C.J. Dennis and the Singing Gardens of Toolangi
by Jan Williams
Driving into the township of Toolangi, signs lead to The Singing Gardens, the Toolangi home of C. J. Dennis (1876–1938). Den, as he signed his works, was known as Australia’s ‘Laureate of the Larrikin’ (Watts, 1976). He started writing at a very young age and quickly became popular, through his ability to relate to the experience of the everyday Australian.
Den first came to Toolangi on a camping trip with a friend and artist, Hal Waugh, in 1908. They set up their tents in an abandoned sawmill called Scherbers Mill. Here Den wrote for the Argus and Sydney Bulletin and when the weather became too cold, he moved into one of the Scherbers Mill cottages.
In 1915 Den wrote what was to become his most famous work, The Sentimental Bloke. With the proceeds from this book, he was able to purchase the Scherbers Mill site of 3.5 acres (1.5 hectares) for £22 (about $44). Den first named his property ‘Seaview’ with no explanation for his quirky name (Chisholm, 1976).
In 1917 Den married and with his new wife Margaret (Biddy) he extended the mill cottage and started laying out the gardens. Whilst Den wrote his books, Biddy gardened, frequently asking for his help to dig and put in posts and fences. In 1927 they employed a local, an Englishman named Charles Chivers, to assist with the layout, planting and care of the garden. Charles Chivers worked in and maintained the garden from 1927–1954. Over the years, Den’s writing of a daily piece for the newspapers and his other books brought enough income to build the garden as a showpiece for the district and a mecca for artist friends and tourists. Over this time Den changed the name of the property to ‘Arden’, a play on his name and also from Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden from the play As You Like It (Herron, 1953).
In 1935 the English Poet Laureate John Masefield visited Den and Biddy at ‘Arden’. To commemorate Masefield’s visit, Den planted a beautiful Copper Beech in Masefield’s honour and today it is a magnificent specimen overlooking a large lawn. Den wrote a poem inspired by this, called ‘The Tree’, which is frequently quoted (Dennis, 1935, p. 152).
Den died in 1938, just before his 62nd birthday, and in 1939 Biddy sold ‘Arden’ to Olive Thring, a filmmaker and theatre owner, and her son Frank Thring Jnr, actor. Frank would spend his holidays at Toolangi, but disliked being away from the city lights. When he inherited the property from his mother, he sold it as soon as probate was settled and in 1954 ‘Arden’ again changed hands. It was bought by two Dutch ladies, who at the same time purchased two farms in the area. In 1965 the original house burnt down, apparently when a kerosene refrigerator exploded, and the house took 20 minutes to burn to the ground.
Gardens and New Owners
The garden in this period unfortunately became rundown and neglected, until it sold again in 1969 and Jan and Vic Williams became the new owners. In the 52 years of their ownership, the Williams have viewed themselves as custodians of Den and his garden’s history. Some of the highlights of that custodianship have been the centenary of C. J. Dennis, when week-long celebrations were held and a memorial sundial and plaque were unveiled on-site by the then Governor, Sir Henry Winneke. ‘The Singing Gardens’ was added to the name ‘Arden’ around this time, as this was also the title of Den’s last book (Dennis, 1935). This book was all about the birds, the trees, the wind and the river and, as the original ‘Arden’ was no longer standing, this seemed an appropriate change.
Over the years there have been concerts, tours, as well as C. J. Dennis poetry festivals held on-site, which have contributed to keeping the gardens and Den’s history alive. The first C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival was held in 2008, to honour the 100-year mark of Den’s settlement in Toolangi, and the festival has been held annually ever since. In 2010 the C. J. Dennis Society was formed.
Vic and Jan Williams started a tearooms in 1984, due to the requests for refreshments from visitors and tour groups. Thirty-six years later the tea rooms and gardens are still providing a venue for visitors to share in Den’s history, and are a testament to the Williams’ family’s love and commitment to keeping Den and Biddy’s story alive, as well as the legacy of the late Vic Williams, as the garden’s dedicated custodian.
Chisholm, A. H. (1976) The Life and Times of C. J. Dennis, Melbourne, Angus & Robertson
Dennis, C. J. (1935) The Singing Garden, Sydney, Angus & Robertson
Herron, M. (1953) Down the Years, Melbourne, Hallcraft
Watts, B. (1976) The World of the Sentimental Bloke, Melbourne, Angus & Robertson
Williams Family collection, photographs