A Lilac Celebration Unveiled: The Beginning of Goulburn’s Lilac Time Legacy

The story as told by William A, Bayley in the book titled “Lilac City – The story of Goulburn New South Wales, unveil’s why Goulburn New South Wales became known as the “Lilac City” and also details how the Goulburn Lilac City Festival “Lilac Time” came to be.

Lilac City- The story of Goulburn New South Wales.


1952- 1953



Goulburn’s architectural and floral beauty supplemented the civic pride of its citizens who, when the idea of the inauguration of the national floral festival was announced in 1951, with a desire to make known throughout Australia and abroad the attractive- ness of their city, began to consider how best to capture the public imagination. The idea was fostered in the minds of Goulburn people by a broadcast in March 1952 by the Mayor of Goulburn, Alderman J. B. Mullen. The suggestion was taken up by J. F. Knowlman, president of Goulburn Chamber of Commerce, who called a meeting of the executive on March 30. The executive called a public meeting on April 21 when over seventy people attended to consider proposals. After discussing a number of suggestions the meeting resolved on the motion of J. B. Mullen that a week of festivities to be called Goulburn Lilac Time be held in October as an annual event.

The meeting, in reaching its decision, realised that already Goulburn abounded with lilac blossom early in October and that its beauty and fragrance had been part of Goulburn’s springtime for many years. No better choice could have been made for the lilac was already part of the city’s historic past and had carried the name of Goulburn to other parts for almost a century. In the war years the sale of lilac yielded considerable funds to the Red Cross Society’s Goulburn Branch.

As recorded in the Sydney Mail of February 4, 1871, a traveller was constrained to write of the lilacs which as early as the eighteen-sixties had abounded in Goulburn alone of all places in the colony.

All kinds of English fruits, shrubs and flowers can be grown in Goulburn, wrote the traveller, for there the visitor will see “cherries, currants, and gooseberries of his native land, growing in as great profusion as ever he saw them in the gardens of the Old Country.

“In the spring he will see the lilac in full bloom, and if that does not take his thoughts back home, then he has no heart. I don’t know that I ever saw a sight that more impressed me than when, some ten or twelve years ago, after having spent the then half of my life in the colony, I came across the first lilac tree which I had seen in flower since leaving England…”. The traveller then wrote that the well-remembered flowers with their delicious perfume, thriving in Goulburn when they would have perished in Sydney, brought visions of the old gardens of his English home.

The plantings of lilacs, continued from Goulburn’s early days, resulted in Goulburn having some magnificent specimens of all varieties to display their beauty for its annual floral festival which immediately captured the hearts of the people and brought offers of support from every quarter. One garden in Sloane Street carried Goulburn’s largest tree, twenty feet high-a giant privet with hundreds of lilac cuttings of all varieties, pink, white, mauve and purple, grafted on its trunk, standing beside a lilac hedge. As early as October 7, 1941, Alderman Goodhew had written in the Goulburn Evening Post of “Lilac Time in Victoria Park”, pointing out that if the sight of the blossom in the city lilac garden was known by Sydney people they would rush to see it. The matter was further pressed in an article by Gladys Rippingale in the same paper the following October when she made a strong appeal to the city to adopt the lilac as its floral emblem and to make it the centre of attraction. She painted of it a beautiful picture: “In the parks the lilac trees are a vision of soft mauve beauty, their exquisite delicate perfume wafted through the air on every breeze. In the garden they flaunt their loveliness one cannot help but be aware of the lilacs everywhere; they catch the eye and gladden the heart with their promise of spring to come.

At the time of the first carnival people in all parts of New South Wales and beyond sought the story of the lilac bush, the principal varieties of which are common lilac and the so-called Persian lilac, both of which had long been associated with family life in England and had inspired poets and writers over the centuries, resulting, perhaps, in Alfred Noyes’s “Go Down to Kew in Lilac Time” becoming the most notable poem of all.

The Persian lilac is said to have originated in China prior to the twelfth century, whence it spread to Persia, to the Balkans and to Central Europe and so to England, where it was known as the jasmine in 1640. The common lilac, a native of the Balkans, is said to have been first sent to England about 1597, though writers claim that it had been grown there for centuries before that under other names.

The English climate in which the lilac thrived found a parallel in Goulburn where, more than in any city in Australia, it became established to thrive and blossom in profusion, its feast of colour and the fragrance of its sweet perfume making to all an irresistible appeal.

Given the favourable climate and the choice having been made that Goulburn would be Australia’s Lilac City, additional plantings were begun, 1000 bushes being planted the first year. The work has continued constantly to this day, whilst people of the metropolis of Sydney and of far-off places are developing the habit of visiting the country city where the lilacs thrive.


Poem by Violet Jacob

“ And close beside the gateway,

Tall upon either hand,

Their green robes shot with sunlight

Like queens the lilacs stand.


And one is crowned with purple

And one is crowned with white;

Look where the wind is passing

They bow to left and right.”


In 1952 the Lilac Time committee designed the first Goulburn Lilac Time. An early spring provided a fine array of blossom which continued for upwards of a month to adorn the city. Edward Gray, a Goulburn high school master, was appointed the first organising secretary and a masterstroke of organisation was achieved by him and a very enthusiastic committee of able men and women. It was resolved that the proceeds of the festivities were to be placed aside for the building of a public hall in Goulburn, an amenity now becoming a necessity in view of the city’s continuing growth, for the town hall became too small many years ago.

The members of the Federal and State parliaments, Hon. A. D. Fraser, M.H.R., and L. J. Tully, M.L.A., became patrons and a comprehensive programme of activities was arranged to culminate in the coronation of the Lilac Queen. Goulburn’s main street—Auburn Street—was decorated with lilac flags and bunting and 1000 coloured lights, and a tourist map donated to the city by the Goulburn Rotary Club was installed at Belmore Park. Lilac badges were sold and worn and crowds not seen in the city since VP-Day, when peace was declared in the Pacific after World War II, assembled in the streets. From six to seven thousand people were estimated to have crowded the main street for the carnivals where pipe bands played, square dancing was conducted, a hayride to the era and stalls worked for votes for their queen candidates.

The success exceeded all the expectations of the committee and its president and secretary, all of whom had given of their labour unstintingly in its organisation.

A carriage imported from England in the eighteen-forties for Garoorigang homestead, painted gold, carried the first Lilac Queen, Miss Joan Small, to her crowning, when she was enthroned by the Mayor, Alderman J. B Mullen. She raised £1005 ( $22,437) as the retailers’ candidate out of a total of £2400 ($53,582) raised by all candidates.

The festival was officially opened by the Governor-General Sir William McKell, and a profit of £4544 ($101,448) was made. Lilac Time integrated events that Goulburn had conducted for years – the Six Hour Day procession, Miss Goulburn Competitions, rodeos, sporting and cultural events and entertainments, but added to the range of attractions for all ages, tastes and interests to make a grand festivity. An extensive social programme throughout the afternoons of the week improved upon the traveller’s view expressed in the illustrated Sydney News of July 5, 1890, “Socially this pleasant city is a delightful spot to visit; there appears to be a constant round of parties.”

Enthusiasm born of success, brought a larger programme in the following year- street lights increased to 2500 and flood lighting of Belmore Park inaugurated as a permanent feature, pipe band contests, water skiing on the Sooley Dam the town’s reservoir, when people remarked that they never knew such a beautiful spot existed, planted as it was in 1937 with 32,000 pine trees, girl’s marching teams, the reigning queen in a golden coach, a procession of 300 floats taking one hour to pass and watched by 25,000 people, and the biggest cake in the world, twelve feet high and 1300 pounds in weight, exceeding that made in Albury for its sesquicentenary celebrations in 1938, were some of the limitless attractions of the second lilac festival.

The Governor of New South Wales, Sir John Northcott, officially opened the festival week before a great crowd in front of Goulburn Town Hall and a vast multitude saw the second Lilac Queen, Palasa Miriklis, cut the cake which was served to them for supper.

A Lilac Time Express—a modern air-conditioned train—ran from Sydney to Goulburn carrying a multitude of tourists and the fame of Goulburn Lilac Time spread throughout Australia and New Zealand. The second lilac festival yielded a profit of £8004 ($170,320) and drew to Goulburn a throng of visitors from all States who crowded the hotels, caravan park, and all available accommodation, whilst many more travelled hundreds of miles to and from Goulburn for one day to be present at its functions and to tour its decorated streets, admire its lilac and see its beauty spots, whilst enjoying its healthy, invigorating and bracing climate.

Travel to Goulburn today (1953) is enjoyable and far more comfortable than in the century past when it was reported in the Empire of May 21, 1857, “Were it an earthly paradise the purgatory one has to undergo before reaching it would make its visitants few and far between.” Goulburn may be reached by modern air conditioned expresses and general passenger trains and by motor car along well-designed bitumen highways. From Sydney, Goulburn may be reached in but a few hours, tourists both in Lilac Time and at other times of the year taking the opportunity to travel to see the city’s many attractions.

For at every season of the year Goulburn appeals to people of every taste. To those who enjoy the historic past it has much to show of the times and events which have brought the city to its progressive present. To the student and sportsman, the picnicker and pastoralist, the industrialist and information-seeker; to all who would see a city beautiful set amidst Australia’s fertile pastures the Lilac City which has emerged from a pioneer settlement of a century gone by extends the hand of welcome.