Born in 1819 in Southern Nottinghamshire, William Bramley married Annie Maria Glover in 1863 after the death of his first wife Eliza. The newlyweds then moved to New Zealand where they lived in Dunedin for seven years, with William working as a labourer, gardener, and later running his own farm. By this point he was a keen horticulturalist, having been awarded prizes for his produce and livestock in various shows and exhibitions.
Bramley invested his life savings in his farm at Green Island. When the venture failed, his stock was sold to pay creditors. He was declared bankrupt in 1870, and the couple decided to head north for Wellington to start over. An 1870 letter from William Carr Young urges Doctor Hector of the New Zealand Institute to find employment for his old servant Bramley, for the sake of “auld lang syne”. In response, Doctor Hector appointed Bramley as head gardener and keeper of the Wellington Botanic Gardens.
The Bramleys and their four children took up residence in a cottage within the garden. As well as accommodation, William was afforded the sum of £80 per annum and the right to keep a cow tethered within the reserve. The salary increased to £100 per annum two years later in 1872, and the right to keep a tethered cow remains a privilege of the head gardener, technically, to this day.
Bramley’s appointment coincided with a period of rapid growth for the Botanic Gardens and for Wellington itself. The population of the city tripled between 1870-1891, and when Bramley began his work, the Garden was largely unformed apart from some nursery beds near the entrance and a few tracks running through the area. During his first two years Bramley and his assistant planted over 2,500 trees and shrubs, including Linden Limes, Pines and Camellias. He was also involved in maintenance such as stream clearing, fencing, seating, developing new paths and even policing the Gardens.
It was a part of William Bramley’s job to address “impropriety in the conduct of visitors”. In practice, this usually meant asking people to remove their dogs from the park or arresting couples that he thought might be getting a little too amorous. Bramley was assaulted on multiple occasions by disgruntled patrons during his execution of these duties, and in 1880, at 61 years of age, he finally advised the Governors of the New Zealand Institute and Botanic Garden Boards that he would no longer be able to fulfil this aspect of the role. A police constable was appointed to the job instead.
William worked at the Botanic Gardens until he was 70 years old, well past the usual age of retirement. The Board accepted William’s resignation with regret, being quoted in the Evening Post as saying “The Board has always found a faithful servant in Mr Bramley, and while his health permitted, he was indefatigable in his attention to the gardens.”
William Bramley died 21 July 1908, and his wife Annie died a few years later in 1913. There are a number of lasting memorials to William and Annie Bramley in the gardens, including many of the trees planted during his time as keeper, and “Annie’s Seat”, a bench marking the spot where Annie Bramley used to sit and watch her husband at work in the nursery. Though it is not always marked on maps of the Botanic Gardens, it can be found overlooking the playground and nursery, near Magpie Lawn.
Image supplied by Phil Tomlinson of the Friends of the Botanic Gardens