Royal South Street Eisteddfod
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In 1891, the first Royal South Street Society competitions were held and paved the way for future performers around the country to find their vocation and feet on stages both at home and abroad. Now Australia’s oldest and longest running eisteddfod, it has seen over one million aspiring singers, dancers, orators, writers, musicians and composers pass through its doors. As the Eisteddfod grows, it continues to be one of Ballarat’s major draw cards and contributes over $14 million a year to the local economy through the generous support of the Ballarat community, our sponsors and our 240 volunteers.
The Competitions, which run from July to October, offer 12 different theatrical disciplines to young performers including speech and drama, singing, music, dance and calisthenics.
The Society was granted “Royal” status in 1962 for services to the community and was recently honoured with five community service awards.
The Royal South Street Society is a not-for-profit organisation and is reliant on a small team of office staff, nine Board members and 240 volunteers to organise the annual event. The entry and admission fees only cover 50% of production costs. We are extremely grateful for the additional funding that comes from our generous sponsors.
From humble beginnings in 1879 as an informal debating group, the Royal South Street Society has grown to become the largest performing arts competition in Australia.
The Young Men’s General Debating Society was initiated by eight scholars of the Central State Night School, with the intention of ‘refining manners, cultivating the mind and stimulating the intellect.’ They met on a weekly basis in a cottage belonging to the mother of their first president, William D. Hill, at 31 South Street, Ballarat. The Society quickly grew in popularity, and by the early 1880s, a number of similar groups had also been established.
In 1882, these individual societies formed a collective body called the Ballarat and District Mutual Improvement Associations Union. The Union held its first annual competition on 30 March 1883, at the Alfred Hall in Grenville Street North. The program included music, elocution, essays, poetry and debates. Prizes included gold and silver medals, certificates and money amounting to £30 (close to $4,000 in today’s currency).
Although the Union collapsed in 1889, there was still enough interest from the local community to conduct further performance-based competitions. The inaugural Grand Annual Eisteddfod of Australasia was held in the Society’s new Skipton Street Hall on 16 June 1891. Over ten days, 260 entrants competed for prizes totalling £63 (worth almost $8,000 today). The presentation ceremony was chaired by Ballarat’s Mayor Shoppee, and Victorian Governor Lord Hopetoun awarded the prizes.
The Honourable Alfred Deakin gave a speech in which he congratulated the Society on their progress and expressed ‘the desirability of making their efforts the basis for still greater things.’
When the Royal South Street Society outgrew its original base at 31 South Street, other buildings were sought to meet the needs of competitors and audiences.
In 1886, a block of land at 115 Skipton Street was purchased to establish a new hall, with seating for up to 1,000 people. It was later relocated to Grenville Street in 1907, and renamed the Athenaeum. In the same year, the 10,000 seat Coliseum theatre was constructed on the adjoining lot, and was opened in August 1908 by Prime Minister Alfred Deakin. For 28 years, the Coliseum was the central venue for the South Street Competitions, until it was destroyed by a fire on 24 March 1936.
In 1965, the RSSS purchased Her Majesty’s Theatre in Lydiard Street. Her Majesty’s is the oldest working theatre in Australia, and has been in operation since 1875. After renaming it the Memorial Theatre, the Royal South Street Society managed the building until 1987, when they returned ownership to the City of Ballarat. Refurbishments began in 1988, with $5 million provided by the Victorian Government in partnership with $4 million raised by the Ballarat community. The re-christened Her Majesty’s was launched with a gala evening in 1990.
Other key venues used by the RSSS throughout its history include:
- Alfred Hall
- Mechanics Institute
- Civic Hall
- William Booth Hal
- Founders Hall
- St Paul’s Hall
- Dawson Street Hall
- Old Gaol and Court House
- Wendouree Performing Arts Centre
- Diocesan Hall of Christ Church
- Wesley Church Hall
- Ballarat Special School
- Wilkinson Hall
- Learning Exchange (old YMCA)
- Bridge Hotel Car Park
- City Oval
- Ballarat and Clarendon College
- Lake Wendouree Foreshore
From its inception, the Royal South Street Society has been generously supported by volunteers of all ages and backgrounds. Today, there are more than 250 dedicated unpaid helpers, including a Board of nine members.
All are passionate about the performing arts and generously give their time and energy each session. Each and every one of these volunteers plays a vital role in ensuring the smooth running of all events over the 14 weeks of competition. Some days this can mean in up to 80 volunteers are rostered to facilitate running the sessions. In 2014, the volunteers contributed about 18,000 hours of volunteered time. It is this very support that enables the South Street Competitions to continue.
"I have been a part of South Street for 36 years and a volunteer for 14 years. I wanted to give a bit back to something that I love. I enjoy the amazing talent of the competitors and seeing people coming back each year, As well as that, I have made life long friends. For me volunteering at South Street means I can put as little, or, as much as works for me. Volunteering has taught me to be very organised and how to manage my time. In 2014, I managed the Calisthenics Competitions at the Wendouree Centre of Performing Arts. I feel quite proud of my achievements."
South Street Volunteers undertake a remarkable range of roles in some fabulous venues in Ballarat. Her Majesty's Theatre is naturally at the top of this list. Volunteers are stage managers, discipline chairpersons, masters of ceremonies, curtain operators, timers, runners, security officers, technical support (like music coordination), front of house ushers, door persons, writers, ticket sellers, board members and more.
South Street volunteers love meeting and greeting audience members and performers alike. And they just love the thrill of the venue atmosphere whether it's Her Majesty's Theatre or elsewhere. They happily share their skills and knowledge with other volunteers as part of the rich friendships that develop along the way. Often volunteer's children follow in their parents footsteps so South Street can boast generation upon generation of volunteering at the competitions.
Volunteers really make a difference to everyone's South Street experience while promoting the value of the performing arts.
Training is offered to ensure all volunteers begin their relationship with the competitions knowledgeable, skilled and confident.
As a non-profit organisation, the Royal South Street Society draws its income from two main sources: firstly, from competition entry and admission fees; and secondly from advertising and sponsorship deals. Since its inception in 1891, the Royal South Street Society has enjoyed the support of a wide variety of financial partnerships. These have come from diverse backgrounds, from small businesses to larger corporations; from individuals to families. Each sponsor determines the nature of their involvement, be it supporting a specific discipline or the competitions as a whole.
Throughout its long history, the Royal South Street Society has had a number of different financial supporters. From 1903, there was a steady growth in figures until the Great Depression struck in 1933. During this time, the Royal South Street Society not only retained its existing partnerships, but also added 78 new sponsors, of which 25 were for music, singing and vocal teachers.
The number of advertisers and sponsors declined during World War II (1939 – 1945), but slowly increased again by 1949.
The nature of advertising has changed a great deal over the last two centuries. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, advertisements in Royal South Street Society publications featured general products as varied as toiletries, corsetry, furnishings, drapery, motor vehicles, bicycles, confectionery, Chinese medicine and musical instruments. Businesses today prefer to target their promotions towards specific markets. For the Royal South Street Society in the twenty-first century, this includes dance schools, calisthenic clubs, restaurants, accommodation, and schools at primary, secondary and tertiary level.
The Royal South Street Society could not have survived and flourished without the assistance of its many loyal supporters, and continues to rely on their generosity today.
Royal South Street Society Success Stories
Since 1891, thousands of people have participated in the RSSS Competitions, and many have progressed to have successful careers in the performing arts.
It is not possible to provide a complete list here, but some examples of recognisable names include adjudicators, performers and prize- givers:
- James Scullin
- Alfred Deakin
- Mary Grant Bruce
- Amy Castles
- Joan Kirner
- Denise Drysdale
- David Atkins
- Kiri Te Kanawa