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Nobelius, Carl Axel (1851–1921)

by R. F. Ericksen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Carl Axel Nobelius (1851-1921), orchardist and nurseryman, was born on 19 June 1851 in Tampere, Finland, eldest child of Carl Petter Nobelius, horticulturist, and his wife Louisa Amalia. His parents were related to Alfred Bernhard Nobel (1833-1896) and had migrated to Finland from Gefle, Sweden.

Nobelius was trained in horticulture and in February 1871 arrived in Melbourne. He was employed first in the Toorak nurseries of Taylor & Sangster. Later he moved to the nurseries of Joseph Harris in South Yarra, a step that had consequences, because Harris was an important influence in forging close links between himself, Brunning, Rimington, Cheeseman and Nobelius. Before 1900 these men were to control much of the nursery trade in Melbourne and were largely responsible for its successful combination of aggressive business drive, massive exports, strict quality control and restless inventiveness. Nobelius was tall and strong and had great energy. About 1884 he bought land near Emerald in the Dandenong Hills and for years went each Saturday afternoon by train to Narre Warren terminus and then walked sixteen miles (26 km) to his land, where he cleared, cultivated and planted before walking back to catch the Sunday night train. By 1890 he had established his business at Emerald; fifty acres (20 ha) of orchard and nursery were under cultivation and he was doing well with raspberries and strawberries as well as hard fruit for the markets in Melbourne and Sydney. One handicap was the cost of carting his produce to Narre Warren by bullock drays, but he told the parliamentary standing committee on railways in 1898 that 'all these ranges ought to be planted with apples [which] are not suffering from the drought this year in the slightest'. In 1903 he was able to advertise a million trees for sale. By 1914 his 'Gembrook Nurseries' held two million stock trees, produced quantities of apples and pears, and conducted a huge export trade with other Australian States and overseas with New Zealand, South Africa, India, Japan, Europe and South America. The size of export is indicated by annual shipments of 400,000 tree stock to South Africa alone.

Nobelius's experimental skill and persistent advertising persuaded countless Australian country towns to line their streets with European shade trees and he made other contributions to Victorian horticulture, including a revival in the cultivation of flax. But the great heart of his business was the propagation and sale of fruit trees and fruit tree stock, augmented by a large apple and pear orchard which he established at Freshwater on the Tamar River in Tasmania.

The nurseries, which were run as a family business by Nobelius and four sons and which sometimes employed almost every wage-earner within reach, dominated the economic and social life of the Emerald-Gembrook district. The high period ended when the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 destroyed the export trade and compelled contraction and reorganization, but in 1920 the nursery was said to be still the largest south of the equator. Nobelius died of pneumonia at his home in Emerald on 31 December 1921. Predeceased by his first wife Emily Jane, née Brightwell, whom he had married on 5 January 1877, he was survived by his second wife Mary Louise, née Holdsworth, and by five sons and three daughters. By direction of his will the nurseries and orchards were sold and the proceeds divided within the family. A son regained control of the central nursery and held it until 1955.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Lyng, The Scandinavians in Australia, New Zealand and the Western Pacific (Melb, 1939)
  • Nettie Palmer, The Dandenongs, 2nd ed (Melb, 1953)
  • H. Coulson, Story of the Dandenongs, 1838-1958 (Melb, 1959)
  • E. E. Pescott, ‘The pioneers of horticulture in Victoria’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 18 (1940).

Citation details

R. F. Ericksen, 'Nobelius, Carl Axel (1851–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nobelius-carl-axel-4306/text6977, published in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 2 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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