Where did the name Bulls Garden Road come from

EXOTIC: Visitors to Mr Bull’s Gardens pose for this 19th century Lake Macquarie Library photo. Photo: history.lakemac.com.au
EXOTIC: Visitors to Mr Bull’s Gardens pose for this 19th century Lake Macquarie Library photo. Photo: history.lakemac.com.au

BULLS Garden Road near Charlestown is very familiar to most Lake Macquarie people. But what’s the real story behind it?

Believe it or not, more than 100 years ago this road going south, off Dudley Road, went to Mr Bull’s famous exotic gardens, hidden in bush.

Today, this major tourist attraction has long disappeared. The road winds for about two kilometres from near Whitebridge Cemetery to link with Oakdale Road at Gateshead.

Best known as a traffic shortcut, it’s also the road where the landmark O’Malleys aquariums does business.

What is normally forgotten these days is that around 1860 Edmund Bull bought a 60-acre plot here, in what is now Whitebridge, to gradually create a botanical paradise.

Eight of his children worked on rotation in the gardens initially. Two brothers at a time, as young as 14 years, were left alone in the bush for a fortnight, clearing the land.

Here, they lived on corn beef, tea, flour and sugar supplemented by what they could catch, such as possums, pigeons, parrots and bandicoots.

At night, there were the haunting cries of dingoes stalking their young cattle, some of which by morning would be without their tails.

Gradually, over decades, the cleared bush developed into some of the finest gardens in Australia. Now, after land changes, only the name Bulls Garden Road stands as a reminder of past glories.

Some of the garden splendour, however, survived until at least 1936.

Lake Macquarie City librarians today believe Mr Bull’s Gardens were located east of Whitebridge’s present Bulls Garden Road. Part of the road though outlines the boundary of the original land grant. 

A gully of running water once cut through the land, creating a large rock pool, or miniature lake, leading to a waterfall. On the hills, an orchard was planted to obtain a livelihood, but the rest was moulded into a ‘hobby’ scenic garden.

Many seeds and plants largely unknown then in Australia were planted. There were seeds from America and Java and bulbs from Holland, plus 24 varieties of camellia from Japan.

The cool gully full of palms, big ferns, staghorns and fat clumps of cane was beautifully landscaped, terraced by tiers of stonewalls. Rockpools and a row of fishponds under a great coral tree completed the picture.

Both Edmund and his second wife, Mary, were later buried at nearby Whitebridge Cemetery, in 1899 and 1903 respectively.

But it was a son, Sid Bull, who did much to create the legend as we know it today. Sid, who took over management of the attraction in 1904, allowed free public access to the gardens where his family lived on site and made a good living supplying refreshments, flowers and fruit to visitors.

People caught the train to then nearby Whitebridge station. Hundreds of people flocked to the gardens each weekend or on holidays.

There were once as many as 200 horse-carriages at a time pulled up on the grass outside.

Masters of sailing ships anchored in Newcastle Harbour who had heard of the beauty of the gardens hired buggies to make a special trip to the area.

Here, beside the waterfall was a small mine from which the Bull family collected coal.

Visiting the site in 1947, Herald writer Ian Healy reported only remnants of the gardens remained between plots of sub-divided land. He then heard tales of ships’ captains who once liked to creep into the mine, with picks, to chip off small pieces “which they treasured like gold”.

One of the greatest threats to the site were occasional bush fires. Early model cars then bought visitors in bigger numbers to the gardens and thefts of flowers and fruit increased.

Mr Bull’s gardens, which had once grown all tropical fruit from paw paws, pineapples and mangoes to tulips and violets, closed in the 1930s after about 70 years.

Sidney Bull and his wife then relocated from Whitebridge to Wallsend in 1937.

His father, pioneer Edmund Bull who had come to NSW in 1837, was from a long line of gardeners who had cultivated plants in Scotland and the Isle of Wight for several hundred years.

At first he lived at Folly Park, Mayfield, in 1854 before the industries came. Bull Street was named after him.

Sidney Bull said later that his father had grown the first bananas in Newcastle, but “nobody would buy them . . . the majority of people were suspicious of their taste and worth”.

The family then eventually moved to remote Whitebridge and the rest is history.

Linking the past

WELL, well. It’s not often you learn something new about local history.

It all started when author Doug Saxon, of Fishing Point, dropped me a note recently.

FORGOTTEN FIGURE: Michael Scott, pictured around 1940.

FORGOTTEN FIGURE: Michael Scott, pictured around 1940.

“I’m emailing you to let you know that, after three years of research, my book, Michael Scott. An Artistic Life, has finally been printed,” he wrote.

“The final product is 162 pages (A4) with some 90 photographs.

“You’re probably never heard of Michael Scott, but in the 1950s and 1960s he was well known throughout Australia, particularly as the founder of the Blake Prize for religious art.

“He also had strong connections to the Hunter – his father was medical superintendent at the Morisset Hospital and his uncle and benefactor was AA Rankin after whom Rankin Park Hospital and the adjoining suburb are named.”

According to Saxon, Scott was also a significant figure in changing Australian church architecture in the late 1950s and 1960s. 

It turns out that Scott was also a newspaper columnist, radio broadcaster and lecturer on both religious art and church architecture while holding office in a number of church, government and community organisations.

In 1946, Scott was the first public figure to call for state aid for Catholic schools.

Author Saxon’s interest in Scott began after being appointed principal of Bonnells Bay Primary School (formerly Morisset East Public) on the western shore of Lake Macquarie, in January 1983.

Here, he received a letter from Michael Scott of Dublin, Ireland, seeking information about the school he attended from 1915 to 1917.

Michael Scott planned to write an account of his “incredibly happy days in the little (Morisset) bush school”.

Then in 2012, when Saxon set out to write the school’s centenary history, he found the letter sent to him 30 years earlier.

Saxon’s follow-up research uncovered that Scott had become orphaned at age 12 and had later become a Catholic priest.

At age 17, he gave up the opportunity to be a lawyer to become a Jesuit instead, fuelled by a sense of obligation to help those who’d helped his family. Intrigued, Saxon set out on the path to discover more.

This included that in 1968, Michael Scott became the first Australian Jesuit to leave to marry a woman he’d met in Dublin and fallen in love with almost 40 years earlier.

Saxon’s self-funded book ($30) is being launched on Saturday, May 13, at Adamstown Uniting Church.

mikescanlon.history@hotmail.com