The Royal Easter Show: A grand tradition

By Bridget Brennan 24 February 2010
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A 1935 photograph inspires nostalgia for the then-century-old Easter Show.

When photographer Sam Hood captured this panorama of the Grand Parade at Moore Park, the Sydney Royal Easter Show was already more than a century old. Now, 75 years on, it’s still Australia’s largest annual event, attracting crowds of up to 1 million people.

The first Sydney agricultural show, “Parramatta Fair”, was held in 1823 at Parramatta Park under the auspices of the fledgling Agricultural Society of NSW. At that time, the colony numbered 30,000 people – nearly half of them convicts. The society had formed with the aim of improving the quality, and increasing the importation, of agricultural stock that, according to settler and author James Atkinson in 1826, “have been bred with little distinction, and are of a mixed and mongrel description”.

The organisation had a troubled early life, and the show was held only 13 times before 1882, when the society accepted an offer from the NSW government to lease Moore Park, in Sydney’s current-day eastern suburbs. Here it was held annually for the next 116 years (except 1919, when an influenza epidemic forced its cancellation, and during World War II, when Moore Park was appropriated by the Army from 1942 to ’46). In 1891, Queen Victoria granted the society permission to use the prefix “Royal”, but the title Royal Easter Show wasn’t used until 1920.

The Grand Parade was first staged in 1907, and immediately became the jewel in the show’s crown. Hundreds of cattle, horses and goats, all draped in championship ribbons, were led around the showground. Crowds of the size not usually seen outside of sporting arenas applauded the owners and their champions, which represented the excellence of the country’s stock and the growing success of Australia’s agricultural industries.

In 1935, the iron grip of the Depression had begun to lift and 14,392 entries for every show category poured in from around the nation. New buildings and stands were erected, and the prize pool totalled £14,000 (equivalent to more than $1 million today). Several attractions were imported to ensure the crowds would flock to the main arena, including a team of Cossacks from Russia, and champion cowboys and buck-jumpers from the USA.

The show’s then secretary, Colonel George Somerville, declared the public interest to be “phenomenal”. A staggering 732,416 people – about 80 per cent of whom hailed from Sydney – came to see the country’s riches, including stud-class entries for thoroughbreds, trotters and Clydesdales, and 90 brawny blokes in the wood-chopping competition.

Today, the Royal Easter Show is held at Sydney Olympic Park, Homebush Bay – its home since 1998 – and injects more than $450 million into the NSW economy. About 15,000 competitors exhibit livestock, produce, arts and craft, and the Grand Parade takes place alongside motocross (a short-distance motorcycle race), live music and stage shows. But much stays the same: the blokes still chop wood, and stock breeders around the country continue to ensure their animals reach peak condition in time for “The Royal”.

More than 550 agricultural shows are held annually across Australia and royal shows in every capital continue to meld country and city.

View the panorama in large size