Belle of the Ball

In her boudoir, her long hair was put up, her hem let down and plans made for her official entry into the gay round of parties, promenades and balls with a view to making a suitable marriage. In the early years of Queensland settlement, to “come out” at Government House was the ultimate in social success.

The second most desirable venue was a ball attended by the Governor and his lady.

Balls at Government House were special occasions also and would be attended at all cost, as is illustrated by the story of Margaret Millar D’Orsey of Ipswich, later Lady Bell of Jimbour.

Margaret and her sisters were anxious to attend a Government House ball but it had rained for several days beforehand, making the roads heavy.

The D’Orsey brothers returned from Brisbane to Ipswich and said it would be possible to ride so they set off.

Upon their arrival in Brisbane, it was necessary to change from their riding habits into ball gowns which had been packed into valises attached to their saddles.

The girls danced until 3am and then rode back to Ipswich. Another ball of note in the early years of settlement was the occasion of the visit of Prince Albert the Duke of Edinburgh in 1867.

Six young ladies were selected as his partners, one of them being Mary Louisa Mackenzie.

Known as Minnie, she was pretty, intelligent and artistic. It was requested that the young ladies chosen should present the Prince with a photograph of herself. Minnie had the photograph taken but declined to give it to the Prince, claiming that she had “no desire to be one of a crowd”.

Occasions such as these were usually held to raise funds for a particular charity.

For instance, the Lady Lamington Poster Ball held in Centennial Hall on May 5, 1900, which aimed to raise funds for the Lady Lamington Hospital.

This was the first ball of the season which ran from May to August and usually ended with the Exhibition Ball.

On May 23, 1900, the occasion was the Governesses Home Ball, the home being a lodging facility for young ladies usually employed as country governesses.

On this day it was an occasion of extra excitement as news had been received of the relief of Mafeking in the Cape Colony (Boer War) and resulted in a public holiday being declared.

It was at this ball that Miss Gwen Griffith, daughter of Sir Samuel Griffith, one-time Administrator of the State of Queensland, “came out”.

Recorded in the diary of her sister Nellie Griffith, Gwen looked exceedingly good in a gown of “Romaine satin done with silver and accessorized by a beautiful bouquet” made by Mrs Janet Walker who was a leading Brisbane seamstress.

Nellie went on to record that it was “a very funny ball, so few there, got all our dances but mostly with uninteresting partners, left at 12”. 

Sir Samuel Lady Griffith and Nellie had also attended the ball.

After two world wars this rite of passage to the marriage market was not quite so rigidly defined. Just the same, a girl’s debut was happily and excitedly planned by mother, daughter, family and friends. Much planning went into the design of the frock.

Would mother be the seamstress? Perhaps the young lady herself or a trusted relative? Maybe, if funds permitted, it might be purchased from one of the well-known Brisbane stores.

The next piece of planning was the ball at which the young lady might be presented to a dignitary and last but by no means least, the escort.

Be it a brother, cousin or trusted family friend, the outcome of the evening was the same with the entire family waiting up for a blow by blow description of the evening’s events.

In the 1970s, debutante balls were not so important. The era of “free Love and all that” had radically changed the social life of a young woman.

In the country, balls were still considered an acceptable way for young people to meet and mingle. Arranged by the Show Society, the Show Ball was a highlight of the calendar. Junior Farmers clubs, Lions, Rotary and QCWA organised events.

These occasions still raised funds and were often themed. Nowadays we have the Black and White Ball, Bachelor and Spinster Ball and perhaps, if the town is lucky enough to be allocated a race meeting, the Race Ball.

The Centenary Celebrations of one country shire featured a fashion parade and was organised by the QCWA. Bridal and ball gowns from yesteryear, carefully conserved by local families, were proudly modelled by those who could fit into the frock.

Amazingly some of the original owners were able to wear the frock on the night, and all the original fastenings were done up! The time period of gowns ranged from the 1850s to the mid 1930s. After the ball, the event remained a topic of conversation for some weeks.

It is many years now since I “came out” at the Cloudland Ballroom and was presented to the Minister for Education Mr Jack Pizzey and Mrs Pizzey.

The frock has long gone but the ribbons from the bouquet are a little keepsake of a special night.

The textile collection of the Queensland Women’s Historical Association contains some interesting gowns, in particular a ball gown, the fabric of which pre-dates the ball held on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, and a second which was made locally and graced the dance floor of Cloudland.

 

 Diana Hacker is archivist for the Queensland Women’s Historical Association based at Miegunyah in Bowen Hills. Tours are available. Visit miegunyah.org