Every time I smell the heady mix of hay and manure, I immediately think of Easter. Because it was at the gates of Sydney’s Royal Easter Show that the smell first hit you—a ménage of manure and hay drifting at you from the stalls of hundreds of prize cows, horses, sheep and pigs, all tied up in the long stables at the Moore Park. It was all part of the build-up, the excitement of walking through those gates on Good Friday, past the stables and to The Show, where those wonderful exhibition halls, competitions, roller coasters, show bag pavilions, show jumping, grand parades and cattle dog competitions were all waiting.
Read the story of the Royal Easter Show and you’ll learn a good deal about Australia’s colonial days, our early food culture and even the growth of a nation. One of the world’s biggest agricultural festivals, the Royal Easter Show, underneath an ever-creeping commercialism, is a celebration of produce, country cooking, agriculture and lifestyle. It’s the country coming to the city, in a big way.
The Show has always been a big event on Australia’s rural calendar. At one time, families used to travel from all over regional NSW to spend a week in the ‘big smoke’. While rarely the case these days, Show Week was usually the one holiday a year that rural families they would take together. It was a huge social event, and a great opportunity for great get-togethers. Show bars would burst at the seams with farmers catching up on a year of droughts, harvests, good yields or bad yields. Or to boast about their prize winning bull or wood chopping conquests.
The Show wasn’t just a social event; it was serious competition time. The man of the family would come to show his champion steer, to compete in the wood chop or to enter his stock horse in the mustering competition. Mother would bring her famous carrot cake, her apple jelly or quince jam, and the kids would come along with a painting or tray of scones to be entered in the junior divisions.
The Show’s history is full of great stories. Allan Herne of Brundee NSW remembers a night in 1910. In those days, Show cattle would arrive in Sydney by trains that stopped at a central Sydney goods yard around midnight. The cattle would then be walked to the showground, a good 15 kilometers. Members of the city’s many unemployed would line up at the goods yard on arrival night in the hope they might get a few shillings for leading a cow to the showground. Herne remembers arriving that night, a 16-year-old boy with this cattle, and watching in fright as the frustrated and desperate men who missed out on the job began throwing rocks and jumping at the mob of cattle. Soon enough there was a stampede and the cattle spread throughout the city. As Herne said, ‘”It was well into the next day before all the cattle were on the showground. The last cow to be found was in Darling Point of all places (a good 10 kilometers from the goods yard) and— believe it or not—she had been milked!’
Another stampede was recorded in 1936, when a bunch of steers escaped from the holding yard and two American cowboys appearing in The Show gave chase in a taxi and captured one runaway by throwing a lasso from the taxi’s running board.
The Royal Agricultural Society (RAS) of NSW was formed in 1822 with the specific aim of “furthering the quality of Australia’s primary production by means of contests and competitions”. The Society put on the first Show the next year. At this time, the population of the colony was around 30,000, of whom nearly half were convicts. There were 100,000 cattle and almost 300,000 sheep in NSW alone.
From day one, The Show’s main focus was on awarding farmers, livestock breeders, winemakers and home cooks for what the Society called ‘agricultural excellence’. And while RAS competitions are now professionally organized and judged by distinguished experts, the awards did not enjoy an auspicious start.
One of the first categories listed in the RAS competitions was beer. Brews from malted barley were first judged in 1824, and it seems that, at the time, the idea of using spittoons or employing moderation was still a long way off. As a contemporary journalist wrote of the situation in the judging tent, ‘reason was dethroned and madness and folly reigned in its stead’. Encouraged, nevertheless, by the good time had by all, the following year’s catalogue expanded to included peach cider, apple cider and sherry.
In 1825, medals replaced cash prizes, which, the society felt, tended to encourage ‘intoxication and other excesses’”. The Show grew in popularity with remarkable speed, with almost 40,000 people coming through the gates in 1860. That same year, prizes were offered for livestock, farm produce, wines, horticulture, poultry, manures, farm machinery and ‘articles of colonial manufacture’. Wine grew to become an important in the competitions and, in 1901, the RAS built a special Wine Kiosk. On that occasion, it accepted 260 entries, most of which probably encouraged by the £100 prize.
It wasn’t until 1883 that cheese was added to the competitions. The new category got off to a slow start with just one round of cheese being entered that year! To make it possible for a winner to be selected, the category stewards sliced the one cheese in two and judged each half separately. You might say that it was a classic win-win situation for the producer.
By the end of the nineteenth century, The Show was rural Australia’s leading agricultural, industrial and social event, with up to 140,000 visitors attending every year. Fresh and preserved fruit was added to the competitions in 1888, and in the same year a special pavilion was opened specifically for women’s work, featuring competitions for quilts, doilies and even toilet seat covers. Men were initially forbidden to enter!
After closing during the Second World War years, when the showground became a temporary barracks, The Show announced a record attendance of 1,232,413 in 1947. Just think that, at the time, Sydney’s total population was only 1,549,590.
The event moved from its traditional Moore Park location (the old grandstand and district pavilions are now home to Fox film studios) in 1998. The RAS said in a statement that year that, “as our population becomes more urbanized, the Society’s mission in the future will be to broaden its rural coverage and embrace new agricultural industries as it seeks to increase community awareness through the Royal Easter Show”. But despite great efforts to preserve the show’s soul and agricultural heart, many rural families have stopped going altogether. They say it’s just not the same and that the good old days are dead and buried.
The event is changing, but if you look hard, its drive—if not the old entrance—and its familiar odor of manure are still there. The show must go on, as they say, and Sydney’s Royal Easter Show still does. As it has to, since, as rural Australia struggles harder than ever under drought, depressed economies, and outright marginalization, today this meeting of country and city is more important than ever.
Sophie Herron, an Australian journalist, previously a features writer for Australian Table magazine, is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office editorial team