OP-ED: Iconic Park a Vital Aspect of City's Character
Thursday 5 August 2021, The Examiner
Have you ever walked through our City Park and seen a gentleman holding a plant, only to realise he is made of bronze. This is Ronald Campbell Gunn, a well-liked and respected botanist, in addition to being superintendent of convicts in Northern Tasmania. South African born in 1808, Gunn was a jack-of-all-trades, spending time working as a botanist, public servant and politician.
Born in Cape Town and educated in Scotland, Gunn worked in Barbados and Antigua, returned to Scotland and arrived in Hobart on February 1830, becoming assistant superintendent of convicts in Launceston in December 1830, Justice of the Peace in 1833 and police magistrate at Circular Head in 1836.
According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, amongst his many other positions, in 1840, Gunn became private secretary to Sir John Franklin and clerk of the Legislative and Executive Councils in 1840, becoming the managing agent of Lady Jane Franklin’s estates not long after. In 1855, Ronald Gunn was elected to the Launceston seat of the Legislative Council, but soon retired from that role to run for, and eventually win, the House of Assembly seat of Selby.
Not content with his work in public life, Ronald Gunn contributed a great deal to the natural sciences of his day. As a keen botanist and traveller, he contributed his knowledge to a number of publications and was also the first president of the Launceston Horticultural Society with the statue commissioned for Launceston’s bicentenary.
To the other end of the park, and how many of us have fond memories as children, or taking our own children, to play on the steam engine in the playground? I can recall taking my four boys to play there as children. Emblazoned with the name “Hutch”, I recently learned that it’s named after Dr David Hutchinson who, according to an article by Rod Oliver of the Launceston Historical Society published in the Examiner earlier this year, was a major stalwart for restoration and preserving the heritage of Tasmanian Railways – a subject about which many people are very passionate.
The first engine was placed in the Park by a joint effort between the Launceston City Council, the Railways Branch of the Transport Department and the Rotary Club of Launceston – the latter of which still has their logo proudly displayed on the side of Hutch.
In 1959, the first iteration of the engine, known then as “the Royal Train” was an AB Class 4-4-0 built in 1891 in Manchester, United Kingdom. According to Rod Oliver, it was transferred to City Park with an ‘attractive apple green livery’.
After going through several iterations, Hutch, as we know him now, is a shunter purchased from Utah Construction in 1958 which was restored by the Don River Railway and installed in City Park in December of 1990. Just a little note to the Council, Hutch could do with a bit of a spruce up and perhaps a new coat of paint.
The John Hart Conservatory which sits in the heart of the Park, according to Leonie Prevost in a Launceston Historical Society newsletter, was funded in November 1860 by merchant Alexander McNaughton and originally contained over 500 plants.
The Conservatory was rebuilt in 1932 at a cost of £2,000 as a bequest from the late Mr John Hart and is, according to Leonie, ‘a fine example of an interwar classical building for a public garden’. As a keen gardener, I often walk through the Conservatory to enjoy the still beautiful plants on offer, but while I understand why the changes were made, and am pleased the statue of the little boy is still there, I am sure many miss the bridge upon which brides have stood and had photos taken.
Another of my favourite features of the park are the main gates on Cameron Street. The quintessential sense of place it provides Launceston is iconic. These gates installed in 1903, were designed by Alexander North and constructed by the W.H. Knight foundry right here in Launceston. According to the Launceston Historical Society, this followed a decision made in 1902 by then Mayor, Alderman Fairthorne, to lay a stone to mark the coronation of His Majesty King Edward VII. The gate posts, as you can see today, are topped by wrought iron crowns to symbolise this.
Over the past few weeks I have dived deeply into some of the amazing history of our City Park and learned so much. There is always something more to discover and learn and I hope these editorials have helped you know more about our park. There are some great resources at our local library, online and held by our museums and, for any students of history, I encourage you to do some research too. You never know what new things you might discover as I have.
Rosemary Armitage MLC