Biographies of the Early Aldermen

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Robert Thomas Henderson

Alderman for O’Connell in 1871-76

His father was Robert Henderson (1798-1865) whom the ‘Gardeners Magazine’ of February 1865 says superintended the layout of the ‘once-famed gardens’ of Alexander MacLeay’s Elizabeth Bay House estate. His mother Elizabeth was daughter to Thomas Shepherd who operated the nursery in Chippendale from the 1830s which was known as the Government Nursery or the Darling Nursery because, as Victor Crittenden says, it was vice-regally approved by Governor Ralph Darling. (Francis Low’s Directory of 1844-45 mentions a James Henderson working at the Darling Nursery.)

Robert Henderson married Elizabeth Shepherd in 1831 and started the Camellia Grove Nursery in 1838 on four acres nearby in the low lands in what was the Kingsclear grant of 1794 and now is land on the corner of Henderson Road and Park Street Erskineville. The first son Robert Thomas Henderson was born in 1837, brother Charles JBN Henderson in 1845.

The ‘Gardener’s Magazine’ goes on to say Robert worked on the goldfields in the 1850s and took over the business on his father’s sixtieth year and was joined by young Charles in 1860. He was Vice President of the Australasian Botanical and Horticultural Society of NSW in 1864. The Camellia Grove Nursery was said to be located a pleasant walk of about a quarter of a mile from Newtown Road on ‘perhaps as good soil as can be found’ with two acres of fruit trees, it was said to excel in dahlia, clematis and primula and ‘his collection of roses is perhaps the largest in the colony’. There were 874 varieties of them on sale in the 1880s.

Camellia Grove was outside Newtown municipality but he was elected to Council in 1871. He served on the Finance Committee continuously over six years and spoke frequently on financial matters but rarely otherwise. He resisted William Bailey’s long incumbency as mayor by proposing Alfred Fallick to block Bailey’s fifth term in 1875. Yet in the following year on 9 February 1876 he and three others aborted the mayoral election by leaving the chamber forcing a postponement through lack of quorum.

Robert Henderson advocated within Newtown Council on issues affecting Camellia Grove and the low lands on the ‘wrong side’ of the railway. They were isolated by it and its fencing as there was no access across between Erskineville Road and Cleveland Street Redfern. He moved in July and September 1874 that Erskineville Road be gravelled and that the bridge carrying it over the railway be widened.

MacDonaldtown’s Council was formed in 1872 and brother Charles Henderson was elected as one of its Alderman in 1874. Robert supported MacDonaldtown Council’s request for co-operation in having McDonald Street continued through the Waterloo Estate to Mitchell Road. The Newtown Oxford Cricket Club played on the land near to the nursery at what is now Erskineville Oval on Mitchell Road Alexandria from 1862; he requested they be supported in their March 1875 quest to finance the grounds fund.

Trial surveys were commenced in April 1874 for a rail line to carry coal from the South coast to port at Sydney though it wasn’t clear if it would go direct to Thomas Mort’s dock at Balmain or link to the main line close to Henderson’s land. Their land had increased from 5 1/2 to 14 acres and they made a road through it named after themselves. They petitioned the Government in August 1875 to open it and Charles sought Newtown Council’s support for that petition. On Monday 19 December they auctioned off 100 or so lots surrounding the nursery.

Robert was Alderman with Newtown for six years until 1876, Charles was an Alderman with Macdonaldtown for eight and its Mayor from 1874 to 1877. The railway opened in October 1884. Charles was later Mayor of Alexandria in 1887-1893; Robert is said to have retired from public life in the late 1880s and died in 1909.

The Camellia Grove Nursery operated there until 1890. Another Camellia Grove Nursery opened in the 1940s on the main road at St Ives and still trades there today. It was instigated by Professor BJ Waterhouse of the University of Sydney, a camellia expert linked via Eryldene’s architect Hardy Wilson to Felix Wilson and those other gentlemen gardeners of 1840s Newtown.

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