Melbourne International Exhibition

International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Agricultural and Industrial Products of all Nations

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Quick List Info

Exhibits at the Melbourne International Exhibition

Dates Open - October 1, 1880 to April 30, 1881. Not open Sundays. 181 days.

Attendance - Total Visitors 985,848 (likely paid), Miscellaneous 344,431 (exhibitors, employees, commissioners, free passes, etc.), Total Attendance 1,330,279. 1,458,963 total also listed, may indicate total admission including multiple entrances by the 16,061 season ticket holders.

International Participants - 18 National and 21 Colonies.

Total Cost - 320,000L ($1.56m at $4.85 per L). Legislation provided $1.5 million. Buildings cost $1.201 million. Legislature voted in favor of exposition and provided the ground where the exhibition was held.

Site Acreage - 63 acres in the Carlton Gardens section in the center of Melbourne. 21 acres of building space.

Sanction and Type - Prior to sanctioning by the Bureau of International Exhibitions. Would be considered a Special category Recognized event today due to size and participation.

Ticket Cost - 30 cents adult, 15 cents children .

Photo top center: Lithograph of the Melbourne International Exhibition, original source unknown. Courtesy Pinterest and Relics of the World's Fair, Melbourne, Atlas Obscura. Column Top: Exhibits of the Exhibition, 1880, Courtesy Wikipedia Commons, State Library of Victoria.

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History of the Event

Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne

There were only three million people living in all colonies of Australia when they decided to join the international exhibition world and promote their commercial enterprises. Combined with Sydney's fair the year before, Melbourne intended to put the Colonies of Australia, including host Victoria on the map, which it accomplished. The colony itself only had one million people in it, with Melbourne accouting for two hundred and fifty thousand. Now, there are some reports on the internet that the Melbourne fair was a Bureau of International Exhibitions event. While that's not true (The B.I.E. did not come into existence until 1928), it does not diminish what Melbourne accomplished. Over one million people attended the remarkable exhibition building that still stands today as a World Heritage site. Out of three million people in the entire continent, many far from the site, one million showed up. It's like if today the United States held an event and one hundred and ten million came. There's been no event with that amount of attendance in world fair history.

Now some say that the building was less grand than at Sydney, but that might be taste. Exhibits poured into the exhibition, many from the Paris fair of 1878. It had solid international participation with eighteen nations and twenty-one colonies, of which, Victoria, the host, was one. Melbourne had been hosting exhibitions of a lesser stature since gold was discovered in the colony in 1851; some local, some national, and some Inter-Colonial. By 1877, a plan was submitted to the colonial parliament for a permanent structure that would host an international exhibition. Construction began with the first stone laid February 19, 1879. That structure, with twenty-two acres of floor space, still stands and has a remarkable history past the 1880-1 exhibition. It held another, in 1888, the first Australian Federal Parliament, and is still their main exhibition and conference center.

Above photo. Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne today, a World Heritage Structure. Courtesy Royal Exhibition Building. Middle: The bay at Melbourne around the time of the exhibition, William Henry Jackson. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Melbourne Bay
The exhibition itself was more concerned with industry and manufacturers than Sydney, which had focused more on agriculture. There was 650,000 square feet of exhibition space in the main building with 400,000 reserved for Europe and America. Of course, there were complaints. British manufacturers disliked the restrictive tariffs in the colony, affecting their feeling toward the fair. But the fair attracted many exhibits anyway, 12,792 overall, and was prepared on opening day with the majority of exhibits completed. There are reports that the fair lost money, L277,292, and others that say it broke even. Sometimes that depends on how you value what was left, for example, the exhibition building that has served Melbourne strong for over a century. Whether the accounting says loss or not, most considered the exhibition a rousing success, both in attendance and the commercial push it gave colony business.

Historian's Perspective

David Dunstan - "The Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880-81 was an event of great importance, particularly for the "gold generation" of Australian colonists who came to Victoria in the 1850s with memories of the London International Exhibition of 1851 "the Crystal Palace" still in their minds. An international exhibition in Melbourne was for them a celebration of their colonial achievment and a rite of passage."

"Melbournians in particular saw the Exhibition as a confirmation of their status as a world commercial city. All manner of goods, patents and inventions were displayed and the exhibition was a factor in the city's spectacular growth over the next decade."


Melbourne Exhibition Building

International Participants
Nations and Colonies

Nations - Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Switzerland, United States, United Kingdom, China, Denmark, Norway, Russia, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Turkey.

Colonies - New Caledonia & Algiers (France), Portuguese colonies, British India, Ceylon, Mauritius, Straits Settlement, New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia, South Australia, New Zealand, Queensland, Fiji, Victoria, South Africa, South Sea Islands (Thailand and Malaysia), Formosa, Victoria, Cape Colony, Burma.

Note: It is sometimes difficult to tell whether certain nations or colonies actually participated in a significant way, especially in joint pavilions. Newspaper reports as well as the official guidebook may indicate participation when actual participation did not occur, or occurred minimally. Take the above as a guide, not gospel. Same could be said for whether you should count individual parts of a joint colony as one colony or more.

Expo Tidbits
Public school children were admitted free on certain days.

The exhibition building was a wood building and is now under the pervue of the Museum of Victoria.

Royal Exhibition Building.

Those in Charge

Secretary Geo. C. Levey, CMG, spent one year traveling in North America and Europe publicizing the event. Official inauguration by the Marquis of Normanby.

Interior of the Melbourne Exhibition Building

Sources: La Page Francophone des Expositions Universelles de Jacques Bertrand; History of Fairs and Expositions; Book of the Fairs; The Great Exhibitions; New York Times; London Times; Historical Dictionary of World's Fairs by Alfred Heller; History of Fairs and Expositions; Bureau of International Exhibitions; "Oh, So Many Fairs" by Mike Gregory; Les Fastes du Progress; "World's Fairs and the End of Progress, an Insider's View," by Alfred Heller; "Victorian Icon" by David Dunstan; Worlds Fairs from 1851 to 1893.

Photo column top: Royal Exhibition Building, 1880. Courtesy Royal Exhibition Building. Courtesy Library of Congress. Bottom: Interior of the Melbourne Exhibition Building, 2006, Andrew Hutton. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

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