Tag Archives: Daffodils

Melba’s garden, at last

Caption caption.
DAFFODIL DAME Nellie Melba (1861-1931), world tourer and resident at Coombe Cottage, Lilydale, Victoria.

A Writer hunts for daffodils at a diva’s estate.

I’M following my nose to Nellie Melba’s garden, a journey I have waited twenty-five years to take, now that Coombe, the Melba Estate – once known simply as Coombe Cottage – is open to the public.

“Like daffodils, this story is pushing its way to the surface in its own time.”

Much has been made of what stood behind the tantalisingly thick, high cypress hedge that has enwrapped the property ever since it was purchased by Melba in 1909 and transformed from a dairy farm into a spreading garden by Victoria’s great garden designer William Guilfoyle.

The need for a significant boundary has become obvious over time, since it now shields the house and garden from two highways that meet at one corner of the sizeable estate, situated outside the township of Lilydale to Melbourne’s north-east.

VALLEY VIEW The magnificent outlook from Melba's garden.
VALLEY VIEW The magnificent outlook from Melba’s garden.

From the car park, visitors enter Melba’s world through this green barrier, and throughout the twice-daily garden tours, it’s impossible to escape the concept of seclusion created by the woman who was, in her time, the world’s most famous.

For her entire life, Melba was inspired to deep patriotism by the distant blue hills glimpsed from the Coldstream region at the city’s edge, and despite its height the hedge offsets a panorama which much rank amongst the finest rural views from an Australian garden.

Although I have come in search of something I know I will not see that day.

By late summer, most signs of daffodils have withered and dried into something akin to straw, but in late 1911 or early 1912, 20,000 hybridised ‘G.S. Titheradge’ daffodil bulbs were given to Melba for her burgeoning new garden by a NSW daffodil farmer with a love of opera.

At a private estate – Coorah – some 900 kilometres to the north in the Blue Mountains town of Wentworth Falls, Melba gave an impromptu private performance and was offered this unconventional floral gift in return.

“I realise how much has changed in the grounds of Coombe Cottage over its first century.”

As the local legend goes, what caught the soprano’s eye were the thousands of golden Narcissus blooms growing across the hillside to the north of the house belonging to Robert and Marie Pitt, among the guarantors of Melba’s grand opera tour of Sydney and Melbourne that spring and summer.

It’s not just the Coombe Estate wine tasting I’ve just enjoyed that’s left me feeling a little heady – I have been tracing the veracity of that legend ever since I was told it in 1989, and my dream of standing in the place where Pitt’s bulbs may once have bloomed has finally manifested.

In 1993 I told the story to Melba’s grand-daughter Pamela, Lady Vestey, Coombe Cottage’s resident from the 1970s until her death in 2011. Her reply was polite but assertive – as far as she knew, there were no such daffodils in her garden, and she suggested the whole thing was probably nothing more than a myth.

She was right – it sounded far-fetched, but by the time the Royal Horticultural Society library in London yielded a primary source for the despatch of 20,000 bulbs from Wentworth Falls to Lilydale prior to 1914, this burgeoning journalist didn’t feel up to contradicting her.

But it is Lady Vestey I am thinking of as I pass through the garden’s heavy iron gates, with their ornate ‘M’ initial, when I realise how much has changed in the grounds of Coombe Cottage over its first century, and what a challenge ownership of such an iconic property must have been.

Guilfoyle’s major plantings are still intact, but some of the design elements that linked the house and garden – such as the wisteria-covered rooftop pergola – are long gone.

Tour guide Di Logg outlines what has been gleaned in the process of opening the estate, the establishment of a restaurant and a winemaking operation, and explains that there are renovation plans in the pipeline.

“We are hoping one day to reinstate it,” she says of the rooftop garden, from which the views of the valley must have been even better than they are from ground level.

Despite the open manner in which the garden is now being shared with visitors, its secrets seem subsumed by the understandable focus on the preservation of the house and its contents as opposed to the paradise that lay around it.

Of Melba’s bedroom, positioned to take in the expansive mountain view, Di says: “Pamela left it as though her grannie, as she used to call her, had just walked out the door, her Hermès riding boots still in the wardrobe.”

SACRED OAK The spreading tree which has stood on the estate for a reported 180 years.
SACRED OAK The spreading tree which has stood on the estate for a reported 180 years.

But the garden was not left to its own devices. Di relates the story of one of the property’s icons – the 180-year-old oak which predated Melba’s purchase – which Lady Vestey apparently always said must stand even if it ends up knocking over the house.

Other structural garden elements – Victoria’s first swimming pool, iron gateways and ornamental focal points – are all still there and form the backbone of the generous garden tour.

The rest is in the process of being recovered from contemporary paintings (by the likes of Hans Heysen and Arthur Streeton) under the guidance of estate manager Dan Johnson and a combination of family and local memories, including a rose garden and the restored vegetable growing operation which complements the supply of fresh produce to the restaurant.

Hearing Di’s account of the clay soil around Coombe Cottage sets off my ‘daffodil radar’.

Robert Pitt transformed his scrubby hillside of sandy soils with manure and organic matter in the 1890s at Wentworth Falls. He also regularly ‘lifted’ his bulbs – the process of unearthing them after the flowers and leaves had died back and resting them in well-ventilated conditions until replanting in the autumn.

FLORAL FAVOURITE The daffodil has become one of the world's best loved cut flowers (Narcissus pseudonarcissus and Narcissus poeticus, gouache on vellum, in: Gottorfer Codex c.1659).
FLORAL FAVOURITE The daffodil has become one of the world’s best-loved cut flowers (Narcissus pseudonarcissus and Narcissus poeticus, gouache on vellum, in: Gottorfer Codex c.1659).

These farming techniques saw his Narcissus bulbs endure in abundance until long after his death in 1935, until they were eventually moved in the mid 1980s.

I ask gardener and writer Mary Moody about her knowledge of bulbs and clay.

“Bulbs – of all sorts – dislike clay soil because during the dormant period, if there are long rainy periods, the bulbs can easily rot,” she says.

“The reason for lifting bulbs is to thin them out when they self propagate. The bulbs overcrowd and flowering is reduced. This is unlikely to happen in clay soil because the bulbs will be struggling just to hold their own.

“That said, daffs are very tough and if there has been organic matter in the soil they will survive somehow.”

STATELY STATUARY Melba’s garden is punctuated by several iconic focal points.

Coombe Cottage garden tours end with a delicious afternoon or morning tea in the Melba Estate’s well patronised restaurant, and before I leave I promise to send Di a link to the story of Melba’s 20,000-bulb gift. She in turn commits to sending it on to Dan.

By the time I get home, Dan has recalled what a major part the Narcissus played at the funeral of Lady Vestey during peak daffodil season in September, 2011.

“We filled the small church and house here at Coombe with hundreds of bunches of daffodils, Lady Vestey’s favourite flower,” he said.

Like daffodils, this story is pushing its way to the surface in its own time.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved. 

The children of Coorah

BRAVE FACES The children and staff at Coorah c.1942. Yvonne is first on the right in the girls' row.
BRAVE FACES The children and staff at Coorah c.1942. Yvonne is first on the right in the girls’ row.

Two Writers collaborate on a hidden story.

THE years of research I’d undertaken on the historic home Coorah in Wentworth Falls took an interesting turn in 1995 when I was contacted by the current owner of the house, the Blue Mountains Grammar School, about a visitor who’d returned to Coorah after fifty years.

Yvonne Waters lived at Coorah during WWII, after it was gifted to the Bush Church Aid Society by the estate of the home’s original owner, Robert Pitt. In these years, Coorah served as a children’s home, a period of the building’s history only previously recorded in Anglican Church records, which related rather saccharine stories about the ‘happy days’ of the residents.

Because of its personal nature, it took many years of ruminating to bring Yvonne’s story to a wider audience. Inspired by the journey to justice started by the national apologies to the Stolen Generations and the Forgotten Australians, Yvonne’s account of her time at Coorah, as told to me during a searching interview, was published in Blue Mountains Life magazine in 2011, and related a very different story to the church records.

It is published here with Yvonne’s permission, inspired by the honesty of those who are beginning to tell their stories to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Family, Interrupted

Yvonne Waters on her time at a Blue Mountains childrens’ home.

During World War Two many of Sydney’s children were evacuated to the Blue Mountains in the wake of the 1942 Japanese attack, but writer Yvonne Waters and her brothers found themselves in a Wentworth Falls children’s home in the winter of 1942 in the midst of a different kind of war.

“As we set out to walk to school – I was eleven, my brothers eight and five – suddenly our Dad, whom we hadn’t seen since he’d left home five months previously, darted from behind a corner,” Yvonne recalls.

“Herded into the back of Dad’s car, we were driven to our paternal Nana’s house. Later that afternoon Mum arrived. She had been to work, and on finding us not at home with our Great Aunt she had guessed what had happened. After numerous court cases, the court had cowardly decreed that if Dad could manage to take us from our mother, he could keep us. I will never forget my last glimpse of our Mother crying, after being told she would never see us again.”

Yvonne’s parents had separated at a time when public interest in divorce resulted in a family’s trauma being played-out in the tabloid media, and since both had settled with new partners, neither was granted custody of the children.

After being moved between the Central Coast and Western Sydney, Yvonne says – “Dad informed us he had found vacancies in a children’s home. With tremendous relief he pointed out how lucky we were, as all the other homes were full.”

Recalling their arrival soon after, she says – “The pines in rows like soldiers guarded the red gravel driveway which curved suddenly, revealing a Victorian two storey building. Dad pulled over to the entrance, and motioned for us to get out”.

CHILDRENS' HOME Coorah, an historic home in Wentworth Falls, once a private home, a childrens' home, and now part of Blue Mountains Grammar School.
CHILDRENS’ HOME Coorah, an historic home in Wentworth Falls, once a private house, now part of Blue Mountains Grammar School.

“He urged us up the nine stone steps to the verandah of the forbidding, silent building. Rattling the brass knocker on the huge oak door, he then turned to avoid seeing our stricken faces.

“Heavy footsteps on the other side signaled time was running out. A key turned in the lock. The door swung open to reveal a large, severe, grey-haired woman, dressed completely in black. She smiled, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes.

“‘Kiss your father goodbye!’The woman we later knew as Matron ordered. The door was shut swiftly behind us and we were locked away from those we loved.”

The young trio had arrived at Coorah, an imposing home by the highway at Wentworth Falls. Once home to the Pitt family, the property was held by the Union Trustee Company after the death of Robert Pitt in 1935, with a stipulation that it be charitably gifted for the benefit of children.

The house was eventually given to the Bush Church Aid Society, an Anglican organisation which ran a number of children’s hostels, with a remit to provide accommodation for children living away from home for their education.

Just how three children in custody limbo (whose mother had no idea of their whereabouts) ended up at Coorah remains a mystery. Whatever the case, the shutting of the door changed Yvonne and her sibling’s lives forever.

Separated from her brothers on arrival, and forbidden to speak to them, even at meal times, Yvonne remembers – “We girls were allotted the job of kitchen chores and washing up after twenty-four children. The dining room floor would have to be scrubbed on hands and knees, and no girl would ever finish that mighty chore without reddened and bruised knees”.

“Twenty four lunches had to be made before breakfast and Matron would stand behind me when it was my turn. Woe betide you if you tried giving anyone any extra.

“I think the teachers at the local school were aware of the conditions we lived in, as the headmaster asked me privately if we had enough food to eat – he’d witnessed one of our boys eating scraps from the school rubbish bin.”

Power struggles amongst resident children routinely resulted in abuse. “One frightening incident will never be erased from my mind,” Yvonne recalls. “An older boy in the home attempted to molest me. When I appealed to Matron for help, her answer shocked and hurt me.”

“‘You are a child of sin. You come from divorced parents. I would never believe your wicked lies!’ Today, I can still smell that boy’s dirty hands pressed against my mouth to stifle my screams. Only for the protection of a sympathetic older boy, I shudder to think what would have happened to me.

“I remember one boy was whipped with the buckle end of the strap, accused of laughing when saying grace. We were all still kneeling and I was opposite one of my brothers. Matron stood behind him and her temper seemed to be out of control. My look must have deterred her, so she moved onto the next victim.

“The feeling was high that evening. We all inspected the boy’s welted back. We were hurt and so angry.

“One girl and I retaliated to the cruelty by going on ‘strike’ and not doing the washing up. I’m amazed that we had the courage, for we were very afraid of the woman who controlled our lives. Arm in arm we ambled through the long grass to the edge of the paddock near the train line. We talked about the unfairness of everything and how we couldn’t wait to grow up and tell everyone about the treatment. Before we knew it, dusk was upon us! When we arrived at the back door Matron had locked us out.

“Matron baffled and hurt us when she accused us of being with the boys. Her face was contorted with fury, and she was not at all interested in the truth.”

Yvonne believes the issue of boys and girls being housed together led to her eventual release from Coorah after eighteen months, when sent to an all-girl home in the Southern Highlands. Despite trying to write to them at Coorah, she lost touch with her brothers.

“I finally met them again before I was sixteen,” Yvonne recalls. “We smiled shyly at one another, but had nothing to say. It was a meeting between strangers.”

Fifty years after leaving Coorah, Yvonne was on a day trip to the Blue Mountains with her writing teacher, who encouraged her to pay a visit. The property had been owned by the Blue Mountains Grammar School since the 1950s.

“Not wanting to repeat the horrors recalled at that front door, I found a side door. A pleasant lady called Sandra answered my tentative knock. I suddenly couldn’t wait to look through my old dormitory window. The stairs were carpeted now and at the top we entered a room with computers and some workers.

“Everyone moved aside as I walked to where my bed had been. Standing in front of that window, I was eleven years old again, waiting for the sight of an occasional train and praying for my Mother to find me. Those brightly lit carriages appeared to carry toy figures to their homes, and conjured up mine being a little closer to me.

“My thoughts raced back to a freezing day when a girl called up the stairs, ‘Yvonne, your Mother is here.’ I’d thought how cruel she was to joke.

FAMILY REUNION Yvonne, her mother, and one of her brothers the day their mother found them at Coorah.
FAMILY REUNION Yvonne, her mother, and one of her brothers after their mother found them at Coorah.

“The ground was heavily carpeted with snow. There, at the side of the building, was my Mother. She smiled and held out her arms to me. I tried to reach her, but my feet sank in the mush and I collapsed. My frozen body was lifted, and she held me close inside her warm coat.

“Nearly blinded by tears, I turned to face the people in my room of memories. They were gathered silently in a corner, some wiping their eyes. I felt as though I had been released from a lifelong jail sentence.”

At a distance of seventeen years since she first revisited Coorah, Yvonne is philosophical about what happened to her family. Writing about the journey has helped lay some ghosts to rest, and also the recent acknowledgement of similar separations wrought on the Stolen Generations and Forgotten Australians. “I can really feel their hurt,” she explains.

“My story is not to seek anyone’s sympathy,” she adds, “only to tell the truth of what actually happened under the cloak of religion. Today we live in a more enlightened age. Thanks to the Family Law Act, no blame is attached to either party in a divorce case”.

“I believe I had to go through so much to learn, and I have been able to help people when they’ve been unable to talk about bad things that have happened in their lives.

“Returning to the ‘scene of the crime’ helped to release my pain,” Yvonne adds.

Yvonne’s recollection of her time at Coorah has links to other elements of the property’s story, particularly the acres of daffodils around the house, planted by the original owner Robert Matcham Pitt (1849-1935).

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Nellie Melba and the daffodil farmer

DAFFODIL DAZE One of the world’s favourite cut flowers, the daffodil.

A Writer unravels a local myth.

MY first glimpse of the Blue Mountains high school I attended was a hillside covered by a layer of golden daffodil blooms. I was in sixth class and a group of us was to play one of the high school teams in basketball, but we were late and had to run to the top of the hill to start the match.

The daffodils were so plentiful (over knee-deep in my memory) that running through them took some effort and created a kind of insane delight as we ascended, laughing and stumbling in their ridiculous golden abundance.

Many years later I took on the task of researching the history of the old house on the hillside, and learned about the man who was behind the daffodil plantation – Robert Matcham Pitt (1849-1935).

Throughout that process the most intriguing element of the home’s story was, for me, his daffodils. Primary sources and archives are all very well, but surviving blooms carefully raised by the long dead … now that was history brought to life.

Soon after moving to London I consulted the International Daffodil Registrar, at that time the wonderfully generous Sally Kington, at London’s Royal Horticultural Society. What Sally found shed a whole new light on the man who was amongst the first to bring the humble Narcissus to Australia.

I had the opportunity to publish a feature article on this horticultural history in the August-September 2010 edition Blue Mountains Life Magazine (Vintage Press). Typically, there’s always parts of a story which must be left out for publication, so I’ve included those at the end for posterity.

HOME GROWN OPERA Helen Porter Mitchell (aka Dame Nellie Melba 1861-1931) worked to bring grand opera to Australian shores.

A Diva’s Daffodils

Nellie Melba’s inspirational encounter with a Mountain Daffodil Farmer

For almost a century there was a tale told that Nellie Melba sang an impromptu recital in a private home in Wentworth Falls and received a rather unorthodox daffodil tribute in return. Now Ann Blainey’s award-winning biography I am Melba reveals the only time the soprano can be placed in the Blue Mountains during daffodil season, and why.

Melba’s journey to the Mountains began in 1909 when she purchased a property near the town of Lilydale outside Melbourne, with two plans in the pipeline – to renovate and landscape herself a sanctuary, and to bring grand opera to her home country.

Before sailing for performances across the northern hemisphere in 1910, Melba met with Australian theatre impresario J.C. Williamson. The soprano guaranteed fifty per cent of the opera project’s budget, leaving the producer to work his connections in the business sector.

The ‘Melba-Williamson Opera Company’ announced Sydney and Melbourne seasons for spring 1911.

On her return trip to Sydney from Europe that year, Melba went to inspect work on her as yet un-named new home, but rehearsals in Sydney beckoned when a boatload of international singers arrived in late August. The venture was launched before an eager public on September 2.

Overseeing fully staged versions of twelve operas, fifty-year-old Melba was also performing three times a week. “Although in some ways she was in her element, the pressure began to tell,” writes Ann Blainey. “By the end of September she was ill, with an aching ear and a sore throat … bronchitis set in, and she was ordered to rest in the mountain resort of Medlow Bath”.

Without Melba, audience numbers dropped, and rumours of her drinking resurfaced. Her letters from these critical weeks reveal a desire to conceal the extent of her vocal problems from the public. Between Williamson and he publicity agent Claude McKay, Melba’s escape to the Mountains was heavily stage-managed.

OPERA FANS Robert and Marie (‘Eugenie’) Pitt at Coorah.

Enter Robert and Eugenie Pitt, resident at their Mountain estate ‘Coorah’ in Wentworth Falls. A successful stock and station agent and one of J.C. Williamson’s guarantors, Robert and the immensely musical Eugenie may have been recruited to aid in the singer’s recovery. As a result of Melba’s secret convalescence in the Blue Mountains during daffodil season, a legend emerged.

It told that Melba arrived at Coorah by car and delighted in Pitt’s fields of daffodils. After dinner, she entertained her hosts by singing, after which Pitt offered Melba a gift. She expressed a desire for some of his daffodil bulbs for her fledgling garden. They were lifted and packed that very night, since the soprano was due to return to Sydney the next morning.

The facts about Coorah are well-known – the property was established in 1889 complete with water pumped from a local creek, a dairy, stables, and a nine-hole golf course. English style gardens and the bulb farm surrounded the late Victorian country house atop a hill overlooking distant blue ranges.

But horticulturists will tell you no serious daffodil hybridiser would lift flowering bulbs unless they were to be transplanted immediately. Legends, of course, are not infallible, and this one needed some unravelling.

Coorah’s centenary in 1989 unearthed how the property became a hostel for children and then the Blue Mountains Grammar School. Pitt’s daffodils were still returning every spring to the north-facing fields of the property, and stories about Melba’s visit persisted.

School parents related meeting Doris Pitt (youngest daughter of Robert and Eugenie) who revisited Coorah in the 1960s and recalled the night Melba sang in Coorah’s large central room.

A ‘below stairs’ oral history of the same event came from Arnold Gorringe. His mother Mary was Coorah’s housekeeper until 1919, and she had to move husband Arnold (head gardener) and two small boys into a cottage on the estate to make room for Melba’s stay.

Barbara Lamble recalled her grandfather Robert Pitt’s long association with opera funding – “Within the family at least he was known to have expressed a dislike for Melba and her money-raising methods,” she said.

BULBS FOREVER Blue Mountains Grammar School student Philip Parkinson in the surviving field of Pitt’s daffodil farm at Coorah in 1961.

Pitt’s daffodils held their own secrets. In 1993 Sally Kington (International Daffodil Registrar at the time for London’s Royal Horticultural Society) analysed photographs of the daffodils still flowering at Coorah. Since they could be seen to be derived from already existing varieties, Sally suggested they were Pitt’s hybrids. His daffodil creations included ‘Clive Pitt’, ‘Doris Pitt’ (two of his children) and those he registered with the RHS – ‘H.H.B. Bradley’ (noted horticulturist) and ‘G.S. Titheradge’ (actor and flower enthusiast).

DAFFODIL FARMER and pastoralist Robert Matcham Pitt (1849-1935). Photo courtesy of Libby White.

In the RHS library, the Daffodil Yearbook of 1914 yielded an essay by Titheradge in which the following appears – “Mr. Pitt is devoted to music, and when the great singer, Mme Melba was here, he, or some members of his family, went to the opera nearly every night. It was during the spring months, and Mr. Pitt used to send the ‘diva’ great quantities of daffodil blooms. One day he wrote and asked if he might be permitted to immortalise one of his seedlings by naming it after her”.

Actor George Sutton Titheradge (1848-1916).
MAN OF FLOWERS Actor George Sutton Titheradge (1848-1916).

“She said she would be delighted, so he sent her some of his finest productions to choose from. Mme Melba happened to select the one called after me, so Mr. Pitt had to tell her it had already been appropriated by an artist in another branch of her profession, but when the time came for lifting the bulbs he made her happy by sending her about 20,000 for her place in Lilydale, Victoria.”

Blainey writes that when Melba returned to Sydney from the Mountains, “she was cheered as she entered the stage”. The Melba-Williamson opera company moved on to Melbourne, where Melba had her sanctuary to nurture any lingering health problems. Audiences were not as keen on the event as Sydney had been. Despite a spectacular opening night, by November attendance dwindled.

Meanwhile, Pitt waited for his daffodils to die back, drawing nutrients into the bulbs. In December they were lifted and rested in sheds. Twenty-thousand bulbs dispatched to Melba sounds like a large amount, but in 1897 Pitt had advertised a stock of half a million bulbs.

In Autumn 1912, Melba busied herself with completing the transformation of the home she’d now called ‘Coombe Cottage’. The name remembered a property she’d rented while performing at Covent Garden, but it’s possible it also had echoes of her time at the similar ‘Coorah’.

There can be little doubt that Melba would have been inspired by Pitt’s achievements – they embodied the end result of the major changes she’d commission for her own estate.

She once said: “If you wish to understand me at all, you must understand first and foremost that I am an Australian. I shall always come back to the blue mountains in the heart of the vast deserted continent that gave me birth.”

Estates with distant blue horizons, not too far from the city life, were obviously close to this woman’s heart.

We are left to assume Pitt’s bulbs were planted at Coombe Cottage sometime during her first proper season there.

But well before they would have flowered the next spring, Melba was in Europe again. Blainey suggests the disappointing Melbourne reception of her grand opera season was the reason – “The company disbanded on a dismal note. Melba’s inclination was to leave almost at once …”

However, the diva’s association with daffodils was far from over. During the same northern autumn Melba arrived in Britain, Irish Plantsman William Hartland released a catalogue of bulbs advertising a new variety, listed as “new for 1912” and named ‘Madame Melba’.

Pitt had sourced much of his bulb stock from Hartland since the 1880s – was it he who suggested to Hartland that since she’d missed too many seasons at Covent Garden it was time for a ‘Melba’ daffodil?

Robert Pitt gardened until the 1930s at Coorah, but his daffodils outlasted almost everything else he planted. Bulbs which he gifted to his staff and others still appear every spring. Titheradge called him “one of the pioneers of the cult,” and the daffodil heritage of the greater Blue Mountains owes much to his mass plantings and hybridising at Coorah.

FEELING FOR FLOWERS “If I had only the money that has been spent in flowers for me and nothing else, I should still be a rich woman” Melba once said.

An anecdote from the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1970 links Pitt and Melba late in both lives – “For one of her farewell concerts he sent her thousands of daffodils from his daffodil farm. A flood of golden blooms flowed onto the stage … Melba announced she would personally sell the flowers in Martin Place the next day, in aid of Sydney hospital.”

Whether the daffodil farmer’s twenty thousand ‘G.S. Titheradge’ bulbs ever graced the diva’s garden remains a mystery.

The Story goes on …

In 2014 Melba’s garden at Coombe Cottage was opened to the public for the first time. I visited in February, 2015.

Since the publication of this article more has come to light about divas, daffodils and Coorah. My sister Jen happened-upon some fascinating photographs of another opera singer from the Melba-Williamson company (Austrian contralto Marie Voluntas-Ranzenberg) who visited Coorah on Sunday, October 15, 1911, was given lunch and garlands of flowers and had her photograph taken with the Pitt family. This at least proves the Pitt Family was in residence at the time of the legend about Melba’s visit. 

The day I arrived at the RHS library in 1993, Sally Kington showed me a card catalogue entry which simply said “R.M. Pitt?”. Sally said she found it fascinating to find a story associating Narcissus with opera, an industry abundantly supplied with flowers, but rarely daffodils, apparently.

In 1993 I corresponded with the resident of Coombe Cottage in Lilydale – the late Lady Pamela Vestey (grand-daughter of Melba) – she had no knowledge of twenty thousand daffodil bulbs on the property.

The design of Melba’s garden at Coombe Cottage was one of the last estates created by William Guilfoyle (1840-1912), the man responsible for several iconic gardens in the state of Victoria, including Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Garden.

PLUCK COVER copyCoombe, the Melba Estate, as it is now known, experienced many design changes over the years, including plans that were never realised by garden designer Edna Walling in the 1920s.The property remains a private home (under the ownership of the next generation) amidst a winemaking operation, with Melba’s garden open for tours

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded