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At the Brisbane Ekka, 1950-1977 – the Centaur Memorial Fund’s money spinner

By JOL Admin | 18 August 2017

In this Ekka week, Dr Madonna Grehan, 2015 John Oxley Fellow, revisits a relic of Sideshow Alley.

Extract from the Brisbane Telegraph, 3 September 1949, in Scrapbook OMEG 19_1, Centaur Fund Records, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Over the years, at Brisbane’s Royal National Agricultural and Industrial Association’s Exhibition (RNA, the Ekka) the Centaur Memorial Fund for Nurses operated a Chocolate Wheel, like the one pictured here at the Southport Show in September 1949. In 1948, the RNA already had four chocolate wheels and rejected the Centaur Fund’s request to mount another. The RNA relented by the 1950s. Other than chocolates, prizes included toys and homewares, groceries and foodstuffs, donated by department stores and generous businesses such as: Tweed Fish Distributors, Barry & Roberts, and GA Holmes’ bakery.

All helpers on the Fund’s wheel at the Ekka had to be volunteers, with RNA rules prohibiting charity stalls from employing people. Miss (Sister) Hazel Marion Johnson, Controller of the Household at the Brisbane General Hospital and the only nurse on the Centaur Fund’s Executive, assumed responsibility for the operations of the stall and the wheel in the 1950s. Even when she moved to Victoria for work, Hazel took holidays during the Ekka week each year, and travelled to Brisbane to run the wheel.

Miss Hazel M Johnson, May 1949, Centaur Memorial Fund Collection, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

The Centaur Fund was conscious that nurses in uniform appealed to public sympathies so soon after the war. So each year, in July, there was a call-out for nurses from all over Brisbane, to turn up at the Centaur Fund stall in uniform on their days off, so that the public would be encouraged to chance their luck on the wheel.

People willingly parted with their pounds, shillings and pence. The chocolate wheel at the Ekka was, literally, a money spinner for the Fund, netting a profit of between £1000 and £2700 over the ten days of the Show during the 1950s. With the volunteers in pristine starched white uniforms, veils and their red capes, the chocolate wheel gave the Centaur Fund a useful public stage, to remind Queenslanders of the Fund’s primary purpose: supporting nurses and nursing.

In 1953, the RNA allocated the Centaur Fund a permanent location for its stall. Architects Conrad & Gargett drew up plans, a pencil copy of which is held at State Library of Queensland in the collection of the Centaur Memorial Fund. Mr CP Adams of Dunmore Terrace Auchenflower built it at a cost of £521.18.8. Mr J Boyle’s company, Brolite QLD Pty. Ltd., donated the paint, while volunteers from the Fund provided the labour. The stall and its contents were insured with SGIO, against burglary and fire, for the princely sum of £775. It was in a handy spot to catch show-goers on their way in, just by a ticket gate on Bowen Bridge Road, opposite the Royal Brisbane Hospital at the entrance to the Amusement Area, now known as Sideshow Alley.

Architectural Plan for Proposed Stall at RNA Showgrounds for Centaur War Memorial for Nurses: Conrad & Gargett, 13 Jul 1953, OMEG 2_14, Centaur Fund Records, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

The new stand made running the wheel much easier. Every evening, the stock could be locked up on site. Even so, it was an onerous exercise to mount each year: sourcing the prizes, recruiting and co-ordinating the nurse volunteers, and then putting in the necessary effort, ten days in a row. In 1957, the Fund applied for permission to install an electrically-operated wheel spin to alleviate the workload, but this was rejected. Then, in 1963, the Fund began offering Lucky Envelopes which could contain cash. By March 1965, the Justice Department signalled these were to become unlawful because of concerns about “abuses”. In QLD, any activity deemed to be gaming was illegal. But the Fund was undeterred, joining forces with the Mater Mothers’ Hospital Appeal, the QATB and Surf-life Savers to protest this restriction. The embargo on lucky envelopes was relaxed, and restrictions applied to protect the public.

With subsequent reinterpretations, the Centaur Fund’s stall at the Ekka endured right through until the late 1970s. Anyone with photographs of the Centaur Memorial Fund’s stall is welcome to contact the author, via the comments section.

Dr Madonna Grehan

Dr Madonna Grehan was the recipient of the 2015 John Oxley Library Fellowship. Her research articles on the Centaur Memorial Fund can be found here:


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