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History of

Australia's National Floral Emblem

and Wattle Day

Photo: www.nndb.com

  A concept is born

'It was resolved at a meeting of the Subscribers to the Regatta, that a National Emblem be adopted to be worn by the Company upon the occasion of the anniversary, to consist of a sprig of silver wattle blossom, tied with the British colour - Navy blue'.

The story begins in Hobart Town in 1838 in the penal colony of Van Diemen's Land. More than half a century before Australia was to become a nation, something stirred in the minds of those living so far away from their homelands. It was a recognition of independence, a vision of the future and hope. Someone suggested a regatta be held to commemorate Tasman's discovery of Van Diemen's Land on 1 December 1642. The idea took hold and was enthusiastically embraced by the town's citizenry, due to the fact that regattas were all the rage in Britain at the time. The Governor, Sir John Franklin gave permission to hold the festival in 'Wattle Park' and on a Saturday so as not to offend strict Protestant churchmen. Most of the shops closed for the day and employees were given a holiday. Free refreshments were provided in the form of 'good colonial ale, biscuit and cheese', tents and booths were constructed and citizens were asked to demonstrate pride in the new colony by wearing a sprig of wattle, tied with a navy blue bow.

The official pavilion was ornamented with festoons of oak leaves and Black Wattle blossom (Acacia melanoxylon) with the inscription in front of 'Hail Tasmania' made of roses. Several tents and booths were ornamented with oak leaves and others with wattle blossom. Patriotic poetry was pinned to the decorations in an attempt to inspire those attending.

The word wattle comes from green sticks called 'wattles' which were used to reinforce walls made of mud and clay. The clay was then packed in between and over the top of the wattles and allowed to dry. Acacia branches are very flexible and well suited to being used as wattles, hence the name became associated with acacias.

The first Hobart regatta appears to have been a great success - it was estimated that between five and six thousand people attended. No-one knows how many wore a sprig of wattle but the concept was born. It grew in the minds of free men and in the hearts of those in bondage. It reappeared fifteen years later in Launceston.
Symbol of Freedom

Launceston Jubilee

Held on the 50th Anniversary of the colony of Van Diemen's Land on the 10th August 1853.

It also marked the cessation of transportation in the colony.

A patriotic song, composed by a Launceston editor and sung to the tune of 'God Save the Queen' was printed especially for the occasion in the Colonial Times.

Symbol of Patriotism

The Adelaide Branch of the Australian Natives Association was responsible for introducing the concept of a floral emblem to mainland Australia. On the 20th September 1889, Will Sowden, a journalist with the Adelaide Register proposed the formation of a ladies society in conjunction with the ANA. It was called the 'Wattle Blossom League'. The aim of the League was to encourage Australian literature and music. William Sowden continued to promote his patriotic ideas in Adelaide and later became Federal President of the Australian Wattle Day League. His call for a national emblem was taken up in other States.

Wear a sprig of Wattle Blossom

`...and the members should at all suitable public assemblies wear a spray of wattle blossom, either real or artificial, as a distinctive badge'

Bark of Acacia pycnantha was tied in bundles and stacked at depots like this one at Echunga in the Mt. Lofty Range near Adelaide before being processed for tannin extract.

Photo: Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney

The Tanning Industry

On 14th February, 1891, the Melbourne Herald published an article in response to the news that Canada had adopted the Maple leaf as an emblem. Inspired by this, J.L.Purves, one of the founders of the Australian Natives Association (ANA) stated that his group would be encouraging the 'adoption of some sort of national emblem and motto'. A Herald reader, David Scott of Mount Lonarch gave these reasons for selection of wattle as a national emblem.

'Because the wattle is strictly of Australian origin and growth. Its culture is one of the leading industries in the colony. The bark stripped from the trees contains properties making it the most valuable in the world for tanning purposes'.

At that time tanning in Australia was a growth industry and David Scott's letter probably reflected the feelings of those involved in the production and trade of leather goods, which was expanding each year. The most popular wattles harvested were the Golden Wattle Acacia pycnantha, which yielded up to 45.8 per cent tannin Most of the bark was harvested in the field because it was found that wattle plantations were not economic due to the prevalence of fires and the lack of local extraction works.

The Wattle Club

By 1899, sufficient interest in a Wattle emblem led to the formation of a 'Wattle Club'. The founder, Archibald James Campbell was a well-known ornithologist and an active member of the Field Naturalists club of Victoria. His interest in wattles probably stemmed from his many trips into the country bird-watching. Each year the club would send out invitations for 'Wattle Day' outings on 1st September, to be led by Campbell. 

On 8th September 1908, Campbell addressed the Melbourne Photographers Club with a speech entitled 'Wattle Time: or yellow-haired September' illustrating his talk with lantern slides of wattle studies. His speech was notable in that he advocated the honouring of a Wattle Day.


Archibald James Campbell

Photo: www.anbg.gov.au

J. H. Maiden was a distinguished botanist and author. Photo: Mitchell Library Sydney

The First Wattle Day

Campbell's suggestion for a first Wattle Day sparked interest in Sydney. J.H. Maiden, Government Botanist and Director of the Botanic Gardens, together with Agnes Kettlewell (the poet Agnes Storrie) and Hannah Clunies-Ross called for a public meeting on 20th August, 1909. Maiden was considered the leading expert on Acacias at the time and had already begun his Forest Flora of New South Wales series. He had also written several booklets on the use of Acacias in the tanning industry and was well respected in the community. Both Maiden and Kettlewell had Acacias named after them. The aim of the meeting was to form a Wattle Day League and to coordinate the States into accepting and celebrating the first Wattle Day.

Strangely, the genus as a whole was seen as an emblem rather than a particular species and remains so to this day. The Golden Wattle, Acacia pycnantha was finally selected, probably in response to a need for an emblem that could be depicted pictorially in insignia such as the Commonwealth Arms. Although one species was selected for this purpose the public continued to use any wattle that was handy for Wattle Day festivities and for sending abroad. Literature and songs also seemed to focus on the genus rather than on a particular flower.

Lady Symon, President of the Adelaide Branch of the Wattle Day League, introduced Wattle Day celebrations to London in 1911.

Photo: Mitchell Library Sydney