The Chusan Ball

In a time before the Internet and text messages, the arrival of the first British mail steam ship was cause for celebration in the colony.

Chusan Ball in 1972

Australian Museum © Australian Museum

On the 26th August 1852 the Australian Museum held its inaugural event in honour of the arrival of the Peninsular and Oriental (P&O) vessel Chusan. This was the first Royal Mail Steamer from Great Britain and signified a greater relationship with the mother country, cutting travel time down by almost half.

The Museum closed its doors on the 13th August in preparation of a Ball celebrating the arrival of the steamer, under the proviso that no nail would be driven into a single wall.

Six hundred tickets were available for the ball and the prices for ladies were advertised at 10 shillings and 6 pence, and gentlemen at 25 shillings. One disgruntled resident was vexed with the cost of tickets, writing to the Sydney Morning Herald on the 18th August 1852:

'The Ball to be held on the 26th instant at the Museum, must be admitted by all rational people, cannot be fairly termed a Public Ball, when it is well known from the prices of admission, and the very select few that can attend, they, the aristocracy, will be the only beneficients of this so called Public Ball.'

The Ball was considered a large success with immaculate decorations, amazing food, wine and lively music. For those not wanting to dance, tables were provided for games of whist with De La Rue playing cards. The dancing commenced at 9 o’clock and was only stopped for supper at midnight. The Supper room was beneath the main hall of the Museum being used as the Ball room. With the flags of all nations (in good relations with Great Britain) being hung around the Supper room, three rows of tables were used to dine, with His Excellency the Governor-General occupying the centre seat.

The Chairman of the evening was Sir Charles Nicholson who gave the first toast of the evening, declaring that “he regarded this as one of the grandest events of the present century – an event which could not escape the notice of every future historian of the colony.” Many other notable guests gave toasts including General Wynyard, the Colonel Secretary and Captain Down of the Chusan. In preparation of the Ball, the Chusan Waltz was composed by Henry Marsh and dedicated to Captain Down and the officers of the Steam Vessel. After the formalities of supper the Chusan Waltz was played.

Following the ball, rave reviews were given by newspapers as to its success. Decorations from the evening were later auctioned off on George St, including India Matting, pieces of Blue Baize and wooden pedestals that held flowers. Unfortunately some were not impressed with the standard of reporting for the event, writing their disappointment as to the lack of description of the ladies dresses to the Sydney Morning Herald. To which the reader was responded “we are very sorry we cannot oblige our fair friend. We must admit our incompetency to deal with ladies’ dresses.”

In honour of the Chusan Ball, a second was organized in 1972 for The Australian Museum Society. The Ball was a recreation of the original with over 400 guests in attendance. Decorations were recreated in the style of the 1850s, with guests arriving in period costume, enjoying a banquet and dancing in the main Hall of the Museum.
 


Elizabeth McKinnon
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