2022 National Trust Heritage Award

From Bullocks to Bertie Beetle, much like the event itself, the history of Sydney’s Royal Easter Show has something for everyone.

The History of the Royal Easter Show

Ahhh, the memories! Everyone’s favourite childhood adventure of show bags, rides, animals, and more show bags, will turn 200 next year, and to celebrate the Easter season, the heritage-nuts at Curio have done a deep dive into the fascinating history of Sydney’s favourite entertainment extravaganza. 

 

The Easter Show has its origins in 1822 with the creation of the Agricultural Society of New South Wales, led by the young colony’s most esteemed gentlemen with the purpose of increasing livestock and agricultural yields, while sharing useful cultivation practices. By 1823 this had evolved into an annual livestock and produce competition held at Parramatta, with prizes for servant and farmhand performance, animal and produce yield, appearance, and of course, taste. While the original society disbanded due to economic disaster in 1836, by 1859 a new society emerged to represent not just New South Wales, but the whole continent. The new society continued hosting exhibition and competition shows in Parramatta until relocating to Prince Alfred Park in 1869. This new and improved show proved more popular than ever, with close to 40,000 attendees and prizes for produce, livestock, horticulture, alcohol, and farm machinery. Aiming to connect the city and countryside, the show soon became an exhibition of NSW’s enormous cultivation and agricultural potential, advertising Australia as a cornucopia of plenty and abundance.

“A remark was made by someone who was impressed with the display in the Agricultural Hall, to the effect that Australia could ask for no better advertisement. If the building and its contents could be transferred bodily to London the lure of the land would draw immigrants at once.”


- The Northern Champion (29 March 1913, p.4)

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(source: Hood II : [Royal Easter Show, Mar 1940] ON 204 Box 87/94-99, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales)

Although undeniably successful, by the late 1800s the Agricultural Society could no longer afford the excessive rent of Prince Alfred Park. In 1880 a suitable and affordable replacement was found at a 40-acre site at Moore Park, which would soon launch the Show into overdrive. The new space allowed the expansion of entertainment and commercial facilities, including an Arts and Craft pavilion, enormous livestock sheds (home to the ever popular petting zoo and animal nursery),and Sideshow Alley, which included the Ferris wheels, dodgem cars, ‘freak shows’, and daredevil stunts. With the installation of full electric lighting around the turn of the century, entertainment could also run well into the evening.

 

The Easter Show was such a sensation that the Agricultural Society was granted official permission by Queen Victoria in 1901 to use the name ‘Royal Agricultural Society’, officially christening their Show as the ‘Royal Easter Show’. In 1990, after over a hundred years of Shows, the decision was made to move the location and facilities once again to accommodate the ever-growing crowds, now as high as 856 thousands! By 1998, the move was complete, and the fourth and latest iteration of the Royal Easter Show began at Sydney Olympic Park in Homebush Bay.

Aside from 2020 cancellation due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Royal Easter Show has only been cancelled a handful of times, during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1919, and from 1942 through to 1946 during the Second World War, when the exhibitions halls and grounds were converted into hospitals, morgues, and military training grounds. Despite the setbacks, then just as now, the crowds keep coming back, and the show must go on!

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(source: Children's Day, Royal Easter Show, 1935, Home and Away – 33017, The State Library of New South Wales)

 

Origin of the Show Bag

Did you know that the beloved Show Bag, filled with all manner of useful and not so useful goodies, actually originated in Australia?

 

Although the exact date and creator isn’t known, sometime around 1900 companies began to give out free sample bags at the Easter Show as a way to get their already known, not so well known, and upcoming products out for public consumption. These quickly became enormously popular, especially with children, and by 1928 the huge demand for these ‘show bags’ encouraged companies to begin selling them. Soon the familiar branded bags filled with all manner of sweets, biscuits, chips, toys and gadgets became one of the star attractions of the Royal Easter Show. Moore Park’s Royal Hall of Industries opened in 1913 and quickly became known as the ‘Show Bag Pavilion’, filled to the brim with stalls and eager children.

“Many women bought two or three bag of the same type, saying their contents made them ‘an economical proposition’. Children pushed excitedly through the crowd from stand to stand, seeking bags which included balloons, whistles and other cheap novelty toys in their contents. Some children spent up to 15 shillings* on sample bags.”

- Newcastle Morning Herald Miner's Advocate, (26.02.1954, p.2)

* $27.56 in today's currency

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(source: Royal Easter Show, Home and Away – 17088, the State Library of New South Wales)

The Curio team’s favourite Bertie Beetle show bag actually began life in 1963 as one of a power trio of chocolate sweets, alongside the still famous Violet Crumble and the lesser-known Polly Waffle. Part of the Hoadley’s Chocolate Showbag, these three favourites soon went their separate ways as the stars of their own individual bags. Despite being created as a way of using the honeycomb debris from the production of Violet Crumbles, Bertie undisputedly came out on top of the breakup and is still among the most famous and popular Showbags available to this day!

Hoadley's Showbag Stand in the 1960's, Bertie's humble birthplace.jpg

(source: Hoadley's Showbag Stand - Royal Easter Show 1960s, Herald Sun, 9 April 2014)

References

Kate Darian-Smith 2010, “Royal Easter Show” Dictionary of Sydney. Accessed 10 April 2022 from:  https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/royal_easter_show

 

Margaret Simpson 2019, ‘Remembering Sydney’s Royal Easter Show’ Powerhouse Museum. Accessed 9 April 2022 from: https://www.maas.museum/inside-the-collection/2019/04/09/remembering-sydneys-royal-easter-show/

 

 

Nathan Jolly 2018, ‘Looking at the most iconic Royal Easter Show bags of all time’ The Brag, 16 March 2018. Accessed 12 April 2022 from: https://thebrag.com/looking-back-at-the-best-royal-easter-show-bags-of-all-time/

Newcastle Morning Herald 1954, ‘Sample Bags Popular’ Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate , 26 Februrary 1954. Accessed 11 April 2022 from: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/134915780?searchTerm=%E2%80%9CMany%20women%20bought%20two%20or%20three%20bag%20of%20the%20same%20type%2C%20saying%20their%20contents%20made%20them%20%E2%80%98an%20economical%20proposition.%E2%80%9D

 

The Northern Champion 1913, ‘The Royal Show’ The Northern Champion, 29 March 1913. Accessed 11 April 2022 from: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/157179779?searchTerm=Royal%20Show%20ends%20in%20Triumph

The Showbag Shop 2022, About Bertie Beetle. Accessed 10 April 2022 from: https://www.showbagshop.com.au/pages/about-bertie-beetle

 

The Sydney Morning Herald 2013, ‘A History of the Royal Easter Show’ Sydney Morning Herald, 19 March 2013. Accessed 10 April 2022 from: https://www.smh.com.au/national/a-history-of-the-royal-easter-show-20130315-2g5e0.html

Fabian Amuso 2015, “Royal Easter Show Flashback: 1990” Fab Sydney Flashbacks, 23 March 2015. Accessed 13 April 2022 from: http://fabsydneyflashbacks.blogspot.com/2015/03/royal-easter-show-flashback-1990.html