‘Wirilda’ Rhododendron Garden
by Joanne Priestley
Toolangi is home to lush mountain forests of gigantic Mountain Ash and some incredible ‘European’ tree specimens. The Copper Beech (Fagus sylvatica f. purpurea) at ‘Arden’ was planted by C.J. Dennis and Poet Laureate John Masefield in 1935[i] and is recognised by the National Trust. A Californian Redwood (Sequoia giganteum), estimated at about 40 metres (130 feet) high in 1995, along with a Japanese Cedar (Cryptomeria Japonica Elegans) also recognised by the National Trust as an outstanding specimen of its type[ii] are both at Toolangi Primary School and were possibly planted on Arbor Day 1901 when about 40 English trees were planted.[iii] Even my own garden has an English Oak about 110 years old! There are also some amazing private gardens around the Toolangi district including ‘Arden’, the garden laid out by C.J. Dennis’ wife Olive (nee Herron), and ‘Romsey Park’, established by the Condron family.
Another of these magnificent gardens is a property opposite ‘Arden’ named ‘Wirilda’. Mr Lindley Wood purchased the property for £18 on 3 June 1919 and established the three acres of gardens.[iv] As well as sheds and a poultry coop, the property contained three extensive bush houses and a hothouse[v] where Mr Wood grew over 109 different varieties of rhododendrons resulting in approximately 370 shrubs by 1950.[vi] Mr Wood was a specialist in aerial layering to propagate many of his rhodies. He built wooden platforms or used old tins to envelop the new graft and contain the new root systems.[vii] This system meant he would get a true copy of the variety. As well as being a well-known rhododendron specialist, Mr Wood also grew the three different types of Waratahs: the well-known NSW, and the lesser-known Victorian and Tasmanian varieties. He happily shared his knowledge and gave instructions for successful seed collection, planting and pruning of the Waratahs[viii] and Rhododendrons.[ix]
Mr Wood had many Open Garden Days, usually combined with Mrs F. W. Thring and son Frank, who owned ‘Arden’, a more formal garden. They were held annually on the last weekend of October and the first weekend of November from 1948 to 1954. Entry was a silver coin donation and all money raised went to the building of the Toolangi Infant Welfare Centre (1948, 1949, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954). In 1952 and 1953 some of the donations were also given to the Healesville Hospital, the State School Mothers Club and the C.J. Dennis Memorial Hall. Cut flowers were also sold on these days and Devonshire tea/refreshments sold in the hall to aid the fundraising. The all-time record for money raised on these days was £125 in 1954.[x]
Lindley Wood was born on 10 November 1875 in Hobart, Tasmania to Richard Rudland Wood and Izabella Mezger.[xi] A brother, Harold Mezenger Wood, was born 22 months later (17 August 1877 – 1935).[xii] The family moved to Hawthorn, Victoria before his father’s death in 1891, when Lindley was only 16.[xiii] Mr Wood, an Inspector of Works, was residing at Lyall Street, Hawthorn[xiv] when he married Sara McChesney from nearby Ryeburn Avenue, Camberwell on 9 August 1912.[xv] Sara, together with her sister Mrs W. Trevean (Ada), had established a very successful dental practice in Collins Street, Melbourne. They were among the first female dental students to qualify at the Australian College of Dentistry. It’s reported that Sara was also an authority on orchids in her earlier days.[xvi]
The couple continued to live at ‘Moonya’ in Ryeburn Avenue, Camberwell[xvii] but also spent time at ‘Wirilda’. In April 1920, the house at Toolangi was broken into sometime between Mr Wood leaving it securely locked up on 6 April 1920 and his return on 24 April. He found two windows smashed and leggings, tinned fish (or fruit?), spoons, tobacco and pipe missing. Two young boys were arrested and admitted to the theft. They still had the leggings, the spoons were found where they ditched them, but the fruit was eaten! Mr Wood was compensated 2 pounds, 4 shillings and sixpence and the boys placed on Good Behaviour Bonds for 12 months with £5 security each.[xviii]
Mrs Lindley Wood, Sara, died 26 August 1945 and was buried in Box Hill cemetery.[xix] Mr Lindley Wood died on 22 October 1954 in Healesville, with no known children but was a loved uncle of Marjorie, Elaine and Mary, who were Sara’s nieces.[xx] He is also buried in Box Hill cemetery.[xxi] In dedication to his wife’s memory, Mr Wood had a plaque placed on the wall above the chimney of the Infant Welfare Centre building. Upon his death, the local community placed a second plaque in memory of Mr Wood on a wooden change/measuring table, in gratitude for his contributions in establishing the Toolangi Maternal and Infant Welfare Centre.
Mr Wood’s property was sold on 29 October 1955 to L. Smedley (former Healesville Shire councillor) of Toolangi[xxii] who continued the property as a Rhododendron nursery and held an open garden day in 1956 with proceeds donated to the C.J. Dennis Hall.[xxiii] Between 1960 and 1984, the property was owned by the Hodge family and relatives. The Leonard family purchased the property in 1984 and extensively restored the gardens.[xxiv] They have now owned the property for 37 years – two years longer than Mr Lindley Wood!
[i] Jan Williams, ‘C.J. Dennis History’, Toolangi and Castella History Project 2021.
[ii] Pockett, Priestley, et al, Toolangi Primary School: The first 100 Years 1895-1995, 1995.
[iii] The Age (Melbourne) 29 July 1901, page 6.
[iv] P. & I. Leonard, Toolangi – Original Title and Aerial layering photographs.
[v] The Age (Melbourne), 8 October 1955, page 33.
[vi] Trove: The Herald (Melbourne: 1861-1954), 7 November 1950, page 7, ‘Rhododendrons His Hobby’.
[vii] P. & I. Leonard, Toolangi – Original Title and Aerial layering photographs.
[viii] Trove: Weekly Times (Melbourne: 1869-1954), 24 October 1951, page 18, ‘The Waratahs are in Bloom’.
[ix] Trove: Healesville Guardian (Lilydale: 1942-1954), 24 March 1951, page 2, ’Healesville & Yarra Glen Guardian’.
[x] Trove: Healesville Guardian (Lilydale: 1942-1954), 23 October 1948, page 2; 22 October 1949, page 2; 28 October 1950, page 2; 27 October 1951, page 1; 17 October 1952, page 2; 30 October 1953, page 2; 5 November 1954, page 3.
[xi] Ancestry.com.au / Australia, Birth Index, 1788-1922 Registration Number 1630.
[xii] Ancestry.com.au / Barlow Family Tree / filter Lindley Wood.
[xiii] Ancestry.com.au / Barlow Family Tree / filter Lindley Wood.
[xiv] Ancestry.com.au / in the Australia Electoral Rolls, 1903-1980.
[xv] Trove: The Argus (Melbourne: 1848-1957), 7 September 1912, page 13, ‘Family Notices’.
[xvi] Trove: Healesville Guardian (Lilydale: 1942-1954), 1 September 1945, page 3, ‘Mrs Lindley Wood’.
[xvii] Ancestry.com.au / in the Australia City Directories, 1845-1948, 1938.
[xviii] Trove: Healesville & Yarra Glen Guardian (Vic.: 1900-1942), 5 June 1920, page 3, ‘Robbery at Toolangi’.
[xix] Trove: The Argus (Melbourne: 1848-1957), 27 August 1945, page 13, ‘Family Notices’.
[xx] Trove: The Argus (Melbourne: 1848-1957), 26 October 1954, page 14, ‘Family Notices’.
[xxii] Trove: Healesville Guardian, 11 November 1955, page 4, ‘Healesville District Diary’.
[xxiii] The Age (Melbourne), 19 October 1956, page 10, ‘Floral Show at Toolangi’.
[xxiv] P. & I. Leonard, Toolangi – Original Title and Aerial layering photographs.