Competitive Hedge – How a competition helped Queensland’s railway stations transform from barren to beautiful

By Rob Shiels, Curator

In 1905 Queensland Railways were publicly criticised for the poor appearance of their stations. The Under Secretary for the Queensland Agriculture and Stock Department had gone on a tour of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia and was impressed with the pleasant gardens, trees, and plants he found as he passed by stations on the train. Upon his return to Queensland, he filed a report noting the fine appearance of these interstate stations. He also expressed his disappointment in the state of stations in Queensland.

In response to this criticism, the railways acted by planting more trees. They even hired a gardener to maintain gardens at stations across Brisbane. Then in 1913, the Commissioner for Railways devised a cunning strategy to improve the appearance of his stations – and save money on professional gardeners – a beautifying stations competition. Staff were encouraged to take pride in their stations and to compete against other stations.

The announcement of the station garden competition in 1913. Queensland Railways Weekly Notice, QMN Collection.

Queensland Railways staff took to their gardens with great enthusiasm. Staff gardeners decorated their platforms with floral designs. Union Jacks, crests, the name of the station and even catch phrases were fashioned from plants and flowers. Holmes Station, on the Toowoomba range, won the first competition in 1914 and was a regular winner into the 1930s. Several stations from the Toowoomba region became well known because of their beautiful gardens decades before the city became famous for the Carnival of Flowers.

Holmes Station on the Toowoomba range was awarded first prize in Queensland Railway’s inaugural station garden competition in 1914. The impressive gardens can be seen alongside the platform in this photograph from 1919. Queensland Railway Institute Journal, QMN Collection.
Holmes was awarded second place in 1930 for this ‘Travel by Train’ garden bed. Toowoomba Chronicle 27/10/1930, Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
Creating their station’s name in plants and flowers was a popular choice for railway gardeners. Pialba Station c. 1920. State Library of Queensland.

Money was awarded for first, second and third place winners in each of the three railway divisions (northern, central, and southern). For example, in 1964 first place won £10, second place £5 and third place £3. Extra award categories were added for stations without town water supplies and those affected by drought. Small prizes for the most improved were also awarded.

During the 1920s and 1930s, one station dominated the competition in the southern division – Narangba. Norman Rose, the Station Master, was the undisputed king of railway gardens. Mr. Rose was awarded prizes seven years in a row between 1927 and 1933 for his amazing platform gardens.

The huge gardens on the platform at Narangba station 1933. QR/QMN Collection

The competitions were held from 1914 until the 1990s. As the state’s railway network decreased in size, fewer staff like Station Masters, Station Mistresses and Porters lived at stations in regional areas. As a result, staff gardening became less popular.

Thanks to the legacy of these garden competitions, we still have beautiful railway gardens here in Queensland, most famously Kuranda in North Queensland and Spring Bluff near Toowoomba. Criticised into action over 100 years ago, Queensland still has some of, if not the best, railway station gardens in Australia.

Spring Bluff station on the Toowoomba range was a regular winner of railway garden competitions. In 1984, the station was awarded a prize by The Chronicle newspaper for its outstanding gardens. QR/QMN Collection.
Tropical gardens are a main feature at the historical Kuranda station in North Queensland. Here, passengers wait amongst the plants in 2000. Photographer Bruce Buchanan. QMN Collection.