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Miracle on Black Mountain – A History of the Australian National Botanic Gardens by Don Beer

Miracle on Black Mountain – A History of the Australian National Botanic Gardens

Associate Professor Don Beer taught history at the University of New England from 1964 to 1998. Upon retirement he moved to Neville Page Canberra and became a member of the Friends of the Australian National Botanic Gardens (ANBG), a Friends Council Member and Convenor of the gardens’ Volunteer Guides. He has written several books, including a history of Sir Allan Napier MacNab (1798–1862), a Canadian political leader. Don Beer is therefore well qualified to write a history of our very own ANBG. The ANBG was officially opened in October 1970 by Prime Minister John Gorton. But Don Beer’s book covers a much longer period than the past 50 years: the book dates to the very first days of Canberra, when Walter Burley Griffin’s winning plan for the National Capital in fact mentioned ‘botanical gardens’. This long span of history is one of the reasons Don Beer’s book makes fascinating reading. Many of the formative events impacting on the ANBG’s history occurred when it was part of the Parks and Gardens section of the Department of the Interior, and well before 1970. The book is written in six parts. The first part chronicles the so-called Foundation Document: the Dickson Report of 1935, followed by the Lindsay Pryor Years, 1944 to 1959. Lindsay Pryor was succeeded by his deputy, David Shoobridge and part two covers the Shoobridge years (1959 to 1975), including the ’golden years’ of 1971 to 1975. The Robert Boden years of 1979 to 1989 are comprehensively described in part four. Don Beer doesn’t shy away from the fact that over its history the gardens have experienced many ups and downs. Part three is entitled Conflict and Consolidation, 1976 to 1979 and describes differences of opinion on the role of the gardens, financial stringency, and involvement of the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC).

Part five is entitled The ANBG in Hard Times, 1989 to 2009. Here we learn about the frustrations of declining support in certain areas, cutbacks in federal funding, and attempts from some quarters to make the gardens a suburban park. The ’hard times‘, however, were not devoid of positive events. Creation of the Friends of the Gardens in 1990, and establishment of the Volunteer Guides in 1992, contributed significantly to the gardens’ interaction with the public, and growing public support.

Miracle on Black Mountain is a well-researched and comprehensive history of the ANBG from the early 20th century to the present time. It uncovers many stories which have become buried with the passing of time, but are worthwhile to know. Statements by public figures and events affecting the gardens have been meticulously verified with detailed and accurate endnotes. The detailed endnotes allow readers to follow up stories of particular interest via source documents. It is clear that Don Beer has spent many thousands of hours searching through library documents and government archives in compiling this book. To my mind, Miracle on Black Mountain is a significant and valuable contribution to our knowledge of the gardens.

The book is available from the Botanical Bookshop at the ANBG. A Friends discount is available at the bookshop, and postage within Australia is an additional $10.

Miracle on Black Mountain – A History of the Australian National Botanic Gardens by Don Beer is published by Halstead Press (2020) with a RRP of $28.00.

A version of this article was originally published in Fronds, Number 96, December 2020, p. 14.

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