Adding an historical perspective on fences

Guiding in a heritage listed Botanic Gardens such as ours adds an extra dimension to the way we tell the stories of the Gardens. For many aspects of our gardens an historical perspective can shed light on the whys and wherefores of how things are today. For instance: Fencing.

No one seems to much like fences. Barriers of any kind always lead to questions, be it the clear Perspex collars on many of our heritage listed trees, designed to keep the possums off, incident tape to temporarily bar access to a worksite, or the wire mesh and black fabric screening around the Conservatory. Guides are repeatedly asked, “What’s it for?” “When will it be gone?”

The first fence around the Botanical Reserve was a post and rail affair which delineated the extent of the reserve. This was extremely unpopular with sections of the local population, as it underlined the decision not to allow Malop Street to continue further to the east, thus limiting the town's spread in that direction. By 1864, the fence was a picket one, undoubtedly better at keeping out the riff-raff, but also suitably discouraging to Geelong’s population of free ranging goats.

In the late 1800’s, the strictly botanical part of the park had consolidated to the area we now refer to as the 18th Century Gardens. A network of pathways across Eastern Park developed along popular short cuts from East Geelong to “town” and the baths at Eastern Beach. Some of these tracks are still visible as lines of trees in Eastern Park. The gardens themselves remained fenced, perhaps with a similar fence to that which remains at the front of the curator’s cottage, now hidden in the hedge.

In 1899 the Argus reported:
A woman named Stokes was impaled on Tuesday afternoon upon a pointed iron fence in the Eastern Park while attempting to climb over it to recover her hat which had been blown into the enclosure.  She is now in the hospital suffering from a terrible wound.

There is no record of her death, so it seems that she survived. But what was she doing climbing over a pointed iron fence? Probably more than just retrieving a hat, an excuse which sounds to me like an excuse to avoid any further punishment. Today, regardless of the reason, Ms Stokes would be more likely to sue to Council for an unsafe fence than to lie about her reason for climbing it.

Fences today serve a number of purposes; we still have a boundary fence around the gardens and depot, designed to keep people out after hours. From time to time a range of safety fences appear around the Gardens and in Eastern Park. These are the subject of much enquiry to the guides by members of the public – what’s going on here, why can’t we go there? As guides, we attempt to answer these questions – new work is planned, the fence is to protect the public, etc. Just think what would happen today if Ms Stokes impaled herself on one of our fences or suffered injury if a fence was missing.

Jenny Possingham