Woodbridge Nursery

This article, originally written by Carol Mansfield, has since been updated and enlarged. It descibes in detail the very early days of the orchard industry in Western Australia. Charles Harper was a very progressive man and devoted much time to developing and marketing of varieties suitable for our climate. Being very particular that they produced only the best product. He experimented with irrigation methods and the use of superphosphate. All these results he shared by publishing results in the “Western Mail” which he owned. He co-operated with George Compere, government entomologist, in a search for parasites to combat indigenous pests. Charles was very respected throughout the state because of his morals and enthusiasm, also because he passed on and shared his findings with others. He went into partnership with a very young Thomas Price (Senior) at Woodbridge developing a Nursery supplying fruit trees and vines to growers mainly in the southern parts of the state. These business ethics and morals were passed on to Thomas Price which he used and maintained throughout his many years in the industry and later at Illawarra Orchard, Karragullen. These high standards were ultimately passed on to future generations of the Price Family and are still very much to the fore even today.


The Beginning

It was Captain James Stirling, Western Australia’s founding Governor, who had an entitlement of 40,500 hectares of land in the new Swan River Colony, in 1829, first selected the estate of 400 acres (1620 hectares) on the banks of the Swan River, about 5 miles (13km) upstream from Perth. He named the property Woodbridge. Having led a survey party upriver in 1827, Stirling may well have remembered this well-watered land between the Swan and Helena Rivers.Both Woodbridge and Guildford were named by Stirling after his wife Ellen’s family property, “Woodbridge”, whose garden also stretched down to the river at Guildford in the English county of Surrey.Nearly 150 years later it is still possible to visualise the image expressed in 1822 by a visitor to the colony; “Gentleman’s Park” at the turn of the river commanding a view along two extensive reaches with the land in front of it being all meadow land, very beautifully studded with forest trees.Some of the ancient forest trees remain in the form of flooded gums (Eucalyptus rudis), still “studding” the river flats below the grand Victorian mansion and still a very peaceful picture.

By 1831 Stirling had a “little cottage” on the property (this has since been demolished) which he and his family used as a country retreat. When Stirling left the infant colony in 1839 to return to England, he leased his properties. Even though Stirling died in 1865, it wasn’t until 1883 that the Woodbridge estate was sold. The estate was purchased by Henry Brockman who was a prominent GinGin farmer. Brockman bought the land for 8,500 pounds ($17,000) and then subdivided it. He sold off Woodbridge Farm 273 acres (110 hectares) to Charles Harper, who had been already leasing the property. Included in Brockman’s subdivision was the Picnic Ground which was purchased by the government in 1893 and it later became the site of the Midland Railway Workshops.

A Man Of Talent

Charles Harper, the son of Church of England minister the Reverend Charles Harper and Julie Gretchen (nee Lukin), was born at Nardi, near Toodyay, then called Newcastle, Western Australia, on 15th July 1842. He was educated by his father, a barrister of Gray’s Inn who became a colonial farmer and built “Braybrook” and later was ordained in the Church of England in Adelaide in 1849. According to family legend, his mother gave him at 16 a horse and cart, a gun, a barrel of salt pork and 50 pounds ($100), and sent him to find himself a farm. He traveled south-east and leased land between York and Beverley, where he farmed for several years and developed the “Harper fence”, which was used widely in the Avon Valley and consisted of paired posts about 1,250mm apart with saplings for rails inserted between the posts and tied with wire to prevent the posts from spreading. In 1861 and 1864 he joined the search for pastoral land in the Yilgarn district and made botanical and geological observations. In 1866 he sailed for Roebourne with sheep and, after a year of exploration with S. Viveash, was fluent in the local Aboriginal language. He and Viveash spent a year building the boat “Amateur”, and took up pearling from 1868 to 1870. He then briefly farmed at Beverley, before returning to the North West in 1871. Then with the proceeds of pearling Harper was able to buy a one-third interest with McKenzie Grant and Edgar in the 883,000 acre (357,341 ha) De Grey station in 1871, and was still involved in the pearling industry until 1879. In 1878 Harper sold his share in De Grey and joined Alex McRae in a smaller station, Yanrey, in the best Ashburton country; he held this interest until 1904.


Harper showed an early interest in natural history, supplying botanical specimens to Baron von Mueller, as well as providing hospitality to Ellis Rowan when she was painting Western Australian wildflowers.

On the 23rd March 1879 he married Fanny, daughter of Robert de Burgh of Caversham, thereby becoming brother-in-law to Henry Brockman and James Morrison. Settling at Woodbridge, near Guildford in the same year, on part of the 470 acres (190 ha) selected by Governor Sir James Stirling in 1829. 

Charles Harper built Woodbridge House in 1884-5. It was designed by architect James William Wright (1854 – ) in Victorian Style. The building was of a grand nature and the newspaper, “The Inquirer” printed a paragraph on the house, declaring it, “the handsomest private residence that has as yet been erected in the Colony and the design reflects the greatest credit upon the architects”. Harper lived in the house with his wife, their ten children, Charles Walter, Clara Julia, Harcourt Robert, Gresley Tallock, Prescott Henry, Mary Elizabeth, Mildred Louisa, Wilfred Lukin, Geoffrey Hillesden and Aileen fanny, and several servants. Friends and associates of the family were regularly entertained there and the property was managed as a working farm.

In 1879 Harper became a newspaper proprietor for the first time as part owner of the “Western Australia Times” with John Winthrop Hackett with Sir Thomas Cockburn-Campbell as managing editor. In 1884 these two men became joint owners of the daily newspaper “The West Australian”. A year later they founded the weekly “Western Mail”, intending it to serve the rural community.


At the same time, and even before the Woodbridge house was completed in 1885, extensive orchards were established on the river flats both sides of the river and grazing paddocks on the high ground surrounding the house. They were of major significance in local agricultural research. He was first to irrigate his orchard with artesian water in Western Australia, and designed successful earthworks to conserve for his orchard the rich silt washed down the Swan River. He co-operated with George Compere, government entomologist, in a search for parasites to combat indigenous pests, sent to Japan for root stock, consulted Swan Valley vignerons about improved methods and vines, invented a shearing machine and patented a food product from the core of the blackboy tree and a process for treating septic tank effluent.


In 1895, Harper helped in establishment of Guildford Grammar School when he arranged for Frank Bennett to establish a school for boys and girls at his home, Woodbridge. It was no surprise considering he had ten children of his own. Classes were held in the billiard room and included Harper’s children, Surveyor General Brockman’s children and local children of neighbouring families. In 1900, Harper financed the construction of a small school building on the site of what is now Guildford Grammar School and to which it is still used by Guildford Grammar. In 1910 Harper did some negotiations with the Church of England and it was agreed that the Church would take over the running of the school following the purchase of the school, its furniture and 22 ha of land.

Thomas Price

Son of Mr. Janns Price, of Shropshire, England, Thomas Price was born in Herefordshire on October 3rd, 1865 and received his education in that county. Leaving school he worked in horticulture. At 21 years of age, Price had spent ten years in the horticultural industry, having been employed by Messrs. Langs, Veitches, & Williams, the well known nurserymen of London. In 1891, the penniless young migrant, having traveled steerage, arrived in Western Australia with high hopes.

Settling into life in a very new emerging township of Perth was a real shock. Lesser men might have been cowed by the mere smell of Perth in 1891. Sanitation and hygiene were unknown or ignored. Hay Street was narrow, filthy and crowded with people, shops and hotels. All refuse matter was allowed to drain away into the sandy soil. In summer, Perth literally was stinking. “I can stand the heat, but I object to hell”, one visitor complained.

Finding work was hard. Tom eventually got work as a labourer in Guildford, digging clay for a brick maker. Living conditions were even worse than in Perth. Human excreta was disposed of by burying it in backyards. Women and children usually carried out this chore, sometime in perfunctory manner.

At the boarding house where Tom was staying, the woman made bread on a bench where she filled the lamps, and it always tasted of kerosene. But the porridge was worse. The oatmeal was full of cockroaches. One morning when Tom extracted them from his steaming bowl, they completely encircled his plate. When he complained the landlady asked another boarder, an Irishman, if he had any complaints. He was eating up the cockroaches with relish. “I thought they was currants” he said.

Tom soon quit the boarding house for a gardening job at Woodbridge. He was allowed to pitch his tent in the grounds. Achievement came at its own pace and in keeping with Tom’s motto of doing things well. He couldn’t accept things any other way – a fastidious nature which often annoyed other people who weren’t so fussy.

The local dairy was one of his first targets after the cockroach episode. He protested to the dairyman’s daughter about the dirt in the milk she delivered. She was indignant. “That’s not dirt, that’s cow dung!” Life was challenging in those early pioneering days.


When gold was discovered at Kalgoorlie, Tom gave notice to join the gold rush. Harper talked him out of it by offering him a partnership in the business, to be trading as C. Harper and T. Price at “Woodbridge Nurseries”. It was the start of Tom Price’s great achievement – the beginnings of the vital fruit industry.

As an active parliamentarian holding a number of public positions Harper was held in high esteem in the colony. Price, too, quickly established a reputation for fair and conscientious dealing, traveling several hundred miles on horseback each year in order to visit clients in the developing orchards of the cooler south-west. In 1896, during a visit to the estate, members of the Agricultural Bureau were impressed by;

A large well-appointed orchard….. in full bearing….. From the broad verandahs of Woodbridge, the visitors had a view of the verdant fruit trees, the Swan River and the sparkling cascade of the artesian bore.

A nursery catalogue of this time shows the main emphasis on fruit trees and vines, with an interesting collection of roses. As many as 62 varieties of apples are listed, as well as numerous vines, citrus and stone fruit. This was an era of agricultural experimentation in Western Australia, on which Charles Harper thrived and which gave him the opportunity, through his newspapers, to discuss aspects of the fruit growing industry. When, in 1899 Price left Woodbridge to run the well-known Illawarra orchard in the hills at Karragullen, Harper went into partnership with his eldest son, Walter, as the “Woodbridge Nursery Co. Ltd”.

Below is displayed the pages of a very early edition of a catalogue for Woodbridge Nurseries believed to have been published about 1897, 1898 or 1899. It proves to be very interesting reading. Kindly loaned for publication by Tom Price Jnr. of Illawarra Orchard at Karragullen.



An early advocate of mixed wheat and wool farming, Harper wrote extensively on agricultural and pastoral topics, passing on the results of his experiments and reading through his daily West Australian and the rural weekly Western Mail. He advocated experimental farms, giving a lead on his own properties with William Catton Grasby, whom he brought from South Australia in 1905 to be agricultural editor of the Western Mail. Harper and his son Walter, working with Grasby, achieved many things including the development of wheat varieties suitable for Western Australian climate and conditions. The first local wheat varieties were Gresley and Wilfred, named after two Harper sons killed at Gallipoli on 7th August 1915. These wheats were used in Western Australia and New South Wales for many years. They pioneered the use of artesian water supplies for agricultural needs. They also discovered the soluble-phosphate deficiency of local soils long before superphosphate was generally used in the colony. Thereby improving pasture through planting clover and using superphosphate. Harper supported the co-operative movement and early guaranteed an overdraft of 10,000 pound ($20,000); his son, Walter, was chairman of the Westralian Farmers Co-operative Ltd for thirty years.


In 1906, ever on the alert to spot a business opportunity which would further the agricultural industry, Harper opened what might be described as a satellite orchard nursery on a large, farming property called “Ferndale” at the tiny hamlet of Balingup, in the South-west of the state. His intention, with two partners, was to develop an experimental orchard of mixed fruit trees, with a view to subdividing the land at a later date.

The nursery at Ferndale was established by Albert Haines, a young man who was already employed by Harper at Woodbridge. He was sent down to prepare the land for 20,000 apple and pear stocks from Victoria, which were budded preparatory to being sold as two-year-old trees. Walter Harper closed the Ferndale nursery in 1914, Haines having left the previous year to develop his own property. The “Woodbridge Nursery Co. Ltd” closed in 1915 and Ferndale was subdivided and sold in 1920.


Believing that public life demanded the highest integrity, Harper was persuaded to enter politics only after thorough personal stocktaking, but he soon won respect and distinction. On 28th March 1878, Charles Harper was elected to the Western Australian Legislative Council for the North District seat, in a by-election by occasioned by the resignation of Thomas Burges. He held the seat until the election of 12th March 1880, which he did not contest. York in 1884-90 and Beverley in the new Legislative Assembly in 1890-1905. In parliament he showed the breadth of his knowledge in quiet, clear speeches. A strong supporter of land ownership, he contended that the state, in parting with land, did not part with the power to tax it, but opposed a project for a land tax in 1887 because the colony had so few wealthy landowners. He served on several select committees, was chairman of Royal Commissions on Customs in 1893, the Coolgardie Water Scheme in 1902, Forestry in 1903 and Immigration in 1905, and was chairman of committees in 1897. In many ways an “independent English country gentleman”, he disliked urban concentration, heavy government spending and disciplined party politics. In 1886-88 he and his newspapers took the conservative side in the quarrels surrounding Governor Sir Frederick Broome and in the controversy over Rev. John Gribble’s allegations of maltreatment of the Aboriginals. In 1899-1900 he broke with Sir John Forrest over Federation and lavish public spending. In December 1903 he was nominated Speaker by the Liberal Premier, (Sir) Walter James. After the 1904 election he declined reappointment and went into opposition to James, thus becoming one of the few independents responsible for the accession to power of Western Australia’s first Labor Government, although he believed that the party needed experience in office to temper its radical tendencies. In August 1905 he voted against the Labor ministry and retired before the next general election. However, the findings of his Royal Commission on Immigration provided a framework for expansive rural policies in 1906-14.

Neglect & Redemption

Charles Harper died at Woodbridge on 29th April 1912 survived by his wife, three sons and four daughters of his ten children. His wife and some daughters continued to live at Woodbridge until, in 1921; the house was leased to the former headmaster of Guildford Grammar who turned the house into a boarding school for the Grammar Boys. Although the gardens suffered little change then, and the farm continued to operate, this signalled a long period of decline and neglect. In 1942 the boarding school closed and the government requisitioned the house. For the next 22 years the house was used as a home for aged women. In 1964 it became a school once more to handle the shortage of classrooms in the area. When the new high school, Governor Stirling, was built, the Government considered demolishing the grand old house to make way for an oval. Fortunately this plan was averted by the National Trust who approached the government for transfer of Woodbridge and in 1968 it was vested in the Trust. After very extensive repairs and restoration it was opened to the public in 1970. Since then, gradual restoration, furnishing and display have continued with the building today reflecting an aspect of life in the late Victorian era. Only 1.25 acres (0.54 hectare) of the grounds remain today.

The Garden Today

The main entry, terminating in a carriage circle, has been in continual use since the house was built, and one tall palm tree marking the original entrance also survives. An ancient olive can be found near the jetty, but this has evidently been severely “controlled” recently (2005). The avenue of spotted gums (Eucalyptus maculata) probably dates from the 1960s where it seems to have replaced an earlier line of trees. The replanted gardens are modest, as was always the intention, with the original area of ornamentals, and the artesian bore to the west of the house having been lost to the property by the new boundary fence.

Although suburbia has overtaken most of James Stirling’s “gentleman’s park” the vistas across the river today still provide glimpses of the vineyards which his far-sighted successor, Charles Harper, envisaged over 100 years ago.

National Trust

Extensive restoration work overseen by the National Trust has now been completed. Today the house reflects its role as home of Charles and Fanny Harper, their ten children, the cook, parlourmaid and housemaid, from the kitchen and working areas to the extensive entertaining rooms. Woodbridge is now available for the public viewing by conducted tours. Contact 08 9274 2432 for times etc.

References: Article: Carol Mansfield
Pickering Brook Heritage Group

Images: 1, 12, 15 Trove
2, 3, 10, 11 Carol Mansfield
4, 5, Battye Library
6, 7 Unknown
8, 9, 13 Tom Price Jnr
14, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25 National Trust