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.
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.
The French barque Adolphe is just one of many shipwrecks that litter the entrance to Newcastle Harbour, yet 110 years after the disaster, this vessel is still one of the most visible. Carol Duncan spoke with Deb Mastello of the Newcastle Maritime Centre. [ABC Radio 2014]
A walk along the 2km stretch of Stockton Breakwall known as the Shipwreck Walk will allow you to see the remains of the Adolphe – yet the remains of The Sygna wrecked in 1974 are expected to be gone within the next decade.
Having sailed from Antwerp, the Adolphe was ultimately heading for Sydney to load wheat, however in large seas the ship came to grief on Newcastle’s notorious ‘Oyster Bank’ in 1904 after colliding with the wreck of another vessel, the Colonist, whilst being manoeuvred in to port by the tugs ‘Hero’ and ‘Victoria’.
The terrible irony of the story of the Adolphe is that it shouldn’t have actually come in to Newcastle at all.
In 1904 there were competing tug companies working in the port and the company that had chartered the Adolphe used its own operators.
When the Adolphe arrived off Newcastle, the captain waited in vain for the tug operators to arrive.
Eventually, the Adolphe was readied to be brought in to port by a competing tug company and it was on the way in that the message was seen at Nobbys Signal Station from the owners of the Adolphe to NOT enter Newcastle, but to continue straight past onto Sydney.
In large seas, the Adolphe was hit by three waves – the first of which broke the rope securing the Adolphe to the Victoria; the second save pushed the Adolphe toward the Oyster Bank (already littered with wrecks); and the third wave lifted the Adolphe and deposited the ship on top of several other wrecks including the Colonist, the Wendouree and the Cawarra. The Cawarra disaster in 1866 itself remains one of the worst in Australian maritime history.
While the loss of the Adolphe was a terrible loss for the company, all 47 persons on board the ship were safely removed and indeed the Australian Consul-General for France came to Newcastle to officially recognise the work of the lifeboat crew.
The rescue of the ship’s crew has gone down in local maritime history as one of the most remarkable in local waters.