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William Robert Guilfoyle (1840–1912)

by Alan Gross

This article was published:

William Robert Guilfoyle (1840-1912), landscape gardener and botanist, was born on 8 December 1840 at Chelsea, England, son of Michael Guilfoyle (d.1884), nurseryman, and his wife Charlotte, née Delafosse, of Huguenot origin. His father migrated to Sydney with his family in 1849 aboard the Steadfast and set up a nursery at Redfern; another at Double Bay was more successful. After private teaching by his uncle, Louis Delafosse, William attended Lyndhurst College, Glebe, and was encouraged in botanical study by William Sharp Macleay and John MacGillivray. He made several tours in northern New South Wales and Queensland collecting specimens, some of which he sent to Ferdinand von Mueller in Melbourne to be identified. In 1868 he joined the scientific staff of H.M.S. Challenger in its scientific expedition through the South Sea islands, and then grew sugar and tobacco on his father's land near the Tweed River.

On 21 July 1873 Guilfoyle was appointed curator of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, at a salary of £500. His predecessors, Dallachy and von Mueller, had been more interested in developing the gardens for scientific than aesthetic and recreational purposes. Guilfoyle, inspired by the tropical landscapes he had seen, extended and remodelled the gardens. When he designed an extension he made a coloured sketch of his conception and then by a process of improvement brought it to the planting stage. Sweeping lawns, cunningly planned foliage and informal vistas filled the area which was expanded to over one hundred acres (40 ha). When the south bank of the Yarra was straightened to prevent floods Guilfoyle secured the adjoining section and transformed a billabong into a series of lakes. He created a fern gully in a hollow and on a hill overlooking the Yarra built a Temple of the Winds as a memorial to Charles La Trobe, founder of the gardens. The temple was designed in the classical tradition but instead of the usual acanthus motif Guilfoyle used the native staghorn fern. He also designed several summer houses or kiosks. Paderewski, who planted an American red chestnut to mark his visit on 26 October 1904, remarked that Guilfoyle did with his trees what a pianist tried to do with his music. Conan Doyle claimed that the gardens were 'absolutely the most beautiful place' that he had ever seen. Guilfoyle also managed the 62 cultivated acres (25 ha) of the Government House land and 156 acres (63 ha) in the outer Domain. He also designed private gardens; probably the best known is at Coombe Cottage, Dame Nellie Melba's home at Coldstream, near Lilydale. Melbourne's Botanic Gardens had gained world-wide repute before Guilfoyle retired in September 1909. He then lived at Jolimont and is credited with the attractive treatment of the creek which runs through Fitzroy Gardens. In 1890-91 and 1896 he visited England and Europe.

Guilfoyle did not neglect botanical studies in order to indulge his genius for landscape gardening. He started the medicinal ground in the gardens and also grew plants of economic value. His publications included First Book of Australian Botany (1874), revised and reissued as Australian Botany Especially Designed for the Use of Schools (1878); The A.B.C. of Botany (1880); Australian Plants (1911?) and many pamphlets.

Guilfoyle died on 25 June 1912 at East Melbourne, survived by his wife Alice, née Darling, whom he had married at Melbourne in 1888 and by their only son William James. His brother John was curator of the reserves under the Melbourne Metropolitan Parks and Gardens Committee in 1891-1909.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Clarke, In the Botanic Gardens (Melb, 1938)
  • P. C. Morrison (ed), Melbourne's Garden (Melb, 1946)
  • J. H. Maiden, ‘Records of Australian Botanists’, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, vol 55, 1921, pp 150-69
  • Australasian, 17 Jan 1891
  • Age (Melbourne), 26 June 1912
  • Argus (Melbourne), 26 June 1912
  • information from Royal Botanic Gardens & National Herbarium, Melbourne.

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Citation details

Alan Gross, 'Guilfoyle, William Robert (1840–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


8 December, 1840
London, Middlesex, England


25 June, 1912 (aged 71)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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