Generations of Australians have loved attending agricultural shows, whether it be the grand Royal Show in the state’s capital city or the friendlier display in one’s home town. The experience provides excitement, entertainment, amusement, education and the opportunity to both observe and participate in the productivity and the creativity of the community.
In 1886 a horticultural society was formed in Albany, which by 1889 had developed into the properly constituted Albany Agricultural and Horticultural Society. A supportive Town Council offered the new Town Hall for the first event which was held on November 13th and 14th 1889. In Albany’s first fifty years there had been little agriculture in the district resulting in recurrent fresh food shortages and the need to import food. Consequently the show was almost entirely horticultural but did include poultry and ducks. The only prizes for animal products were for home made butter and for wool fleece.
“The hired hall was dressed in flags and bunting borrowed from the stores of the Albany Harbour Master, Captain Butcher. Trestles down the centre of the hall held competition entries of potted flowering plants in classes, cut flowers and flowers in bouquets, and stalls arranged along the wall held vegetables, fruit and other entries. A poultry section was placed just inside and to the right of the door, and a refreshment booth to the left.”
“…vegetables were judged in about 20 classes; displayed in mounds of potatoes, pumpkins, marrows, beans, carrots, turnips, sprouts, rhubarb and tomatoes….Fruit stalls offered oranges and lemons, lime and passion fruit.”(Jonson pp.25-6)
The importance of the inauguration of the Society is reflected in the list of its first office bearers which reads like a roll call of distinguished citizens: President Lancel V. de Hamel, Vice Presidents John Robinson and AY Hassell, Secretary H. Newman, plus four Patrons who were Governor Sir Frederick Broome, Resident Magistrate RC Loftie, TW Powell, chairman of the WA Land Company and C Millar of Millar Brothers who were the contractors for the Great Southern Railway.
Between 1890 and 1901 there were sporadic and sometimes acrimonious negotiations between the Town Council and the Agricultural Society in an attempt to obtain an outdoor space for the event in an area referred to as “The Plains” encompassing land along Ulster Road and the flat land which later became Centennial Park. These negotiations failed and the show was held indoors until long after World War 1.
“Annual general meetings were held in the Albany Town Hall, and committee meetings at the ‘Freemasons’ Hotel on Stirling Terrace. For some 40 years the society would conduct shows indoors at venues including the Town Hall, the vast wooden warehouse of the Dalgety company at the junction of Lower Stirling Terrace and York street…and at one address recorded as Alward’s Victoria Hall in York street.”(Jonson p.28)
“Exhibits included a display arranged by the old Department of Industries and we had a competition for traders. We built the Centennial Oval Hall – excepting the wooden floor, in stages, beginning in 1930 with the first half, which cost 350 pounds. Later, another community body raised the money to put down a wooden floor (after a lengthy period of making do with an earthen floor), our contractor was H Wiley. We put the flower show there. Self help was the thing then, as now. I think my first appearance at the oval was at one of the society’s working bees.(Jonson pp 50-51)
When district displays became popular we added to the hall, and then came the need for accommodation to hold poultry shows. The Albany Poultry Association had conducted their own shows for quite some time and they sought permission to exhibit at our show. We built a separate shed for the poultry – a wooden hut really, and let the association make use of it. They were so successful we had to extend the shed, and then again, progressing from wood to iron.”
Gordon Norman goes on to say that it was necessary to build pens for sheep and pigs but, apart from dairy cows, cattle were not important in this era. This reflects the fact that it was well into the twentieth century before the Albany hinterland had substantial sheep or cattle production. Horses were present as saddle horses and for transport purposes but there were no equestrian events in this period.
The ten years preceding World War II saw the full development of the show on its outdoor site in spite of the severe depression of the early 1930s. There was expansion of animal classes including cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry and pigeons with sponsors coming forward to supply trophies for many new classes. There was now space for ring and sporting events including the traditional Grand Parade. By the end of the twentieth century equestrian events had become a major component of the show producing some riders who proceeded to international competition.
The programmes of earlier shows had included a Show Ball held at the Town Hall, regarded as a prime social event; this now took place in Centennial Hall, being preceded by an extensive clean-up by member volunteers.
The show’s most successful years were in the 1960s with Gordon Norman as its long-term President; his policy was to balance the content so that its appeal was as wide as possible: trade exhibits to appeal to the townspeople, sideshows for children and worthwhile prizes for competing agricultural and livestock exhibits. Post war land development meant that there were skilled cattle and sheep breeders who became keen supporters of the Agricultural Society, Bill Kendall, Maurice McCormick and Doug Stoney to name a few.
There were constant innovations over the years including sheep dog trials, shearing competitions, trade lamb competitions, bringing cattle judges from other states. There were fashion parades, a Miss Showgirl contest and in 1987 skill demonstrations such as wood turning, stained glass and jewellery making were introduced alongside factory made trade exhibits.
In 1964 a separate horticultural society, founded by Arthur and Freda Marshall, was allotted its own pavilion; later this became the Marshall Pavilion with added meeting room known as the Bob Thomson annexe.
In 1967 and later years the society was able to expand its facilities with grants from a Government Scheme for Assistance to Agricultural Societies.
These covered the building of sheep and cattle pens, horse stalls and livestock loading ramps. The horticultural pavilion also received some of these funds and $11,250 of the $20,000 cost for the Norman exhibition pavilion (pictured below) came from this source.
Beginning in 1967 shows were held over three days and nights, from Thursday to Saturday; in 1987 this was changed to Friday to Sunday but was not a success. Since then, Friday and Saturday have been show days culminating with a fireworks display.
In 1985 the Town Council approved a much needed extension of the animal yards followed in 1985 by the new poultry pavilion; approximately two thirds of these upgrades was financed by state government grants. A new issue arose when the Town Council tried to collect rents from the Society-owned buildings situated on the council’s Centennial Park land.
“Two fundamental issues, the acquisition of land suitable for show grounds, and security of tenure at Centennial Oval, and the facilities erected there at no cost to municipal ratepayers, would be the underlying cause of many tensions between the society and the Albany Town Council over the years.”(Jonson, p.117)
Awareness of uncertainty of tenure prompted action by members as far back as the middle of last century. Member John Thomson, MLC, initiated negotiations with the Lands and Surveys Department for the society to be granted freehold of several acres of undeveloped Crown Land abutting Hanrahan Road. Lengthy negotiations were concluded “in 1967 when the Department of Lands and Surveys announced that the Executive Council had approved the cancellation of an existing order on Reserve No.28077 (Albany Lot 1135), enabling the allocation of the land as a Crown Grant in fee simple to the Albany Agricultural Society, to be held in trust for the purposes of ‘Greater Sports Ground and Show Ground’. The cost to the society was one dollar, with another $54.50 payable as a statutory survey fee, for a fraction under 73 acres (29.5 hectares) located on the western side of Mount Melville, off Hanrahan Road and near the Albany superphosphate works. The transfer of the property to the society was gazetted on June 30th, 1967.“ (Jonson, p.118)
The society then raised a bank loan and by 1971 had spent $8000 on earthworks over 10 acres preparing a site for an arena. Indecision about making the move is apparent in correspondence between the Secretary, Mrs Val Symons, and the Town Council. The society then changed its plans and leased the site to the council for ten years for “peppercorn” rental of a dollar a year. This solved the council’s problem of finding a new rubbish tip site which remains in this location with recurrent leases now in place until 2020.
In 1998 former society president, Gordon Norman, predicted the problems which would loom large by the 21st century:
“We were supposed to get the land back again, eventually, but when you consider the effects of all those old car bodies crushed, dumped and buried there, of those full garbage pits under the landfill, and the probabilities of pollution from noxious residues, no health or building authorities would allow anything much to be done there.”(Jonson p121)
This statement foreshadows twentieth century problems of environmental approval for land use of a site approved for recreational purposes which has now been contaminated by industrial use as a rubbish tip. 2015 has been a year of constant negotiation between the City Council and the Agricultural Society in the hope of reaching a solution which will save the show and its benefits for the agricultural community as well as accommodate the redevelopment of Centennial Park to increase and expand facilities for numerous sporting clubs.
Plans for this expansion have been under way for several years; the chief problem for the society is the imminent demolition of its decaying buildings which have an insured replacement value of 2.4 million dollars. The City Council has offered to buy the Hanrahan Road Crown Grant site for $750,000 from the Agricultural Society, a remarkably low price for 29.5 hectares (73 acres) of land within the city limits. Negotiations have reached a stalemate as the society considers that the offer of covered display space at the Albany Leisure and Aquatic Centre (5700 square metres) is inadequate. The undercover display space in the existing buildings is 9110 square metres; as well as this there are office facilities on site. The council has offered leasehold space at Centennial Park East for a 3600 square metre building but it will be necessary, as it has in the past, to find the cost of erecting the building. Covered space is the main issue as it is to be hoped that the large areas of sportsground will accommodate the outdoor events. As it has for many years, the Council will continue to contribute $25,000 a year to support the Show.
Since compiling this information consultations have taken place between City staff, including the newly appointed CEO Andrew Sharpe, the Mayor Dennis Wellington and the Agricultural Society resulting in a planning compromise which should ensure the future of both the annual Show and government funding allocations for Centennial Park. (Weekender 20/8/2015).
Originally published: 2015