This history was written by Arthur Griffiths, a former President of the Blackheath Rhododendron Festival Committee, for Historic Blackheath, a Production by the Rotary Club of Blackheath, 1975 : 1976. This article was taken from the second edition of 1977. The photos are inevitably grainy, but we would be delighted if you can supply an original or a sharper quality image. Any corrections, additions or photos you can offer are also welcome: please complete the Contact page and we will follow up your email.
HISTORY OF THE BLACKHEATH RHODODENDRON FESTIVAL 1953-1975
Contributed by A. Griffiths
It is said that if you bring a group of Englishmen together, within five minutes they will have formed a committee. Judging by the number of committees which have functioned over the years in Blackheath, Blackheathens must be very English in their outlook. One of the most well known of these committees and one which has never failed to function every year since its inception is the Blackheath Rhododendron Festival Committee.
This committee holds the distinction of running a most successful festival every year without break since the year 1953. Not many towns can boast this type of record, indeed even the highly publicized Waratah Festival staged by the Sydney City Council fell by the wayside for lack of support. It is to the credit the Blackheath people then, with their close community spirit, that each year the Rhododendron Festival has seen the grand parade through the township in the crowning of the Festival Queen and the celebrations amidst the glories of the Memorial Park.
To find the beginnings of the festival and how the rhododendron comes to be in such profusion throughout Blackheath we must go back to the year when Mr Cec Chad was president of the Rotary Club of Blackheath. his dream was to beautify Blackheath with the mass planting of rhododendrons. With the Rotary Club as sponsor and Mr Chad in the chair the inaugural meeting of the Blackheath Rhododendron Association was held in St Aidan’s Hall, Blackheath on the 9th February, 1950 at 8.15 pm.
Approximately 50 members of the public were present to hear Mr Chad outline the scheme which envisaged that every residence in the area should have 4 or 5 rhododendrons planted in their gardens adjoining the street so that the visitors to the area could view the glory of these flowering shrubs. Due to the size of their growth rhododendrons could not be recommended for street planting, however the Rotary had accepted responsibility for planting part of one section of a park, as part of a proposed Memorial Drive. Mr J. Yeaman then outlined the basis of a scheme which was based on a central Memorial Drive around the parks and public places of the town and to which it hoped that private citizens would add additional loops, building out like a spider web.
The Memorial Drive was intended to commence at the intersection of Prince George Street and the Great Western Highway, thence along Prince George Street to Clanwilliam Street, Clanwilliam Street to the Leichhardt Street corner, along Leichhardt Street to Prince Edward Street, down Prince Edward Street to the “Duck Pond”, thence around the upper part of the Memorial Park to Inconstant Street, back into Gardiner Crescent to Wentworth Street, and thence returning along Wentworth Street to Prince George Street.
As a result of these plans there is no greater pleasure than to walk along these streets, perhaps in particular Wentworth Street in the Autumn. It was at the first meeting of General Executive Committee of the-Association held at the Blackheath School of Arts on Friday, 10th March 1950 “that as a means of raising funds a “Festival” or similar function be held during the flowering season” was proposed. October 31st to November 8th, 1953 were the dates between which the very first Festival was held. Mt G. J. Johnston was President with Mr. S Marcer his secretary, K. Barber treasurer and L C. Harrison publicity officer.
The Constitution the Blackheath Rhododendron Festival states that the objects of the organisation shall be to promote civic pride in Blackheath and District, and amongst other things: to accumulate monies in a fund from which a Public Hall for the citizens of Blackheath could be provided or other such amenities as may from time to time be agreed upon.
In the early years most of the money raised by the festival was donated towards the building costs of the Community Centre and then to assist with the furnishing of the Hall and its maintenance. Considerable funds have also been spent on publicity of the area as a tourist resort by medium of colour brochures, radio and newspaper advertisements. Local fire brigades have also benefitted considerably from funds raised through the festival, as have the kindergarten, swimming pool, local youth clubs, sporting clubs, R.S.L and the ambulance.
The Festival Queen competition has traditionally been a main source of funding. Usually three local girls are nominated for the competition although it is understood that no less than seven young ladies competed for the title in the very first festival held, such was the enthusiasm generated in those days. Forming committees the girls then hold many and varied functions, the object being to raise as much money as possible. The girl raising the most money by the deadline, which is 5 p.m. on the Friday before the festival Saturday, is declared the winner in a special ceremony immediately before the Festival moves off on its triumphal march through the township. Upon arrival at the Memorial Park the crowning ceremony is carried out amidst the massed glory of the flowering rhododendrons.
The Festival has functioned every year with great success since that momentous first year in 1953 and following is the list of Presidents and Queens over the intervening years:-
|1953||Mt G. J, Johnston||Miss J. Tierney|
|1954||Mr K. C. Bates||Miss M. Boyd|
|1955||Mr K. C. Bates||Miss M. Roach|
|1956||Mr K. C. Bates||Miss B King|
|1957||Mr C. C. Phillips||Miss D. McKenzie|
|1958||Mr I. D. Dash||Miss D. Thompson|
|1959||Mr C. C. Phillips||Miss H. Bricknell|
|1960||Mr I. D. Dash||No Queen|
|1961||Mr A. T. Griffiths||Miss P. Carroll|
|1962||Mr A. T. Griffiths||Miss L. Hynes|
|1963||Mr F. A. Abbottsmith||No Queen|
|1964||Mr J. Cripps||Miss H. Kentwell|
|1965||Mr W. Downing||Miss J. Hennock|
|1966||Mrs R. M. Hatswell||Miss F. Boyle|
|1967||Mrs R. M. Hatswell||Miss D. Clarke|
|1968||Mr N Daley||Miss K. Ward|
|1969||Mr N Daley||Miss S. Burrows|
|1970||Mr J. B. Burrows||Miss R. Griffiths|
|1971||Mr J. B. Burrows||Miss S. Boyd|
|1972||Mr J. Mills||Miss K. Matthews|
|1973||Mr P. Harris||Miss M. Selman|
|1974||Mr J. Mills||Miss D. Halliday|
|1975||Mr J. Mills||Mrs J. Webb & Mrs H. Moran|
Between the years of 1958 and 1968 an Eisteddfod was incorporated with the festival. Each year saw the following sections competed for: Vocal, Choirs, Dancing, Pianoforte, Violin, Dramatic Art and Elocution. Despite the fact that some of Australia’s finest voices competed in the Aria section, audience interest waned and in 1969 the Eisteddfod was abandoned and an Art Show incorporated in its place. The Art Show has an unprecedented success and grows larger each year.
Part of the reason for the continuing of the festival is felt to be that it involves almost everyone in the area in some way or other, the Horticulture Society organize a very successful Flower and Vegetable show during the Festival week; the Quota Club ladies among many other functions traditionally provide the afternoon tea for the official party. The Festival Ball is always a sell out with the year 1974 setting the: record for quick sales. The queue for tickets began to form outside the ticket office at midnight, the office in Griffiths’ Drapery Store, opened at 8.30 in the morning and by 8. 5O, twenty minutes later, all 300 tickets available were sold and paid for. Such is the enthusiasm for the festival ball. As this publication goes to press plans are well advanced for the 1976 festival with Mr M. Birrell as President, who will be the queen? Only on the second Saturday in November will we know that name.