From sheep to shows: The Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria Heritage Collection

For well over a century ‘The Show’ has been the keystone event for its proprietor, the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria (RASV).Many Victorians have fond childhood memories of the Royal Melbourne Show and for many it was, and still is, a yearly family tradition full of entertainment. Others attend to exhibit livestock, operate fairground rides, or compete in the agricultural, domestic and equestrian competitions. Perhaps unknown to many show-goers is that the RASV also cares for an incredibly valuable heritage collection, for which History@Work recently completed a Significance Assessment.

Australian agricultural societies are rooted in ideas originating in eighteenth century Britain. The Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland (established in 1784) was one of the first organized groups in Britain to actively pursue and advocate for an improved and sustainable agricultural and rural sector. In Australia, similar needs emerged with the advent of pastoralisation during the early nineteenth century. Several regional groups emerged throughout Victoria (then the Port Phillip District) and in 1848 the Port Phillip Farmers’ Society (PPFS) was formed. The PPFS implemented a series of highly successful agricultural shows which combined produce and breed competitions with sideshow entertainment. In 1870 the PPFS was absorbed by the new National Agricultural Society of Victoria, which became the RASV when royal patronage was granted in 1890.

Some RASV Heritage Collection items hark back to the Society’s pastoral roots, such as an original 1848 ‘General Exhibition of Stock’ schedule from the PPFS’ first cattle show. Others offer valuable insight into the Society’s operations over its long history. A near-complete set of annual reports and exhibit catalogues illustrate how the Royal Melbourne Show has evolved, as well as the names of Australia’s leading farmers and livestock breeders over the last 150 years or so. Similarly, the RASV’s extensive trophy collection pays homage to the generations of competition winners across all categories – from outstanding wines to budgerigars. Particularly captivating is the RASV’s trove of photographs, which includes hundreds of pictures taken by esteemed rural photographer Frank Johnson. Dating back to the 1940s, Johnson’s photographs provide snapshots of rural life and agricultural shows throughout Victoria. 

Now approaching its twentieth year, the RASV Heritage Collection is being lovingly cared for by a team of dedicated staff and volunteers. As Royal Melbourne Show enthusiasts, it was an absolute pleasure for us to work with the RASV on assessing their collection.

"We think the document is terrific and I have so enjoyed viewing the collection and its significance from your perspective. The report will be invaluable in assisting us with future planning collection prioritisation.'