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Sydney Lord Mayor’s Ball 1844


The Sydney Lord Mayor’s Ball 1844




Mitchell Library. Manuscript ‘scrapbook’ John Rae circa 1844. DSM/A827/r and 821/r


“THE following Extract from the account of the Fancy Ball, which I sent to the Herald, on the day after it took place, contains some particulars which could not be introduced into the Poem.


Sydney Morning Herald, Friday, 23rd August 1844.
The fancy dress ball of the Right Worshipful the Mayor to the citizens of Sydney took place in the Victoria Theatre on Wednesday evening, 21st instant. It was a gorgeous spectacle; and, unless we had been present, we could not have conceived it possible for Sydney, in its present condition, to have brought together such a vast variety of costly and magnificent dresses, and costumes of all nations, as greeted our eyes on the present occasion.


Ever since his Worship announced his intention of giving a Fancy Ball, considerable excitement has prevailed.  All were anxious to be present; but as the theatre could contain only a limited number, it is obvious that all could not be invited. We must give the Mayor credit for doing all that prudence could accomplish, to render the invitations as general as possible.  He acted wisely in entrusting the issuing of cards to a Committee, whose management and whole arrangements showed that they were well qualified for the task committed to their charge.


“ We are aware,”—says a writer on a similar subject, “that many persons are strongly opposed to the gaiety of such scenes—and cry out upon the vanity of heart that can induce a thinking man to bedizen himself in the trappings of a borrowed character, and to strut and fret his hour, as some foreign potentate, or defunct hero, for the edification of a few hundreds of people as simple as himself.—For our own poor part, we are of the earth, earthy ; we seek pleasure wherever she can be found with morality for her companion; whether it be in the busy bustling town, or in the one quiet street of a country village, in the brilliant saloon trembling beneath the feet of the dancers, or in the retired solitude of a sand-strewn parlour, at some road-side inn.


All times, all places are alike to us,—so long as the legitimate end of pleasure is kept in view; and whilst hilarity of heart and enlargement of feeling are the results of such associations, we do not know that we are infringing upon any divine law, by participating in that which so innocently invites us to dance and be merry.”


The Victoria Theatre never looked more brilliant. Extensive preparations had been made, to turn the capacious stage and pit into one ample Ball-room. The pit was, for this purpose, boarded over, and the extent of area enclosed from the back of the stage to the boxes, will be easily understood by any person who has visited the theatre. The excellent Band of the 99th Regiment was stationed in the centre of the upper tier of boxes, and the theatrical Band at the back of the pit. Tables for refreshment were spread at the extreme ends of the stage, which was lighted with ‘a brilliant chandelier, in addition to the usual gas-burners. From the proscenium to the back of the stage, drapery of different colours, and tastefully arranged into festoons and graceful folds, gave a gay and imposing appearance to this part of the house. Under the boxes, the columns and walls of the quondam pit were decked with wreaths of evergreens, and on facing round from the back of the stage, the scene which the different tiers of boxes presented,—so elegantly fitted up, and crowded with so many fair and happy faces, and splendid dresses,—was truly delightful.


The dress and upper circles were reserved for the invited guests; and the gallery for those who could not be asked to the ball, for want of room. They were accordingly only spectators of the carnival; and were admitted by different cards, and by a separate entrance. In the lobby was stationed a guard-of-honour, which saluted their Excellencies the Governor,—and the Commander of the Forces,—and other officers, with the honours due to their rank.


At the top of the grand staircase, fronting the principal entrance to the theatre, some members of the Corporation and the Town-clerk were stationed, to receive the company and prevent intrusion from unbidden guests. On delivery of their cards, parties might be ushered into the Ballroom at once, or retire to the dressing-rooms provided for them.


For the convenience of the ladies, a door was opened from the lobby of the dress-circle into the saloon, and the cloakrooms of the theatre were reserved for the accommodation of gentlemen.   On completing their toilet, they returned by the same staircase, and were introduced and made their bow to the Mayor and Mayoress.


The Ball was announced to commence at nine; but the Mayor, unwilling to keep the carriages waiting, and blocking up the passage to the theatre, ordered the doors to be opened at half-past eight, and the ballroom was very soon sprinkled with fancy dresses.  About a quarter past nine, His Excellency the Governor, Lady Gipps and suite, were announced, amidst the acclamations of all present, while the two Bands played the National Anthem. The appearance which the Ballroom at this moment presented was very imposing, and His Excellency might be pardoned for indulging the belief that for one night he was Governor of many nations.   The music and dancing commenced soon after; and we felt the force and beauty of the noble poet’s description of a similar scene at Brussels, on the eve of the battle of Waterloo, which with a slight alteration will describe the scene at the Theatre :—


There was a sound of revelry by night—
Australia’s capital had gathered then
Its beauty and its chivalry; and bright
The lamps shone on fair women and brave men.
A thousand hearts beat happily, and when
Music arose, with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again,
And all went merry as a marriage-bell.
On with the dance! let joy be unconfined!
No sleep till morn, when youth and pleasure meet,
To chase the glowing hours with flying feet.


In so large an assembly, where there was often scarcely walking-room, it was astonishing to see what order and regularity prevailed.   So dense was the crowd, and so large the room, that on parting with a friend there was but little chance of finding him or her again for the next half-hour; but, no sooner was the order to form for quadrilles issued, than the confused mass of human beings ranged themselves as if by magic, with as much apparent facility as if only fifty had been present, and chaos was changed into order.


The appearance of the Ball-Boom from the boxes was exceedingly picturesque and magnificent.  The eye of the spectator wandered from object to object with ever-varying pleasure. The splendour and diversity of the dresses,— the correctness of the different costumes,—the historical and dramatic – the fictitious and fanciful characters, which figured beneath, exhibited a tableau vivant, a never-ending series of living pictures of different ages and countries that could not be surpassed.  It would be impossible to give a person who was not present any idea of the elegance and costliness of the dresses, and we may refer to the subjoined List, taken from the cards, to show their variety. Among the gaudy array of Eastern garbs, glittering with Barbaric pearl and gold, there were many complete and handsome Highland costumes, which gave a cool relief to the eye and produced an agreeable contrast; and there were some characters which had never appeared on any stage before, and could not well appear on any other stage than that of Australia—we allude to those representing the Aborigines of the Colony. One of these sable heroes, arrayed in an old tattered blanket, enlivened the company, on one occasion, by bursting into the centre of a circle of waltzers, and giving a ludicrous fac simile of an Aboriginal dance.  There was another character which created much excitement, at an early part of the evening,—we mean Jack the Giant, a gentleman nine feet high, who marched into the room, and, brandishing a club, threatened to damage the chandelier, if not to take a step from the pit into the boxes.


We are quite incompetent to the task of describing the dresses of the ladies. To say that they were generally elegant and many of them gorgeous would be saying only the truth, but it would not be saying all the truth.   We were delighted to see such a large assemblage of the beauty and fashion of the metropolis; and to the fair ladies of Sydney, who took so much pains to decorate their persons, and to personify some of the heroines of other days, His Worship was indebted for the delight which was experienced by all present at the Ball.  Dancing commenced shortly after nine o’clock, and was kept up with much spirit, until six o’clock next morning.  The dances were quadrilles, and waltzes, and gallopades (sic), four double sets of quadrilles being formed at one time.


The following is a list of the company present, with the costumes assumed by the different characters printed in Italics. Where no costume is given, the parties were in plain clothes, or had omitted to state on their cards the names of the characters, which they meant to personate.


One leading and most agreeable feature of the evening’s entertainments was the total, absence of all class feeling. This must have been perceptible to all, and can be justly attributed to the excellent arrangements of the Committee.  It was gratifying to observe all classes mixing familiarly together; and we are satisfied, that meetings like this are calculated to produce good feeling among all.


The refreshments were supplied by Fielding, and, as will be seen by the bill of fare, (published in the Herald,) were both varied and plentiful. At the top of the table, there was a gilt pedestal, supporting a beautiful glass star; and between the points, and around the border of the star, the words Victoria, and Corporation, shone in letters of sugar.  On each side of the star, was a splendid pillar, surmounted by a Prince of Wales’s feather, festooned with flowers.


We are only echoing the generally expressed sentiment, that it was impossible that any affair of the kind could go off more pleasantly; but it could not be otherwise. The arrangements were excellent; everybody went determined to be pleased,— and they were pleased accordingly.


We cannot conclude, without noticing the admirable arrangements made by the Commissioner of Police outside.  To avoid confusion on the arrival of the carriages, barriers were placed across Market street and Pitt street, and the whole of the company were set down, without the slightest accident.