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The Life of Walter Hill

March 1, 2010

As you know, my project Botanica (working title), gratefully funded by a SignatureBrisbane Seed Grant, is based on plants collected, studied and distributed throughout Brisbane and regional Queensland during the curatorship of Walter Hill, one of the first curators of the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens.

Thanks to the Australian Dictionary of Biography (Online Edition), I have sourced a good synopsis of Walter Hill’s life (featured below), which builds a clear picture of the significant role he played in shaping Queensland’s botanical and agricultural history.

“Walter Hill (1819-1904), horticulturist, was born on 31 December 1819, at Scotsdyke, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, one of twin sons and nine children of David Hill, tollsman, and his wife Elizabeth, née Beattie. When not yet 16, Walter was apprenticed to his brother David, then head gardener at Balloch Castle, Dumbarton, later working at Dickson’s Nursery, Edinburgh, and as foreman at Minto House, Roxburghshire. He then accepted a position in the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, under William McNab, on whose recommendation he went in 1843 to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London, where he subsequently became foreman of the propagation and new plant departments. On 16 September 1849 at Holy Trinity Church, Brompton, Middlesex, he married Jane Smith.

The couple reached Sydney in the Maitland in February 1852. Hill worked for six months on the Turon gold diggings with indifferent success then visited Beechworth, Sandhurst (Bendigo) and other Victorian goldfields. In 1854 with F. Strange and others he set out from Sydney on an expedition to explore from Keppel Bay to Cape York. On Percy Island the party separated to collect specimens. When Hill returned to the boat he found that Aborigines had killed the entire group, except an Aboriginal. The two managed to sail to Moreton Bay.

On 21 February 1855 the government of New South Wales chose Hill as first superintendent of the Botanic Gardens, Brisbane. He was allotted nine acres (3.64 ha) and £500 to purchase rare plants, and when Queensland became a separate colony in 1859 was appointed colonial botanist. Provided with a house and garden within the reserve, he lived there until his retirement. Also placed in charge of forest reserves in Queensland, Hill introduced and acclimatized numerous trees and plants of economic importance from all over the world. He was credited with the introduction of the mango, pawpaw, ginger, poinciana and jacaranda (1864); he also established the first commercially grown macadamia, which he brought from the Queensland bush to the Botanic Gardens in 1858, and in the same year introduced tamarind and mahogany trees into the colony.

Perhaps Hill’s greatest economic achievement was on 25 April 1862 when, with a planter from Barbados John Buchot, he granulated the first sugar in Queensland and Australia by ‘crushing the canes with a lever and boiling the juice in a saucepan. No one was allowed to witness the tremendous experiment (carried out in the dead of night) which was to settle the problem of whether the juice of Queensland sugar cane would granulate’. A cairn marking the site of the first sugar cane grown in Queensland was later erected in the centre of the city gardens, Brisbane. He also planted (1858-67) the fine avenue of bunya pines Araucaria bidwillii, named in honour of J. C. Bidwill, on the riverbank that forms a boundary for the botanic gardens. A complete avenue still stood in 2003.

Hill acted as a botanist on a number of voyages of exploration up the Queensland coast and into its interior. The expedition to the north-eastern coast in 1873 under the leadership of G. E. Dalrymple led Hill to report: ‘Half-a-million acres of good land, 300,000 of that fit for sugar’. Hill thought the area they explored, around the Johnstone River south of Cairns, ‘the most valuable discovery in Australia’.

During his term as superintendent, Hill arranged for Queensland’s flora and fauna to be exhibited at international exhibitions throughout the world, and in return received numerous rare specimens for Queensland’s benefit. He published several impressive reports and catalogues (later prized by botanists). Many species of plants were named after him. Hill’s association with the public service ended, however, on a sour note.

Following a comment in parliament that the Department of Public Lands was not satisfied with his upkeep of the Botanic Gardens, it was decided to ask for his retirement at 60. Hill, described by some as stubborn and impractical to deal with, was incensed. He immediately claimed full paid leave of absence for twelve months (having not had annual leave for twenty-six years), plus a gratuity for the upkeep of five horses. He retired on a full pension on 28 February 1881.

In retirement, Hill experimented with fruit trees. Predeceased by his wife and daughter, he died on 4 February 1904 at his home, Canonbie Lea, Eight Miles Plains, south of Brisbane. He was buried with Presbyterian forms in Toowong cemetery.”


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