Venice at Mosman Bay

Postcard of Mosman Bay Villas

Postcard of Mosman Bay villas, from Mosman Local Studies collection.

In December 1907 the Mosman, Neutral and Middle Harbour Resident newspaper advertised “Something Fresh”. Organised by the Cremorne Club, a Grand Christmas Carol Festival was to be held at Mosman Bay. An orchestra and choir of 100 trained voices, directed by Mr. A.H. Norman, would perform carols on a barge to be moored in the Bay. The public were invited to watch from the shore, and boat owners to illuminate their craft. Residents on the surrounding slopes were encouraged to add to the festive scene by decorating their homes and gardens with coloured lights.

Held on Christmas Eve, in perfect weather, the event was a great success. Ten thousand spectators were estimated to have attended, watching from the shore, on boats of all sizes, and on the ferry Koree moored in the Bay. So began what became known as Mosman’s Venetian Carnival, held annually in December or January.

Following the carnival on Christmas Eve 1908, the Sydney Mail enthused about Mosman Bay being the perfect setting for such entertainments, the narrow bay having steep hills on either side covered with picturesque villas. “Motor and rowing boats were lit with strings of Chinese lanterns of all manner of shapes and colours. The whole bay was a moving mass of coloured lights, and the gentle action of the water made the lanterns sway and dance fantastically, and intensified the moving charm of coloured reflections. As each Christmas carol started, the floating audience would gather around the barge, concentrating the effect of the moving colours. Residents vied with each other in making their houses and gardens beautiful with illuminations. Windows were screened with coloured blinds, verandahs and balconies and garden walls were hung with Chinese lanterns and fairy lights, and trees were aglow with rare ‘fruit’ of many colours”.

Mosman’s sheltered bay lent itself well to such an event, and as it became more popular over the years, extra trams

and ferries were run to bring visitors. Ferries had to thread their way carefully through the small craft. Over time, the choir was replaced by military bands, and spectator groups on shore and afloat held parties with their own music and dancing.

As the houses around the bay were connected to electricity from 1915, more individual and elaborate lighting designs developed, with prizes awarded for the best illuminations. Coloured tissue placed over windows with electric lights behind them intensified the colourful effect. Flares, skyrockets and searchlights lit up the sky.

The Carnival also had a charitable purpose, collections being taken up on shore and on the water to aid the North Shore Hospital, and then Graythwaite Convalescent Home after the war.

By the 1920s the Venetian Carnival had expanded beyond Mosman Bay to include Cremorne Point, and by the 1930s extended from Bradleys Head to Balls Head. It became known as the North Shore Carnival, no longer Mosman Bay’s special event.

These Carnivals were also held to welcome visiting fleets and dignitaries. The visit in July 1925 of ships of the United States Navy caused great celebrations, with fireworks and parades of craft. Sydney Ferries Ltd. illuminated their ferries and wharves, and the American ships themselves were brightly lit. Events began with the lighting of a giant bonfire in Rawson Park which could be seen across the harbour.

Such events progressively came to resemble the harbour wide spectacles and firework exhibitions we would recognise today. Mosman Bay returned to being the tranquil anchorage it had been before its Venetian Carnivals.

P. Morris, Mosman Historical Society, from newspaper articles on Trove.

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