Oral Histories

Memories of the H V McKay Memorial Gardens (Sunshine Gardens)

The ‘Pride of Sunshine’!

In 2014 the Friends of H V McKay Gardens group were awarded a Public Records Office grant to interview people with memories of the Gardens over the past 70 years. Since then we have spoken to a number of people who have known the Gardens over time. Some of these people recall the Gardens in the 1930s and 1940s, when it was known as Sunshine Gardens. Others were involved in caring for Gardens once it was passed into the hands of the City of Sunshine, in the 1950s, through to the present time. Members of the local community remember weddings being held there, playing and watching sport, listening to music and enjoying picnics.

In the 1970s and 1980s people remember the changes in its treatment due to changes in policy and fashion, and the gradual removal of sporting and gardening facilities and flower displays. Recent memories are of the Gardens during a time of drought in the 2000s and of the efforts of many people to preserve and restore the Gardens to something resembling their original state and intent.

Thank you to all who have contributed their memories and their knowledge to this Oral History Project. Thank you also to Friends Group members Melinda Mockridge, Speroulla Christodolou, Catherine McDonald and Helen Reid for interviewing and Michelle Edwards for putting the material online. Thanks also to Russell Smith for helping with the ‘Memories of the Gardens’ display at Brimbank Library and the ‘Voices from the Gardens’ presentation,  part of the National Trust Heritage Festival, 2017.

We plan to continue collecting oral histories so if you or any one you know would like to take part, please contact the Friends at info@mckaygardens.com.au.

The Friends of McKay Gardens gratefully acknowledges the support of the Victorian Government and Public Record Office Victoria for making this project possible.

** The following are edited versions of longer interviews**

Jean MacDonald

Mrs Jean Macdonald (93) recalls coming to the Gardens as a child in the 1930s in a horse and jinker with her mother and siblings, all the way from their farm in Derrimut. They would have afternoon tea in the Gardens. This happened once a year – a special treat. She remembers the Sunshine Gardens as an oasis with flowers, grass and trees for the family who had no garden and no time to garden themselves. She remembers the Band Rotunda, the glass house and the streams of men coming out of the factory at the end of the working day. Jean later became a member of the Presbyterian Church and had her wedding photos taken in the Gardens in 1959.

Isabel and Gilbert Bell

Mr Gilbert Bell (96) A member of the Presbyterian Church since the 40s and currently an elder. He remembers climbing on the stone Lions at the entrance when he was a child. These lions were stolen from the Gardens. Gilbert played tennis in the Gardens on the Church tennis court, which was located next to the Gardens court.

Mrs Helen Reid (71) A member of the Presbyterian Church, Helen is a founding member of the Friends Group. She lived in Sunshine from the 1960s, and has expertise in iris cultivation, being currently Iris Society of Australia Associate Registrar. Helen was married at the Presbyterian Church in the Gardens in 1965, and so has seen closely the dramatic changes which have taken place over the 50 years or so that she has been connected. Helen remembers the remnant plantings from the 1940s and 50s that were still there in the 60s and 70s.

Helen Reid

Brian O’Reilly, 87, was a member of the Sunshine and District Historical Society, and lived all his life in Sunshine. He recalled when the lions disappeared from the Gardens. He had his suspicions about where they went, and thought we should look in Berwick. Brian remembered being in the Gardens with friends as a lad, and watching cricket matches being played in the ‘Gardens Reserve’ next  to the Gardens from the Railway Bridge.

Em Novak lived in Sunshine for many years, and has brought up her children there. She recalls the Gardens as a child, the flowers and fences, and  bringing her own child to play there as well. She has seen many of the changes which have taken place over that time.

Ros Savio was the landscape architect engaged by the City of Brimbank in 2007 to prepare a landscape concept plan for Heritage Victoria  of the restoration and replanting of the bowling green area after the Bowling Club had been closed and was to be demolished. She subsequently went on to implement other restoration works in the Gardens, under the ‘H V McKay Memorial Gardens Conservation Analysis and Management Guidelines (1994), prepared by Jill Burness et al. Since leaving the Council in 2015, she has maintained an active interest in the Gardens, becoming a Friend of the Gardens and serving on its Committee.

Mr John Willaton has known the Gardens since his childhood. Born in Sunshine, he remembers the Gardens in the 1940s when they were a hub for recreational activities in the community. As a Sunshine Tech school boy he remembers the fun he and a friend had climbing onto the high hedges of the Bowling Green and watching the bowlers of a night time. He played tennis there in the 1950s when he worked at Sunshine Harvester. John later became Town Clerk at the City of Sunshine.

John in 1943
John Willaton
John in 1949

Mr Tony Menhennit was Deputy Superintendent of Parks and Deputy Director of Parks, City of Sunshine (1970-1992) and has vivid memories of the Gardens at this time. He remembers why and how changes were made in the treatment of the Gardens during this period, and some of the challenges faced with its care and maintenance.

Alan Dash, currently Curator of the Sunshine and District Historical Society and formerly Principal of Sunshine Harvester Primary School spoke of how, as a Scout Master of the local Scouting troop, he would  take his group for excursions to  the Gardens on a Saturday as they were the only gardens in the local area where people could sit, and then across the bridge to buy ice creams.

18/01/2016. WEST. Brimbank Star Weekly. Awardsbrimbank. Issue Date 26/01. Brimbank Australia Day Awards. Lifetime Achievement Award Alan Dash. Picture Shawn Smits.
Photo: Shawn Smits, Brimbank Star Weekly

Mr Lex (Alexander) Gray is the son of Mr Harold Gray who was Head Gardener in the 1940s. The Grays were a gardening family and Harold’s father Edward was inaugural curator of the Kyneton Botanic Gardens. Harold also worked there before moving to Sunshine.  Lex remembers living in the Curator’s cottage which was in the Gardens and about how H V McKay supported the family and funded an opera scholarship for him.

Catherine McDonald, currently President of Friends of H V McKay Gardens, is a founding member, helping set the group up in 2007. She has an interest in historic gardens, planning and sustainability issues and cares passionately about protecting, maintaining and promoting the Gardens for all.

Heritage Festival Event – April 2017

Using the edited interviews created and visual material gathered, the Friends group presented Voices from the H V McKay Memorial Gardens: Sunshine’s Heritage ( part of the National Trust Heritage Festival) in April 2017  – a well attended evening event in Albion, near the Gardens and an area which was part of H V McKay’s original planned Garden suburb estate for his workers. New connections were made with the local community, and new potential interviewees identified.

Melinda Mockridge launches the Friends’ Oral History project


Audience including Brimbank Councillors John Hedditch (Mayor) [left] and Kim Thien Truong [centre]
Interviewees Tony Menhennit [back], Gilbert Bell and Jean Macdonald