This year marks the 65th Ballarat Begonia Festival, which might prompt you to ask: why were begonias chosen to be the central theme of a festival?
In 1889, the Ballarat Botanical Gardens curator at the time, Thomas Rooney, was the first person to pot up a begonia in Ballarat. Begonias were a personal interest of his and Ballarat’s romance with begonias can be traced back to this moment.
Rooney’s interest in these exotic plants expanded and, in 1899, a number of named varieties from plant hybrids were imported from James Blackmore in England. Ballarat’s internationally renowned collection of begonias had begun. Subsequent curators became international experts in the growing of begonias. Our city that was famous for gold also became famous for its begonias.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that Ballarat could proudly boast it was the largest inland city in Australia. Civic leaders of our city at that time wanted to differentiate our city from other centres and, hence, the begonia was chosen to define our city. World War II was well and truly over by now and the city had become a thriving commercial and industrial centre. However, Ballarat needed to attract people to continue to grow and survive; it needed some way of selling its charms and its relaxed rural environment to possible new settlers. Civic leaders could also see more people coming to visit as tourists could only be good for the economy of Ballarat.
The idea for a festival as a way of encompassing all these apparently competing and diverse aims for a growing city came from one of Ballarat’s “most energetic and imaginative personalities”, real estate agent Edgar Bartrop. However, when Bartrop presented his proposal to the then senior civic leaders, they were less than unenthusiastic. Bartrop approached Cr Arthur Nicholson, who requested the Greater Ballarat Association establish a committee to examine the proposal of an annual Ballarat festival. In 1952 Bartrop became president of the association and the idea of a festival was enthusiastically received. And because of their growing notoriety, the city’s famous begonias naturally gave a name and a focus for such a festival. The Ballarat Begonia Festival was born.
As there were no funds allocated for this inaugural event, Cr Nicholson guaranteed a bank advance of 300 pounds to give the committee some cash to play with. In his opening for the first Ballaarat Begonia Festival, the now-mayor Cr Nicholson noted the city’s “proud heritage we have today…a beautiful and proud city with its tree-lined streets, gardens, statuary, lake …magnificent parklands”.
On Friday, March 6, 1953, the festival kicked off with a mardi gras parade at Lake Wendouree and the announcement of the “Queen of the Begonias”. Beautiful floral displays and exhibitions of paintings, sketches and photography were in the Alfred Hall. And The Courier’s prize-winning gardens were open for inspection. The festival was officially declared open on Saturday, March 7 by the then prime minister, Sir Robert Menzies. Sir Robert and his wife, Dame Pattie, arrived by aeroplane at the Ballaarat RAAF School of Radio.
The ambitious 10-day program included Music for the People conducted by Hector Crawford, which included Dick Fair’s “Australia’s Hour of Song”. The public holiday on the Monday gave us the Wendouree archery event at the City Oval and Sturt Street hosted “the most spectacular procession yet seen here”.
The trade commissioners of 20 nations visited on the second Friday, where “they – like you – will be most interested in the trade displays”. The “must-see” event of the festival was the square dancing and there was a polocrosse tournament as well. On Saturday, March 14 a Highland Day was held, which included the ladies’ pipe bands and yet another “great street march”. The unveiling of the character “Begonia Bill” also occurred.
The program was included in what became standard fare for the first few years – the Souvenir Pictorial. This strange eclectic mix of program, promotional brochure, recruiter and tourist tempter began with a list of achievements “From a small grazing settlement in 1838…to the present-day city with every modern facility is a worthy memorial to those early settlers who had the foresight and enthusiasm to build for a prosperous future”. In the wrap-up of the first festival, after what was agreed had been a most successful festival, the mayor noted “Ballarat has always been a leader in the cultivation of begonias and now with the festival, the Begonias were assured of fame throughout Australia, even reaching overseas. Ballaarat is ideally suited for festivals of any type”.
- Ron Egeberg is a former director of the Begonia festival (1997-2002)