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Francis, George William (1800–1865)

by Althaea Peake

George William Francis was born in 1800, the eldest child of George Isaac Francis and Frances Francis (née Hatt), in an affluent area of Spitalfields, London. His father was a cooper and free agent with The Freedom of the City of London and later, when made a liveryman, had the privilege of voting in the London City Council. There is scant information about George’s formative years, but it is recorded that he was a competent scholar of Latin and French and also ‘studied botany as a child’ (Best 1986, 3). By the age of 21 he had travelled on a botanical collecting tour of Italy, Sicily and Spain. At 25 he was lecturing on botany and other areas of science, mostly to medical students in an era when botany was part of the curriculum.

Francis married twice, first in 1828, but within six years his son and wife died. Left with a four year old daughter, he found work in 1835 as a journalist for John Loudon’s Magazine of Natural History. Loudon was a Scottish landscape designer and gardener who initiated the gardenesque landscaping style and whose ideas influenced Francis’s concept of garden design. Francis married again in 1838 to Ann Hatt with whom he had 11 children. In 1837, the publication of Analysis of British Ferns and Their Allies launched his writing career and was to remain a classic reference. His book Little English Flora, illustrated with his engravings, was published in 1839. He also edited a monthly Magazine of Science and School of Arts containing articles in the general field of arts and sciences, including on the invention of photography. These were compiled into annual volumes and the magazine ran until 1844. In 1839, he also wrote a 15 part monthly serial called Dictionary of Experiments or Scientific and Mathematical Recreation. All Francis’ English publications were in collaboration with his brother David. Despite excellent credentials, having been proposed and elected a Fellow of the Linnaean Society in June 1839, and being an original member of the Botanical Society of London  his applications to secure the Directorship at the new Royal Gardens at Regent’s Park (1838) and later the Chair of Botany at King’s College, London (1842), were unsuccessful.

Notwithstanding a secure income from journalism and books, Francis moved his family to Boulogne, France, in 1844, where he taught and became master of a boys’ boarding school. Whilst in France he became acquainted with European botanists and their gardens. Under the auspices of his brother-in-law, he spent time as a clerk of works for the Calais and Paris railway. During this time Francis supervised substantial sewerage, railway and canal work resulting in the publication of A Practical Manual for Railways and Canals in 1846. It is believed that he also acquired knowledge as a surveyor and land valuator during this period. The effects of the 1848 revolution in France resulted in the loss of his property, forcing him to return to England.

Francis arrived in Adelaide on the bark Louisa Baillie on 2 September 1849 with his wife and six children, in pursuit of his long held ambition to be the director of a botanic garden. He promptly involved himself in the organisations and clubs that made up the social fabric of Adelaide. These included the Agricultural and Horticultural Society, where he was the main protagonist for the establishment of a botanic garden, the Library and Mechanics Institute, where he delivered many lectures, and the Freemasons. Prior to his arrival, five colonial botanists and naturalists had been successively appointed as managers of various botanic garden sites in Adelaide. The consecutive failures of these enterprises resulted in any prospective botanic garden being viewed with scepticism by the government about the public expense for the colony, and the future of the city’s botanic garden was left in abeyance after the departure of the last of these colonial botanists in 1850.

Soon after his arrival, Francis began appealing to the Governor, Sir Henry Fox Young, about the need for the city to establish a botanic garden, without success. Early in 1852, with little prospect of work, having secured the leasehold on what was known as the Old Botanic Garden as a residence, he went to Melbourne to seek employment. He later secured employment in Adelaide after convincing the Adelaide Council of the need for property assessment, offering his services as a valuator.  Alone and on horseback, from 1852 to mid-1855, he assessed the surveyed suburban areas of Adelaide of some 664 square kilometres.  During this period he became dismayed at the general ignorance of the population about gardening, and horticultural education of Adelaide’s citizenry became an important objective for him. He became a founding member of The Philosophical Society in 1853 and gave lectures. In 1854 Francis’ tender was accepted for landscaping Victoria Square, the central square around which Adelaide was laid out.  Following this, he was asked to address the four other city squares. Francis was becoming well acquainted with his new environment, taking every opportunity to bring notice about the need for a botanic garden. In this same year he was made the city’s permanent valuator.

In January 1855 the Legislative Council finally sanctioned George Francis’s site for the establishment of an Adelaide botanic garden, the fifth site nominated since settlement. The land was held sacred by the Kaurna nation (the Indigenous people of the Adelaide plains) as the red kangaroo dreaming, but in 1855 was being used for grazing paddocks for police horses. The sixteen hectare site comprised undulating parkland between easterly and westerly low ridges, forming a swampy basin traversed by two creeks. Francis envisioned the area as suitable for irrigation and the establishment of water features. In June 1855, he was appointed superintendent, also holding the position of secretary of the Botanic Garden committee.  Firstly he addressed the establishment of boundary fencing to ensure the permanent removal of feral pigs, donkeys and horses, and the successful laying out of plantings. He defined the perimeter of the garden with trenched plantings of varieties of roses, Spanish Broom and prickly cactus as hedging in front of wooden fencing. He agreed to landscape the boulevard of North Terrace with trees to link it with the Botanic Garden and was also charged with landscaping the gardens at Government House with trees and shrubs. The seasonal flooding of the botanic garden site with stormwater also needed to be solved and, to this end, he laboured with only six garden hands and basic tools to dig out the main lake and drain the low-lying ground, changing the smaller creek into a defined canal. This work took two years. In October 1855 he presented his first quarterly report on progress, providing a sketched plan of work undertaken and a plan of Regent’s Park as an example of circular garden design that he advised was adaptable for Adelaide: ‘For Francis, the botanic garden was a living text, and the circles could symbolise and present the bountiful properties that plants had to offer.’(Aitken 2006, 41) Included in this report was a request for a conservatory which Francis considered a vital feature of any botanical garden.

From late 1855, Francis ordered plants and seeds of multiple varieties, trees, shrubs, annuals and bulbs, from local and inter-colonial plant nurseries, as well as from international suppliers for planting out in the garden according to his elaborate design. He had also, in his initial plans, attempted to retain as many of the site’s original river red gums as possible. Since his arrival he had developed a collection of the plants and seeds of Australian flora and these were displayed in a special circle and, throughout the garden, many of the shrubs and trees ordered were of Australian species.

In February 1856, the superintendent’s residence was ready for Francis and his family to take up occupancy and, on October 4 1857, the Adelaide Botanic Garden opened to the public. In the same year extra funds were granted for a domed conservatory despite the financial constraint exercised by the Colonial Treasurer on the garden’s committee (Aitken 2006, 49). When it arrived late in 1859, additional greenhouses for ferns, orchids and succulents were added to each end, extending its size and creating a notable centrepiece to the Botanic Garden (Aitken 2006, 50). Francis published a Catalogue of Plants under Cultivation in the Government Botanic Garden (1859), for the benefit of students and visitors and in order to initiate correspondence and plant exchanges (Aitken 2006, 47).

Competing interests from neighbouring institutions for land repeatedly threatened to encroach on the garden’s boundaries. This uncertainty posed serious difficulties for Francis in preparing his 1855 plan. In 1860 the lunatic asylum, an imposing three storeyed building on the eastern ridge, attempted, unsuccessfully, to reclaim land from the garden to extend the institution. Later that year the Botanic Garden Act was approved, establishing the composition and powers of the Board of Governors and with it Francis was finally accorded the title of Director. The Botanic Garden had coped without the resource of a reticulated water system until 1860, making the watering of plants during the summer months a major task.  The establishment of the Thorndon Park reservoir in 1859, drawing on the River Torrens catchment, provided the necessary extra supply, also resulting in the introduction of fountains throughout the Garden.

In 1861 the Board provided funds for Francis to collect plants and animals for acclimatisation from both the Sydney and Melbourne botanic gardens. He returned with extensive supplies and in 1862 his efforts resulted in the successful re-establishment of the Acclimatisation Society of South Australia. Francis enhanced the Botanic Garden with two distinctive structures in 1863. One was a tall, trellised pagoda supporting lush climbing plants, which provided visitors with a shady walkway. Another building was made to resemble the Parthenon in Athens, and was intended for use as a botanical museum, modelled on the one at Kew, as well as a lecture room and herbarium.  Here George Francis held Tuesday evening lectures for the benefit of the colonists.

His final 1864 plan for the Adelaide Botanic Garden has been described as

 among the most remarkable in Australia … [sharing some] characteristics … with the Royal Society’s Regent’s Park such as the main axial path, the ornamental lake all set within a park like setting which originally like Regent’s Park housed aviaries, enclosures and cages for animal acclimatisation … A number of the individual arrangements of beds within the overall plan… are in the Gardenesque style (Aitken, Jones & Morris, 2006).

During his lifetime Francis published 21 volumes, some into their 5th and 8th editions and amongst these was a Dictionary of Arts and Sciences illustrated with no fewer than 1100 engravings by Francis. In addition there were the annual compilations of his magazine that lasted for six years. He continued contributing engaging and informative articles to Adelaide’s local magazine The Farm and Garden (1858 -1863) and to The Register newspaper until his death.

Debilitated by oedema and the adversity encountered during his fifteen year residence in Adelaide, especially through the time he administrated the botanic gardens, George William Francis died on 9 August 1865, four days after his resignation. Bureaucratic parsimony denied his pension to his widow, who was left with three young children. It was said of this multi-talented, artistic, pioneering architect of the Adelaide Botanic Garden that ‘he could be exasperating in his single mindedness’, and ‘that he was a modest and restrained person, a witty lecturer, a lover of poetry, who enjoyed wide cultural interests’. He was not a socialite but was ‘a fond father and devoted husband’ (Aitken 2006, 65). Adelaide was fortunate indeed to have George Francis as the superintendent and first director of its botanic garden, for he was an exceptional and intelligent man whose acumen in the choice of the site, and his ‘unparalleled conception of landscaping’ contributed to the elegance of Adelaide. His legacy remains alive today (Aitken 2006, 65).

References:

Aitken, R. Seeds of Change An Illustrated History of Adelaide Botanic Garden. Board of the Botanic Gardens and State Herbarium in association with Bloomings  Books,  Melbourne, 2006.

Aitken, R., Jones, D. and  Morris, C. Adelaide Botanic Garden Conservation Study 2006. Adelaide Research &Innovation: Adelaide University, 2006.   http://www.fbga.asn.au/ABG%20Conservation%20Study_June202006.pdf

Best, B.J.  George William Francis; First Director Adelaide Botanic Garden. Hyde Park Press: Adelaide, 1986.

Kanellos, T. Origins of the Adelaide Botanic Garden’s Museum of Economic Botany. Cultural Collections Manager and Curator of the SANTOS Museum of Economic Botany, Adelaide Botanic Garden, 2009.

                       

Original Publication

  • People Australia, 2015

Citation details

Althaea Peake, 'Francis, George William (1800–1865)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/francis-george-william-20103/text31202, accessed 31 October 2020.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012