Celebrating Spring, and named for the state’s floral emblem, the Waratah festival ran for 18 years from 1956 to 1973. It was replaced by the Sydney Festival in January from 1977.
The Waratah Spring Festival was organised by Sydney City Council and the Sydney Committee, which was made up of council, state government and city business representatives. The aim of the festival was to enliven the city each spring.
It was a bit twee, and now might be considered a bit un-PC , but sixty years ago it was a time of joy for Sydney families.
Sydney Town Hall, Hyde Park and the harbour were the focus venues of the festival. The park hosted floral displays, an art competition, wood chopping, and open air concerts. There were also garden competitions held across Sydney, state band championships, fishing competitions, dancing, a sailing regatta. Over the years the festival spread into the suburbs. And as the festival evolved various themes were applied to the festival: naval, calypso. It was a week of revelry and noise. At one point there was serious consideration given to the distribution of whistles to every child in the city.
One of the annual highlights of the festival was the street parade, with floats representing many Sydney businesses and government departments. (This was in many ways a continuation from Labour Day parades; and has since been superceded by the Mardi Gras parades.) The floats on trucks – numbering between 100 and 200 – were colourful, frothy spring affairs, with plenty of flower motifs. There were also marchers on foot, and multiple bands. On average about 300,000 people lined the streets to watch the Waratah Festival Parade.
The parade opened with the Waratah Princess float. Waratah Princess finalists were selected each year from the lunchtime crowds in Hyde Park. The talent scouts sought girls that “glowed with the sparkle of Sydney town in spring”. Finalists were then interviewed by the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress, who together crowned the Princess. The winner, along with several finalists, were featured on the City of Sydney Waratah Princess float at the head of the parade.
In all, 18 festivals were held; the final festival was in 1973 in conjunction with the opening of the Sydney Opera House. It was replaced by the Sydney Festival, which has taken place each January since 1977.
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is the 20201 Dr AM Hertzberg AO Fellow at the State Library of New South Wales and the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa, for ten years of unstinting support of the Dictionary! You can follow her on Twitter here: @sydneyclio