The Royal Melbourne Show – it took off in Southbank!
One of Melbourne’s long-standing cultural, agricultural and industry highlights is the Royal Melbourne Show, held each September at the showgrounds in Flemington. The highly successful event reflects the importance of the agricultural sector in Victoria.
For many years, the people of Melbourne enjoyed a public holiday for Show Day, which was unfortunately discontinued in 1994. The showgrounds have been redeveloped on a number of occasions and at one stage were proposed as the site for the Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956.
But an early site for the Show was in today’s Southbank, facing St Kilda Rd and in the area bounded by Dorcas and Coventry streets. The show was held under the management of the National Agricultural Society of Victoria (now known as Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria), formed in 1870 with the intention of improving agricultural practices to meet the needs of a steadily increasing Australian population.
The newly formed society set up a new show site in Parkville before relocating to the St Kilda Rd site, with the first show in 1871 on land previously set aside by the government for largely agrarian events.
The show made a loss for the first couple of years but there was continuous progress in the development of the agricultural, pastoral and industrial resources of the colony. In 1876, the Society’s annual report recorded that the displays were the best yet shown in the Southern Hemisphere and takings would have been much higher except for the state of the grounds.
Highlights of the show at this site included events such as displays of machinery and simple implements, (from knife sharpeners to steam engines), single and double furrow ploughs, buggies and harnesses, and reaping machines, together with dairy produce and a sheep shearing match, with 40 shearers competing.
But the existence of the show in this location highlighted the tension between ownership (or occupancy) of public land and the need for continued development of private property, which attracted rates.
The prospect of a Crown Grant for the site was bitterly resented by the local council, who had to maintain roads (plus footpaths) around allotments from which no rate revenue was derived.
The council made regular representations to the government where they argued against issuing a Crown Grant for the site, eventually convincing them to notify the trustees of the National Agricultural Society that a Crown Grant would not be issued. However, they undertook to find an equally suitable site for the society in another suburb.
The show moved to Ascot Vale in 1883, where shows are held to this day, and the National Agricultural Society became the Royal Agricultural Society, which is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year.
But, once again, we see that a major Melbourne event took off in Southbank. •