Twelve decades of talent

Royal South Street Society historical look. RSSS. "Team Archive" are going through the historical records and digitising them. Volunteers Judy Mander-Jones and Dave Evans with some of the records downstairs at Her Majestys Theatre.

Royal South Street Society historical look. RSSS. "Team Archive" are going through the historical records and digitising them. Volunteers Judy Mander-Jones and Dave Evans with some of the records downstairs at Her Majestys Theatre.

BALLARAT’S biggest tourist attraction might be getting on in age, but it’s not staying in the dark ages.

‘Team Archive’ for the Royal South Street Eisteddfod is tirelessly digitising and documenting the gems from the archives.

Historical committee chairman and deputy chairman of the board John Clark, a self-declared history buff, said he wasn’t aware of the society’s historical resources until five of six years ago.

“The documents date back nearly 125 years, to the first events at the first South Street in 1891,” Mr Clark said.

The competition began as a Men’s Debating Society in 1879, expanding and starting South Street 12 years later.

A historical committee, led by David Callinan, was formed to take care of the archives.

He said David began the process of digitising everything they had in hard copy.

Then, about 12 to 18 months ago, a team of 10 was formed to go through the chairmen’s books and digitise the records.

“They’re almost finished,” Mr Clark said.

“If you go on to the South Street website now, you can see the placegetter results going back to about 1908.

“They’ve nearly finished entering the placegetters from the chairmen’s books, but soon they will go back and enter the names of all the participants.”

He said the type in the books were ageing, with articles beginning to look less clear and fuzzy around the edges.

“It may be another 50 years away, but sooner or later they won’t be readable.

“When you put them in digital form, they are there forever.”

Mr Clark said the eisteddfod continued throughout WWI and WWII, but it wasn’t possible to travel to the competition, so it was restricted to competitors from the region.

“It was called the Patriotic Eisteddfod then as all funds raised were given to the troops.”

The archives are stored in one of the lower sections of Her Majesty’s Theatre.

“If there was a fire at Her Majesty’s and water was used to put it out, the water would run into the lower floors and damage the paper records.” 

Judy Mander-Jones and Dave Evans are two of the volunteers in Team Archive, going into the South Street offices twice a week to digitise old records.

Ms Mander-Jones is currently working her way through 1911.

“The further you go back in time the harder it is to put together,” she said.

“Back then there was only one guide book for the competition. Now we have six.

“The old chairmen’s books are beautiful. They are written quite sparsely, with copperplate writing in ink.”

Once they finish recording the placegetters from each category, they will go back through and add all the information they can and check their previous entries.

They have come across categories that are no longer at South Street, including gumleaf blowing, type writing competitions, essay writing, cooking and harmonica bands.

Ms Mander-Jones documented the war years, going to the library and going through digital records of newspapers.

“We didn’t have chairmen’s books from the war year, 42, 43 or 44,” she said.

“It was interesting putting it altogether and was devastating to see some of the headlines from that time.”

They have a desk set up with a camera looking down and lights positioned on to the desk to take photos of the pages.

“Some of the books are so big you can’t photocopy or scan the pages, so we take photos.”

Mr Evans said he got involved because of his interest in history.

“I love going through the newspaper clippings and seeing old movie advertising, and seeing the old phone numbers that only had three dial numbers,” he said.

Ms Mander-Jones had done similar work, digitising old documents, for ancestory.com before she volunteered with South Street.

“I like the challenge, the research and working with computers.”

Mr Clark said the history of South Street was part of the history of Ballarat.

“Since its 1891 inception, it has been an integral part of Ballarat,” Mr Clark said.

“It runs for three months of the year, from July until October, and brings about $14 million into the Ballarat economy. 

Even as a history buff, it surprised Mr Clark that at the event’s inception the organisers must have realised the importance of the competition getting underway.

“They preserved their guide books, chairmen’s books with results and books with newspaper cuttings from every year,” he said.

“We have written records dating back to that first year.”

He said when he first saw the archives he was taken back by the amount of material, but also its condition.

“It did amaze me that there was so much material that wasn’t being properly looked after.

“One of the objectives is to preserve it for as long as possible, so we now regulate the temperature, light and moisture of the room to ensure their preservation.”

Mr Clark’s wife has been a volunteer at South Street for 16 years, and he volunteers each year too.

“It’s such a spectacular event for Ballarat.

“40,000 sets of feet cross the stage each year.

“It brings children up to a certain level in their performance, and gives them a sense of competition in an age in which it can tend to be pushed to the side.”

One event Mr Clark found interesting was the brass band competition, which ran during the last few days of competition from 1900.

“They used to play and compete in the hall, before marching up Sturt Street to City Oval and gather there and give a mass performance,” Mr Clark said.

“It used to fill the oval.  About  50,000 people would go and watch.”

South Street business manager Brett Macdonald said South Street had an estimated 16,500 volunteer hours every year.

He said the eisteddfod was Australia’s biggest and relied on volunteers to make it happen.

“We’re always looking for volunteers to fill a range of roles. No experience is needed, we can train you.”

The Royal South Street Eisteddfod for 2014, the 123rd year of competition, will begin on July 28 with debating.

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