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Cornelius Ignatius (Cees) Tesselaar (1912–1996)

by N. T. McLennan

This article was published online in 2022

Cornelius Tesselaar in traditional dress on his Ferntree Gully property, 1943.

Cornelius Tesselaar in traditional dress on his Ferntree Gully property, 1943.

Courtesy of the Tesselaar family

Cornelius Ignatius Tesselaar (1912–1996), horticulturalist and community leader, was born on 6 August 1912 at Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands, sixth child and third son of Hendricus Tesselaar, flower grower, and his wife Cornelia, née de Wit. After completing six years of primary education, Cees worked on the family farm and trained in bookkeeping. By 1932, when he registered for compulsory military service, he was working as a packing master, loading bulbs for export.

Tesselaar applied for permission to enter Australia in late 1938, inspired by an account in the local newspaper of the opportunities there. He and his fiancée Johanna Geertruda van Zanten, the daughter of a flower-bulb grower, waited until the application was approved before arranging their marriage on 8 June 1939 at Heemskerk. That same day the couple travelled to London and boarded the Strathallan for their month-long journey to Australia. Advised that the climate and soil near Melbourne was suited to floriculture, they settled on two acres (0.8 ha) at Ferntree Gully on the fringe of Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges. There he purchased bulbs and began growing gladioli, hyacinths, and tulips.

The couple moved to a fifteen-acre (6 ha) farm at Silvan in 1945 from where Tesselaar advertised as a gladioli specialist and offered a large variety for sale. After the liberation of the Netherlands he imported tulips, then a rarity in Melbourne. He was intent on promoting them and, on his way home from the Queen Victoria Market, would deliver unsold blooms to the homes of wealthy citizens whom he had read in the newspaper were hosting events.

In the years that followed, Tesselaar regularly returned to the Netherlands to investigate the latest developments in growing and marketing. He developed a profitable mail-order service, and sold bulbs, flowers, and plants to retail and wholesale markets, locally and interstate. By 1953 he employed three Dutch families in Melbourne. That year he planted 150,000 tulips, 250,000 daffodils, and thousands of gladioli and hyacinths. The enterprise was so successful that the Commonwealth government featured photographs of the family in its migration publicity campaigns.

A distinctive figure—six feet one inch (185 cm) tall, of stocky build, with fair hair, and a trademark cigar—Tesselaar was perhaps the best-known member of the Dutch community in Melbourne and surrounds. For years new arrivals from the Netherlands were routinely directed to his farm as there was no Dutch consul to meet them at the wharf. His son Anthony recalled that his mother ‘never knew how many people she’d be having for dinner’ (Anchen 2016, 113). The couple would help migrants find work and accommodation. Many with farming backgrounds secured employment with the Tesselaars and in time established their own enterprises, often in the same locality.

As his farm was situated beside the main road, Tesselaar noticed that more and more people on day trips from the city would stop to admire his springtime blooms. In 1954 he installed a bucket for donations to raise funds for the Australian Red Cross Society. This modest start quickly grew into a festival of which he was dubbed the ‘tulip king.’ Shrewdly, he promoted his Dutch heritage—his family and staff dressed in Voldendam costume, complemented by replica windmills, traditional food, and music. Over the course of his lifetime, the festival would raise more than $60,000 for the Red Cross. Professing to feel ‘as Australian as the next’ (NAA MT929/1), he was naturalised on 27 April 1960.

From the late 1950s Tesselaar had been active in helping to establish the Providence Hostel at Bacchus Marsh, a children’s home initiated by a Dutch Catholic priest, Leo Maas. Tesselaar and his wife served on the auxiliary committee for more than twenty-five years and oversaw its conversion to the Providence Village, accommodating elderly Dutch migrants. He served as chairman of the committee and was also a trustee of the Holland-Australian Retirement Foundation and a life governor of the Monbulk & District Elderly People’s Home. In 1982 he was appointed knight of the Netherlands Order of Orange-Nassau and an avenue was named after him at Providence Village.

By the late 1980s Tesselaar was semi-retired and the business was being run by his four sons, assisted by one of his daughters. The operation would expand by the time of his death to encompass a further four farms, employing more than 150 staff, and achieving sales in excess of $25 million annually. He died on 14 April 1996 at Ringwood and was buried in Lilydale cemetery. Predeceased by his wife eight months earlier, he was survived by their four sons and three daughters.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Anchen, Nick. The Dandenong Ranges. Melbourne: Sierra Publishing, 2016
  • Dutch Australian Weekly (Sydney). ‘Cornelis Tesselaar: Melbourne’s Tulpenkoning.’ 2 December 1983, 3
  • Dutch Weekly (Sydney). ‘In Memoriam—Tulpenpionier Cees Tesselaar.’ 26 April 1996, 2
  • Good Neighbour (ACT). ‘Dutchman, Here 14 Years is Successful Tulip Farmer.’ 1 December 1953, 3
  • Herald Sun (Melbourne). ‘Cornelius Ignatius “Cees” Tesselaar: Tulip Farm Founder.’ 17 April 1996, 72
  • National Archives of Australia. A997, 1938/743
  • National Archives of Australia. A1838, 1535/2/38 PART 1
  • National Archives of Australia. A12508, 16/2100
  • National Archives of Australia. MT929/1, V1957/42408
  • Samargis-Murphy, Jana. The Longest Journey: A History of Migration to the Shire of Lillydale. [Lillydale], Vic.: Shire of Lillydale, [1994]
  • Tesselaar family. Personal communication

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

N. T. McLennan, 'Tesselaar, Cornelius Ignatius (Cees) (1912–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tesselaar-cornelius-ignatius-cees-31301/text38684, published online 2022, accessed online 13 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Cornelius Tesselaar in traditional dress on his Ferntree Gully property, 1943.

Cornelius Tesselaar in traditional dress on his Ferntree Gully property, 1943.

Courtesy of the Tesselaar family

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Life Summary [details]

Birth

6 August, 1912
Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands

Death

14 April, 1996 (aged 83)
Ringwood, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (lung)

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