Real Life

The women behind the Sydney Royal Easter Show

For more than 200 years, the Sydney Royal Easter Show – the largest Royal show in Australia – has brought country women to the city as farmers, fierce competitors and friends. The Weekly meets some of the women who have their hopes pinned on this year’s show.

You smell it before you see it. The distinctive aroma of hay and livestock mixed with a smorgasbord of fast food, corn-on-the-cob and beer. The air is filled with piercing screams from sideshow alley and the shrieks of over-excited children who’ve had too much fairy floss and seen animals they never knew existed. There is nothing quite like the Sydney Royal Easter Show. It’s where rural Australia meets the city, and – whether breeding animals for show, displaying their astonishing skill in woodchopping, jam-making and cake decorating, or whipping up 4000 scones in a morning – women have always been here.

The Sydney Royal Easter Show is the largest annual ticketed event in Australia and perhaps also the oldest. The pillars of the colony (Samuel Marsden et al) formed the Agricultural Society of NSW in 1822 and the first show was held in Parramatta the following year. By 1869 it was attracting 37,000 city and country folk annually and Queen Victoria allowed the ‘Royal’ prefix to be added in 1891.

In its early decades women’s contributions were largely confined to the “feminine arts” and the shocking “best servant” category. In 1905 a Women’s Industries section was introduced, which earned its own pavilion two years later. In 1915 women were competing in equestrian events – though only riding side-saddle. And in 1920 cooking competitions were introduced to the show. In a little over a decade, The Weekly would be hosting demonstrations and displays there.

The Weekly covers the Show.

In 1935 The Weekly could confidently report that times were truly changing. That year, American champion Alice Greenough faced down Australian riders Miss Skuthorpe and Miss Perrett in the “lady buck jumping” championships. Lady Luxton from the Melbourne Hunt Club was among many horsewomen who showed, while Mrs Anthony Hordern expected to again take out the prize for her Hereford cattle.

“Time was when the activities of women at the Show were confined to such sections as cooking, needlework, and the domestic arts,” The Weekly noted, “but this time has long since passed. They now play a most important part in almost every branch of the Agricultural Society’s programme.”

In 1937 The Weekly reported that of the Show’s 11,000 exhibitors, 3500 were now women. That was also the first year a woman (Miss Cargill) bid for stock at the Easter Show cattle sales.

Ashleigh Marsh at the Show. (Photo: Stephen Mowbray)

Today, women contribute to a whole range of events and activities at the Show. This year will see the first World Championship Underhand Woodchop event for women, where Hunter Valley competitor Ashleigh Marsh hopes to take home the top prize.

Originally from New Zealand, Ashleigh was inspired by her dad to become a woodchop competitor, and nine years ago joined a longtime Aussie woodchopping family when she married Blake Marsh, whose dad Noel’s feats with an axe are the stuff of legend.

Ashleigh has already won the Women’s Underhand competition three times at Sydney, but this time, if she takes out the top prize, she’ll able to call herself the World Champion.

Asked what she loves most about woodchopping she says, “I love being strong. I also love the people. Everyone’s just a big family, really. And I like it because it’s so different, it’s unexpected. I tell people I’m a woodchopper and they say, ‘No you can’t be’.”

Eileen Scriven with her cake. (Photo: Supplied)

Women still dominate in their traditional fields of excellence as well. Eileen Scriven, twice Australian National Champion in cake decoration, has collected 10 awards at Sydney. Her 2023 replica of the late Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding cake astounded judges and onlookers alike. The most challenging aspect was to scale down the 275cm original to 70cm without losing the detail.

Eileen’s memories of the Show date back to her childhood in West Wyalong in the NSW Riverina, when her mum would sew up Easter dresses for the children and they would do odd jobs to raise pocket money for the Show. It wasn’t until she was married with kids of her own and living in picturesque Milton on the NSW South Coast that she became inspired to work with sugar and to enter competitions.

“You have to start from the bottom,” says Eileen. “So you start in the novice category, and then when you win that, you go to the open section and when you win that, you go to the masters. The first year, I won the Masters Wedding Cake. Once you win there, you can’t go back. So I just kept competing.”

Eileen says she found her earliest inspiration in The Australian Women’s Weekly Complete Book Of Cake Decorating. From there she was largely self-taught. Making and decorating cakes for her four kids’ birthdays was great training, and she attributes much of her show-stopping success to her royal icing and cornelli piping. She uses a medical hypodermic syringe to do the most intricate lacework.

“I love the piping, but you don’t see much piping on cakes anymore,” she says. She is also very proud of her fruit cake recipe, which dates back 120 years.

“When they see me coming with a box,” Eileen jokes, the other competitors “shake” in their boots. “‘Oh, Eileen’s back again,’ they say.”

Rebecca Wistuba with her Standard Poodle Juan, who won Best in Show in 2021. (Photo: Supplied)

Another fierce competitor is Rebecca Wistuba who, in 2021, finally scored Best in Show for her Standard Poodle after more than 35 years showing dogs.

“Some people wait their entire life to get a first place at the Royal,” says Rebecca. “To get a Best of Breed at Sydney Royal is a big deal, but to ultimately win Best in Show – it’s something you dream about. You think it’s probably never going to happen, but it did happen for me. It’s all a bit of a blur but it was very exciting. We felt very privileged.”

Rebecca went to her first show at age seven with her family who bred Boxers. She too showed Boxers until she fell in love with a Standard Poodle, Juan, whose professional name is Piedmont’s High Roller.

“Juan’s a bit of a crowd-pleaser,” she says. “He loves the attention. The louder the crowd claps, the more excited he gets. He thinks everything’s for him. And he looks a picture.”

More than 3000 dogs are entered in the Royal Easter Show annually, “and you’re there from seven in the morning until 5.30 in the afternoon,” says Rebecca. “You get to have so much interaction with the public … My poodle loves a good selfie with the kids, so he’s always popular. And they’re always very interested in how much hairspray we use.”

CWA Tea Room volunteers. (Photo: © Salty Dingo 2023)

The Show is all about community. Two hundred years since that first event in Parramatta, the Show still brings country people to the city and gives city folk a taste of regional Australia, while for people living remotely it’s a rare opportunity to touch base with friends. And the Country Women’s Association (CWA) Tea Room, now located within the Home & Lifestyle Pavilion, is the most popular meeting place in the showground.

The CWA was born out of the Centenary Show in 1922, when a Bushwomen’s Conference was held in conjunction with the main event. The CWA was founded on the spot “to improve the conditions for country women and children”.

The first CWA Devonshire teas were served in 1947. Today sandwiches, salads, tea, coffee and cakes are all available, but the main attractions are still the CWA scones.

A snack steeped in controversy, the scone poses the perennial question: Which goes on first, the jam or the cream?

Joy Beames of Dunedoo, NSW State President of the CWA, insists that if the cream is thick, it should be applied before the conserve, but whipped cream goes after. She also advises that hot scones should be broken by hand to allow the steam to escape. Cutting a hot scone with a knife will seal in the steam and make the flour soggy.

Joy has been volunteering at the Tea Room for almost a decade, and wouldn’t be anywhere else at showtime.

“Often we’ll see families come through for morning tea before they head off for the day. The children are always excited about what they’re going to see – the animals particularly. Mums and dads have a cup of tea and then they feel ready to face the day.”

Western District Exhibit preparation undertaken by Elaine Frecklington (Peak Hill), Betty Swain (Peak Hill), Edith Dixon Flint (Ungarie), 1957. (Photo: RAS Heritage Collection)

The volunteers at the Tea Room – some in their eighties – make roughly 4000 scones every day. Wheat is donated by the Manildra Group, and Dubbo’s Little Big Dairy donates more than 200 litres of double cream. The CWA Tea Room raises as much as $140,000 at the Show to aid its various initiatives, including supporting farmers in times of fire, flood and drought. And the Tea Room plays a crucial social role as well.

“It’s amazing how many people say, ‘We’ll meet you at the CWA rooms’,” says Joy. “Country people often can’t socialise. They can’t just pop down to the club and have a drink or go to the local restaurant. So people make a deliberate appointment at the CWA Tea Room to meet others they know from around the state … A lot of the people who come through the Tea Room are here to exhibit their animals or their fruit and veg.”

One such exhibitor is Alison Kernaghan, Central District organiser for the spectacular District Exhibits Display, which is the largest of its kind in the world.

Alison is flat out when The Weekly calls, not only tending her own plot of maize, which she grows specifically for the Show, but coordinating the delivery of tonnes of the finest produce from across her region to Sydney’s Homebush showground. Each district display is designed by an artist and assembled by volunteers using more than 10,000 pieces of fresh produce.

The District Exhibits Display first appeared at the Show in 1876, and Alison’s family have been showing since her grandfather first presented corn there in the late 1940s. Alison fondly recalls childhood Easters spent riding the bus to Sydney and selling produce out the front of the display to help the family.

“The Sydney Show is part of my life,” she says. “My partner would love me to resign.” But that’s not going to happen. It’s a labour of love.

Lauren Short’s family have been entertaining punters at shows around Australia for five generations. (Photo: Supplied)

Lauren Short’s family also has a long history at the Show. In one way or another they’ve been involved in amusements at country shows for five generations, and Sydney is the star event in their calendar.

Members of her family have performed as mime artists, in all-female dancing revues, and have provided a whole range of entertainment from shooting galleries to high-adrenaline rides and carousels. The 120-year-old German carousel they brought to show in 1928 is still operating today.

Lauren was born during the Wagga Wagga Show, her mother “holding on” as she drove the truck up the Hume Highway from Melbourne. And travelling has remained in Lauren’s blood. After graduating with a degree in agriculture, she found her way back to the family business and today “travels Australia with 500 show families and two teachers who set up classrooms in every town for the showie’s kids”.

Lauren cites her mother as her major inspiration. “I grew up watching my mum build a large, family-orientated entertainment and amusement business,” she says.

“But I have been surrounded by a lot of strong women in my family who have all left an impression. A tough industry requires tough women, and that’s something I’ve had the privilege of being surrounded by.

“The show circuit has been a great place to grow up and spread your wings, and women have had a lot to do with the development of this industry in Australia.”

This year, as Lauren puts the final touches to her new attraction, The Royal Egg Hunt, she’s thinking about the generations of women who have come before her, and like Eileen, Rebecca, Joy, Ashleigh and Alison, she’s hoping this will be her best year ever.

“Everybody,” says Lauren, “wants to be best in show.”

The Sydney Royal Easter Show runs from March 22 – April 2. Don’t miss The Australian Women’s Weekly Showbag, available from the Showbag Pavilion.  

Related stories