Held each September, the Show is Melbourne's largest public event. It consists of agricultural and government displays, commerce and entertainment. Prizes worth at least $300 000 are awarded in 5000 competitive classes for primary produce and livestock, domestic animals, arts and crafts, manufactured goods, equestrian events and sports. Run by the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria (RASV), the Show attracts around 34 000 exhibitors and 700 000 visitors, generating $11 million in revenue. The Show serves as a bridge between Melbourne and rural Victoria, and remains an important place of work, leisure, business and popular culture.
Agricultural societies, based on British models, were established in the Australian colonies to encourage farmers to increase production. In 1842 the Pastoral and Agricultural Society of Australia Felix held Melbourne's first 'show' at the cattle market. From 1848 the Port Phillip Farmers' Society (PPFS) organised competitive ploughing matches, which soon included livestock and grain demonstrations, commercial stands and amusements. In 1855 the PPFS was granted 3 ha in Sydney Road, Parkville, for a 'show yard'. The PPFS was replaced by the National Agricultural Society of Victoria (NASV), and the showgrounds relocated to St Kilda Road (1870), and then to Ascot Vale on land adjoining Flemington racecourse (1883). To offset the distance from the city, the government opened a railway line to the Show-grounds and subsidised fares. A Show Day public holiday operated from 1885 until it was revoked in 1994. When the NASV became the RASV in 1890, the name Royal Melbourne Show was adopted.
By the 1920s, the Showgrounds resembled their present form, with purpose-built pavilions erected around a central arena and grandstands. From an initial emphasis on large livestock and machinery, exhibits became more diverse. The first Grand Parade of cattle and horses (1910) has evolved into an increasingly varied spectacle. A Women's Industries Section, later called Home Crafts, was introduced (1911). Government exhibits educated the public about agricultural and other initiatives. Halls of Commerce (built 1915) and Manufactures (1923) displayed industrial wares. Show bags - distributed free until the 1930s - became part of the Show experience. Catering outlets, including the Country Women's Association tea-rooms, multiplied. Equestrian events increased in the 1920s, with the coveted Garryowen Trophy first awarded in 1934.
In 1915 and 1940-45 the Showgrounds were requisitioned for military use and no Show was held. Post-World War II, attendance rose dramatically and entertainment facilities expanded. Boxing troupes, freak exhibits and games had been grouped together in Sideshow Alley from the 19th century. By the 1970s, changing attitudes and regulations restricted sideshows to rides and games. Some rides - the Mad Mouse roller-coaster and the chairlift - are permanent structures at the Showgrounds. In recent years there has been a shift back to the Show's agricultural origins, and a reorganisation of displays into various 'worlds' spanning education, lifestyle and rural development. Displays relating to the 'hobby' farmer have increased, and initiatives such as the Animal Nursery and the Epicure Pavilion have proved popular with family groups. A major redevelopment of the Showgrounds funded by the government ($101 million) and the RASV is scheduled for completion in 2006.