14 February 2014: Waratah Spring Festival

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.

 Waratah Princess lording it over some nymphettes aboard the City of Sydney float, 1965 (City of Sydney Archives, SRC18952)

Waratah Princess lording it over some nymphettes aboard the City of Sydney float, 1965 (City of Sydney Archives, SRC18952)

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.

:  Sutherland Shire Youth Crusade Gymea Baptist Sunday School float, 1965 (City of Sydney Archives, SRC18949)

:
Sutherland Shire Youth Crusade Gymea Baptist Sunday School float, 1965 (City of Sydney Archives, SRC18949)

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.

Marching bands in the Waratah Spring Festival procession, 1950s (City of Sydney Archives, SRC18287)

Marching band in the Waratah Spring Festival procession, 1950s (City of Sydney Archives, SRC18287)

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.

Sydney County Council's float featuring a large plug, 1950s (City of Sydney Archives, SRC18258 )

Sydney County Council’s float featuring a large plug, 1950s (City of Sydney Archives, SRC18258 )

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.

Waratah Princess 1963 (City of Sydney Archives,  SRC17470)

Waratah Princess 1963 (City of Sydney Archives,
SRC17470)

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.

But three years later, it was relaunched as a summer festival, known as the Sydney Festival. The first Festival of Sydney was held in January 1977. It has been held annually since.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “14 February 2014: Waratah Spring Festival

  1. Hi there, this is a lovely story. Did you also know that, in 1967, Skippy was part of the Waratah Festival? The show’s producers put a Waratah National Park float in the parade, complete with stuffed (or drugged) animals. Matt and Sonny Hammond and Tony Bonner manned the float and participated in a mock battle. Goodness knows what spectators thought of it, because the series had not yet aired.

    The State Library of New South Wales has some photos and there is a recount of it on a recently produced DVD of episodes of Skippy. The episode went to air in 1968, as the 17th episode of the first series.

    It’s a testament to the iconic nature of the festival that the producers of Skippy, who were working to make an icon, wove their show into it.

  2. When I was young my family used to travel into the city from Chatswood to watch the Waratah Festival. We loved the floats, but even as a child I was embarrassed by the silence of the crowd as the parade passed by. It just didn’t seem very festival-like to me. Sydneysiders of the 1950s and 1960s were an undemonstrative lot (except for Royal Visits). In my memory the crowd’s only reaction was occasional sporadic clapping for floats that had particular appeal. Interestingly, onlookers’ response to Sydney’s Centenary of Federation Parade in January 2001 was similarly flat. What a contrast to the Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, where everyone, participants and audience alike, seemed to be having fun.

  3. Pingback: 28 March 2014: I did but see her passing by… | Scratching Sydney's Surface

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