During the ensuing age of commercial fruit-growers and supermarket chains, the orchard was forgotten. Over the years some of the majestic old trees were removed. The rest were left to fend for themselves through the worst drought in Victorian history, summers with record high temperatures and the occasional winter flood from the Werribee River. Rabbits attacked the trees regularly, gnawing bark off the trunks, which eventually caused some trees to die. Amazingly, approximately sixty-four trees survived.
They are, however, in urgent need of care. According to a 2002 arborist’s report, “Many of the fruit trees are structurally senescent and may die in the next decade or so.”
Thomas Chirnside (1815-1887), pastoralist, was born in Cockburnspath, East Lothian, Scotland. He sailed from Liverpool in the Bardaster, arriving in Australia in January 1839.Just before the gold rushes he and his brother Andrew began acquiring land at Wyndham (Werribee). There Thomas settled, later building a bluestone mansion near the banks of the Werribee River and gaining a freehold of 80,000 acres (32,375 ha).Thomas Chirnside started planting his orchard on a significant scale in the early 1870s. Fruit trees included peaches, grapes, apples, quinces, pears, a variety of plums and several other fruits, as well as walnuts and olives.
From 1923 to 1973, the mansion was a Catholic seminary, Corpus Christi College. The monks looked after the orchard, which flourished and produced bountiful harvests. Every year in autumn, the novices would be put to work from morning to night picking, carting, peeling and processing fruits. In 2011 one former priest recalled having 400 fruit trees, consisting of Jonathons, Yates, Packham Pears, Cherry Plums, Apricots, Quinces and Granny Smiths. In 1973 Corpus Christi was sold to the state government, and renamed Werribee Park.
In partnership with Parks Victoria, a community group was formed in 2010 to look after the orchard.
The origin of Werribee Park Heritage Orchard group – WPHO
In 2008, Adam Smith and another staff member of Parks Victoria paid a visit to the Heritage Fruits Society to request advice about the old orchard at Werribee Park, which had been left untended for many years due to lack of resources. Peter and Silvia Allen, of Telopea Mountain Permaculture Farm – who are core members of HFS – formed a great rapport with Adam. All were enthusiastic about re-invigorating and preserving the orchard.
In 2009 Pete and Silvia supplied a number of heritage fruit trees to the old orchard, to replace some of the ones that had died. Peter suggested that a local community group could be formed to care for the orchard, and helped Parks Victoria contact gardeners and permaculture adherents in the Werribee area. As the newly formed group began to flourish, Peter and Silvia continued contributing fruit tree varieties, their time and their experience on numerous occasions, and WPHO is grateful to them for all that they have done for the group.
The WPHO group has been identifying the varieties, caring for the trees, working out which ones are missing, propagating more from the existing stock, planting replacements, building rabbit proof fencing, establishing a water supply and more. Join us – become part of the orchard’s history! In future you will also be able to purchase your own heritage fruit trees, grafted from the venerable originals at Werribee Park.