Built in the 1870’s, the Victoria Theatre on Perkins Street in Newcastle is the oldest theatre still standing in NSW. It’s also home to the largest and earliest surviving fly tower in Australia. Now closed to the public, what remains inside of what was once one of the most significant theatres in Australia?
*Update: 24/08/2020 City Newcastle has approved the Century Venues DA for the Victoria. Great news!
The Victoria Theatre in Newcastle is the state’s oldest surviving theatre, and home to a rich cultural history. The Perkins Street building currently stands unused, but in its time it rivalled the biggest and best theatres in the country. Originally opened in 1876, it still holds great heritage significance because of the era of vaudeville, theatre and cinema that it represents.
Even though it is now home to more than a few pigeons, exploring the interior is a fascinating insight into the history of the theatre. The Victoria Theatre was incredibly well-equipped and offered premiere performances. The 66 by 40 feet stage was huge for its time, and certainly much bigger than anything Sydney offered. This is only just slightly smaller than the Civic Theatre today.
“This is not your amateur theatre space. This was a professional, state-of-the-art, nationally important theatre for the time – 1890-91. You had a lot of really important vaudeville acts coming here, hence you required not only for the stage to be at the scale that it is, but also all the other service areas of the theatre. There are 12 dressing rooms, there are property rooms, there are prop rooms, there’s a whole labyrinth… when you think about it – 12 dressing rooms in 1891? That’s just amazing for the time.”
From the three-level fly tower, the fly galleries are visible. There are two timber tiers on which crew moved around behind the scenes, making the magic happen. This theatre was built before electricity, so performances were lit using lime lights.
Program Director at Newcastle Livesites Paul Tibbles explains, “The research that I’ve done shows that the trams in Hunter Street were electrified in 1920, so this building would have had 50 years or so without electricity. The way you would have lit the stage during performances would be with limes. There’d be theatre technicians with very long poles with a wick on the end. They’d come to the edge of the gallery with their lighting cue, physically put out that wick, put it into the lamp, and ignite the chemical compound in the lamp. The lamp would then glow onto the performance below. Depending on what chemicals you put into it, you’d get a slightly different colour”
And so the term “taking the limelight” was born. This is just one of many old and ingenious technologies used to run the Victoria Theatre. Despite being over 100 years old, many of those systems are still used in contemporary theatres today. For example, the fire wall in the theatre uses a process which has been adapted by modern venues.
Adam Zakarauskas, the live Performance Coordinator with the Civic Theatre, says “There are five pickups that go across to the centre one. You’d winch that in and out when the theatre was closed so that if there was a fire backstage it wouldn’t go into the auditorium. And it’s just wonderful to see that it’s exactly the same system today. You can go into a theatre built today and it won’t be hand winched, but it will still be the same system. I have just looked at some fantastic technology in the Civic Theatre which is the modern edge of technology, and to come here and see the reality of theatre – it’s overwhelmingly exciting. It’s like a secret hidden spot and I feel really precious about it.”
Adam has a great appreciation for the performances they were able to show at the Victoria Theatre back in the 1800’s, “Looking around at the technology of the time – the old gallery floors, the belaying pins for tying off hanging pieces, the total lack of infrastructure. To be honest – I don’t know how they did shows in here!”
The building was constructed with large blocks of sandstone, so the foundation system is very structurally robust. Paul Tibbles explains some of the requirements of a performance space and a tower of this scale, “There are 4 storeys of free-standing space here, which is pretty big. When you look at all the levering, and all of the reinforcement here; the size of the timbers and how much structural reinforcement there is for everything. You look at the fact that there are 36 lines – all of that infrastructure to make those lines happen. They’re all carrying lights or scenery or whatever. There needed to be an incredibly strong tower”
The auditorium was beautiful in its day. Adam admits that it almost rivals the Civic. In 1891, the Newcastle Herald bragged about how the Theatre offered ‘all of the most modern appliances of a first class theatre’. It even had a first class hotel out the front! The hotel was on the Perkins Street frontage, so people were able to experience some fine dining and a drink before a show.
During the 1920’s, a change in liquor laws meant that it was illegal for a hotel and a theatre to be on the same property. This marked a significant change in the building’s usage. The hotel was ripped out and the Theatre remained until the 1940’s when Hoyts Corporation bought the property and turned it into a cinema. This is why there are no windows on the Perkins Street frontage.
Sarah explains, “They blinded the windows. That’s part of the story of the building. It ceased to be a functioning performance space and it went just to being movies.”
Much of the building is still intact. Some parts are not in great condition, but there is nothing else of the kind in Australia. The building now sits unoccupied, and while some rail against it going to waste, the fact that it still stands at all is quite positive. It hasn’t been wrecked. It is capable of being restored.
Sarah Cameron says, “This space is really precious and it’s very important. The building owner understands how important it is. Until the economic conditions are right, and until there is the right solution and the right or most appropriate use, we can still appreciate exactly how this was built in 1890. You can see how it functioned. You can understand the layers in the building. The archaeology of this building, to me, is fascinating.”
Find the Lost Newcastle and Novopod podcasts here …
Newcastle has a long maritime history, but sadly part of that history includes a coastline that is now littered with numerous shipwrecks that cost many lives. But sometimes, the hardworking lifeboat crews and rocket brigades were able to save the lives of passengers and crew of ships wrecked on our coast.
The Newcastle Rocket Brigades were in operation from 1866 until 1974, often working alongside the lifeboat crews, and were a crucial part of trying to save the lives of those on board vessels that foundered along our coast.
The job of the Rocket Brigade was to attach a line from the beach to a distressed vessel in order to enable a ‘breeches buoy’ or other device to be hauled to the ship and return passengers and crew safely to the shore.
“If the ships were too close to the shore, the lifeboats wouldn’t be able to get to them. So if a ship was beached but there was still so much water raging around them, people couldn’t get off safely.”
The Newcastle Lifeboat Service operated from 1838 until 1946, but the Rocket Brigade was still in service until 1974 and was last used on the Sygna. Indeed, one of my volunteers was trained around 1965.”
Deb Mastello says Newcastle was an incredibly difficult port, “It was so dangerous to come in here, especially before the breakwater was built. Ships that tried to come in between Nobbys and the mainland – that was just craziness.”
There are over 200 shipwrecks that are known of around our part of the coast and Deb assumes there are more, “They’re just the ones we know of. Who knows how many left and were never seen again. We have records of some of those.”
Many of our local beaches gained their names from shipwrecks, Susan Gilmore Beach at the northern end of Bar Beach is just one.
“The Susan Gilmore was coming north on the 4th of July in 1884. She ran into a bit of trouble and they tried to tow her in but the seas were too rough and it came ashore.”
“A couple of our steam tugs attempted to pull the Susan Gilmore off the beach but couldn’t do it, so the Rocket Brigade was called in to action.”
“Depending on which beach, they would have to pick up all of their equipment – it wasn’t just the rocket, it was stands, tripods and ropes – and they’d have to carry it all to the beach. If they were lucky they might have a cart they could use to load up and have the equipment horse-drawn to the beach, but they were probably exhausted by the time they got there.”
“They would have to find the shipwreck on a dark and stormy night, because these things never seem to happen in the middle of the day, and they would have to fire a rocket to the vessel.”
“Attached to the rocket was a light piece of rope and they’d have to fire it over the ship – bearing in mind they were dealing with storms and perhaps 100km per hour winds. All being well, the light rope would be secured to the ship and a heavier rope would be pulled from the beach up to the ship.”
“Then, a pulley would be pulled up and attached to that would be a ‘breeches buoy’ which was large lifering with a big canvas bag in it and two holes in the bottom for your legs. So you got into it and it was a sort of flying fox arrangement, in a storm in the middle of the night to the beach.”
“The wife of the Captain of the Susan Gilmore actually got dunked a couple of times but all people on board were rescued including two dogs, a cat and a canary.”
The rocket that Deb Mastello brought in from the Newcastle Maritime Centre collection came from the southern Rocket Brigade, there was another Rocket Brigade on Stockton, “Our rocket cart was also used down at Catherine Hill Bay.”
Some of the vessels attended by the rocket brigade
At 11pm on 4th July, 1884, the Susan Gilmore struck a short stretch of sand beyond a ring of rocks – Bar Beach. The seas were too rough for the lifeboat to venture near so the Rocket Brigade fired a line over the wreck, and with a breaches buoy hauled in the Captain’s wife and son, the some of the crew. All were saved.
On the night of 5th June, 1888, the weather was bad, seas enormous. The Berbice, heavily loaded, foundered near the present Stockton Surf Clubhouse. With seas pounding and waves sweeping over her, the Rocket Brigade went to assist. The first 2 rockets that were fired from the Rocket Cart missed the ship; a third went over the rigging where the crew sheltered. The rescue task was extremely perilous but all the crew was brought ashore in a breeches buoy, dragging each man through the raging surf to the safety of the beach.
Early in the morning of 27th December, 1895, the Barque Durisdeer, was wrecked off Stockton Beach. The tug’s towline parted near the heads and it is believed that the line fouled on one of the many wrecks in the area. In the early hours of the morning the brigades fired a line over the wreck and, despite all odds were successful in bringing all 18 crew members ashore. Captain Webster was the last to leave.
The collier Wallarah was wrecked in Catherine Hill Bay April, 1914. The Rocket Cart, drawn by four horses, left Stockton with eleven men to travel the twenty six miles through the bush of Charlestown and the rough country to the south. Upon arrival eleven men were already ashore, but the remaining six were rescued by rocket apparatus in less than half an hour. The Government employees were docked a day’s pay for being absent from work although they received sevenpence for brigade duty.
In June, 1928, the coastal steamer Uralla was caught in a storm damaging her steering. She ended up wrecked on Stockton Beach. The Rocket Brigade was called, but the crew was already safe.
How often have you stopped for a rest on one of the low stone retaining walls at Blackbutt Reserve? Chances are, you’re sitting on the remains of the early headstones from Newcastle’s first European burial ground at Christ Church Cathedral.
The burial ground at Christ Church Cathedral was first used possibly as early as 1801. The Old Burial Ground eventually contained over 3,300 burials before the last burials took place there in 1884.
No human remains were removed from Cathedral Park, and indeed there were by that time less than 300 headstones remain, most illegible or broken. Other grave markers, being made of timber, had deteriorated years before.
Under the terms of the Act, Council was required to compile an index plan and register of the names of people buried on the site as well as any other information that could be obtained about them.
From the act, “Council shall … remove all headstones without legible inscriptions thereon and other surface structures from the said lands and dispose of them in a manner agreed upon by the Council and Corporate Trustees.” Other headstones were to be preserved in their existing positions or to be removed and preserved in a new location, which is why in 2012 we see them along the eastern boundary.
Sarah Cameron, former Newcastle City Council heritage strategist, “The pieces of headstones and grave markers that were broken or illegible were transferred to other parts of the city to be used as either road base, garden edging or retaining walls – that sort of thing – and a number of them went to Blackbutt.”
So now, that low retaining wall you may have sat on or the kids walked along … will have more of a story for you.
Most people in Newcastle and the Hunter were looking forward to a relaxing long weekend, planning a few days off. As we now know it was anything but a relaxing long weekend.
The Newcastle and Hunter Region will never forget the weekend when storms and floods closed down the heart of Newcastle, the Pasha Bulker went aground on Nobbys Beach and the levee system around Maitland was pushed to its limit.
On Thursday night, June 7, 2007, the Bureau of Meteorology warned of potential extreme weather conditions with a low pressure cell developing just north of Newcastle.
Over the next 12 hours this low generated gale force south easterlies that buffeted the city until midday on Friday, June 8, redeveloping in the middle of the afternoon as a line of thunderstorms that ceaselessly battered Newcastle throughout the evening, causing life threatening flash flooding in low lying area.
There was disastrous damage caused by the flooding but more was to come. At 2am on Saturday, June 9, a second low hit the city.
A family of four and a nephew were killed when a section of road collapsed under their car as they drove along the Pacific Highway at Somersby on the Central Coast. Two people died when their four-wheel drive was swept off a bridge by floodwaters at Clarence Town and a man died near Lambton when he was swept into a storm-water drain.
The following day, a man died when a tree fell onto his vehicle at Brunkerville. Another man died during a house fire that, it is believed, was started by a candle being used during the blackouts caused by the storm. The total death toll rose to ten.