State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 56 Spring 1995

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The 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition Visitors' Book

The 1880 visitors' register is a tome: over half a metre long, 44.5 cm. wide and 17 cm. deep. It was manufactured by Cowan and Co. of Flinders Lane, (now absorbed into the large paper prodcer, Spicers). The paper is of high quality, every second page proudly proclaiming “made … of loft-dried record paper” meaning sheets were individually dried and hand-made. Alas, fewer than 16,000 of the 1.3 million visitors to the exhibition took up pen to write on the register's superior quality paper. Those who did give a fascinating glimpse of the times.

From the visitors' register

The first thing I noticed was the language used. “Grand”, “glorious”, “splendid”, even “spiffing” and “first chop”, “tip-top”, “Al”, “blooming” and “bluming rot” are still in use today, while dictionaries of historical slang can explain some others, like “not so dusty” (quite good), “first water” (of the highest quality), “up to Dick” (excellent), “bang up” (first rate), “real jam” (very delightful), “toll loll” (pretty good), “a bontoshter” (probably a variation of “bontosher” meaning good, although this would pre-date the first use of the word, cited in Australian words and their origins, by 24 years1) and “Bangs Banager” (from the Anglo-Irish phrase “beat Banaghan”, to tell a marvellous story). But what are we to make of phrases such as “Ho Ki” or “lose your gingham”?
The exhibition certainly brought out colonial pride in many viewers with comments such as “Advance Victoria Excelsior”, “Victoria invincible”, “grand considering the youth of the colony”, “Hurrah! Victoria” and “Victoria forever”. And there is the familiar Sydney — Melbourne rivalry as in “sends Sydney up a tree” (in serious difficulty). Many compared it, usually favourably, with exhibitions elsewhere such as London in 1851, Paris in 1878, and Philadelphia in 1876. Henry Allbutt of St Arnaud even declared it “better than St Arnaud races”.
At a glance, more men than women signed the visitors' book and this is probably a reflection of men's greater freedom to be out in the world. The two comments I found written in shorthand are by men, a reminder of the time when male clerks predominated in the office, learning to operate the new-fangled typewriter and telephone as well as taking shorthand.
There seemed to be agreement amongst men and women that the exhibition was a “fine place to spoon in” (or show affection). Katie White of Balaclava thought it a “very good place to see nice young gentlemen”, while Annie Gleeson also found it a “grand place to meet chaps” and Jeannie Wren described “the gentlemen” as “well worth the Bob” (the entry price). Various men thought it a “good place for bachelors”, “the young ladies” being “the best Exhibits”, although Henry Thomas of Mt Buninyong wrote there were “not enough of girls” and another poor chap couldn't “get a girl to walk with.”
While the book attracted more positive than negative comments, many were obviously critics of the protectionist Berry government and comments such as “a great big Berry job: quite a failure” and “Mr Berry ought to be Berried in it”, “Berry's White Elephant” and “another of Berry's blunders” are common. The trade aspect of the exhibition was clear to many: one Canadian described it as “a very good bazaar”, although T.E. Moran of Hotham thought it “an expensive sprat to catch the mackerel of prosperity.”
Criticism of the catering was intense with a visitor from Spain summing it up thus: “Catering in Temperance dept is simply
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abominable. Sandwiches like boards, coffee like mud and tea like slops. Nuff sed.” His view was shared by others using words like “scandalous” and “execrable” — the caterer's contract was later cancelled.2 And there were numerous expressions of disappointment with the lack of music in the early weeks of the exhibition. It wasn't until the last week of October that the daily programme listed free afternoon piano recitals and it was some time after that that the “grand organ” is listed.
Some were also dismayed by the “pictures” displayed even describing them as “rather bawdy” — perhaps it was Chloe, shortly after to be rejected for purchase by the Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria, who shocked viewers.3
Many visitors speculated on future uses of the exhibition building, suggesting it would make a good chapel or railway station, while Henry

Visitors' register from the 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition

Wastdale Shepherd of Albert Park declared it would “make a good place for unemployed to live in.” Obviously the merits of the grand old building as an exhibition space continued to be appreciated. Not so with the visitors' register — it lay untouched until Melbourne's sesquicentenary exhibition in 1934, and comments for that affair took only another centimetre of pages, leaving more than half the register's quality leaves unturned.
Marg McCormack
La Trobe Research Librarian, State Library of Victoria

1

J. Hughes' Australian words and their origins (Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1989) p. 64 attributes the first use of “bontosher” to The bulletin of 14 April 1904.

2

John Parris & A.G.L. Shaw. Victorian historical journal no. 51(4) 1980 p. 245.

3

The age (Saturday extra) 6 May 1995, p. 5.