[13] For instance, see Rona Allen, Hon Sec. Gardening Branch of Otago Women’s Club, to District Traffic Manager, Dunedin, 9 April 1937, Station Gardens – General File, R21984788, Archives New Zealand Dunedin Office.

[14] ‘Answers to Correspondents’, ODT, 27 March 1939, 8.

[15] ‘Beautifying on the Railways’, New Zealand Railways Magazine, June 1937.

[16] Auckland Star, 30 July 1937, 6; 9 September 1937, 6.

[17] ‘Beautifying on the Railways’, New Zealand Railways Magazine, June 1937; ‘Gardening Circle’, New Zealand Herald, 5 March 1937, 3.

[18] Stationmaster, Dunedin to District Traffic Manager, Dunedin, 6 October 1927 and District Traffic Manager, Dunedin to Stationmaster, Dunedin, 11 October 1927, Dunedin – Station Garden file, R21983938, Archives New Zealand Dunedin Office.

[19] Southern Cross, 14 October 1948, clipping in Beautification of Railway stations also Railway gardens file, R21512449, Archives New Zealand, Wellington; Auckland Star, 30 September 1941, 8.

[20] ‘Railway Gardens’, Otautau Standard, 5 April 1932, 2.

[21] ‘Lumsden Station Garden: A Visitor’s Impressions, New Zealand Railways Magazine, 1 July 1930.

[22] ‘Otago’s Station Gardens’, New Zealand Railways Magazine, 1 June 1928, 13.

[23] District Traffic Manager to District Engineer, 16 February 1937, Station Gardens – General File, R21984788, Archives New Zealand Dunedin Office.

[24] For example, see Tablet Porter, Goodwood, to Traffic Manager, 20 February 1941, Station Gardens – General File, R21984788, Archives New Zealand Dunedin Office.

[25] ‘Railway Garden Cup Presentation’, ODT, 20 March 1930, 16.

[26] ‘A prize-winner among New Zealand station gardens’, New Zealand Railways Magazine, June 1930; on McDougall’s appointment and retirement, see Ashburton Guardian, 11 March 1920, 4 and 19 January 1926, 20.

[27] ‘An example of station beautifying on the N.Z.R.’, New Zealand Railways Magazine, February 1931, 57.

[28] ‘Railway Station Gardens’, New Zealand Railways Magazine, December 1935.

[29] ‘Beautifying on the Railways’, New Zealand Railways Magazine, June 1937.

[30] Colin Amodeo, ed., Wilderness to Garden City: A celebration of 150 years of horticultural endeavour in Canterbury (Christchurch: Canterbury Horticultural Society, 2001), 155.

[31] ‘Pruned roses before leaving’, Herald, 14 July 1970, clipping in Beautification of Railway stations also Railway gardens file, R21512449, Archives New Zealand, Wellington.

[32] District Traffic Manager, Dunedin, Memorandum No.1948/111, 28 October 1948, Station Gardens – General File, R21984788, Archives New Zealand Dunedin Office; Otago Women’s Club Annual Report, 1948.

[33] District Traffic Manager, Dunedin to Town Clerk, Port Chalmers, 20 November 1953, and to Stationmaster, Port Chalmers, 28 January 1954, Beautification of Stations file, R20397636, Archives New Zealand Dunedin Regional Office.

[34] Draft statement, 30 June 1970, and various newspaper clippings, Beautification of Railway stations also Railway gardens file, R21512449, Archives New Zealand, Wellington.

2 comments on “Beauty amidst the engines: railway station gardening competitions in New Zealand

  1. This is a wonderful article and I’ve shared a link on Twitter. I had no idea about any of this!

    Like

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