In 1928 the Australian government decided to present a Christmas cake to the Duke and Duchess of York. The main objective was to promote the nation’s agricultural products, the culmination of a year long initiative. All the ingredients used in the cake were produced in this country. It was made at Australia House in London.
To publicize the occasion, Dame Nellie Melba was invited along to stir the cake. Such an appropriate choice, as the world famous soprano was truly Australian ‘royalty’.
The cooking session was very light-hearted;
‘Stick in more elbow grease’, shouted the cinema operators as Dame Melba at Australia House vigorously stirred all the Australian ingredients in the Christmas cake….The gathering smiled at Melba’s good humoured efforts to comply, and few noticed her slip a golden sovereign into the mixture while Lady Ryrie was pouring in the brandy. ‘ (Maitland Weekly Mercury December 22 1928)
Melba commented; ‘I am honoured to stir this wonderful cake. It makes Australia seem nearer.‘
From the Newcastle Herald, February 2 1929
The mixture certainly looked very appetising indeed, as Dame Melba stirred in the butter, flour, sultanas and raisins, while Lady Ryrie, wife of the High Commissioner for Australia, poured in brandy and rum. In spite of her protests against a formidable array of photographers, Dame Melba performed her task with great zeal.
She assured everyone that cooking was not her forte, only to be reminded that one of her singing successes was, ‘Down in the forest, Something Stirs.’
Here is the end result; surmounted by a representation of the newly completed Parliament House in Canberra. Look carefully and you will see the obligatory kangaroo perched on top, and a large sprig of wattle in front.
If the choice of decoration seems odd for a Christmas cake, it was because the Duke and Duchess had officially opened the building the previous, as representatives of King George V.
The cake weighed 56 lbs. It was delivered to the couple at their home, 145 Picadilly, by the proud chef (no, not Melba 😍), accompanied by Sir Granville Ryrie’s attendant, Mr Withers.
The Duke conversed with Mr Withers for several minutes about the cake and expressed astonishment at the wonderful model of the Canberra Parliament on top, with bronze coloured kangaroos guarded by lions on either side. A wattle design, wonderfully reproduced in natural colours, greatly pleased the Duke, who was in high spirits, suggesting that his worries about the king’s illness had been greatly lessened. (The Daily News December 22 1928)
The last sentence in the above article was a complete delight;
‘A sovereign has been placed in the cake with a note marking the spot and inscribed “Dame Nellie Melba placed a sovereign here.” this to enable Princess Elizabeth to pick it out. ‘
Dame Nellie Melba returned to her beloved Australia soon afterwards. She died at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney on February 23 1931.
King George V died in January 1936. The Duke of York became George VI in December the same year, following the abdication of his brother. And so it was that the little girl who picked out Melba’s Christmas sovereign duly became Sovereign herself.
145 Picadilly place was destroyed by bombs during WWII.
For an extraordinary video of Nellie Melba stirring the Christmas cake CLICK HERE