Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Swane, Valerie Gwendoline (1926–1993)

by Sue Tracey

This article was published online in 2020

Valerie Gwendoline Rhoda Swane (1926–1993), horticulturist, was born on 19 August 1926 at Ermington, New South Wales, eldest of five children of New South Wales-born parents Edgar Norman (Ted) Swane, nurseryman, and his wife Phyllis Gwendoline, née Rayner. Over forty years previously her English-born grandfather, Edgar Swane (1850–1927), had settled at Ermington; a pillar of the Presbyterian Church, he was mayor and then town clerk. Ted and his brother Harold established Swane Bros’ Enterprise Nursery in 1919, with Ted becoming its sole owner in 1926. Initially, the nursery sold citrus; it would later become renowned for its roses. The nursery remained in Ermington until the mid-1960s, when land was purchased at nearby Dural and the old property sold. In the early 1970s a branch was established at Narromine to grow roses. Four of the children—Valerie, Edgar Norman (Ben), Geoffrey, and Elwyn—would join the business, which was to remain in the family until it was sold in 2000.

Swane attended Hornsby Girls’ High School, completing the Intermediate certificate in 1943. She wanted to be a history teacher, but her father opposed it, so she went to Miss Hale’s Secretarial College in Sydney. After she had worked briefly for Penfolds Wines Pty Ltd, her father encouraged her to join the family business. A romantic interest led her to England and she spent most of 1952 in London, where she worked for an aluminium company. The romance faded and she returned to Australia. Like Elwyn and her brothers, she studied horticulture, undertaking a four-year diploma course at Sydney Technical College.

As a young woman Swane—who was slim and of medium height with brown eyes, brown hair, and always immaculately groomed—appeared in the social pages. A lover of music and an opera goer, she had learnt the piano as a girl and for many years played the organ at St Mark’s Anglican Church, Dundas. Serious about her career, she worked in the office with Elwyn, while Ben was Sydney-based and Geoffrey ran Swane’s at Narromine. After her father died in 1974 she became the managing director, with responsibility for sales and marketing; she would occupy the post until her death. On 23 April 1966 she had married Hector Edward Roy Rogers, a detective sergeant and divorcé, at the Registrar General’s Office, Sydney. At the time of her marriage she bought a large block of land at Pennant Hills on which she built a house and established a beautiful garden. The marriage was dissolved in 1976.

The Swane family was active in the Australian Nurserymen’s Association (ANA), with both her father and her brother Ben serving terms as president. In 1975 Valerie was the first woman president of the New South Wales branch. In 1976 she was elected to the board of the ANA. She was the link between the industry and the Hawkesbury Agricultural College, serving as chairman of the horticulture advisory committee, which established its horticulture course, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She also lectured in landscape architecture at the University of New South Wales some time before 1974, and at Ryde Horticultural College.

From 1980 to 1982 Swane was the first woman national president of the ANA. While in office she travelled to South Africa and the United States of America, meeting with horticultural organisations. She also advocated planting trees to keep houses cool and lobbied for 1981 to be the Year of the Tree. She played a leading role in the Greening Australia movement at State and Federal level, being the first chair of the Greening Australia Committee. In 1983 she was appointed OBE, and in 1985 she was made a life member of the ANA.

A foundation board member of the Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens (1982–84), Swane was in demand as a judge of gardens and flowers and spoke at or opened numerous garden events. From 1987 to 1992 she was a judge in horticulture at Sydney’s Royal Easter Show. She was also a judge for the Northern Suburbs Garden Competition, and conducted garden tours to Japan and Europe. For about twenty years Swane’s Nursery held an annual fund-raiser in their glasshouse, which was filled with rose blooms, to raise money for charity; many other charitable organisations held fund-raising visits to Swane’s.

Swane wrote books and articles on gardening. Her two most successful were The Australian Gardeners’ Catalogue (1979, with revised editions in 1983 and 1990), and Growing Roses (1992). Her Sunday Telegraph column ran from 1981, and her Australian Women’s Weekly feature from January 1989. In addition to plant care she often included the history of plants and botanical science news in her very readable columns. Her calm manner and pleasant voice were ideal for radio and she took over the 2BL weekend gardening show from Allan Seale in August 1985, continuing until she became ill. After she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in October 1992, her sister Elwyn increasingly assisted with her media work, still with Valerie’s byline.

From a young age Swane had been attracted to Catholicism; when she left school she had considered becoming a teaching nun, and she had finally become a Catholic in her early forties. The Sisters of Mercy sought her help in having a rose named for Catherine McAuley, the founder of their order. Though quite ill, she announced the name of the Catherine McAuley rose at the Mater Hospital on 12 November 1992. She died on 21 February 1993 at Pennant Hills. Her requiem Mass was held at St Agatha’s Church, and was followed by cremation. Instead of flowers, mourners were asked to make a donation to the Mater Hospital. A perfumed, white, cream-centred rose is named in her honour.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Frail, Rod. ‘Good Relations Are the Key.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 26 August 1983, 7
  • Swane, Elwyn. Personal communication
  • Swane, Geoffrey. Personal communication
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Nursery Guru Blossomed in a Man’s World.’ 22 February 1993, 4.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Sue Tracey, 'Swane, Valerie Gwendoline (1926–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/swane-valerie-gwendoline-29865/text36966, published online 2020, accessed online 6 July 2020.

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