Willans’ Hill – Home of the Botanic Gardens of Wagga Wagga

by Charles Lee – Hume Camellia Society

Willans’ Hill in Wagga Wagga, NSW has been the home of the Botanic Gardens of Wagga Wagga since the 1960’s, but in the years since European settlement in the area near the Murrumbidgee River (late 1820’s) to the present day it has provided Wagga Wagga with quite a colourful and varied history. The first European settlement along the Murrumbidgee is unclear as records relating to the area are contradictory. Certainly, Captain Charles Sturt explored the area in 1829/30 but whether he encountered squatters is not considered likely by historians. Sturt described the land in the locality of Wagga as “flats of the richest description backed by grassy and lightly wooded hills”. In addition in 1829 Governor Darling proclaimed the ‘limits of location’ some where near Yass in the south west direction from Sydney as a measure to control where pastoralist occupation occurred, but this measure met with limited success.

Such was the intensity of the unauthorised squatting that the colony was Willans Hill-Wagga_Page_1divided into Squattage Districts from the Murray River to just north of Brisbane by 1840. Licences were issued to land holders including those in District 7 which covered the land from the southern bank of the Murrumbidgee River to the northern bank of the Murray River. Amongst these was the Best family headed by George Best who had access to 40,000 acres on a licence called Wagga Wagga and it included the Willans’ Hill area. The land was transferred in ownership and subdivided a number of times over the new few decades until government records of such sheep and cattle Runs were destroyed by a fire in Sydney in 1882. A Solicitor named William Willans practiced in Wagga Wagga from 1860 to 1886 when he moved to Tumbarumba. Willans bought 80 acres in 1861, for one pound per acre, to the south of where the railway station is today in Wagga Wagga and included the south western area of the hill. On the section of the land looking straight down the main street Willans built his residence “Hillside”. It is said that the hill was named after him not because of his contribution to the community but because he owned the land. Willans was considered most disagreeable and often challenged those in authority and other townsfolk through the courts. Willans died in Tumbarumba in 1900 at age 76. His two portions were sold on to the Copland family, then the David Jones family of retail fame and finally to the Education Department who still occupy the land with the TAFE College and Wagga High School’s farm.

 Willans’ Hill was first surveyed in 1855 and described as thickly wooded with dominant tree specie being Callitris (Cyprus Pine). As the Wagga Wagga community grew so did the use of Willans’ Hill. In 1871, 57.5 acres on the south east corner were reserved for Road Metal. Evidence of the quarry location can be found although re-vegetation and beautification work has been completed since the quarry work ceased in 1958.

 The town and district water supply was controlled from Willans’ Hill when a site was acquired in 1883. By 1938 2,250,000 gallons (10.2 million litres) of storage above and below ground was available. In 1941, a further one million gallon (4.5 million l) concrete tank was built and provided supply to towns and villages to south and west of Wagga Wagga, and for distances of up to 95 Kms.

 Communication towers since the 1930’s to the present day have been in use on Willans’ Hill. A local company requested a site for a TV transmitter in 1955 before the first transmission in Sydney in 1956. Police, Ambulance, Southern Riverina County Council all had base stations on the hill by 1960. Today more than 6 towers provide for TV, radio and mobile phone transmission. Similarly, electric power transmission lines cross over the hill.

 In 1875 3 blocks totaling 274 acres which adjoined Willans’ land were designated for public recreation and was declared a Public Park in 1887. This area was to be the beginnings of the Botanic Gardens we have today. Also in 1875 as Willans’ Hill was the highest topographical point in and around Wagga Wagga a trigonometrical point was established for land surveying and mapping purposes. In 1955, a brass direction plaque was installed by the Rotary Club near the summit. The plaque gave directions of major cities and towns and also points of interest within a radius of 320 Km.

 It was some time before the Public Park began to develop to its full potential as the allocated land was still ‘out of town’. In 1948 the Apex Club proposed that the park be made more accessible by road and to build a picnic area. Council supported the idea and built the road whilst the Club developed the area near a dam on the south side of the allocation. For this reason Willans’ Hill was known as Apex Park for many years. Lord Baden Powell Drive which leads to the lookout and summit area was sealed in 1964 to encourage tourists to ascend the hill and view the city.

 A beautification programmed began in 1951 and by 1960 more than 17,000 trees and shrubs, including eucalypts, wattles and exotics had been planted in the soil conservation furrows. Then in 1961 the Council advised that a Botanic Garden would be added to Willans’ Hill. Mr. Tom Wood, Wagga’s Parks and Gardens Curator, had made the proposal following discussions with the Director of the Adelaide Royal Botanic Gardens. Council approval was given and Tom set about to develop the plans for the new gardens. In April 1962 site preparation began, and by October of the same year more than 600 plant species were planted. Public access to the gardens commenced in 1963, however the formal opening by Mr. T. Lothian, The Director of the Adelaide Royal Botanic Gardens, did not happen until 24 August 1968. The garden when officially opened covered 9 hectares.

 In 1960 the Council moved the animals from central Wagga to a larger location on Willans’ Hill adding to the size of the garden facility. Several upgrades to the Zoo over the years, in particular the walk-in aviary, see more than 300 birds and animals houses in open and quite natural habitats. Peacocks and Lyrebirds roam freely throughout the Zoo. Wagga City Council does not charge an admission fee to the Zoo which ensures its popularity.

Entrance to Cacti & Succulent Garden & Large Free Flight Aviary

Entrance to Cacti & Succulent Garden & Large Free Flight Aviary

A major feature of the new gardens was the Rose Garden. David Jones Department Store in Wagga had donated more than 800 named rose bushes which formed the David Jones Rose Garden. This garden is particularly popular with visitors over the warmer months. Permanent garden staff, Friends of the Wagga Wagga Botanic Gardens and an occasional public pruning workshop keeps the Rose Garden in a superb condition.

 As time went by, Willans’ Hill became surrounded by suburbia, and the Hill became a more centrally located 80 hectare public facility containing the botanic and rose gardens, a small zoo, picnic areas, lookouts and a scenic drive.

Train on Willians' Hill

Train on Willians’ Hill

1982 saw the construction of a model railway which is now a major touristattraction. The track design and location does not detract from the open garden feel of the gardens as more than 2 kilometres of track roams throughout the gardens ‘forest region’, under Lord Baden Powell Drive to the Riverina Historic Museum complex and back again. This ride-on rail facility attracts thousands of visitors each year and is open on the 1st and 3rd Sundays of each month.

 A $1.5 million development of the Gardens was planned in 1984 as part of the 1988 bi-centenary projects sponsored by the Federal Government. These additions included the Camellia Garden, the Cacti Garden, The Open Air Tree Chapel, and the Shakespearian Garden which were built on the higher area above the rail tracks. Linking the main gardens with the new areas is a wheel chair friendly footbridge over the model rail tracks.

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Entrance to the Camellia Garden

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One of the paths in the Camellia Garden

 The Camellia Garden was established in an area well protected by established native trees by the Quota Club of Wagga Wagga, the Hume Branch of the Camellia Society as it was known then, a number of private citizens and the Wagga City Council. Wagga Wagga’s sister city, Kunming in China, generously provided a Chinese City Entrance Gate, a Pavilion, and a Marble Chinese Lantern. Artisans from Kunming came to Wagga Wagga to construct the gifts using their ancient tools and materials. The Camellia Garden was officially opened by the Governor of NSW, Sir James Rowland, and the Chinese Ambassador to Australia, Mr. Zhang Zai. Many subsequent plantings of Camellias have taken place over the years by the various Mayors of Kunming and botanical academics from China. In the mid to late 1990’s a further section was added to the Camellia Garden which took the total number of camellias in the garden to over 300.

 Council added in the early 1990’s a Music Bowl to cater for large outdoor concerts on an area to the south of the Council gardeners’ nursery and maintenance facility. This tract of land in Willans’ Hill was once a rifle range during World War 1. A water wise garden and Aboriginal trail were added in 1996-97.

 Willans’ Hill today is a beautiful part of the Wagga Wagga landscape, comprising many hectares of native bush land, residential zones, and a Botanic Garden Complex consuming 20 hectares. The central road loop through the Botanic Gardens is named Tom Wood Drive, fittingly named after the man whose vision for the Botanic Gardens in Wagga Wagga we all share today.

 I wonder what the next 100 years might bring for our hill!


Historical data was kindly provided by Gary Croker of The Friends of the Wagga Wagga Botanic Gardens from a research document on Willans’ Hill.

Additional information is from Tourism Documents for Wagga Wagga and district and author’s photos.