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 its very own castle turret on top of The Hill in the form of the Leading Light Tower or Beacon Tower. It was one of two built to assist captains in bringing their ships safely into the port. The coast around Newcastle is littered with hundreds of shipwrecks and the pair of towers built in 1865/1866 helped to increase the safety of vessels entering the Hunter River.
The Leading Light Tower (or Beacon Tower) on the corner of Tyrrell and Brown Streets on The Hill looks a little like an old shot tower, but it’s not. It’s one of the navigational towers that was built in Newcastle in the mid-19th century to allow safe navigation into what was then quite a treacherous harbour
Listen to Carol Duncan’s interview with heritage strategist Sarah Cameron.
“At that time transportation by sea was pretty much the only way you could get goods in and out of Newcastle so the beacon tower – originally one of a pair built in 1865 – was important to allow captains to bring their vessels into the port unaccompanied and to safely navigate the heads.”
Sarah Cameron – Heritage Strategist
In an era of satellite navigation, the tower is low-tech. “It really does look quite medieval but at the time it was pretty high tech. We were really starting to invest in the port. After many shipwrecks the NSW government recognised the importance of trying to protect goods coming in and out of the harbour and to facilitate the expansion of our coal export trade which was really starting to gain momentum.”
This one was built in 1865 but there were two. “The other one was down on Tyrrell St towards to beach so a ship would come around Nobbys head, line up the two towers and once they got them into a line they knew that they were clear of the reef. However, it was designed in Sydney, perhaps not designed by local maritime engineers and there were problems with its effectiveness.
After the loss of a number of ships on the notorious Oyster Bank, the lights became known by mariners as the ‘misleading lights’. Navigators argued that the towers were too close together so the margin of error was around 200 feet. In a big sea, that 200 feet could be crucial. In 1917 the government put in new towers in Church Street and the harbour foreshore where they remain to this day but they’ve been moved around and are now modern structures,” said Sarah.
Built in 1865, the Cawarra disaster happened just the year after the foundation stones for the Lead Light Towers were laid: “Yes, this tower was originally only seven metres tall. It was ineffective once the parsonage was built down on Tyrrell Street and obscured the view of this top tower from the heads. So James Barnet, who was the colonial architect of the time, rebuilt it on the same base but extended it to 20 metres.”
“Barnet was the government architect of the day and he’d have had a team working for him. He was responsible for many of the great buildings in NSW including Sydney’s Customs House, Darlinghurst Courthouse and the Australian Museum.” Sarah adds, “You can see his trademark in this tower in that it looks like a castle or chess piece. It’s quite whimsical and fitting for New-Castle! Architecturally it is quite a folly, you have to wonder why anyone would bother.”
The tower used to have a roof over it and a burner in the bottom of the tower which was lit at night so that when ships were entering the heads at night the slot windows would illuminate from within.
“This one has survived which is great for our city as it’s a real icon. The other one of the pair was demolished although the base is still in the front yard of a house down the hill so the archaeological resource remains. It was actually in the garden of the harbour master.”
The doorway to the tower has now been sealed so any maintenance by council engineers has to be done via a cherry picker, but the harbour master was responsible for ensuring that the towers were lit, and stayed lit.
Other navigation devices at the time included the obelisk on Obelisk Hill and Flagstaff Hill which is where Fort Scratchley stands.
“The lighthouse at Nobbys was built in 1854, so there was a whole series of navigational infrastructure put in by the colonial government in order to expand the port and make sure that our coal export trade was able to provide economic benefits to the nation.”
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.
One of Newcastle’s many hidden places, not open to the public, is a remnant of the Shepherds Hill defence group. A tunnel underneath Memorial Drive enabled power to be supplied to the WWII No 1 Searchlight which was situated on the face of the cliff below Strzelecki Lookout. [Carol Duncan ABC Radio 2013 with Newcastle City Council Heritage Strategist, Sarah Cameron.]
Military occupation of the Shepherds Hill site began in the 1890s, but by 1939 Newcastle was one of the major producers of munitions for NSW and an increasingly important industrial area.
BHP had been preparing for an outbreak of war since Essington Lewis had made a trip to Europe in 1934 so Newcastle was significant to the entire country for both steel production and security.
In order to protect production, defences around Newcastle were strengthened and two new close defence batteries were constructed at Shepherds Hill and Fort Scratchley.
New projects at Shepherds Hill during WWII included accommodation for troops and the construction of the Nos 1 and 2 Searchlights and engine rooms.
The tunnel from the No 1 Searchlight engine room runs about 150m underneath Memorial Drive to where the searchlight was placed underneath the cliff face of Strzelecki Lookout.
The tunnel is not open to the public and the engine room is located on private property, however the tunnel now hosts a colony of microbats!
Designed by Edmund Blacket and constructed between 1857 and 1860, St John’s Anglican Church in Cooks Hill is Newcastle’s oldest standing church with a busy and vibrant modern congregation.[Local Treasures ABC Radio 2013]
Reverend Stewart Perry says even though it is the oldest standing church left in Newcastle, it’s got a lot of history and is, “Above all, it’s just a gorgeous building.”
Unusually, the timber ceiling of the church is painted pale blue and dotted with stars, Rev Perry says it’s a feature of the work of the architect, Edmund Blacket, “People often wonder if the stars are something that was added later but it was one of the original features.”
“It was a trademark of the architect who designed the building. He painted the ceilings blue and had stars just near the sanctuary so that when people looked up they saw a glimpse of the heavens. If you were in a wealthier community your stars tended to be gold-gilded but in a working class community like Cooks Hill was originally your stars were silver.”
“Part of the light aspect of the church comes through the restoration of the stained glass windows which have brought out of the walls and framed with a blue border. At different times of day the sun just streams through and often when I’m doing a wedding on a Saturday afternoon, the bride is standing at the front door with the glare of the sun almost creating a halo or aura effect around her, which I’m sure the groom is quite impressed with.”
“St John’s has changed over the years. The misconception of old buildings is that they have to be kept in the same format. Originally it was built to seat 400 people and if you look around you’d wonder where we’d put them all, but during our 150th anniversary a few years ago we did squeeze 400 people in. They weren’t very comfortable but we did it.”
“There’s been a re-arrangement of the pews, which in Anglican church history is a momentous event. They’ve added a stepped feature at the sanctuary level of the church and we’ve got drum kits and PA systems and screens that come down from the ceiling so it’s certainly changed a bit.”
The heritage status of St John’s brings its own challenges.
“We’ve been very blessed to have funding from the heritage society to do some of the restoration work in the church but there are some things that sometimes aren’t practical in a growing church, to have things in a certain format and furnishings that you’d really love to be able to change but because of the heritage of the building we need to consider that carefully.”
What does Rev Perry consider to be the special items or treasures of St John’s?
“There are many ‘treasures’ and most of them are donated by family members of people who’ve passed away so if you look around our building you’ll see little memorial plaques everywhere. We’ve also got a big brass birdy (eagle) that we read the Bible from on a Sunday morning, that was donated by a family.”
“At the back of the church is the font, one of my favourite parts where historically we used to do all of our baptisms. We don’t do so many of them there anymore but the idea comes from the early church that you weren’t allowed into the body of the church until you were baptised so you come in the door, you get baptised on the way and then you can sit in the church. I can’t imagine how many children, and adults, would have been baptised in that font up there in the corner.”
“Absolutely everything that you see in a church has a story attached to it. All of the artwork comes from a time before most people could read so stained glass windows and art and big brass birdies were ways of letting people in on the secret – only the clergy and the educated could read the Bible, and so they looked to this beauty to try and capture some of the sense of God’s love and God’s majesty.”
“St John’s also has the oldest working pipe organ in Newcastle. It’s an amazing instrument and sounds magical.”
There are no burials at St John’s. Rev Perry says that lots of people ‘left’ from here but ended up in graveyards all over Newcastle, “The church was built when there was a number of gravesites around Newcastle. We’re one of the few churches that never had a graveyard attached to it.”
“When Gionni Di Gravio (from the University of Newcastle) did some history for the 150th anniversary a few years ago, I had a look at the funeral register and a lot of people were buried around Mayfield and Wallsend but had their services here at St John’s. It’s interesting how wide the catchment was in the original days of St John’s.”
One of the stained glass windows of St John’s Anglican Church is only relatively recent and remembers the tragic deaths of a local couple.
“It was dedicated in the mid-1990’s and donated by the family of Leeca and Anthony Atkinson who died in the Seaview air crash in 1994,”
“It’s a special place for that family but for me it has the image of Jesus at the wedding banquet where his mother tells him to sort out the problem of having run out of wine and it reminds me that even though it’s a sad spot, it really does ground you that what we do isn’t always joy and wedding bells, there’s a lot of sadness that goes on in people’s lives, but God’s abundance in that story comes through, and in that window.”
“I often look at it and think I’m so blessed to have been here and to deal with a community that is so amazing.”
The Church walls are hand pressed sandstock bricks, rendered inside and out, on mudstone foundations with stone windows and door surrounds. It is cruciform in plan, 105ft long, 92 ft across transepts, the nave is 30ft wide. The high pitched timber roof trusses have hammer beams and support purlins, rafters and boarding under the present aluminium sheeting which replaced at least two previous coverings. Most pews are of the original cedar, restored, All the windows are of stained or pressed glass, some are original. The Walker two manual pipe organ was made and installed in 1866.
The Hall walls are also sandstocks on stone foundations with a galvanised iron roof, the former two-storied master’s house is now the hall kitchen, entrance hall and meeting room, with Sunday school quarters above.
1863-64 – Church exterior walls were rendered 1865 – Bellfry added to north gable 1920 – North transept was converted to a chapel 1952-53 – Sanctuary floor was replaced by a raised concrete slab and a nave centre aisle was adopted
St John’s is the “mother” church of many Newcastle parishes and is linked with the history of early Australian white settlement. Through the Australian Agriculture (A.A.) Company, which donated the land for the site, some A.A. directors in England subscribed money to build the church, school hall, and rectory. The most generous being Walter Stevenson Davidson, who accompanied John Macarthur’s dispatch to England in disgrace for taking part in a duel. Davidson was a nephew of Sir Walter Farquhar, Bart., Physician to King George IV, and a patron of Macarthur, who went on to found the Australian wool industry, with some of the sheep from the Royal flock.
St John’s history begins in the period of William Tyrrell, the first bishop of Newcastle and his efforts to provide schools and churches, the period of the “United Church of England and Ireland”, the transition of Newcastle from mining to industry and residential, and links with colonial chaplains and their subsidised salaries.
Pleased to be able to share – my great great grandfather Henry Martin, far right, holding the boat.
This is taken in the water around the Pilot Station where he worked as crew of the “Victoria” Lifeboat. (Olive Hoggan’s (also her gr.g/father) photo.)
Henry Martin d.1899, No 2, Pilots Row, Newcastle, now called the Boatmens Cottages on Nobbys Rd. opposite Fort Scratchley. The 1st rescue while working on the “Victoria”, we have record of, is the “City of Newcastle”.
The little boy in the photo is Charles Henry Martin, son of Henry Martin, so dates the photo to approximately 1880.