Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden, Adelaide SA

A tribute to the pioneer women of South Australia, this small but significant garden was first unveiled in 1941, designed by Elsie Marion Cornish.

Little has been written about early gardens and landscape designers in South Australia. The first to write about the subject was John Ednie Brown (1848–1899) and it was not until the 1920s that garden design began to grow. Elsie Marion Cornish (1887–1946) was one of the first designers and her Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden is a small example worthy of review in contrast to contemporary landscape design projects. As one of the earliest examples of garden design in South Australia, this garden is intriguing for its simplicity, its symbolism and the process of consultation that Cornish experienced from
concept through to construction.

Located within the Torrens Parade Ground precinct of the Adelaide Parklands, surrounded by Government House (south), Torrens Parade Grounds (north),
King William Street (west) and Kintore Avenue (east), the garden is bounded by
green embankments to one side and a row of London plane trees to the other.
While one could easily retreat from the vehicular noise of King William Street
here, its formalism and didactic nature retain its purpose as a garden of
memory.

The garden is a simple rectangle within a decorative low brick wall. At its centre is a sculpture surrounded by an expanse of lawn, four garden beds and a selection of ornamental trees and shrubs at its edges. A key element of Cornish’s concept was the symbolic meaning of plants, as they spoke of the “spirit and courage of the pioneering women.” These included five Populus nigra “Italica” (Lomardy poplars), representing the five women of the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Trust; Quercus ilex (holly oak) and Myrtus
communis
(myrtle) for protection and love; Lonicera spp (honeysuckle) for love, generosity and devotion; and Syringa vulgaris (lilac) to symbolize memory, protection, youth and tenderness. Similar to other memorial projects, the garden makes use of metaphor and does this through planting alone. Any changes to its planting would risk misrepresenting its intent.

Cornish’s concept was simple and elegant, yet over the three years that passed between the approval of the garden and its opening several modifications were made. The original concept included a floral clock that would represent the passage of time. The Parks and Gardens Committee rejected the concept as they refused to take on its maintenance. The substitution of trees for shrubs, the reshaping and widening of garden beds, the removal of garden beds and the replacement of numerous species were only some of the changes to the design. The addition of annuals was the most inappropriate modification, as Cornish had intentionally avoided them due to their high maintenance and overpowering of the solemnity and calming quality of the garden.

These changes dramatically altered the character, meaning and establishment of the garden, for good and bad. The garden became a politically provocative project as it challenged the role of the designer and through its modifications it lost its unique strength as a memorial garden. So how have times changed since then? Today budgets, regulations and politics continue to challenge the merit of designs, yet now as an established profession we have more force for change.

Although the garden we see may not be Cornish’s original concept, the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden has become a cultural landscape for Adelaide. It has evolved into a site for ideas, debate and the arts. Every second year the Adelaide Writers’ Week festival makes its home at the garden.  The festival’s adoption of the garden and its adaptation as a meeting place is the materialization of time; gardens retain a spatio-cultural place within the urban city.

The contribution Cornish has made to the city’s public and private gardens in Adelaide from the mid-1910s to her death remains overlooked.  However, her garden holds significance to our profession as one of the earliest examples of landscape design in Adelaide. It represents the advancement we as landscape and urban designers have achieved in shaping our often politically driven urban realm. “How” we have progressed has been a matter of time; we are still finding our feet, I believe.

Today we tend to look abroad for inspiration. We automatically engage with the current “hot topics” that affect our profession: words like sustainability, civic identity, redevelopment, vision and innovation flick across the screen in our bid for new projects for the city. In Adelaide we are currently occupied by master plans and infrastructure. At the same time, perhaps we should turn around and look into our civic “backyard,” not to
imitate but to reflect on our role, potential and responsibility and see how far we have come from the days of settlement. We are highly involved, if not leaders, in designing the urban realm. So while we are a young profession, it is worth taking a walk to reflect and to look again at past projects and appreciate those that have quite literally paved the way in forming our city.

(Emma Wood, Landscape Architecture Australia, No. 131)

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