August William Pelzery

August William Pelzer

Adelaide's very first and foremost City Gardener who left a lasting impression on South Australia's history and culture


August William Pelzer
Courtesy ACCA

Landscape gardener August William Pelzer, born in 1862 in Bremen, Germany, was the son of John Henry Christian Pelzer. He learned his trade as a horticulturalist and landscape gardener while an apprentice in I. C. Schmidt's nursery at Erfurt, Saxony, Germany. Further education and experience was gained at the Royal Horticultural College, Geisenheim Nassau. Pelzer also served as a council landscape gardener in Borsig's Garden, Berlin, and Baur's Park, Hamburg.

Before coming to Australia he had also worked in England where he was employed in the nursery of F. Sanders & Co. at St Albans, Hertfordshire. Here he gained first-hand experience of London's gardens and parks and at the same time worked hard to improve his English.

He arrived in South Australia in October 1886, on the Hohenstaufen on which another Pelzer family travelled as well. Like so many other German migrants he was destined to make a significant contribution to South Australia's history and culture. With his impeccable horticultural qualifications he joined the extended Pelzer family who had arrived in the 1840s and 1850s. In Adelaide Pelzer quickly established himself and worked for a number of private clients. While living at Morialta, one of his first major jobs was on the gardens of R.C. Baker of Morialta. From the very beginning his work earned him high praise.

In 1891 he was listed as a gardener living at Burnside. He soon built a good working relationship with the nursery of Charles Newman (Neumann) & Sons of 17 Rundle Street Adelaide, who had secured his services in February 1894. Through Newman, who had a model nursery at Houghton, he designed and planted large suburban gardens for several prominent Adelaide families, including those of the Hon. J. V. O'Loghlin, MLC of Hawthorn, S.A. Jury of Glenelg and W. Harrison and Joseph Vardon both of Unley Park.

In 1894 he was living at Upper Kensington. On 8 March 1899 when Pelzer was 37, he married, with Presbyterian forms, 33 years old Lucie Bothe, daughter of Henry William Bothe. The marriage took place at the bride's residence, Bremen Villa, Walkerville, and was performed by the Rev. W.R. Buttrose. They were to have three children, William, born on 13 January 1900 at East Adelaide, Malcolm William on 7 March 1903 at St Peters and Margaretha Lucie on 27 May 1905 at Stepney.

When the Adelaide City Council advertised the new job of City Gardener, August Pelzer was among the many applicants. In his two-page application of 27 July 1899 he wrote, ‘I beg to state that I have a thorough knowledge of horticulture and especially of Landscape Gardening, having followed my profession for over 20 years’. Among his experiences overseas and in South Australia he stated that he had sole charge of Mrs Baker’s garden for more than two years and was awarded three prizes at the Art and Industry exhibition of Adelaide in 1895.

After having listed all his credentials he concluded with, ‘Hoping my application will have your favourable consideration, I am Yours truly….’ It did, and after being granted an interview he was appointed first ever City Gardener on the advice of W.R. Boothby and Dr M.W. Holtze, director of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens. After his appointment on 14 August 1899 he stated that he had 'a good twenty years' work . . . to bring the 2000 acres of Parks under control up to the standard of sightliness which the most favoured spots possess at the present'.


North Terrace early 1870s

Pelzer did not waste any time. After barely three months in the job he reported that the trees in the flowerbeds in Victoria Square had been replaced by palms, which had been taken from Palmer Place and King William Road. He had also made a start in Hurtle Square with the removal of the most unsuitable trees. In the West Park Lands he had planted 33 trees and established depots for manure and soil. Best of all a nursery had been established for the propagation of trees and other plants to be used for the gardens and parks. With the help of 19 men more than 1700 trees had been planted. He certainly had made a good start.

The Mayor’s report of November 1899 was very pleasing for Pelzer. It stated that by the appointment of a practical landscape gardener the squares and plantations throughout the city would receive most careful attention and become ornaments to our fair city. A marked improvement is noticeable already in Victoria Square. In September 1900 he was congratulated on the success which had attended his work during the short period since his appointment.

Within the first year of his appointment he removed many ‘unsuitable’ trees in parks and along roadways, replacing them with ones ‘more suited to the South Australian climate’. He established another nursery, next to the Adelaide Zoo, to supply plants for his work, and by the following year there were 750 specimens in this collection, as well as a total of 250 new trees planted in several locations in the parklands. At the West Park nursery thousands of seedlings were thriving in pots and in the open.

The Mayor was still impressed with the City Gardener for in his next report he stated ‘In the City Gardener, Mr. Pelzer, I am convinced that the Council possesses a very capable officer, who takes an abiding interest in his work.’ For the next few years Pelzer created many fine avenues of trees and numerous parks and gardens, both in formal and informal European and local styles, using native and exotic species. These included Creswell, Brougham, Kingston, Osmond, Prince Henry and Pennington Gardens, Rundle and Elder parks, Victoria and the other city Squares, and the establishment of the city's nursery to test-trial and acclimatize potential street-tree species

Praise came regularly for the City Gardener, including many ‘letters to the editor’ in local newspapers and regular expressions of gratitude and admiration from the City Mayor. Councillor W.D. Ponder though was sorry Pelzer had not had the advantage of visiting other states and suggested that the Council ‘would be spending money wisely if they sent him on a visit to Ballarat and Melbourne to report on tree planting in those cities.

However, not all of Pelzer’s projects were accepted by the public, at first. When it became known that the Council planned expanding the existing golf links, some city residents expressed their displeasure. ‘SJL’ asked ‘wasn’t it odd’ that while the Park Lands Preservation League had protested over a few acres being taken for bowling greens or tennis, it had remained silent when up to 100 acres was taken over as a golf links involving constant use?’

Another example of public outcry concerning a project was the North Terrace renovation, the ‘beautification project’. Pelzer brushed off all criticisms, as they always turned out to be successful with much praise and benefits to the community.


North Terrace 1882

Although very busy and only a small staff, another 200 trees were planted in 1901 as well as 770 in the nursery. As a cheap and effective way of controlling the grass, sheep continued to graze in the Park Lands. This time however Pelzer had pointed out in his annual report that the systematic laying out and improvement of the Park Lands and river banks could not be done until he had at least six men on his staff.

With a second child on the way August Pelzer decided to become an Australian Citizen (British Subject). This was achieved on 31 January 1903 when he was naturalized, just in time for the birth of his second son. Although an Australian now, he did not share the same love of gum trees, certainly not in parks or gardens as Hans Heysen who was naturalised on 2 October 1899. He did not think much of fountains in those places either.

During the remainder of 1903 four depots were established for soil and manure while some 2000 trees and 800 palms were growing in the nurseries. Of the North Adelaide reserves it was said that they presented a sight hardly to be surpassed by the Botanic Gardens. Pelzer continued to be mentioned in glowing terms. In the 1904 Mayor’s Report, he was referred to as the City Gardener, Mr. A. W Pelzer, an enthusiastic and able official. Pelzer’s vision for Adelaide was to obtain ‘effect and beauty in Avenues’, one species only of any tree should be planted, but not gum trees.

By 1908 trees, shrubs and roses had been planted in many city streets and Adelaide never looked better. It was generally admitted that there was no more picturesque city in Australia than Adelaide and Pelzer was ‘simply an artist in his enthusiasm and ability’ A year later he visited Melbourne to inspect the gardens and parks. In his opinion and regardless of Adelaide’s dry climate, it had nothing to be ashamed of and nothing noteworthy to learn from them.

It was not just Adelaide which benefitted from Pelzer’s ideas. In 1911 he advised the Kapunda Council on trees for their planting in the streets as well as at Dutton Park. When asked to make a list of trees and shrubs which could be planted at Waterfall Gully he came up with a total of 380 and suggested the establishment of a small nursery in the valley.

Two years later he was instructed to prepare a publication on street tree planting as a guide to suburban councils which ‘do not possess the advantages of having an officer whose advice is that of an expert in horticulture with long experience and special knowledge of local requirements’.

During the First World War a start had been made with a garden on the corner of Goodwood Road and South Terrace. After the war Pelzer advised on the design of the Soldiers' Memorial Gardens in Victor Harbor. For Burnside he advised the Rose Park Improvement Association to plant American Ash trees with enough space for a memorial to commemorate those from the area who served in the war. His plan for the Unley Soldiers’ Garden of Honour delighted all who had seen it. In between, as work and time permitted, he served as a judge for gardening competitions, including those of the Melbourne Herald and the Adelaide Royal Show.

As an executive member of the Advisory Board for the upgrading of the Bay Road (Anzac Highway) Pelzer voted in 1924 for its upgrading with the planting of 400 Norfolk Island pines which was made possible through the generosity of Sir Sidney Kidman and Malcolm Reid. When the government bought Kingston Park at Marion Pelzer’s services were enlisted for the laying out and planting of the park.

In 1927 Pelzer went to Ballarat where on 17 March he spoke to some 80 delegates on tree-planting in Adelaide. In his address he outlined the practices and successes in Adelaide, how they should be tended to, and what difficulties he had encountered but overcome in the process, claiming that Oriental Planes and English Ash, which he had introduced in Adelaide about 12 years previously, had proved the most reliable trees in Adelaide.

He concluded his address with some statistics. One of them being that after 28 years in the position 44 streets had been planted with trees and the total number of street and avenue trees planted in the City of Adelaide was about 6,000. The Melbourne Herald later described him as 'one of the leading authorities on arboriculture, floriculture and landscape gardening in Australia'.


North Terrace 1932

During 1929 Pelzer once more went to Melbourne, this time accompanied by his wife to judge the Melbourne Garden Competition. While there he wrote an article for the Herald in which he claimed that a garden was a work of art and St Kilda Road … a feast to the eye. Back in Adelaide he came in for some criticism in relation to the Council’s plan for the upgrading of North Terrace, which involved the removal of some trees.

Later that year he was involved with a beautification scheme with the Henley and Grange Council and the planting of trees and shrubs on Arbor Day. In September one of the last playgrounds for children was completed. Named the Princess Elizabeth Playground, Pelzer was among the invited guests for the opening and once again was praised for his efforts to establish playgrounds.

One of the last great projects was the remodeling of Victoria Square. As it was a very large and costly undertaking it took some years before it finally got underway. But on 14 March 1930 the City Council adopted Pelzer’s plan for Victoria Square including lawn and garden plots at a cost of £2,300. However with the depression taking hold he had to downsize the plan before a start was finally made. Decades old palm trees were removed from the square to make room for the tram lines. They were replanted in Pennington, Cresswell and Osmond Gardens without the loss of a single palm.

At the age of 70 and after 32 highly successful years, Pelzer resigned in 1932. His resignation was accepted with deep regret and 12 months leave of absence on full pay was granted in recognition of long and valuable service. He was also accorded the best wishes of the Council and fellow officers and the appreciation of the citizens for the capital work he had performed on their behalf.

According to the Lord Mayor, Pelzer was one of Australia’s leading landscape gardeners under whose supervision the work of laying out Adelaide’s many gardens was extraordinarily well done. In his Minute of November 1932 the Lord Mayor reported that Pelzer’s successor would be paid a salary of between £300 and £350 per annum. There were 26 applicants for the job and ten were interviewed. The successful candidate was A.G. Anderson who was appointed on 20 June, but resigned after five months on 31 October.


North Terrace 2011

After his retirement Pelzer continued to serve as an official adviser to the Council. During an interview on 2 April 1932 Pelzer reminisced that he had found few gardens when he first took control. Some of the city’s squares were overgrown with gum and pine trees which he thought were unsuitable for city squares. He had them cleared which had caused an outcry and much criticism. But, he said, I have become hardened to that and kept a scrapbook of all the criticisms just to see how things would turn out.

August William Pelzer, FRHS died suddenly two years later of a heart attack at Vanda, his Rose Terrace home, Wayville, on 27 August 1934 aged 72. He was buried at North Road Cemetery Adelaide, leaving an estate sworn for probate at £3767. He left his wife, son Malcolm and daughter Greta to mourn their loss.

His obituary in the Advertiser stated that many of Adelaide's municipal gardens were laid out under his supervision, and would remain a lasting tribute to his skill and artistic sense. In another article it was said that Adelaide had lost a genius who many years ago was able to picture the magnificent gardens that are now nearing perfection.

Pelzer's achievements for the city were numerous. They included the design and creation of Victoria Square, landscaping around War Memorial Drive and nominating the location for the Municipal Golf Course. Other notable accomplishments included the introduction of children’s’ playgrounds between 1918 and the late 1920s, the viewing area and gardens at the Colonel William Light Memorial located on Montefiore Hill, the North Terrace renovation, the Women’s War Memorial Gardens, the planting of 200 Norfolk Island Pines at Glenelg, landscaping for the Ross Smith Memorial, Wattle Grove Memorial and the many squares and gardens within the city

As late as October 2001 the Secretary of The German Descendants Group of the South Australian German Association, Ian Harmstorf, proposed that a plaque should be dedicated to Pelzer for which they were willing to pay. They were successful and the plaque is now displayed on the lawn next to the War Memorial on North Terrace.

With special thanks to Jordan Klaassen-Jones.
She did most of the research during her work experience with Flinders Ranges Research.

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