Wistaria Fete

On September 19th 1929, the Sydney Morning Herald announced that the gardens would be open to the public where, (Banner photograph courtesy of Arnold de Ramos collection 2017)   

The gates will be open all day, and every day until every bud has done the work nature gave it to do. (Photograph Doctor Percival Underwood Prior Medical Superintendent 1925-1936 photograph Val Duncan) 

The gardens were again opened to the public in 1930 and have been opened every September since whilst the Wistaria is in bloom. Dr. Prior hosted a Garden Party on 15th September 1930 for the Public Medical Officers’ Association with the Minister for Health, Dr. Richard Arthur, attending. The Minister declared that the “wistaria was better than any that he had seen.” Hospital tradition has it that it was also in 1930 that Dr. Prior allowed the sale of items, such as wooden toys and needlework, made by patients to be sold for the benefit of the hospital’s occupational fund. Certainly by 1932, the press was reporting that the opening of the gardens was being held in conjunction with a fete. The Fete was usually held over two weekends during September, but the Gardens were open for six to eight weeks from the beginning of September. 

The organizing and management of the Wistaria Fete was always undertaken by a voluntary committee of staff throughout its history and, until very recently was always supported fully by the hospital administration. Patients were also encouraged to participate if they were well enough and many did over the years, even coming back to help after being discharged.

The fete stalls were operated by various wards and units of the hospital, the fete contributing to a sense of cohesion and loyalty within the staff ranks, where nursing, artisan, allied health and administrative staff all worked together for the common good. Over the years many people contributed an extraordinary amount of their own time and resources to ensure the success of the fete. Significantly the occupational unit known as the “Toyshop” operated from the 1930's until 2015. Mrs. Enid Chalker the mother of a patient organised and ran the White Elephant Stall for 43 years from 1967 and Sister Avis Stretton managed the Devonshire Teas from 1965 until 2012, continuing years after her retirement as a charge nurse of the hospital in 1987!

Sister Margaret Bannister (Hewer) perhaps the longest serving President of the Wistaria Fete Committee, announced her retirement in September 2017 after 26 years enduring some of the most difficult times in that role. (Photographed above Terry Smith Collection.  

From the mid-1980s the patient population and size of the hospital began to decline with mental health services being increasingly provided in community settings and admissions becoming much shorter. Consequently the number of staff, patients and wards that once contributed to the organising and operation of the fete also declined. More and more the fete relied on fee paying external stall-holders in a community markets style arrangement, with mainly only the food and drink stalls and raffles still operated by hospital volunteers.

 Every year throughout the 1930's, the Wistaria Gardens were the subject of articles in the popular press, by 1935 it was reported that 12,000 people had visited the Hospital during September and by 1939, an estimated 20,000 visitors had attended. After World War Two, the visitor numbers reported in the press were between 25,000 and 30,000 each year! 

Over the years hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised at the Wistaria Fete for patient activities such as holidays, equipment and supplies for occupational therapy. Sometimes these fundraising efforts of the staff and indeed patients, through the Wistaria Fete, made very significant purchases for the benefit of the patients and the hospital.  (Photograph at the Animal Farm at the Fete courtesy of Dorothy Warwick)

Monies raised at the Fete in 1937 contributed to the purchase of a “modern talkie” cinematograph machine for the recreation hall to replace the old silent film projector. Film companies would provide the latest films free of charge for showing to the patients “for the weekly entertainments.” In 1940 the Wistaria Fete raised enough money to furnish the Ward for the Criminally Insane with a “modern Cinesound machine”. This equipment provided entertainment for the criminal patients who were not permitted to attend the weekly movie night at the recreation hall. The Inspector General of Mental Hospitals reported that occupational activities for the female patients had extended from the “ordinary routine such as laundry, sewing room work, etc.” to the growing of vegetables and flowers and the production of “some very fine fancy work” to be sold at the Wistaria Fete. By 1959 enough money had been raised through the Fetes to purchase a new bus. This large bus allowed more patients, more often, to enjoy outings and day trips. (Photograph Granville Historical Society Inc courtesy Greg Davis)

 Perhaps the largest single project funded through the Fete was the construction of a new hospital Chapel in 1993. This new Chapel was built next to Glengarriff with $250,000., earmarked and set-aside from 1967 until the early 1970's for this purpose only. The old recreation hall and chapel had been expected to be transferred to Parramatta Goal at some time during the 1970's; however this didn’t happen at the time.

Copyright Terry Smith 2017

Historian and Author