A botanic gardens was first mooted by Colonel Light in his plan for Adelaide, which allowed for such an area close to the river. Before the gardens were established at the present site three other sites were used as botanic gardens. The first, in 1837, was the larger of two islands below the weir opposite Strangways Terrace, but this was soon found to be unsuitable and abandoned, probably due to flooding. The second gardens were established opposite the site of the Newmarket Hotel on North Terrace and in 1840 were abandoned when the site proved to be too small. The third site, opened with much ceremony by Governor Gawler in 1840, was near the present Frome Road bridge straddling both sides of the River Torrens. Bad luck struck again when the colony declared itself bankrupt in 1841. John Bailey, the curator, was retrenched and the gardens abandoned with no more attempts to establish a botanic garden until the 1850s.
The fourth site was chosen in 1854, with George Francis as its first director. This botanic garden was opened to the public in October 1857. A committee was formed to manage the 40 acres. In 1860 the first Botanic Garden Act was passed, “to provide for the permanent support and management” of the gardens empowering the board of governors to control the use of money voted by parliament.
By 1856 about 8 acres had been partially planted, and a wide and irregular watercourse cut through the grounds. During the layout stage Francis saved the finest of the existing gum trees. Some of these original trees, which predate the city itself, still stand. The watercourse (First Creek) was prone to severe flooding and because of this constant problem the lakes were created in 1857. Another problem, harder to overcome, was the leaching into the creek of toxic chemicals that killed the aquatic birds. This problem was caused by tanneries and brickworks along the creek and was only resolved when deep sewerage was connected in the 1880s.
By 1873 the Botanic Gardens encompassed 130 acres including Botanic Park (formerly the police paddock). A further 6 acres was given over by the Lunatic Asylum after 1873 as inmates were moved to the new Parkside Asylum. In 1877 the Botanic Park was opened to the public, having been transformed from a wilderness area to an “English” park with carriage drives. Approximately 10 acres of this was handed over for zoological gardens.
Botanic Park and Gardens were by this time under the direction of Dr Richard Schomburghk. He was largely responsible for the development of the area, although the first director, G.W. Francis had accomplished the heavy work of establishment.
G.W. Francis served his apprenticeship in England at the celebrated firm of Loddiges. He and his family emigrated to South Australia in 1849. He became involved in the establishment of the present Botanic Garden, and was director from 1855 until 1865, when he died. The second director, Dr Richard Schomburghk, was born at Fribault, Saxony, in 1811. Making a special study of botany, he became connected with the imperial Garden at Potsdam. He and his brother left for South Australia in the 1840s and settled on the Gawler River. Richard was curator of the Gawler Museum and was then appointed the second superintendent of the Botanic Gardens. He was particularly industrious, recommending the building of the Palm House, the Museum of Economic Botany, the Wood House and the Victoria Regina Building, as well as converting Botanic Park from a “primeval forest” and devoting much time to experimentation with seeds from all parts of the world, and publishing his results.
Schomburghk served almost until his death in 1891. The Botanic Gardens had reached a state of maturity, with many buildings being erected to serve its various functions while creating an ornamental appearance in keeping with the classical layout. Potentially economic crops were trialed, and strains of wheat, oats, sorghum, fruits, vines and flax were distributed to the public for further assessment. In this way the gardens continued the pioneer initiatives of J.B. Hack and G. Stevenson, but at a much more scientific level. Exotic ornamental plants, conifers and deciduous trees were introduced to “soften” the harsh environment. From a relatively early date the public enjoyed the lush appearance of the gardens ,with shrubberies, pergolas, statues and fountains placed at strategic points.
Botanic Park was landscaped for public use. Little now remains of this grand scheme, which was to include an area for horticultural displays and music recitals, although many of the Moreton Bay fig trees, conifers and plane trees survive. The carriageway constructed to link Hackney Road with Frome Road no longer links with Frome Road but is still used within the park, together with the now pedestrian bridge across First Creek.
Botanic Park soon became a place for public speaking forums. In September 1880 the inaugural meeting of the Salvation Army of Australasia was held there, together with meetings of the Labor Regulation League (the forerunner of the present ALP). The “forum” known as Hyde Park Corner, under the ring of Moreton Bay fig trees, remained important to soap-box orators until the early 1950s.
In the 1920s the Royal Adelaide Hospital expanded its borders nearly 90 feet at the expense of the gardens. However, when the former Lunatic Asylum/Consumptive Home was demolished in 1938 on the eastern boundary, this became part of the Botanic Gardens. The director’s residence was demolished as it was in the area newly dedicated to the Royal Adelaide Hospital, but the Botanic Gardens gained Yarrabee House as compensation.
Apart from the gardens themselves there are many significant buildings and structures associated with their formative years.