VSF Origins
John Johnstone

‘a glorified landscape gardeners’ Role in Forestry in Australia
Gerry Fahey (bio)

This article is from a paper delivered at the AHA Conference, Canberra, July 2018.

Taken together - the undue weight given to the plaque; Johnstone’s absence from early records; being overlooked by other writers; and animosity with his contemporaries - these elements have created a fog so thick that the researcher has little hope of seeing through to the fact that John Johnstone, Superintendent of State Plantations, “a glorified landscape gardener”, was the reason a School of Forestry was established at Creswick in 1910.

The Beginning

The Victorian School of Forestry (VSF) established in 1910 at Creswick offered the first formal Forestry Course in Australia. The School was managed by the Forest Commission of Victoria from its opening until a period of co-management with the University of Melbourne in the 1980s and finally, after 2000, as a Department within the University. Yet the origins of the VSF are effectively lost. The one material statement is a metal plaque installed in 1952, honouring the former Premier and local member for Creswick, Sir Alexander Peacock.

The plaque credited Peacock:

"To whose inspiration & initiative the establishment of this school was largely due". (1)

However, reconstructing the story through historical newspapers, parliamentary papers, forest department records and private correspondence has revealed that other individuals were involved in the establishment of the School. The primary inspiration for the establishment of the School, and the one who took the initiative and did the work at Creswick, was not Peacock but John Johnstone, the Superintendent of State Plantations from 1902 to 1926.

Johnstone has been overlooked in the history of the School for a number of reasons: he was not listed in the official Department records or the Government Gazette prior to 1913; he had clashed with others who fostered grudges, was seen as an outsider and was not considered to be a forester by those who came after him.

Unlike Johnstone, Peacock was an amiable person with few enemies and good relationships across the various sides of politics. He is acknowledged in political histories for his long parliamentary service, his involvement in factory and sweatshop legislation and his loud laugh,(2) but his biographers make no mention of any involvement in the establishment of the School at Creswick.

As the local member in 1910, Peacock supported the School’s establishment and the nursery and plantation developments at Creswick. It was in the years after the School’s opening, when the scheme seemed to stall that Peacock became more involved in agitating the government to fulfil their commitment to the School and to Creswick to support the local economy and employment.(3)  This would explain the plaque.

Johnstone, by contrast, is only mentioned in passing in the histories of the School. His background and training were in large-scale estate landscaping and plantation forestry. He began his working life in Scotland, training at Gordon Castle. He then worked for Thomson’s Nursery in Edinburgh and then at Kingston Hall, the estate of Lord Belper in Derby, before coming to Australia where he first worked on an estate in South Australia, under the auspice of the seed and nursery company, Law, Somner and Co. In 1887, he took on the role of curator and developer of Maddingley Park at Bacchus Marsh.(4)  Maddingley Park was a community public space with a Committee of Trustees formed in 1872 and the beginnings of a pleasure garden established in 1886.(5)

Over his ten years at Maddingley Park, Johnstone was held in high esteem, developing sculptures, a lake, botanical and other park features. He was also active in the community and as a contributor to the local paper. His creativity and ambition were well known. The proposed removal of the oval from the park in 1890 was viewed as an opportunity for:

“.. the unlimited ambition of the Curator, Mr. Johnstone, to create lakes, caves, grottoes, a museum, an aviary, a zoological collection, and a fernery.” (6)

The local paper described a typical ‘Johnstonian’ style as the:

“… ingenious: adaptation of a natural formation to an artificial use." (7)