The Royal Melbourne Show has been cancelled this year, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate its legacy. Who could forget the grand parade,

Colour photo of Grand Parade at the Royal Melbourne Show with view of prize-winning animals being led around the showground by handlers
Grand parade at Royal Melbourne Show, 1985. Photo by Rennie Ellis. This work is in copyright; H2011.150/1133

the laughing clowns,

Colour photo of young girl playing laughing clowns game in Sideshow Alley
A young girl playing the Laughing Clowns game at the Royal Melbourne Show. Photo by Rennie Ellis. This work is in copyright; H2011.150/1186

the woodchopping competitions,

Row of eight wooden poles, men using axes while standing on planks of wood inserted into poles.
Woodchopping competition at the Royal Melbourne Show, 1968. Photo by Rennie Ellis. This work is in copyright; H2011.150/379

or the pony rides?

Young boy wearing a cowboy hat, sitting on a shetland pony being led around by an older boy.
Melb. [i.e. Melbourne] Show [pony ride]. Photo by Rennie Ellis. This work is in copyright; H2011.150/384

Not to mention the showbags!

A group of four teenage boys sit on a bench holding several show bags each
A group of teenage boys with show bags. Photo by Rennie Ellis. This work in is copyright;

The National Agricultural Society of Victoria held its first Show in 1871 on 17 acres of land leased near the military barracks in St Kilda Rd. The Show was held over four days and featured a variety of livestock, horses, farming implements and agricultural machinery.

Detail from advertisement for National Agricultural Society of Victoria’s first annual show in November 27, 1871 (The Argus)

Entry on day one cost the public 2 shilling and 6 pennies, with the entrance price gradually reducing over the ensuing days. The weather was reportedly very favourable, and St Kilda Road was kept well-hosed to stop the drive to the showgrounds from becoming too dusty. (The Argus)

The Show continued to be held at the St Kilda Road showgrounds for the next decade, until it was moved to its present-day location in 1883.

Black and white illustration of crowds milling about in wide open spaces of new showgrounds at Flemington in 1883
The National Agricultural Society’s new showgrounds at Flemington, 10 November 1883; IAN10/11/83/181

In 1890, the National Agricultural Society of Victoria was granted the Royal Assent, and from that day forward the Show assumed a new gravitas, as the Royal Melbourne Show.

The event became so popular that from 1885, the Victorian government granted the public an annual Show Day so they could attend.

Black and white photo of a young woman standing in front of her sideshow, Bust a Balloon. She is holding darts in her left hand, and laughing at the camera
Royal Melbourne Show, 1985. Photo by Ruth Maddison. This work is in copyright; H2000.173/53

Until the end of 1912, the Show was held in August, but from 1913 onwards, it was held in the last week of September.

By the 1920s, the Show had already taken on a carnival atmosphere, as described in this letter to the ‘Children’s Corner’ of the Advocate in 1927: ‘There was a merry-go-round for the children, and a snake charmer who did many wonderful exploits with his music, and Hindoo (sic) magicians and a circus.’

Three figures, whole length, in stylised middle-eastern dress, Len Morgan in centre between two women
Len Morgan (centre) with two women. Morgan was well-known at the Victorian agricultural showgrounds where he appeared under several pseudonyms: Hassan, Jaffra, Jaffra Singh and Morgan. W. G. Alma conjuring collection; Bk.10/No.92

Windmills were also a common feature of the Show, as our letter-writer observes: ‘…the first thing that drew my attention were the windmills, a veritable forest of them, standing a loft in steel stilts, turning their long arms…’

Colour postcard features massed windmills on display at Royal Melbourne Show
Royal Show 1908, Jas. Alston’s Exhibit; H82.96/132

Show bags were a regular drawcard, although until the 1930s they were distributed free-of-charge, and contained product samples, rather than merchandise. [1]

Black and white photo of four children carrying showbags standing at the open door of a horse box, looking at horse
Children at the Royal Melbourne Show. Photo by Hans Bonney; H2011.184/18

The Show’s first grand parade was held in 1910, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that arena entertainment really took off. Over the years, the main arena has played host to an eclectic range of events, including rodeo riding, polo, tree climbing, tent pegging, human cannonball firing, Mexican birdmen and more! [2]

Two horse riders jumping thorugh flaming hoop in showgrounds arena
Royal Melbourne Show, circa 1950-1959. Photo by Percy Spiden. This work is in copyright; H2008.121/34

Sideshow alley has been part of the Show since the 19th century. In the early years, its attractions included boxing troupes and freak shows, but by the 1970s these were deemed inappropriate, and adrenalin-inducing rides such as the Mad Mouse rollercoaster took their place. [3]

Two girls on a spinning ride in Sideshow Alley. Photo by Rennie Ellis. This work is in copyright; H2011.150/378

Until this year, the Show had been cancelled on only two occasions in its history: once in 1915 during World War I, and again, from the years 1940 to 1945. In both instances, the showgrounds were requisitioned for military purposes.

Black and white photo of Australian soldiers marching around racecourse in uniform
Troops from the 2nd. A.I.F. march around racecourse at Royal Melbourne showgrounds, Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs ;  H99.201/437

Sadly, this year will mark the third occasion, but with a bit of a luck the Show will return in 2021, and we can go back to marking it on our September calendars.

Black and white photo of the photographer's daughter, Sarah Maddison, standing beneath a sign advertising the Royal Melbourne Show, September 16-25 [1982]. Sarah wears outsize sunglasses with white frames, a long balloon worn as a scarf round her neck, and she carries many showbags.
Sarah [Maddison at the Royal Melbourne Show], 1982. Photo by Ruth Maddison. This work is in copyright; H2000.173/54

You can keep the Show spirit alive this year by joining the Celebrating the Show online campaign from 19-29 September. Head to the Royal Melbourne Show’s website and social media channels for themed days, profiles of farmers and agricultural experts, live farm-cam, videos, competitions, memorable moments from past shows and more!


[1] Darian-Smith, Kate, 2008, ‘Royal Melbourne Show,’ Encyclopedia of Melbourne

[2] Morgan, R., 1972, 100 years of shows: the story of the Melbourne Show, 1872-1972, Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria, Ascot Vale, Victoria, p. 22

[3] Darian-Smith, Kate, 2008, ‘Royal Melbourne Show,’ Encyclopedia of Melbourne

You may also like

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *