The Centenary of Melbourne Birthday Clock Cake

The Centenary Birthday cake was a spectacle. A fruit cake of five tiers, weighing an extraordinary 10 tons and comprising 36 000 eggs, 1½ tons each of sugar and butter, 4 ½ tons of mixed fruit and other ‘all Australian’ ingredients it was enthusiastically reported as the world’s largest cake ever made, baked by confectioner George Rath, of the Astoria café in Swanston Street.  Contemporary accounts note that following the official cutting of the cake, some 250 000 slices were wrapped, decoratively tinned and sold for one shilling to benefit various charities. For a lucky few, a gold sovereign was included with 100 of the packages.

The cake was displayed in ‘The Birthday Cake Building’, unsurprisingly a multi-tiered cake shaped pavilion several storeys high in ‘Joyland’, which also offered a refreshment hall and a Dance Palais for patrons. The five tiers of the Centenary cake were replete with symbolism. A booklet published for the People’s Fair, ‘Souvenir of Victoria’s Centenary Birthday cake’, loosely and fancifully chronicled the history of the State of Victoria and Melbourne, ‘as told by the cake’. Fair attendees were encouraged to enter the Cake Competition, collecting coupons to put into their souvenir booklets in the hope of winning a monetary prize.  First prize, valued at 500 pounds, was a solid silver Birthday Cake Clock replicating the splendid edible centenary cake.

We know two versions of the cake exist, one small and one large. Both Birthday Cake Clocks, commissioned and supplied by the Myer Emporium, were fabricated by James Steeth and Son, notable Melbourne silversmiths and makers of the Melbourne Cup. The small mantel-piece sized cake clock, reputedly the competition first prize and apparently unclaimed, now resides in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, acquired in 1987.

At nearly twice the size of the NGV artefact, we can postulate that the impressive five tier Cake Clock, now presented by Gibson’s, was the model reportedly on public display during the centenary celebrations. But how this extraordinary Centenary Birthday Cake Clock, with kangaroo and emu, imaginative depiction of the treaty between Batman and indigenous peoples, candles, clock mechanism with the dial depicting the maidens of Peace and Prosperity, ended up on a far North Queensland property, ‘out the back of nowhere’ in an old milk crate in a shed, is a mystery. Reputedly sold by Leonard Joel in 1983 it disappeared into obscurity and was discovered only late last year. This marvellous confection, a truly important piece of Melbourne history and an artefact of its time, has kept its secrets well in the intervening years, and now rightly deserves its place in a public collection.

Dennice Collett
Senior Specialist, Decorative Arts

View the online catalogue.