When a city celebrates, The Courier was there

Mention the words Begonia Festival, and floral carpet, street parade and Begonia Queen spring instantly to mind.

But where did the idea for a festival based around a flower come from?

In March,1938 a Floral Festival was held in Ballarat to celebrate 100 years of European settlement, which, even then, included a carpet made of flowers, a festival queen and a street procession.

On the day of the parade 5000 people came to Ballarat by special train but, unfortunately, World War II disrupted plans to hold the event on a regular basis.

In 1953, inspired by the famous Edinburgh Festival, then mayor William Ernest Roff and Greater Ballarat Association president Edgar Bartrop came up with the idea of a large annual festival based around the flower which blooms particularly well in our temperate climate..

The first festival was held on March 12, 1953, with 100,000 begonias decorating the city’s main street planter boxes, and an extremely popular parade around the City Oval.

The Courier said at the time: “It was reported yesterday that tram traffic for the children’s display at the City Oval on Thursday, combined with the usual daily travel on all routes, constituted a record high for passengers carried by Ballarat tramways on a week day.”

The second Begonia Festival was honoured by a regal visit from Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip.

From The Courier: “The “Royal Progress” took the Royal couple from the Ballarat Railway Station along Sturt and Sturt Street West to the Gardens (watched by a crowd estimated at 120,000 people), and tram and motor vehicle traffic was barricaded.  The Queen’s reported comment that “we grow begonias like saucers, you, like plates” gave plenty of good publicity.”   

One of the festival features was the annual Begonia Queen crowning, with local girls in their late teens and early 20s vying every year for the coveted title.

The Courier always gave great prominence to the crowning of the queen. In 1957, the paper reported, rather formally, that: “Miss Carol Penrose, 20, was chosen Ballarat's fourth Queen of Begonias tonight. Miss Janet Saunders was second, and Miss Hilary Richards third. The three girls live in Ballarat.”

Years after the title was dropped, 1982 Begonia Queen Trudy Phillips, now Mickelborough, reminisced to The Courier: "It was the best year of my life. They should bring it back. I remember smiling all night when I was crowned and then smiling all year." 

However, during the 1990s, the Begonia Festival began to wane in popularity and struggled for financial support.

The City of Ballarat took over its running in 1996 but attendances still dropped.

It may have changed location but the annual Begonia festival has proved ever popular over the years. Picture Max Harris Collection

It may have changed location but the annual Begonia festival has proved ever popular over the years. Picture Max Harris Collection

A five-year drought then saw Lake Wendouree dry up and the 2007 Begonia Festival almost cancelled, but instead it was reduced to just three days.

In 2009 primary school children even had to create paper flower displays to make up for the lack of begonias on show.

With the threat of cancellation again hanging over its head, the community rallied behind its festival and record attendance levels were set in 2010 and 2011.

Celebrating 65 years in 2017, The Courier reported Ballarat mayor Samantha McIntosh as saying the Begonia Festival had “changed a lot through history but the spirit, particularly of the parade, was still about bringing local business and groups together in a bright, lively community celebration”.

“Begonia is for kids, parents, grandparents, locals and visitors. It really delivers back to the community and has great rewards...the parade has proven time and time again, people love community spirit and involvement,” Cr McIntosh said.

A lot more than flowers. The Begonia parade has long been a way of celebrating the diversity and community spirit of Ballarat.

A lot more than flowers. The Begonia parade has long been a way of celebrating the diversity and community spirit of Ballarat.

In 2017, Ballarat was chosen as the first regional city to host a spectacular one-night festival the likes of which the city had never seen.

White Night Ballarat was a massive success, with crowds of 40,000 spilling into the CBD in March as 45 art installations illuminated and activated the streets and iconic building, including giant walking angels.

State Tourism and Major Events Minister John Eren said White Night had “Ballarat buzzing like never before, with hotels booked out and restaurants full”.

“We plan to take things up another level next year,” Mr Eren said, with a second White Night confirmed just recently for Ballarat in 2018.

Similarly, the second Ballarat Winter Festival has transformed a usually quiet time of year, bringing about 100,000 visitors to 40 events throughout July.

Features included Sovereign Hill’s Christmas in July: Winter Wonderlights display, a CBD ice-skating rink, giant inflatable slide, igloo haven and frozen forest, Ballarat’s first ever Potato Festival, the Ballarat Brew Festival and The Red Series Wine Festival.

Visit Ballarat CEO Noel Dempsey summed up the event’s icy appeal: “All in all it continues to spark imagination in a period that’s normally quiet. It has been cold, and that’s the point to have fun and get over it.”.

Run since 2006, Ballarat Heritage Weekend has steadily built momentum as a major May tourist attraction for lovers of all things historical.

Each year Ballarat Heritage Weekend has a theme, with 2017 inspired by the 1950s and the film noir genre.

Meanwhile, the Ballarat Beat Rockabilly Festival in February attracts an ever-growing crowd with its glamorous pin-up girls, burlesque dancers and the ever-popular rock and roll while the Ballarat International Foto Biennale and the Ballarat Cabaret Festival also continue to bring world class photography and musical acts to all art lovers.