Everyone in Newcastle reckons they know someone who was at the Star Hotel on the night of 19 September 1979 – so far that means some 200,000 people claim to have been there.
Newcastle’s Star Hotel is perhaps best known for the riot of 19 September 1979 and the song of the same name by Cold Chisel.
The Star Hotel had never been pretty and by the late 1970s, the owners of the pub – Tooth & Co – had pretty much had enough of trying to improve the reputation of a pub which catered for the seafaring drinkers at the Hunter Street bar, the live music punters at the King Street bar, and Newcastle’s LGBTQI community somewhere in the middle.
In September, the hotel was given one week’s notice of its closure. That didn’t go so well. But there’s more to the Star Hotel than the riot.
The Star Hotel site is a large complex running through from Hunter to King Street but the site is also one of Newcastle’s earliest large commercial complexes with a built history dating back to the 1850s.
Carol Duncan spoke with Sarah Cameron, former Newcastle City Council heritage strategist, about the broader history of the Star Hotel in 2013.
“We seem to think there was an event in the 1970s (the 1979 riot) and that’s about the be all and end all, but the Star Hotel has a really interesting history that runs right back to the early development of Newcastle West back in 1855.”
“I think there’s actually about eight separate buildings that have been joined together and make up this Star Hotel complex, it’s got a really long history, too.”
“The Cameron family built the Star Hotel in 1855 with the coming of the railway line. The Honeysuckle Point railway station was just across the road behind where the TAFE is now.”
“There was a big demand for accommodation for travellers coming off the train and railway workers, construction workers. Ewan Cameron built the Star Hotel realising there was money to be made. He’d made his money on the goldfields in Queensland then came back and started farming at Hexham, became associated with other businessmen in Newcastle and built the Star.”
It’s a group of buildings from the pub, to the family buildings to the accommodation – it’s immense.
“Ewan’s son, Hugh, took over the license in the 1880s. He had a series of stables built so it’s quite possible that some of these buildings could be agglomerations of the stables that were here.”
That would explain network of laneways that run along the side and through the middle of the complex.
“Ewan had previously had wooden cottages here which were all lived in by members of the Cameron clan. The extended family lived on this site originally in not much more than humpies and still spoke Gaelic amongst the family. They came here after being kicked off their highland properties during the Scottish clearances.”
“Hugh Cameron lived until 1921 and had the hotel with one of his daughters, Lena, who also owned the Centennial Hotel up the other end of town.”
“The family had strong links with the Newcastle Jockey Club, a lot of the racehorses would be stabled here at the hotel and the Cameron Handicap is named after them.”
“In the 1880s, the Star was very prosperous because of the Honeysuckle workshops being established, and lots of new businesses in this end of town so the hotel was sort of a dormitory for a lot of construction workers.”
Sarah adds that the hotel also had some very interesting clientele, “Yes, Professor Godfrey and his monkey circus! He came here annually until his monkeys decided to burn down the stables and he was never heard from again.”
The Star Stables were quite notable and they had handlers to take care of the horses. The Cameron’s family hotel on Steel and Hunter Streets was the ‘brother’ of this hotel.
The Newcastle Trades Hall was on the northern side of Hunter Street and many of its members, after the 1890s, would frequent the Star Hotel.
The Camerons had a reputation for being very generous and helping people in need.
“In the coal strike in 1909 the executive of the miners union withdrew all of the funds from the bank because they feared that the government would seize those assets and they wouldn’t be able to pay their miners. So the money was withdrawn, given to the Camerons here at the Star Hotel who basically then had the job of paying miners and miners families during that year-long strike.”
“All of the histories you read of this site describe it as a rabbit warren of rooms. Even when it was still operating as hotel in the 1930s and 1940s there were still dozens of accommodation rooms.”
“Lena Campbell, Hugh Cameron’s daughter, also ran the Centennial Hotel up in Scott Street – which was one of the largest hotels in the southern hemisphere – she owned it for a period of time, kept the freehold title but she leased the hotel to Tooth & Co. Just before her father died she purchased the whole thing outright.”
Listen to Carol Duncan’s 2013 interview with Sarah Cameron – former City of Newcastle Heritage Strategist.
40th Anniversary Star Hotel Riot video by Chit Chat von Loopin Stab. Thanks to the numerous members of Lost Newcastle who contributed their stories and photos to make this possible.