Bamboo and butter – sketching the Superintendent’s Garden

The garden of the superintendent is one of the finest in Queensland. It is not large, but the collection of useful and ordamental trees is rich and varied; and the place is kept in splendid order. The cocoanut and English oak, and scores of trees of less extreme qualities flourish there. Mr. M’Donald and his good lady have a keen sense for plants of every kind that have usefulness or beauty to recommend them. The superintendent is a keen experimentalist as well. (1)

51 Laurie 31 Fountain Garden Superintendent 67107

The Superintendent’s Garden – the functional areas

The Superintendent’s garden was renowned throughout Queensland and was an important area for welcoming V.I.P visitors to the St Helena Penal Establishment. The Superintendent’s garden was divided into two parts – the formal garden to the west of the house and the functional areas to the east. The functional area contained an olive grove, fruit trees including mango, custard apple and date palms, giant bamboo and a paddock to the south-east of the Superintendent’s dairy.  All of these plants still exist here, making it an important living heritage of the way in which gardens were designed and selected for beauty, sustainability and functionality.

Superintendent's Garden 1887 map
St Helena map 1887. The Superintendent’s Residence is the building marked ‘A.’ To the right is the formal garden, while above and right are the paddock and Yard in the functional garden.  Sugar cane and Warders Row are to the south. 
Artist and ecologist Paula Peeters in a quiet moment as she sketches the Superintendent’s Dairy and bamboo stand.

Superintendent’s Dairy

This beachrock building was rendered, with slate topped benches inside and a concrete floor completed in 1909. It stood slightly to the east of the Superintendent’s Residence, framed by an enormous stand of Giant Bamboo. The Superintendent’s Dairy  was used to store dairy products produced on the island. Prisoner Henry Jackson ‘attended to dairy work” in the Superintendent’s Dairy for two years around 1892.

Dairy herd

Dairying at St. Helena.

Steps are being taken to commence dairying operations on a somewhat extensive scale at the penal establishment at St. Helena. There is now on the island a good herd of Ayrshire cattle and of the milk the cows is to be converted into butter and cheese by the prisoners. The cheese-making portion of one of the travelling dairies connected with the Department of Agriculture will be taken to St. Helena in the steamer Otter this morning, and it will remain there under the direction of Mr J. M’Cormack as long as necessary. A course of instruction in dairying, chiefly for the benefit of the warders, will he carried out.(2)

Ayrshire Dairy herd, 1911. Image from John Oxley library.

As mentioned in last week’s post regarding the exciting collection of talented individuals who visited the island 2 weeks ago, artist, ecologist and writer Paula Peeters was tasked with capturing some of the beauty of this important heritage garden. Many of the plants in the garden are now up to 150 years old and remain some of the oldest, larger or most impressive in Australia.

Bamboo and dairy adjusted2
Black and white sketch of the Superintendent’s Dairy and Giant Bamboo stand, St Helena Island. Image by Paula Peeters, 2018.

The stand of Giant Bamboo is an impressive sight and one that cannot be ignored. Individual bamboo stems wider than my arm cluster together in a tall, messy mix of living and dead plants. The cluster still serves as a strong windbreak, sheltering the dairy and formal garden area. It once provided shelter for the residents of the Superintendent’s House, as well as the delicate cottage garden plants growing vigorously throughout the formal garden. The bamboo stand was also a visual and social wall, separating the Superintendent’s Residence and Gardens from Warders Row and the warders and their families living in their barracks and married quarters beyond. If any plant can capture people’s attention and imbue a sense of status and importance, this Giant Bamboo does and so it’s a fitting plant to tower over all comers to the Superintendent’s area.

What’s fascinating about art is the many interpretations that can be made of the same subject, depending on the medium used and the use of colour. Paula decided complete the sketches with pen and ink, capturing the fine detail of the leaves, shadows and crumbling building. She then completed a second image, by including a light wash of colour on the image. It’s fabulous to compare the two of them to see the different effects.

Bamboo and dairy adjusted with colour
Coloured sketch of Superintendent’s dairy and Giant bamboo stand, St Helena Island. Image by Paula Peeters, 2018.

Which is your favourite? I think you’ll agree, seeing images in an alternative format to photographs adds a valuable, beautiful dimension to the work.

Stay tuned… there are two more sketches to come and I’m looking forward to seeing the stunning images so skilfully captured by Paula. I have also videoed the music made by the Giant Bamboo … yes amongst its many amazing attributes I can absolutely vouch for the fact that it also sings! All you need is a puff of wind…



(1) Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 – 1939), Saturday 16 March 1878
(2) Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld. : 1872 – 1947), Tuesday 19 July 1892
Giant Bamboo drawings by Paula Peeters

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