Beginnings of a Blue Mountains rhododendron tradition

By 1950, memory of the austerity endured during World War II was fading but tourists were not returning to the Blue Mountains in pre-war numbers.

Blue Mountains City Council, Blackheath's Rotary Club and village business owners wanted to attract more tourists, both day trippers and longer stayers.

Rotary encouraged mass planting of rhododendrons to beautify Blackheath.

This was insufficient to draw in tourists who were heading to places north and south of Sydney with the advent of the family Holden. A festival was proposed.

In March 1950, planning began. October 31 to November 8, 1953, when the rhododendrons would be blooming, was chosen. The festival's purpose was two-fold - to promote civic pride in Blackheath and to raise money for a public hall for its citizens.

Mentions in newspapers as far afield as Adelaide and Hobart associated Blackheath with rhododendrons in the public mind. In October 1950, the Sydney Morning Herald's Granny's column noted that Blackheath was "working up to an annual Rhododendron festival".

In October 1952, Mr J Yeaman, city engineer, wrote to the Sydney Sun's garden column: "the famous rhododendrons in the Blackheath Memorial Park should be at their best in early November".

By May, 1953, candidates for Queen of the Festival were sought. Five clubs supported five young ladies in this first festival. Extensive fund-raising included penny votes.

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These were a tradition in Mountains' fund-raising. For a penny anyone could buy a ticket which was basically a donation towards the purpose of the fund-raising. You received nothing other than a nice feeling that you'd donated when you bought a penny-ticket.

The candidates and their friends enjoyed a busy social round of picnics and fashion shows, card and movie nights, concerts and tennis days, all fund-raising activities.

The festivities themselves started on Saturday, October 31 with the gala procession of gaily decorated floats, new Australians in their national costumes, children in fancy dress and buskers. Everyone headed to Memorial Park where Mrs R G Menzies, the Prime Minister's wife, officially opened the festival.

All week, activities entertained locals and visitors alike: square dancing, Dutch and Norwegian national folk dancing, a campfire concert at the Scouts camp, a golf tournament, hikes through Porters Pass, trips to Mount Wilson, a baby show. The Blackheath Musical Society performed, "The Gondoliers" nightly. Wentworth Street hosted a billy cart derby.

Highlight of the week, the Rhododendron Festival and Armistice Ball at the Victory Theatre, saw the Rhododendron Queen ceremonially crowned. Two orchestras entertained the dancers.

The first Rhododendron Queen, the Quota Club's Judy Tierney, raised £386. Overall, £1025/12/2 was raised for the community hall.

The exciting week was marred only by unco-operative rhododendrons refusing to bloom.