Ernie Mason Family

Mum and the Kids

Published in “The Australian Garden History” Volume 2 No5. March/April 1991

An early twentieth century cottage garden in Western Austalia

When I express interest in garden history it is not uncommon to meet raised eyebrows accompanied by the suggestion that this must be well-nigh impossible in Western Australia. This assumption is made in the knowledge we do not have the heritage of grand gardens which is associated with some of the wealthy estates of New South Wales or Victoria. But if we lower our sights in the search for garden history what we find may not be any less interesting although it will certainly need to be studied within a different frame of reference. “Mum and the kids” is just one example of the social and horticultural history which such a study reveals.

“Mum” died long since, and of the “kids” only Gwen survives; a very active and independent lady in her mid-seventies. It was the remains of their once productive orchard and garden in the fertile Carmel valley which first attracted my attention

After meeting Gwen Herbert I learned that the property, which was first leased in 1906, had been largely abandoned in the 1940’s, owing to difficulties in dividing up the estate after the death of her parents, Jane and Ernest Mason. The ensuing years have been seen the coming and going of tenants and squatters until the timber cottage was demolished in the 1960’s. Since 1979, when the property changed hands, both orchard and garden have been home to a handful of sheep, geese and a donkey. But, in spite of these visisstudes and the ravages of time and climate, the framework of what I should like to call a cottage in vernacular tradition is still readily discernible.

Anne Scott-James advises against the too romantic interpretation of her definition of the English cottage garden with its ‘livestock, vegetables and herbs and perhaps a few flowers for ornament and scent’, stressing that it was ‘planned for use rather than beauty’. I suggest that this small rural property provides a Western Australian interpretation of the functional cottage garden. It also provides a useful counterpoint to recent discussions concerning a much more elevated Edwardian tradition of garden design.


The locality of Carmel still comprises a small community of not more than 600 people, situated at a height of some 300 metres in the Darling Range, and about 30 km south east of Perth. It enjoys a Mediterranean climate of cool wet winters (including light frosts) and hot, dry summers. Small as it is, Carmel claims a special place in history through the pioneering efforts of Benjamin Mason who, in 1864, opened up the district to timber cutting.

It was the timber industry which brought Ernest and Jane Mason, with their three small children, to lease and later purchase 6 acres of uncleared forest on the path of an old bullock track at Green’s Landing (later Carmel) in 1906. Ernie was familiar with the bush through being a teamster for the timber cutters, and his grandfather was old Ben Mason’s brother.

At the time of acquiring the block at Green’s Landing the Masons would have been one of only a handful of families in the neighbourhood. None of the so-called essential services was available; no water, power or sewerage. There was, however, a link with other localities through the Upper Darling Range Railway which carried timber down to the foothills and operated a rather erratic passenger service. Another advantage was the presence of a small school only about a mile distant, serving the much wider district.

While telling me about her busy childhood Gwen made it clear that their property played a central role in the life of her family. Part of Mum’s interest can be attributed to the fact that the land was registered in her name, as a result of advise from her mother-in-law, or so she told Gwen. As this block was acquired from a neighbouring orchardist it was not subject to the same conditions as crown land. However, a few years later ‘Dad’ took out a crown lease on 5 acres of virgin bush just over the road (then only a narrow track). One of the aims of the 1896 Agricultural Lands Purchase Act was ‘to encourage the cultivation of the land near Railways’, and it required that at least one tenth of a parcel of land be cultivated within five years, before a crown grant could be issued. This, Gwen recalls, was a very important factor in their lives as it necessitated everyone working together in order to gain the precious title deeds. ‘Dad” spent all week in the bush, leaving home at 5.00 a.m. on Monday morning and not returning until Saturday afternoon. His wage only provided the bare essentials so the aim of purchasing the land was to enable the family to be as self sufficient as possible. Thus it was that the care of the livestock, orchard and garden fell to ‘Mum and the kids’; this being the phrase to which Gwen constantly returned when referring to their source of labour.


The property faced west and sloped down to an area of good loam, well-watered by a semi-permanent creek. Before their four-roomed weatherboard cottage was built on high ground, a temporary timber and hessian dwelling was erected, so that once ‘Dad’ (and the horse) had dug a well and made a start on the clearing and ploughing ‘Mum and the kids’ were able to cultivate and start planting. In the meantime there was the livestock. there were two cows so that one was always in milk, the horse, two dozen chickens and some ducks, supplemented from time to time with a few piglets. All the children were allocated chores both before and after school, anything from fetching and carrying water to feeding the hens or milking the cow. The cows, which wore bells, had to be located in the bush and brought home, usually the responsibility of the eldest child on horseback.

In spite of the unstinting effort to bring their land into production, Gwen Herbert’s childhood memories are invariably happy ones. The younger children could turn most chores into fun, such as taking turns to ride on an improvised board while harrowing. Later it became very important and a matter of family loyalty for the older ones to come home at Christmas, both for family celebrations and to take the opportunity to help ‘Mum’ with the heavy work.

The orchard must have been a source of great pride as its progress still looms large in Gwen’s memory. She clearly recalls, for instance, collecting rocks when she was only five or six years old, for use in drainage channels between the orange trees. Trenches were dug out and lined with rocks before being covered with timber at a sufficient depth to allow for harrowing. Her brother Laurie, then about fourteen, made the younger children kangaroo skin mittens to protect their hands. As time went on a mixed orchard stretched in both directions from the house, some of which remains and still bears fruit.

The kitchen walls supported a passion vine, with a timber grape vine trellis nearby. This was of strong construction over which ‘Mum’ grew Muscatels, ‘Black St Peters’ and ‘Red Prince’, and under which the older boys would sometimes sleep when home on leave from the Services. The fruit suffered little damage from birds as there always seemed to be a child only too willing to disturb them. Similarly fruit fly was far less prevalent so that with proper management a good crop from trees and vines was usually assured.

Vegetables were usually grown in the valley near the oranges, where the ground retained its moisture most of the year round. It seems there was little that ‘Mum and the kids’ could not grow. Gwen reeled off a list which started with strawberries and ended with potatoes. These last were carefully planted in regular rows, which the family called ‘lands’, stretching the full width of the block between rows of orange trees. ‘Mum’ could often be seen working among the trees in bare feet (‘shoes were a nuisance and too expensive anyway’) and occasionally resorting to tethering baby to a fruit tree as she would insist on gathering up the newly set seed potatoes! Manure was provided by the animals and supplemented from time to time by blood and bone from the stock merchant.

In true cottage garden tradition most of the vegetables were grown from seed which was saved from one year to the next and then perhaps shared with neighbours. Young plants and seedlings too were exchanged, surplus for surplus, and the more recently arrived Italian migrants were generous sources of supply. In the same way excess produce and dairy products were shared or bartered, especially if times were hard.

Contrary to what one might have expected ‘Mum’ did little preserving. Citrus peel was dried and sent to Laurie while he was away at sea, herbs were dried for the Red Cross in the first world war but apart from jam and pickle, there was no need to preserve fruit as there was always something in season.

The Mason’s orchard and garden must have been developed gradually, season by season according to the family’s needs and resources (by 1925 there were 9 children) and the flower garden could be expected to have had a low priority. But just as the rows of fruit trees and vegetables exhibited a sense of order so the simple plantings of ornamentals were marked by low rock edged walls. There were roses, annuals and bulbs lining the driveway, shrubs near the house, and creepers scrambled over the kitchen and outhouses. Many plants had happy associations having been grown from ‘slips’ from friends or neighbours, like the tree dahlia or the much prized daphne. The pussy-willow which still thrives was especially precious as ‘Mum’ was sent cuttings from a friend in Melbourne in the 1930’s (no quarantine laws then?). But most treasured were the twin jacaranda planted by Jane Mason and her youngest son just before he left for active service. Any sort of lawn was out of the question for lack of water and indeed Gwen insists that no part of the flower garden was ever watered (though I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that ‘Mum’ had slipped the jacarandas an odd bucket now and then).

Thus this small rural property in Carmel, with its well tended cottage garden, grew and matured with the family. Perhaps it is appropriate to mention here that Gwen too, was anxious to dispel any romantic notions about the garden, asserting that its proper management was no more or less than a practical necessity. Yet I would argue that the evidence suggests more. Not only did it enable the Masons to survive periods of economic uncertainty or even hardship, such as the 1930’s depression, but it provided a focus for their hopes and aspirations. The children grew up and moved away but ‘the old place’ was always home and a symbol of family unity. So its remains; a testimony to ‘Mum and the kids’.

Carol Mansfield

Plants known to have been grown by the Masons at Carmel between 1906 and 1940 (those marked with an asterisk are still present at the time of this article).

Fruit: almonds*, apricots*, peaches, plums* (including Black Diamond), pears (including Bartlett), apples (including Yates, Dunn’s seedling and Granny Smith), quinces, persimmons*, loquats, figs (red and green), oranges, lemons (including a variegated variety)*, strawberries, passion-fruit and grapes*.

Vegetables: onions, potatoes, carrots, swedes, turnips, pumpkins, beans, cabbages, peas, tomatoes, sage, thyme; also maize, barley and lucerne as stock feed.

Trees, shrubs and creepers: Buddleia davidii*, Cotoneaster franchetti*, Daphne odora, Lavender dentata, Plumbago capensis, Salix cuprea*’ Solanum rantonnetii*, Syringa vulgaris*, Lonicera sp*, Bignonia radicans*, Asparagus plumosa*.

Roses: Cecile Brunner*, La France, Dr Thompson, Safrano*, a ‘pink cabbage’, Dorothy Perkins*, a ‘red rambler’, Felicite et Perpetue*.

Bulbs and perennials: Amaryllis belladonna (Easter lily )*, Narcissus papyraceus (paper-white jonquil)*. N. tazetta aureus (Soeil d’Or)*, N. tazetta hybrids* including a double form, Leucojum aestivum (Snowflake)*, white breaded iris*, chrysanthemums, coreopsis, cosmos, Dahlia imperialis (tree dahlia), geraniums, mignonette, Oxalis sp.*, periwinkle*, wallflowers, white watsonia* and later (misguidedly) pink and salmon watsonia*.

My grateful thanks to Gwen Herbert and Jo and Pete Randell, without whose generosity this study could not have been undertaken.

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Reference:             Article:                  Carol Mansfield

                                Images:                Carol Mansfield