ballarat-begonia The Begonia Festival
60 plus years
begonias
By Alan Bradley Click on each image to see the collection record.

Introduction

The Ballarat Begonia Festival celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2012.  This article explains why the Begonia Festival was organised, and takes a detailed look at the first Festival in 1953.  Changes to the Festival over the years are discussed, along with the role of Ballarat’s trams. The dates for the 2014 Festival are: Saturday 8 March 2014 to Monday 10 March 2014.

Why a Begonia Festival?

The Botanical Gardens were reserved on the western side of Lake Wendouree in 1858, seven years after the first Ballarat gold rush.  The first reference the author has seen to begonias in the Botanical Gardens appeared in the “Ballarat Star” of 3 March 1887.  An article “The lake and gardens” noted how thanks to the skill of the staff a succession of bloom is maintained throughout the year”.  A description of the various flowers grown included “Begonias in fine variety with their beautiful leaves”.1

In December 1887 the horse trams commenced running.  The Gardens became easily accessible both to Ballarat residents and visitors arriving at the Railway Station.  Ballarat became a magnet for tourists at certain times of the year: during the Christmas-New Year period at the Gardens Reserve; in March when the annual Railway Picnics were held; and in October during the South Street Competitions and Band Championships.  These influxes of visitors were good for hotels, shops and other local businesses. 

Ballarat railway station
horse trams

Above - Ballarat Railway Station c1904 - from 'The Picturesque Folio of Ballarat - The Modern Athens', published 1905.

Left - Two horse trams at the Gardens c1900. The advertisement on the modesty panel on the top deck of the nearest tramcar No. 1 has been altered to remove the offending material.

By the 1930s the begonia displays at the Gardens were famous, and were the subject of postcards of Ballarat.  In March 1938 a Floral Festival was held in Ballarat to celebrate the centenary of European settlement in the district.  Shops in the central business district, a tram and the Grenville Street tram shelter were decorated with waxed paper flowers.  The Floral Festival included some of the features seen in future Begonia Festivals: a floral carpet, Festival Queen, floral displays, and a street procession with floats along Sturt Street.  On the day of the procession five thousand people came to Ballarat by special train.

1938 floral tram

 

Hand coloured photograph of tram No. 23 decorated for the 1938 Floral Festival.

 

So successful had the Festival been in attracting and impressing visitors to Ballarat that it was decided at a public meeting to hold a Floral Festival every year.2   Another Floral Festival on a smaller scale (again with a decorated tram) was held in March 1939.  Any plans for future similar events were interrupted by World War 2.

Floral tram 29 Floral 29 - colour pic
Tram No. 29 was decorated for the 1939 Floral festival with paper flowers made by the wives of tramway staff. From a postcard of the 1939 Floral Tram rendered in colour within an outline of a Map of Australia.

During the early post-war years a leading Ballarat citizen Edgar Bartrop returned from an overseas tour where he had seen many fairs and festivals.  His suggestion that such a festival be held in Ballarat was discussed by the Greater Ballarat Association, and later by the City Council.  At a public meeting on 18 September 1952 it was agreed that a “Ballarat Begonia Festival” would be held from 7-15 March the following year, and this would be an annual event.  The central theme would be “Ballarat’s world-famous Begonias”.  The aim was to “bring Ballarat’s great floral attractions before the people of Australia” and “attract many people to the city, especially in the Autumn when it was looking its best”.3  

The First Begonia Festival, 1953

The 1953 Festival Program stated proudly: “The Begonia Festival of 1953 is the first of its type in Australia, and gives you the opportunity to see Ballaarat in a carnival mood, with its garden setting in the glorious Autumn time.  The City will be at its best with the added magnificent display of Begonias at the Botanical Gardens”.
The official opening of the first Begonia Festival on Saturday 8 March 1953 was marked by the symbolic arrival of a Cobb & Co coach, completing a trip from Ballarat to Melbourne and Geelong then return.  Large crowds flocked to North Gardens Reserve for “Music for the People”, directed by Hector Crawford (later a TV producer).  The Lord Mayor of Melbourne congratulated the city on its foresight on organising the Festival.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the City of Melbourne organised its own Moomba Festival for the first time in 1955 – at the same time of year as the Begonia Festival. 

1953 programme cover notice from courier
notice about trams in 1953

Front cover of the 1953 Program - courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.

Click here or on the image above to see more pages from the 1953 Program.

Notices about the festival arrangements, Ballarat Courier 7 March 1953.

Monday 9 March was Labour Day.  The first-ever Begonia Festival Procession was held along Sturt Street, finishing at the City Oval where cycling and athletic events were held.  The trams were busy on that weekend.  The “Ballarat Courier” noted: “Weekend traffic on trams was said to have been the greatest in this form of Ballarat transport”.4  

On 12 March a crowd of about 20,000 attended the school children’s display at the City Oval to see children from local schools dancing and marching in costumes.  The “Ballarat Courier” reported:
“It was reported yesterday that tram traffic for the children’s display at the City Oval on Thursday, combined with the usual daily travel on all routes, constituted a record high for passengers carried by Ballarat tramways on a weekday.  The regular basic service was supplied by all cars normally held at the depot for routine inspection and servicing.  The smooth flow of road traffic was in direct contrast with that experienced at the week-end when services were most disorganised.  Twenty-six trams were in service on Thursday from 11.55 am to 5 pm.  This represented the total number of trams in Ballarat, with the exception of one which remained in the depot”.5  

Ballarat East also had some festival events.  The Floral Carpet, which showed the Ballarat coat of arms, and various exhibitions were held at the Alfred Hall in Grenville Street (demolished in 1956).  A miniature train and sideshows was held in Little Bridge Street.  A “Monster Bonfire” and barbecue were held at Llanberris Reserve, and an evening carnival at the Eureka Stockade Reserve. 

On the evening of Friday 13 March a large crowd attended the “Must-See” of the Festival, the Square Dancing Competition in Grenville Street.  Saturday 14 March featured a Railway Picnic, which had last been held to Ballarat in 1939.  About 3,500 passengers came on three special trains from Melbourne, and one from Dimboola.  A  Highland Day was held at the City Oval, and the evening saw a street march along Sturt Street, the crowning of the Begonia Queen, and the unmasking of “Begonia Bill”.

The second Festival, 1954

The second Festival was marked by the unveiling on 5 March of the floral clock, located in Sturt Street between Armstrong and Doveton Street.  The 1954 Festival Program stated proudly that “the clock will be the largest of its kind in the world” and ”be a constant reminder that Ballaarat is indeed the Garden City”.  [The floral clock was moved to the Gardens in 1977.]

Floral clock1 Floral clock 2
Floral Clock, Sturt St. From a Nucolorvue set of postcards printed 1955. Floral Clock - 23-2-1963 with Town Hall and Myer store in the Background. Tram No. 38 heads west in Sturt St. Photograph Wal Jack.

The second Festival is best remembered for the visit of the Queen and Prince Phillip to Ballarat on Saturday 6 March 1954.  The “Royal Progress” took the Royal couple from the Ballarat Railway Station along Sturt and Sturt Street West to the Gardens (watched by a crowd estimated at 120,000 people), and tram and motor vehicle traffic was barricaded.  The Queen’s reported comment that “we grow begonias like saucers, you, like plates” gave plenty of good publicity.   A shuttle service was operated on all tram routes during that period.  After the departure of the Royal couple the trams were busy carrying passengers to and from the Gardens to the Begonia Festival. 

Royal visit 1 notice
Sturt St was closed for the "Royal Progress". Tram No. 24 is shunting at the Lydiard St North crossover. In the background the buildings are decorated for the occasion. Photo Keith Kings 6-3-1954. Part of Public Notice from the Courier, giving information about alterations to the tram services on the day of the Royal Visit. Click here or on the image to see a full view of the cutting and collection record.

On the Sunday the main attractions were “Music for the People” and the Begonia hothouse.  The “Ballarat Courier” reported: “Trams which ran at frequent intervals to deal with the abnormal number of travellers also found progress difficult.  They had frequently to stop while cars were moved from the line, but drivers remained good-tempered and considerate throughout”.6  

The sixth Festival, 1958

The sixth Festival was marked by the visit of the Queen Mother to Ballarat on Sunday 2 March 1958.  To handle the expected crowds eight trams left the Railway Station after the first train arrived at 11.05 am, and normal tram services commenced at 12.30 pm.  The Royal train arrived at 4 pm, and tram and motor vehicle traffic was barricaded along the route of the “Royal Progress” (watched by a crowd estimated at 120,000 people).  Afterwards people flocked to the Gardens for the Music for the People concert, and special trams ran during the afternoon to handle the crowds to and from the Gardens.7    

Visit of Queen Mother

 

On the day of the visit of the Queen Mother, eight trams are seen lined up at 11AM waiting for the special trains to arrive and take people to the Gardens for the Begonia Festival. Sunday 2 March 1958.

Photo Wal Jack.

On the following Sunday 9 March 1958 large crowds flocked to see “Youth on Parade”, a musical, choral and folk dancing program provided by youth groups and institutions.  From 1 pm a ten minute tram service was operated from the city, and a 20-minute service operated during the evening in place of the usual 30-minute service.8    

festival program Town Hall

1980 Festival Program cover. The use of the two a's in Ballarat was locally correct for the City Council's Official name - though often somewhat contentious.

Click here or on the image above to see the 1978, 1980 and 1981 covers and an advertisement for the Museum of the era.

Sturt St: the Town Hall is decorated for the 1957 Begonia Festival, the centre median strip is awash with flowers as No. 14 travels westbound. Photo Jim Seletto.
No. 21 decorated 1 No. 21 Decorated 2

In 1969, Tram No. 21 was decorated for the Festival - the only time since 1939. Both photos Richard Jones.

 

begonias Begonia house
Until the construction of the new Robert Clark Conservatory in 1995, the Begonias were displayed to the public this building which featured in many photographs of Ballarat. Both photos Richard Jones - 1970.

The 19th Festival, 1971

1971 was the last year in which passengers could travel from the city by SEC-operated trams to the Gardens for the Festival.  The trams had only a few months of operation left, and the Festival program stated: “Take a tram ride around beautiful Lake Wendouree, and know that soon it may not be possible to do so”.

from the programe 1971
Notice in the 1971 Program, advising that this was the last year of trams in Ballarat.

As an eleven year old the author went by tram to the Gardens one late afternoon.  The Floral Carpet and Lakeside Carnival (with merry-go-round and Ferris wheel) were open until 9 pm, and there was also”Illuminated Fairyland Magic”.

1971 invite

The 1971 Victour brochure advertising the festival. Click here or on the photo to see more pages.

1971 was also the first Begonia Festival in which visitors to Ballarat could visit a brand new attraction, Sovereign Hill.  A group of 180 visitors from Melbourne travelled to Ballarat by train, and from there travelled by coach to the Gardens, then to Sovereign Hill, then back to the Railway Station.  In previous years visitors arriving at the Station travelled to the Gardens by tram.9    

1971 program

 

 

 

 

 

The 1971 program cover features a colourful setting and Begonia pavilion within the Botanic Gardens itself.

Click here or on the image to see selected images from this Program.

 

1972-2010

During the 1972 Festival trams were no longer operating in Ballarat.  The newly-established Ballarat Tramway Preservation Society (now the Ballarat Tramway Museum) was still storing its initial fleet of six trams in the old SEC depot.  The depot was opened to the passing traffic during the Festival.  There were a small number of visitors, one of them being an inspector from the Melbourne tramways.  The trams were moved out during June and July 1972, and the depot was demolished soon afterwards. 

Trams returned to the Gardens Reserve during the 1975 Begonia Festival.  The  heavy pedestrian and motor traffic and parked cars slowed progress for trams.  Most nights a passenger service was provided until at least 9 pm.  On Labour Day the procession was held, finishing in the Gardens Reserve (rather than Sturt Street, as in earlier years).  On that day 1,455 people were carried (which was to be a daily record for nearly 30 years).  A total of 5,849 people were carried during the 1975 Festival.

A new Begonia Festival Directress was appointed in 1993, and one of the changes made was an attempt to reduce the heavy motor vehicle traffic in the vicinity of the Botanical Gardens during the Festival.  Cars were to be parked in the North and South Gardens Reserves.  The Museum became a member of the Begonia Festival Association, and its offer to provide a “park and ride” service from the car parks was accepted. 

BTM and the festival floral carpet
For the 1996 Festival, Wendouree Parade in the Festival area was closed to traffic. Photo William F Scott. The 1999 Begonia Festival floral carpet included a section featuring the Museum's trams and some the Botanic Gardens buildings. Photo Anita Bagley.
Tramway ad trams at loop

Left - The 2000 festival guide feature an advertisement for the Museum operations.

Above - Ballarat Courier photograph of the Museum's trams parked in the loop during the Festival Parade of 1996.

The new service was made available for the first time on the two Festival weekends in 1993.  The procession took place again in Wendouree Parade on Labour Day.  During the 1994 Festival 4,860 passengers were carried, and the second Sunday gave the highest daily patronage since 1975.     

In 2004 the Begonia Festival was revamped and shortened to five days.  Through a sponsorship by Alstom the trams provided free transport to and from the car parks.  In the five days 10,548 people were carried, and 3,234 in one day.  This arrangement has continued since then, although the sponsorship is now by the Festival itself.

A five-year drought saw Lake Wendouree completely dry for much of that time.  The grass around the lake and in the Gardens was brown and dry, and trees were stressed.  The 2007 Festival almost did not go ahead, but it was decided to reduce it to the three days of the Labour Day weekend.  In 2009 primary school children were enlisted to create paper flower displays to make up for the lack of flowers.  

The 59th Festival, 2011

The 2011 Begonia Festival was again held over three days from 12 - 14 March 2011 (the Labour Day weekend).  All the activities were held in the vicinity of the Gardens Reserve.  These included a Farmers’ Market, the Apex Art Show, a twilight cinema, plaster funhouse and woodworking shed.

High rainfall in late 2010 and early 2011 saw Lake Wendouree fill completely.  The Festival program emphasised the opportunity to hire a pedal boat, canoe or row boat on a completely full lake.  The Gardens were again at their best, and visitor numbers reflected this.  During the festival the trams carried 7,276 people, the best since 2004.

2010 festival pic 1 2011 Festival pic 2
2010 Festival logo

Top Left - Wendouree Parade during the 2011 festival, featuring four of the Museum's tram in service.

Top Right - Visitors boarding and alighting from the trams at the Gardens Loop during the 2011 Festival

Both photos - Warren Doubleday

 

Left - The cover of the 2010 Festival Program.

Reflection

In comparing the Begonia Festivals of 1953 and 2011, much has changed in 60 years.  Tastes in entertainment have changed greatly since 1953.  The Festival now has competition from Melbourne’s Moomba Festival, and there are numerous leisure options available today.  In 1953 the Festival was held over nine days and two weekends, and the various Festival attractions were spread throughout the city.  Now it is held over three days and one weekend, and all events are held within the Gardens Reserve and Lake foreshore. 

The role of the trams has changed from transporting people from the Railway Station and city to the Gardens, to providing a “park and ride” service.  Over the last few years the lake has dried up and filled again, and this has affected the fortunes of both the Gardens and the Festival.

It is difficult to predict the future of the Begonia Festival, but currently it is still important both for Ballarat and the Tramway Museum. 

Link to the Ballarat Begonia Festival website.

 

Other Begonia Events in other parts of the World

The other Begonia Festival celebrating 60 years in 2012 is The Capitola Begonia Festival in California. Their history states: “Peggy Matthews was a local resident who taught swimming. She staged the Capitola Water Follies every fall, to showcase her swimmers. Peggy couldn't help but notice all the Begonia flowers going to waste on the Brown Bulb Ranch (where the Capitola Mall is today). Of course, she was not aware that the growers had no interest whatsoever in the flowers; they were propagating bulbs. The death of the flowers signified that it was time to dig up the bulbs and send them to market. Begonia's are not a 'cut flower'.

So, in 1951, Peggy was given permission to pick as many flowers as she wanted. That year the Capitola Water Follies featured paddleboards decorated with Begonias, and that is basically how the Begonia Festival got its start. The next year was the first year of actual 'floats', and even though the real "Capitol Begonia Festival' was not official until 1954, we have always used 1952 as the starting date”.

How was someone to know in 1952-1953 that Ballarat would have a competing Begonia Festival in far-off California and celebrating their 60th as well.

Brussels lay a carpet of Begonias in the surroundings of the Grand-Place every second year. The first official floral carpet was in 1971.  The Brussels carpets are much larger than Ballarat’s.  One in Ghent in 1973 was 164m x 42m!

This article first appeared in the February 2012 issue of the Museum's house magazine Fares Please! Additional photographs and images have been added to the website version. Photographs are drawn from the Museum's collection.

Photographs and images from the Museum's collection are individually credited. Items donated by: Alan Bradley, Pat Edwards, Earl Ewers, Richard Gilbert and Paul Nicholson. Click on each image to see the Collection Record.

References

1. Acknowledgement is given to the Ballarat Municipal Library for its assistance in finding this first reference to Begonias in Ballarat.
2. Ballarat Courier 28 June 1938
3. ibid 19 September 1952
4. ibid 10 March 1953
5. ibid 14 March 1953
6. ibid 8 March 1954
7. ibid 27 February 1958
8. ibid 10 March 1958
9. ibid 26 February 1971

Text Alan Bradley, Layout Warren Doubleday

External links correct as of 29-02-2012.

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