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Swapping guns for gardening

Returned WWII servicemen and women were given a fresh start through training in horticulture and gardening

This year marks 125 years of horticultural education at what is now the University of Melbourne’s Burnley campus. It is also 70 years since a group of returned servicemen and women arrived at the campus to retrain and rehabilitate.

Servicemen and women returning from the battlefields came home to parades and adulation, but soon reality kicked in and many struggled to cope. Training programs like that offered at Burnley gave them a chance to re-build their lives and re-integrate into society. Footage: Burnley Archives. Video: Julia Cleghorn

Australia, 1945. As World War II drew to a close, the country’s concerns slowly shifted from the death and destruction of the battlefront to the servicemen and women who’d managed to survive it – and return home to an entirely new set of challenges.

Eventually, public and professional understanding of trauma response would develop, and returned service people would have access to the support systems and resources they needed. But at the time, as one such man wrote in a reflection now preserved in the Burnley Archives, “the word ‘rehabilitation’ seemed to loom as something entirely new”.

As soldiers began arriving home with various degrees of illness and injury, both physical and psychological, the Australian Government implemented the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme to provide them with the educational and vocational training it was hoped would enable them to reintegrate to civilian life. In October 1946, the first group of these ‘rehab’ students arrived at what is now the University of Melbourne’s Burnley campus.

Women were among those taking part in the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme, undertaking hands-on and theoretical horticultural education. Picture: Burnley Archives

The Burnley campus is a picturesque nine hectares of heritage-listed gardens on the banks of the Yarra River in Melbourne’s east, and over its 125 years as an institute for horticultural education and training has taken many forms and many names. In 1946, it was under the auspices of the Department of Agriculture and was already educating many young men and women in gardening, landscaping and production horticulture.

The combination of horticultural science with practical knowledge and skills in a garden setting provided excellent employment opportunities in post-war Melbourne.

Naomi McConchie, who was a student at the time of the Scheme, remembers Burnley as “just the most wonderful place to be”. She, along with many of her fellow ‘civvie’ students, was a young graduate of a private girls’ school and says she largely kept clear of the older new arrivals.

“Some of them had problems with settling back to city life,” Naomi said.

Class records from the time ask that consideration be given to several students with deafness, one with a ‘severe nervous disability’ and another who suffered paralysis in the left arm due to gunshot wounds. The young new Principal, Mr Thomas Kneen, himself a returned serviceman, set them to work learning to grow vegetables, propagate plants and raise poultry; examination papers would require them to know everything from the colour of eggs laid by different breeds of fowl to the process of cultivating waterlilies.

Training under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme was offered as either a two-year Certificate of Competency in Horticulture or a six-month program for those already experienced in the field. Based on the students’ own ambitions following completion, it’s clear that they found the experience of working with and in nature rewarding – many had plans to open nurseries, landscaping businesses or florists, while others had accepted jobs as gardeners or planned to cultivate their own properties. Several graduates even went into partnerships together.

A 1951 Department of Agriculture report stated that at least 150 returned servicemen and women completed horticultural training at Burnley. Picture: Burnley Archives

The presence of the ‘rehab’ students benefited Burnley as an institution as well. Not only was the main administrative building, which is still the centre of the campus today, constructed as a component of the Scheme, but Principal Kneen spoke highly of the students in an edition of the post-war publication ‘Change Over’.

“I have observed with the greatest satisfaction the gradual ascendancy of the desire to ‘learn’ over all other considerations, and a growing confidence and stability in each student,” he said.

“These factors, combined with the practical knowledge which they have gained during their course of training, will enable the complete and successful rehabilitation of each and every one of the ex-servicemen and women whom it has been our privilege to assist.”

As written by one ‘rehab’ student in a reflection on his time at the campus, returned servicemen and women found “an air of harmony” at Burnley. Picture: Burnley Archives

This was not the end of specialist Commonwealth-funded programs at Burnley, according to the current Director of Urban Horticulture John Rayner, who has worked at the campus since 1990.

“From the early 1980s to the late 1990s programs were being delivered for long-term unemployed, youth pre-employment and adults retraining,” Mr Rayner says.

Most of these programs were six months in duration and combined practical activities with formal training, including the highly successful ‘Horticultural Training Program’.

In 1993, Burnley was selected as one of the first places in Australia to trial the LEAP scheme (Landcare and Environmental Action Program). LEAP provided project-based education and training, in collaboration with Greening Australia and municipal partners.

“The success of LEAP led to further commonwealth initiatives such as Green Corps Australia and, most recently the Green Army Project,” Mr Rayner says.

“Many participants from these programs gained landscape and horticulture employment or went on to further studies.”

Burnley campus celebrates 125 of continuous horticulture education with the Burnley Festival on Saturday 30 April. Click here for details.

Banner image: Returned servicemen tending a garden at Burnley. Picture: Burnley Archives

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