FOR almost 70 years Chinese gardeners lived and worked along the Merri River banks growing fruit and vegetables for the local district population, yet little remains to show their contribution to local history.
Now a new book by Chris Pretlove tracing seven generations of Boyles as nurserymen, reveals a fascinating insight into how the Chinese migrated from their homeland in search of gold in Victoria then made their fortunes with produce.
Earliest records reveal they started gardening in Warrnambool in 1872 and continued until the devastating 1946 floods which wiped out their livelihoods and prompted many to return to their homeland.
After the floods their abandoned plots in the Queens Road area was covered over with sandstone and houses built. No doubt the fertile soil can be found by digging deep enough.
The last direct link with them, Nancy Gat Sing, died three years ago in Warrnambool. She had lived on Mortlake Road where Centro shopping centre now is and her family had worked the nearby plots for years.
Pretlove’s book features a unique map he drew to show 17 properties along the river and its tributary Russells Creek where Chinese grew their produce then delivered into town or rural settlements.
The gardeners were part of an emigration that started in the 1840s lured by gold mining and by 1858 there were 40,000 Chinese in Victoria.
Some had walked overland from South Australia to avoid immigration taxes.
Recollections by older Warrnambool citizens of life in the Chinese era are used in the book to intersperse with snippets from historical records and photographs.
“Warrnambool was home to a bustling Chinese business community of fruiterers, confectioners and vegetable hawkers,” Pretlove writes in David Boyle’s Tree, The Baron.
Pretlove writes that Spring Gardens (along the Merri) was known for its abundance of gardens and spring wells.
“Warrnambool was such a naturally-favoured location of more prolific land and the Chinese gardeners cultivated it so assiduously that in a short time it became fertile ground and an asset to any early pioneer,” he says.
His mother, Pat Pretlove, has been researching the Chinese link for decades, quizzing customers to the family’s former Pretlove nursery which has links to the site of a market garden worked by Ah Ling, his brother Kee Ling and friend Ah Loo.
The remains of their old one-room timber hut with no windows was still there when her late father Clyde Boyle bought a five-acre property on the corner of Queens Road and Botanic Road in the 1930s.
Warrnambool residents preferred to buy their supplies sold door-to-door by the Chinese rather than have a home garden.
The gardeners would come in their wagons and carry produce in baskets on shoulder poles. They would return with baskets laden with stable manure to apply to the crops.
“They always presented plenty of good vegetables for the table and their produce was neatly tied up in handy bundles,” Pretlove writes. “Their carts and wagons stood ready for the morning’s sales and delivery to the fruiterers.
“They gained plenty of patronage and carried on a brisk trade with a smile while conducting their work in a methodical and business-like way.”
They had watered their crops by various methods including damming creeks, treadle pumps, whims (wooden drum with rope attached and pulled by a horse) and wells.
“Almost nothing has remained of the garden layouts, water races, wells or the equipment,” Pretlove writes. “But if you know where to look, there is still a trace — earth mounds, furrows and holding holes or ponds — which is remarkable enough.”
They took their produce as far as the Ballarat goldfields and regularly visited Warrnambool district towns including Winslow, Woolsthorpe and Caramut.
Their methods would be praised in today’s era of always striving for efficiency.
The Chinese watered and fertilised often and tried to cram as many crop rotations as possible in a year, reaping or sowing something new every day, working from dawn to dusk.
They used raised beds built at such a width they could easily reach across for weeding or cultivation without disturbing the plants. It was also said they didn’t believe in hitting their horses.
Those who were Christians walked to a wooden church on Ryot Street (near where Red Rooster now is) which was pulled down in the 1950s.
Some reports said the building also doubled as a joss house, other reports noted that a Fairy Street building was also an opium den.
The Chinese would send money back home to their families for support and took pride in paying for good education for their children.