Marvellous Melbourne: Recreational activities

Marvellous Melbourne: Recreational activities
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This clip shows the Henley-on-Yarra regatta and celebrations; the agricultural showgrounds and ‘fair barrackers at a football match’. Each segment is introduced with an intertitle. Summary by Poppy De Souza

The visible ‘blistering’ of the image in the final segment of this clip is caused by damage to the original nitrate print. Because nitrate-based film stock is fragile and can deteriorate quickly if not stored in the correct conditions, many nitrate prints held at the National Film and Sound Archive exhibit this damage. Nitrate prints at the NFSA are stored in highly controlled conditions for preservation purposes to ensure their continued survival.


Marvellous Melbourne synopsis

This silent documentary with intertitles was compiled by producer Charles Cozens Spencer and cinematographer Ernest Higgins. It documents architecture, transport, and recreation in Melbourne in the early part of last century.


Marvellous Melbourne Curator's notes

Marvellous Melbourne is a compilation of a series of films that Higgins and Spencer made about aspects of everyday life in the city and premiered at Wirth’s Olympia in Melbourne on 22 November 1910. The footage, with its camera angles, static shots, dollies and steady pans across the city, illustrates the beauty and many attractions of the city of Melbourne and is an important visual record of Melbourne’s history.

According to the National Film and Sound Archive database, this is the ‘oldest surviving complete documentary film on Melbourne’. Cozens Spencer, a Londoner, moved to Australia in 1905 and successfully exhibited films throughout the country. In 1908, Spencer formed a production unit (Spencers Pictures) with the cameraman Ernest Higgins, and made a number of short actuality films, this being one example. Spencer later went on to produce feature films, some with director Raymond Longford.

Notes by Poppy De Souza


Education notes

This clip shows silent black-and-white footage of people in Melbourne, Victoria, taking part in three different recreational activities in 1910. The first is the Henley-on-Yarra rowing regatta and the clip shows spectators, decorated houseboats and other craft. This is followed by scenes of the Royal Melbourne Show and finally by scenes of an Australian Rules football match. Footage of the football match has extensive damage. Each of the three activities is introduced by an intertitle.


Educational value points

  • This clip is from the oldest complete documentary about Melbourne still in existence. According to the National Film and Sound Archive, this important historical documentary is a compilation of footage from a series of earlier documentaries about everyday life in Melbourne that were produced by Cozens Spencer and shot by Ernest Higgins. Short actuality films recording daily life in Australian cities had been made and screened as early as 1896 but few have survived.

  • The Henley-on-Yarra regatta was first held in 1904 and by 1910, as shown in the clip, it was a well-attended spring occasion. The event was named after the regatta held at the town of Henley on the Thames River in England from 1839. The name 'Henley’ was often used across the British Empire for an amateur rowing regatta. In the Northern Territory team races along the dry riverbed of the Todd River in Alice Springs were ironically named 'Henley-on-Todd’ when they began in 1962.
  • As part of the desired English connection, the prizes at Henley-on-Yarra were named after their counterparts at Henley-on-Thames. Rowing clubs from across Melbourne competed for magnificent silver 'Challenge Cups’ in a range of events across a measured mile course (approx. 1600 m). In order to give the competing crews clear water for the finish, booms were laid along either side of the course for the last quarter mile (approx. 400 m). These booms can be seen in the clip.
  • The regatta was as much a social and fashion event as a sporting one. As illustrated in the clip, the Yarra was lined with decorated 'houseboats’. These temporary structures, built on pontoons, provided seating for the city’s rich and famous, rather like corporate boxes at events today. As the footage reveals, there was a distinct social separation at the regatta. The rich were to be seen in their latest spring outfits on the south bank while the less wealthy people sat on the north bank.
  • The scenes in the clip were probably shot after the races were over, when the river would fill with pleasure boats and canoes. The canoes were decorated with brightly coloured cushions and curtains hanging from temporary superstructures added to the craft for the occasion. The celebrations on the river went on into the night when the canoes would have been even more unsafe than they appear here.
  • The Royal Melbourne Show is the second activity shown in the clip. It started as a ploughing competition in Moonee Ponds in 1848, organised by the Royal Agricultural Society. Held every September, the Show is Victoria’s largest and longest-running public entertainment event. It now lasts for eleven days, with 500,000 visitors annually. The footage shows the Showgrounds in Ascot Vale as it appeared in 1910 before major development works in the 1930s.
  • The final section of the clip shows supporters cheering players on the field at an Australian Rules football game in 1910. Australian football is generally believed to have started around 1858. By the late 1890s there were two top-grade competitions operating in Victoria and the number of players on a team had been reduced from 20 to 18. One of the teams shown here is probably Collingwood, which won the Victorian Football League competition in 1910.
  • The size and weight of cameras of the time meant that relatively few locations were used for filming the three activities in the clip. Once the camera was in place, the cinematographer, Ernest Higgins, could choose a fixed or panoramic shot to film whatever was in sight. The football scenes show that Higgins’s equipment did not allow him to follow the play. He could only film what moved into view. The 'pan’ itself was a fairly new capability and was used for the first time in 1903.
  • The effects of nitrate decomposition are clearly evident in the clip. Used until 1951, nitrate film base (stock) is highly flammable and chemically unstable, decomposing easily. Initial decomposition leaves a brownish discolouration that irreversibly fades the images. The film base then shrinks and becomes brittle or sticky. Blisters form, as seen here. Finally the film becomes a solid mass or disintegrates into a brownish dust. Many early films have been lost in this way.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
Spencers Pictures
Charles Cozens Spencer

This is a silent film. We see old footage of the Henley-on-Yarra regatta. There are many boats on the river — some are competitors and some are spectators jostling for position. The camera pans to reveal the floating pontoon that marks the finish line. We see old footage of the agricultural show-grounds in 1910. There are many attractions and the grounds are busy. We see the Fair Barrackers at a football match. Two women and a groups of children applaud enthusiastically. The remainder of the clip is badly damaged due to deterioration of the nitrate-based film. We see footage of the football match.