Central Methodist Mission
Prior to the admission of free settlers to the town of Newcastle in 1823, the Anglican Church was the main religious presence with their small church built on the site where Newcastle’s Christ Church Cathedral now stands.
From 1823, the arrival of people to establish coalmining in the region introduced Wesleyans and Methodists, amongst others.
Although the Methodists appointed a minister in 1858, it was another 40 years before plans were made to build a permanent home for the Central Methodist Mission.
In 1902, work began on the site in King Street on land that had previously been owned by William Croasdill who had come to Australia to work for the Australian Agricultural Company.
The foundation stone was laid by Governor, Sir Harry Rawson, during a grand occasion with many dignitaries in attendance including the Premier of NSW, Sir John See, and the Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Saumarez Smith.
After the official ceremony, the Superintendent of the Sydney Central Mission who had been sent to Newcastle for three years to oversee the project said, ‘without unholy rivalry they could do good work in this great wicked city where the streets on any Sunday night were filled with non-churchgoing people.’
The Mission closed in 1987 with the loss of congregation but during the life of the mission it was also used as a cinema and venue for concerts and recitals.
For a brief time after the closure the building was home to the Mission Theatre Company but since then remained mostly unused.
Perhaps the most significant guest to the building during its use for entertainment was Dame Nellie Melba who performed in the Central Hall in May 1927, the year of her farewell and a month after appearing on the cover of Time magazine. The program of this performance is held by the National Library of Australia.
Just a week prior to coming to Newcastle, Dame Nellie sang the national anthem in the company of the Duke and Duchess of York (the future King George VI & Queen Elizabeth) at the opening of the new Parliament House in Canberra to a crowd of over 20,000 people. A sadly eventful day as one of the aeroplanes in a flying display crashed and killed the pilot.
As well as a visit by Dame Nellie, 1927 was also the year of a major refurbishment of the organ installed within the Central Methodist Mission. The organ had been built in England in 1886 by T C Lewis of London who built five organs for Australia.
It was originally built for the Wesleyan Church in Tyrell Street in Newcastle and was installed there by Charles Richardson in 1886 and opened on 8 March 1887 by George F King, organist of St Mary’s West Maitland. In 1903 the organ was relocated by Richardson into the new Central Methodist Hall in King Street, Newcastle, where it remained until it was sold to the Pittwater House school in Sydney.
Former Principal of Pittwater House, Mr Richard Morgan, was Director of the Newcastle Regional Museum and he used to sneak away for lunchtime practices on the rather dilapidated but still functioning instrument in the King Street Mission. In the late 1980s he was nearly the only organist who played it and in mid-1987 he was told, “Don’t bother returning as the Mission is sold and the organ is going for scrap.” Richard immediately contacted his father, Rex Morgan AM, MBE, the Founder and (at that time) Principal of The Pittwater House Schools to tell him of its impending demise. Rex Morgan quickly negotiated with the church to purchase the instrument for its scrap value of then Australian $10,000.
Sydney organ builder Peter Jewkes was commissioned to restore the organ, an enormous job that was completed in 1989 at a cost of $100,000. Happily, the organ is used to this day.
In 2006, work began on the restoration of the building and the establishment of Bacchus Restaurant – a delicious irony that the Greek god of grapes, wine & debauchery (also known as Dionysus) should give his name to what was once the home of religious worship and temperance.
After several incarnations, the venue is now (2023) known as Bartholomew’s.
You can find out more, including the mysterious ghost, in the interview with Sarah Cameron – former Newcastle City Council Heritage Strategist, and Heather Moore – who was the restaurant manager of Bacchus in 2012.
First published Carol Duncan ABC Radio 2012