State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 56 Spring 1995


Over the Border: Victoria at Interstate Exhibitions

As early as 1878, when he published his fifth series of The Vagabond papers, the Vagabond could complain that “these Intercolonial Exhibitions are too common … once in every three or five years would, I think, be quite often enough.” His review of the Metropolitan Intercolonial Exhibition held in Sydney that year bemoaned “the absence of competition in many classes” and the fact that “it was absurd to see an article awarded a prize or certificate when better can be seen in George-Street stores.”1
Yet far from waning in number, exhibitions in Australia were about to enter a new phase of popularity, with preparations underway for both the 1879 Sydney International Exhibition and the 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition.

New South Wales

The history of exhibitions in the Australian colonies begins very quickly after the 1851 Great Exhibition in London. Like Victoria, New South Wales mounted its own exhibitions in 1854 and 1861, in preparation for the Paris Exhibition of 1855 and the London Exhibition of 1862.
The major impetus for exhibitions in New South Wales, however, came from the Agricultural Society of New South Wales, which sponsored annual shows at the Society's grounds at Parramatta from 1858 onwards. These exhibitions underwent rapid expansion with their re-location, in 1869, to a new site in Prince Alfred Park in Sydney. Henceforth known as Metropolitan Intercolonial Exhibitions, they were held annually throughout the 1870s, culminating in the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879.
Victoria's first contribution to interstate exhibitions was at the 1870 Sydney Intercolonial
Exhibition, which had originally been proposed as a ‘Grand International Exhibition’ to commemorate Cook's discovery of the east coast of Australia. The official report of the exhibition notes that New South Wales had already “displayed its products in friendly rivalry with those of the neighbouring Colony of Victoria, at the Melbourne Exhibition of 1867” and that “this being the case, it was also felt that it was the turn of Sydney to be the next to issue invitations, and that the mother-city of Australasia would fall below its dignity and its duty if it allowed any younger and smaller metropolis to step in and take the lead.” Invitations were duly sent, although the report further notes that “Victoria treated the invitation with silence.” A subsequent visit to Melbourne by the Hon. C. Cowper and the Hon. Saul Samual, who took it upon themselves “to incite the

‘The Victorian Court — Sydney International Exhibition,’ from The illustrated Australian news 31 October 1879, p. 169

Government of Victoria to set the machinery in motion”, was to lead to the appointment of the Victorian Commission.2
The exhibition, which opened on 30 August and closed at the end of the following month, was attended by some 184,000 visitors.3 The Sydney morning herald, in what was perhaps a somewhat grandiloquent comparison, acclaimed the exhibition's success for the colony as “what the Great Exhibition of 1851 was to England — what the Exposition Universelle of Paris was to France in 1862.”4
Although hampered by the early closing date for entries, Victoria was able to contribute 555 exhibits to the Sydney Exhibition of 1870, including wines, agricultural machinery, photographs and paintings, furniture and clothing, along with a large selection of raw materials and products. In the Fine Arts section,
the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library displayed 42 photo-lithographic plates of wood engravings by Albrecht Dürer, for which it received a bronze medal from the judges. Prominent amongst those Victorians awarded silver medals, which was the highest award given at the exhibition, were R. Brought Smythe for his valuable collection of auriferous specimens, geological and mining maps, mineral ores and fossils of Victoria; Dr. F. Von Mueller, for his extensive and valuable collection of vegetable product of Victoria; and Alexander Gray & Co., Geelong, for the excellence of their tweeds.5 Due to the fact that the Victorian exhibits were not kept separate from those of New South Wales, Redmond Barry, the President of the Victorian Commissioners, while not wishing to “trench upon the ground” occupied by the NSW Agricultural Society, took it upon himself to issue a separate catalogue of the Victorian exhibits.6
Victoria's contribution to the Sydney Metropolitan Intercolonial Exhibition of 1873 was also the subject of a separately issued pamphlet, compiled by J.G. Knight, Secretary to the Commissioners for Victoria. Knight's record of Victoria's contribution consists primarily of a summary of the exhibits along with extracts from the Sydney press. His concluding remarks referred to the spread of exhibitions in every quarter of the globe since 1851, proving “unmistakenly that manufacturers and producers recognize in such enterprises a ready means of giving the greatest amount of publicity to the results of their several labours.”7
By the late 1870s, the colonies of New South Wales and Victoria were ready to enter the big time of the international exhibition circuit, with preparations underway for both the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879 and the Melbourne International Exhibition of the following year. Plans for the Sydney Exhibition were announced in the New South Wales Government gazette of 7 February 1878, and shortly thereafter funds were made available for the erection, at the site of the Domain in Sydney, of the Garden Palace, a building whose design and eventual cost was similar in ambition, if not in reality, to Melbourne's exhibition building of 1880.
The Sydney Exhibition opened on 17 September 1879 and ran until 20 April 1880. During this period over a million visitors attended the 14,000 plus exhibits on display. Although the emphasis of the exhibits tended more towards agriculture and livestock than did the 1880 Melbourne Exhibition, which was to provide a greater focus for manufacturing and industrial products, it was well attended by foreign nations, with Great Britain, Ireland, France, Germany and the United States all contributing large numbers of exhibits.
Victoria's contribution to the 1879 Sydney Exhibition was overseen by the same Commission formed for the purpose of carrying out the Melbourne Exhibition of the following year. The Victorian Court had been allocated approximately 10,000 square feet of the main building and was located adjacent to the exhibits of New South Wales and Tasmania. As with the earlier 1870 Sydney Exhibition, Victoria issued its own separate catalogue which listed the 863 exhibits in the Victorian Court.8 A detailed description of the Court was published in The Argus of 26 September 1879, as well as in the popular guide to the Exhibition issued by the New South Wales Government Printer.9 The official record of the Exhibition, a massive 1,154 page catalogue published in 1881, included an extensive account of the lead-up to the event, along with the full listing of exhibits and awards.
Amongst those Victorian exhibits on display were models of famous gold nuggets; letterpress and lithographic printing inks displayed by Messrs. F.T. Wimble & Co., and examples of bookbinding from the Melbourne firm of W. Detmold; a collection of wood gums and vines exhibited by William Guilfoyle of the
Melbourne Botanic Gardens; the billiard tables of Messrs. Alcock & Co. made from Huon pine and cedar; a pyramid and glass case containing chemical and pharmaceutical preparations obtained from the eucalyptus and other indigenous trees exhibited by Joseph Bosisto; and numerous pictures, of which Eugene Von Guerard's “Milford Sound (with Pembroke Peak and Bowen Falls), New Zealand” was recommended for an extra first prize.10 All told, Victoria's exhibits received 409 of the 7,554 awards distributed at the exhibition.11
For all its pomp and ceremony, the Sydney Exhibition proved a financial disaster for the colony of New South Wales. The official report audited the loss at just over £100,000,12 though in all probability it was much higher. Adding insult to injury, the Garden Palace, which was constructed primarily of wood, burnt to the ground on 22 September 1882, eliciting a response from The bulletin to the effect that the people of Sydney were “made asses of before the world for building it.”13 The end result of the experience was that, unlike Victoria, New South Wales never again held an international exhibition.


In 1876 Queensland hosted its first Intercolonial Exhibition, sponsored by the National Agricultural and Industrial Association of Queensland, at Bowen Park in Brisbane. Compared with those of its southern neighbours, the exhibition was a relatively minor one, with an emphasis on agricultural, horticultural and mining exhibits over the technological and fine arts exhibits which were so much a part of the Sydney and Melbourne exhibitions. Representation did not include all of the Australian colonies, the predominant contributors being drawn from Queensland and New South Wales. Victoria, unlike New South Wales, did not mount its own court; however, scattered amongst the 1709 exhibits listed in the catalogue can be found sporadic references to individual contributors from Melbourne and various Victorian country towns — perhaps most notably in the wine section, in which Albert Bruhn, of Emu Vineyard, Sandhurst, and Adolph Fox and Carl Pohl, of Strathfieldsaye, Bendigo, were all awarded prizes.14

South Australia

Aside from Victoria, the other Australian colony to host an international exhibition in the 1880s was South Australia. Having mounted a smaller successful exhibition in 1881, which primarily attracted products from the eastern states, plans were soon underway for an international exhibition to rival those of Sydney and Melbourne. The idea was sanctioned by the South Australian Parliament as early as 1882, but concerns regarding the cost of the exhibition lead to a repeal of the Exhibition Act in July 1884, and it was not until a number of private sponsors pledged support that the proposal was revived.
The Jubilee International Exhibition of 1887, which coincided with the jubilees of both South Australia and the reign of Queen Victoria, officially opened on 21 June and ran until 7 January 1888. The Exhibition was situated on eighteen acres of parklands surrounding the city, with the primary focus being the Jubilee building, designed by architects Withall & Wells, which was erected for the occasion on North Terrace, and which remained in use until its demolition in 1962. By any measure, the exhibition was considered a success. Twenty-six countries were represented, many exhibiting items en route to the Melbourne Exhibition of the following year, and the exhibition was attended by over 750,000 visitors at a time when Adelaide's population was approximately 120,000. Furthermore, unlike the Sydney experience of 1879, receipts actually covered costs.
Although The illustrated Australian news was to describe Victoria's contribution to the Adelaide exhibition as “not equal in extent to what was expected from that wonderful colony,”15 it was, nevertheless, a major one. Victorian exhibits won 518 of the 3,535

From The illustrated Australian news, supplement 23 July 1887, cover

awards presented, making it the third most successful representative, behind South Australia and the United Kingdom.16 Chief amongst the Victorian Court's exhibits, in fact noted as the attraction par excellence, was a fern grotto, 64 feet in length, prepared by William Guilfoyle from plants grown in the Melbourne Botanic Gardens. The display, meant to represent the wealth of vegetation to be found in fern gullies of the Dandenong Ranges, included a large scale painting of the ranges, a grotto, a miniature lake in which water lilies flourished, a romantic looking cavern, and a rockery — the entire effect, lauded by the News as a “showpiece [which] cannot be too much admired,”17 was further heightened by a series of large mirrors set in a frame imitating a gnarled tree trunk.


By the 1890s, with the onset of the depression in the Australian colonies, the great period of exhibitions was in decline. The last international exhibition to be held in Australia in the nineteenth century was in Hobart in 1894–95. The impetus was provided by the success of a smaller exhibition in Launceston in 1891–92. Spurred on to outdo the smaller city's efforts, an Exhibition Association for the Hobart event was formed with Jules Joubert, a rather colourful figure who had previously been involved with over 50 exhibitions, in charge.
Sadly, however, the Hobart Exhibition ended its days as a somewhat lacklustre affair. In the words of Tasmanian writer James Backhouse Walker: “Our International Exhibition can hardly be said to be a success — neither England nor America, nor indeed any other country has contributed, and of the colonies, only Victoria has contributed, New South Wales having drawn back and the others being nowhere.”18 Having opened on 15 November 1894, attendances soon waned, with the expected interstate and overseas visitors failing to materialise, and by the time the Exhibition closed in May 1895, it became clear that the shareholders would not see a return on their investments.
It is perhaps indicative that unlike earlier colonial exhibitions, which had spawned a virtual publishing industry trumpeting the successful growth of the host colony, the Hobart Exhibition yielded almost no publications recording the event. The Mercury, as one might expect, provided coverage of the event, including a special exhibition supplement in which the Victorian Court was briefly described.19 On the whole, however, reporting on the mainland was scant indeed. Within three years of its closure, under a previous agreement, all traces of the Hobart Exhibition, including the Exhibition Building itself, were removed from the landscape of the Queen's Domain, leaving the event as little more than a memory.
We might like to imagine John Stanley James, better known to readers of The Argus as the Vagabond, taking some small measure of satisfaction at this decline of popular interest in exhibitions in the Australian colonies, perhaps
feeling that his earlier criticisms had been vindicated. For, while international exhibitions continued unabated around the world into the twentieth century, it was to be almost another hundred years before Australia again dipped its toe into the water with the successful Bicentennial World Expo in Brisbane in 1988.
Des Cowley
Librarian in the Research Section of
the La Trobe Library


The Vagabond, The Vagabond papers: fifth series. Melbourne, George Robertson, 1878, pp. 186–196.


The industrial progress of New South Wales: being a report of the Intercolonial Exhibition of 1870, at Sydney. Sydney, Thomas Richards, 1871, p. 1.


Ibid. p. 16.


The Sydney morning herald 7 October 1870, p.16




Catalogue of the Victorian exhibits to the Sydney Intercolonial Exhibition of 1870. Melbourne, John Ferres, 1870, p. 3.


J.G. Knight, Victoria at the Intercolonial Exhibition of New South Wales, 1873. Sydney, Gibbs, Shaliard, 1873, p. 43.


Victorian Court: official catalogue of exhibits. Melbourne, Walker, May & Co., 1879.


Notes on the Sydney International Exhibition, 1879. Sydney, Government Printer, 1880.


Ibid. pp. 292–311.


Report of the Royal Commission for the Australian International Exhibitions. London. Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1882, p. 345.


Official record of the Sydney International Exhibition, 1879, Sydney, Government Printer, 1881, p. cxxviii.


The bulletin 30 September 1882, p. 2.


Brisbane courier mail 28 August 1876, p. 5.


The illustrated Australian news, supplement, 23 July 1887, p. 138.


Report of the Royal Commission for the Adelaide Jubilee International Exhibition of 1887. London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1888, p. 373.


The illustrated Australian news, supplement, op cit. p. 139.


James Backhouse Walker, Prelude to Federation. Hobart, OBM Publishing, 1976, p. 126.


The Mercury, Tasmanian Exhibition supplement, 15 November 1894, p. 3. A description of the Victorian Court was also published in The Argus 22 November 1894, p. 6.