History of Gawler Sweet Peas
Updated: Apr 3
It is hard to believe that the history of this amazing variety of sweet pea has not yet been documented. The Gawler variety of sweet pea is named after the town Gawler, South Australia. These sweet peas many would say are the best sweet peas available. They are renown for their stem length. Most have very large frilly flowers with strong scent. Gawlers are early flowering sweet peas, requiring 10 hours of daylight to activate flowering.
The first Australian early flowering sweet pea was released in 1911. It was a sport of a Spencer growing in a private garden in Sydney. It was released as “Australian Yarrawa Spencer” a pink bicolour by Arthur Yates and Co. It was the forbear of the early flowering strain.
Mr Ernest Lewis Fidge
The Gawler story starts with Mr Ernest Lewis Fidge, a local farmer from Pedlers Creek near Aldinga, South Australia who started growing sweet peas in 1913. Local oral history states that Mr Fidge grew the summer flowering Spencers and from these a winter flowering sport occurred. It was from this sport Mr Fidge bred his “Elfin” series. “Elfin” was a play on his name. Regardless of how Mr Fidge’s early flowering variety came about, he is credited with pioneering the early flowering variety along with Mr H C Motte.
Elfin Cream used by Fidge
in a lot of his breeding.
Known Elfin varieties:
Pale Violet Flush
Black Seeded White
Deep Violet Flush
Fidge's Sweet Peas
1922 saw the Elfin variety of sweet peas available to the public. To promote this a newspaper article in “The Daily Herald” announced a display to tempt gardeners.
“A magnificent selection of flowers on stout long stems are now on view in the window of Messrs. Curtice and Hastwell, in Gawler place. Fully 90 per cent, of the stems carry four blooms of good substance, clear coloring, and artistically arranged. The colours include a wide range. Special mention should be made of the pale violet, cream, deep blue, orange red, salmon, lavender, blast white; flake and picotee.”
In an interview dated 1923, Mr Fidge explained his breeding program: “I have been growing spring flowering sweet peas for 10 years commencing with the springs and eventually growing the early-flowering section. I now only grow a few of the spring peas for crossing purposes. With the coming of the early-flowering peas I commenced crossing summer flowering Spencers with the idea of improving the former. In every case I use the early-flowering pea as the seed parent, this principally because were I to reverse the order, using the early flower as the pollen parent, the chances of obtaining seed is too uncertain, for the first north wind that came my way would ruin the plants.
This crossing with the springs may account for the preponderance of varieties carrying stems giving four blooms. This feature was invariably commented upon by all visitors to my garden last year. I find that Elfin - pale violet flush is a prime favourite with the lady visitors. This variety is such a good doer in every way, and anyone will be able to succeed with it.”
In the same interview Mr Fidge states that he used material from Motte, Hatcher plus English and American varieties for his breeding.
Mr Fidge was not only an extraordinary breeder was also hard to beat at the competitions. Following are a list of his achievements:
· Commonwealth Cup Challenge (third year in succession)
· Hamilton C Motte Challenge Cup
1921 (poor weather)
· His entry for “unnamed varieties not in commerce” caused a lot of interest. Special notice was given to his white ground with a purple picotee.
· Champion Sweet Pea (not one of his own breeding)
· Register Trophy second place for a bunch of 30 sweet peas.
· Mr Fidge sweet peas suffered due to being “paddock grown”. It needs to be noted that Mr Fidge did not practice disbudding or pruning.
· Mr W Greaves won the Commonwealth Cup with his 18 varieties of sweet peas. Included in these where Elfin Mauve Pink, Elfin White, Elfin Violet Flush, Elfin Small Pink, Elfin Cream, Elfin Cream Picotee and Elfin Mid Blue.
· Mr W Greaves won the Commonwealth Cup with his 18 varieties of sweet peas. Included in these where Elfin White, Elfin Cream, Elfin Salmon, Elfin Pale Pink, Elfin Purple Maroon and Elfin Lavender.
· Mr J Harkness for the finest “Mall” sweet peas with Elfin Deep Violet Flush.
· Won for nine varieties of Australian raised waved sweet peas.
Publication – “How to be successful with Elfin sweet peas” by E. L. Fidge
Sadly, Mr Fidge passed away in 1925. He was a keen photographer and an active member of the Carnation, Dahlia and Sweet Pea Society. Even though he only bred sweet peas for seven years, he left a lasting legacy with varieties producing longer flower stems, better flowers and new colours. He was generous with his knowledge. He was contracted by the newspaper, “The Mall” in 1924 and 1925 to provide seeds of a new variety sweet pea. Thousands of these seeds were given to readers for free. Elfin Cream Pictoee was the variety selected for 1925.
Mr J Harkness
1926 saw Gawler gain the attention of the country for its sweet peas. Mr J Harkness of Gawler once again was an active participant, wining several categories. Even his wife was a successful entrant. Even though there were many growers of sweet peas in Gawler, Mr J Harkness started to sell seeds commercially.
Adelaide Sweet Pea Show and Gawler Successes - "Bunyip" September 1926
“'It was a complete clean-up for Gawler,' was the enthusiastic summary of a Gawler sweet pea grower in commenting on the Sweet Pea and Daffodil Show in the Adelaide Town Hall on Saturday last. The display is organised annually by the Carnation, Dahlia, and Sweet Pea Society of South Australia, and many valuable trophies are offered, some over a cycle of years. Of late years Gawler growers have taken a share in this sweet pea demonstration, until they have now assumed pride of place, to the chagrin and jealousy of many city growers. In fact, this spirit was fairly patent on Saturday last, city and suburban sweet pea in the principal classes, leaving it a battle among the Gawler growers, with odd competition from Aldinga and Salisbury.”
Mr H Dew won “The Mail” with Elfin Red, which is interesting as his preferred sweet pea were the Zyris variety. He also won the Champion Sweet Pea with his variety “Cameo”. Mr J Harkness won the Commonwealth Cup and The Register.
Mr J Harkness held the position of Manager of the Flower Department of Harris Scarfe Limited in 1928 which allowed the sweet peas of Gawler national exposure.
“The Mail” 1934
“Harris Scarfe Limited, Bundle street, have forward a copy of their 1934 sweet pea catalogue which describes their Invincible strain of early, long-flowering sweet peas. In the general list (the best sweet peas are featured and these include a variety of the sorts most popular with sweet pea exhibitors because of their prize winning records, for which Gawler growers are famous.
A select list of novelties for 1934 is offered which includes Gawler Fascination, a winner of six championships at various shows, and a delightful variety giving waved flowers of light pink on a white ground.”
“Muriel Harkness” adorned the front cover of the Harris Scarfe Limited 1936 catalogue. From “The Mall”, “This fine pink and lavender shaded waved and frilled sweet pea was awarded the grand champion prize at the Adelaide 1935 sweet pea show.”
Harris Scarfe Limited in 1940 graced the cover of their new catalogue with Invincible Gawler Sweet Peas, offering four new varieties.
An article from the “Bunyip” 1947 shows just how popular sweet peas were at Gawler.
Sweet Pea Garden at North Galwer – 3 100 feet of flowers
Few people realise that tucked away behind the North Gawler Station is probably the biggest sweet pea garden in the State. Planted two years ago by Mr E J Hibbard the 27 fragrant rows are an addition to the sweet pea garden at his home. All told Mr Hibbard has 3 100 feet under crop, and fifteen different colours can be seen. There’s Early Mariner (blue), Dew's Triumph (pink), Glenice Percy (cerise), Columbia Improved (pink and cream), Fragrant (lavender), Apollo (pink), Prospect (lavender), Chimes (pale pink), Claude Hill (white), Claire Harkness (shell pink), Redwood (deep red), Price's Seedling (dark pink), and others.
In a 1952 interview with the “Mall”, Mr Harkness explained his breeding.
“His first cross was a some what haphazard one, yet an immediate success, and he then commenced breeding along scientific lines.”
1953 saw the release of a new variety. It was a sport of Mrs J Harkness with the new variety being called, “Unique”. It was a deep cream with the salmon marking from Mrs J Harkness. As reported in the “Bunyip”, “The base of the standard petal is flushed salmon rose from which thin veins of the same colour radiate. Wing petals are pure cream but the cream keel is tipped with salmon rose.” By 1953, Mr Harkness had bred 25 different varieties of sweet peas. He was a very successful competition winner wining the Commonwealth Cup in 1925 and 1926.
Varieties bred by Mr Harkness:
Mrs J Harkness (pre 1953)
Claire Harkness (pre 1947)
Muriel Harkness (pre 1935)
Gladys Harkness (pre 1954)
Mr Harkness had a long and successful association with sweet peas. The first recorded show winnings were in 1919 where he won the President’s Cup and the Register trophy. It was passion also enjoyed by his wife. Who was the first of the pair to win a prize in 1922. Mr Harkness went on to become a judge.
Mr J F Scobie
Mr J F Scobie from New Lambton, NSW bred:
Una Scobie - advertised as a novelty in the Australian Garden Lover in 1947.
Mr Fred Martin
Mr Fred Martin became interested in sweet peas at an early age. By the mid-1930s he was 14 years old and helping his uncle with his sweet peas. Mr Martin has won a Silver Medal at Adelaide Royal Show with one his own varieties plus many more awards.
Varieties bred by Mr Martin:
Christine Martin (Named after his daughter, “Roslyn” was another variety named after a daughter however it did not flower as well in subsequent years but was used for breeding.)
Cerise (Came from the same cross as Christine Martin.)
In the very early 1960s, Mr F Martin started to sell sweet peas commercially. Below is a list of the varieties he was offering. The catalogue was not dated but it would have been printed between the early 1960s and 1968.
“The Mail” 1954 lists Gawler sweet pea seeds available for gardeners to grow.
“… best locally raised Gawler sweet peas which are always taking prizes for quality and colour are:
Claire Harkness – large, light pink blooms overlaid helio rose.
Gawler Fascination Improved - beautiful pink and frequent champion
Gawler White – Excellent clear white
Gawler Shell Pink - as its name indicates, a beautiful light shell pink.
Gawler Lavender – the best lavender for all purposes
Gawler Mauve Pink - soft opalescent mauve pink
Gawler Violet – violet and blue
Glenice Percy – luminous rosy cerise, huge waved and frilled blooms
Gladys Harkness – bright glowing rose
Gawler Plum – plum shade
Gwendoline - red with a touch of cherry salmon, an excellent variety
Joan - ivory white splashed cerise pink
Mrs J. Harkness – deep salmon rose
Muriel Harkness – pink with lavender tonings.
Shot Silk - violet blue with faint red undertone.
Unique - deep cream flushed salmon, rose
Yvonne - soft rose pink with ivory keel; good blooms and splendid stem
Other good varieties easily obtainable are:
Athol Pearl Pink - beautiful pearly pink
Bernice - crimson scarlet
Columbia Improved - salmon rose with cream band around the petals
Dark Seeded Cream – one of the best creams
Dion Blue Boy – perhaps the best blue sweet pea in commerce
June - creamy pink
Mrs. Chadbau - pure white
Our Elizabeth – light salmon rose, long stems and well waved frilled petals
In correspondence between Mr Martin and Dr Keith Hammett during 1968, Mr Martin states that the interest in breeding Gawler sweet peas had been reduced to just himself.
Brothers Malcom and Barry McDougall are the most recent breeders of Gawler Sweet Peas. In 2014 Malcom stated he had bred 56 different varieties. Malcolm passed away in 2018.
Brad’s Cream (Named after his son.)
Karen Lynette (Named after Brad’s wife.)
Annie Wilson (Named after his “half mother-in-law”.)
Sherilyn Gay (Named after niece – daughter of brother Malcom.)
Snowy Rau (Named after a judge in Wyalla.)
Filmer XYZ (Named after judge Rolly Filmer. Entered as an unnamed seedling at the Adelaide Show, when asked its name Barry called it Filmer XYZ.)
Bronwyn Dorothy (Named after his wife who is the daughter of Fred Martin.)
Natalie Joy (Named after a friend of his daughter.)
Tartan Mac - (Late 1970s. Don Mac, Tartan Mac and Thelma Mary all came out of the same cross.)
Don Mac (Named after his father.)
Thelma Mary (Named after his mother.)
Anne Hoole - appears in the Australian Garden Magazine in 1955 so pre-dates then. Unknown breeder.
Piralilla Margaret, Piralilla Marianne, Pirallia Cream, Pirallia Fay and Pirallia Joy - The Piralilla varieties were raised by Richard F (Dick) Bennett. At this stage the only information known about these is that there is a Pirralilla estate at Aldgate, South Australia. It is believed that over time "Piralilla" was dropped from the names.
Gawler Sweet Peas still available that are not mentioned above:
Glenice Percy (pre 1947)
Prospect (pre 1947)
New Dawn (pre 1968)
Gawler Mauve Pink Bicolour
Gawler Mid Blue
Ballerina (pre 1968)
Alberta (pre 1968)
Beverley Kay (pre 1968)
Coronation Gem (Possibly named to celebrate the coronation of Elizabeth II, 1953.)
Fragrance (around 1943)
Thank you to Dr Keith Hammett and Roger Parsons for their contribution. This is a working document and any additional information would be appreciated.