Sydney is today touted as a ‘festival hub’ and as one of the best festival cities in the world. Not a week seems to go by without a cultural festival taking place. But 60 years ago, Sydney (and indeed the rest of Australia) was a very different place; it was much more culturally conservative.
The visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Australian shores in 1954 marked a change in Australian cultural life. Her visits to the capital cities around the nation, in particular Sydney and Melbourne, attracted record crowds who gathered in the city centres to watch the royal spectacle. In the aftermath of her visit, civic forefathers in both cities saw an opportunity to attract people into the city centres with an annual festival.
Melbourne was first off the rank, with the Moomba Festival first held in March 1955. Not to be outdone, Sydney held its first annual festival, known as the Waratah Spring Festival, in October 1956. It was to be a spring festival, with the native Waratah flower chosen because it was both a symbol of NSW but also a plant indigenous to Sydney.
The festival was initiated by the Sydney Committee led by the NSW Premier and the Mayor of Sydney Municipal Council; it was organised by the Council.
An estimated 250,000 spectators lined up to watch the first Waratah Spring Festival procession in 1956 - there were 140 decorated floats, 26 bands and 5,000 ‘marchers’. It was a spring festival – so it was held in October – and because the theme was ‘spring’, over two million flowers (both natural and artificial) were used to decorate the floats. Every year, there was a Waratah Pageant and a ‘Waratah Princess’ was crowned. The first Waratah Princess was Colleen Pike from Newtown.
In 1964, there were 45 decorated floats and up to 5,000 people took part in the procession, which extended almost two miles.
Eighteen Waratah Spring Festivals were held between 1956 and 1973. In addition to the public spectacle of the street parades, the festival grew to encompass other events including an art competition, a decorative floral competition in the lower town hall and cultural events including ballet and theatre.
By the early 1970s, the Waratah Festival was attracting ever fewer visitors to the centre of Sydney, and was gaining the reputation of being ‘tatty’.
The final Waratah Spring Festival was held in 1973, to coincide with the opening of the Sydney Opera House. In a report prepared in 1974, the Sydney Committee noted that the major sponsors had withdrawn their support and that the Festival had outlived its usefulness as a major attraction. The event was abandoned.