Mayoral Garden Parties
The following is a record of the talk given at the AGM in December 2020.
Early newspaper articles offer a window into the history of the Williamstown Botanic Gardens, and during last year’s lockdown I corrected many digitised articles about mayoral parties held in the gardens.
As I read the accounts of the garden parties, it struck me - more than once - that in the early years of 20th century the Williamstown Botanic Gardens were a little outpost of Empire at the bottom of the world.
The mayoral functions were seen as social fixtures of the season. They were a gathering of the great and the good, a Who’s Who of Williamstown and beyond. The guest list included Federal and State MPs, leading local business and professional people, the military brass (at one garden party 100 invitations were sent to visiting British squadron), prominent clerics, the mayors and mayoresses of other municipalities, town clerks and their wives and other senior people like the Commissioners of Railways, the Board of Works and the Town Planning Commission. We know these people attended because they left cards and their names were listed in the newspaper articles.
With garden parties of up to 4000 guests, I felt that it was likely that more ordinary local folk attended, but as they may not have left cards the newspaper articles didn’t tell us who they were.
There was a strict protocol for guests, outlined in a short article in the Williamstown Chronicle on Dec 9, 1922. The drill was to hand your entrée card to the attendant, curtsey to the mayor and mayoress and under no account engage them in conversation.
Interestingly, there was a more diverse guest list for the December 1922 function, with the Chronicle reporting that Mayor Liston had presided over a more democratic gathering. There was the usual list of eminent invitees but the writer also noted that ‘the classes were well represented’ and it was ‘in every sense a people’s gathering’.
The articles also show how newspaper reportage has changed over the decades. Some writers waxed lyrical in long-winded flowery prose, but often there were just a couple of sentences about how the gardens were a picturesque backdrop to the main action, which was the mayoral party.
Because of the vagaries of the weather, not all mayoral functions went according to plan. According to a Williamstown Chronicle piece in March 1913, a Garden Fete organised by the Mayoress, Mrs Mc Neilage was ruined by rain. Marquees had been set up on the lawns with stalls selling jumble, refreshments, flowers, confectionary, ice cream and handkerchiefs - all staffed by local women to raise funds for the Women’s and Homeopathic Hospitals. The teeming rain meant that the program had to be curtailed and plans made to continue the fete six weeks later.
Another function spoiled by rain was the Mayoral Garden Party in November, 1913. The Williamstown Chronicle reported that ‘marred by rain, the ladies’ costumes could only be seen between showers’.
Talking of costumes, much newsprint was used on the ladies’ finery. Here are a few details of what the mayoress wore to the Garden party in November 1913. ‘Mrs Liston was gowned in a handsome dress of apricot silk, the draped skirt lifted in front over gold lace…her hat of tulle was set with apricot and brown feathers…a bouquet of pink roses was carried.’ Then followed lengthy descriptions of yards of dainty chiffons and embossed satin, beautifully embroidered outfits, lace overdresses, crepe de chine and plumed hats, all worn by guests.
Fashion commentators were also not above making snarky comments on the women’s outfits. On Saturday 16 December 1922 the Williamstown Chronicle reported that ‘sticklers for fashion could have noticed a dress or two of Queen Victoria’s time, that had evidently been resuscitated for the occasion from the camphored drawer in which in all probability, they had laid hidden for more than a decade’. It was apparently not the done thing to turn up to a mayoral garden party in a dress reeking of camphor.
As well as mingling, seeing and being seen, the mayor put on a musical program featuring vocalists, bands and concert orchestras. Russell Callow, a renowned vocalist who sang for Dame Nellie Melba was mentioned in several articles.
A caterer’s marquee was set up on the lawns and refreshments were served when there was a break in the musical program. It was noted in the Williamstown Chronicle on 2 December 1911 that Caterer Skinner laid on a spread and there was an ‘eager army of males, good humouredly jostling each other to provide creature comforts for the ladies’.
At the Moonlight Mayoral Garden Party in March 1924 the younger guests took to the dance platform and danced till midnight to Allietti’s Orchestra, that is, when they weren’t flirting ‘discreetly in the romantic half light of the outer paths’, as reported by the gossip magazine Table Talk.
It’s these fascinating snippets of seemingly trivial detail that create such a vivid picture of the gardens and the part they played in the life of Williamstown.
3 March 2021