Thursday, 27 June 2013

“Blow it up over my dead body!”

“A couple of days after the earthquake, I was at home in the parsonage in Beaumont Street when there was a knock on the door. I opened it to a policeman, who told me – the Army is about to blow up the church. They want you there!

John Mason, Minister of the Hamilton Wesley Church  1985 - 1992.

Reverend John Mason
Photograph from Hamilton Wesley, a continuing story 1858 - 1988  
by Don and Mavis Ebbott

The last post Wesleyans of Pit Town showed how over the passage of some 150 years, the fluctuating size of the church congregation dictated decisions about buildings on the site. But there was another great challenge faced by the modern day church that had nothing to do with numbers, and everything to do with a natural catastrophe.

The 1989 Newcastle earthquake damaged the church building badly. Its landmark tower had collapsed, and the northern and southern brick walls had been blown out 7-8 centimetres into a precarious curve. The building could cave in at any moment, bringing everything down.

The church had been covered with plastic to keep out rain, and boarded up for safety.

Hamilton Wesley Church, 1990
Photograph from the personal collection of Mrs Mavis Ebbott

The custodians of the church acted quickly after the disaster. Suters Architects were asked to assess the damage. Church decision makers needed to expert advice on whether it would be worthwhile repairing the building – if not, they would have to begin all over again.

The Army had been brought in to help with the emergency response to the earthquake, and all over the city, buildings were being blown up. “They were having the time of their lives”, John told me. In all, three hundred buildings were demolished in Newcastle after the earthquake.

He resumes his story of what happened that morning.

“In a great flurry I rushed up Beaumont Street to see what was going on. There was the Mayor, the Army people from Singleton, the police – all standing around, waiting for the go-ahead”.

John describes how he confronted the group. “Over my dead body!” he declared with all the authority he could grasp. “We’re waiting for the architects to tell us if it can be saved – and they can’t get a cherry picker to get up into the roof because there isn’t a cherry picker to be had in Newcastle!”

A loud argument ensued. “We can’t wait”, John was told. Then, he saw a familiar figure approaching along Beaumont Street. It was Ed Clode, a Suters architect. John called out to him immediately – “I was never so pleased to see anyone”, John said.

Ed backed up John’s story. Leaving them in no doubt about the consequences of going ahead, John reiterated his position: “If you continue, I’ll go in there, and then you can blow it up”.

The Army sappers did desist, and probably went off to find an easier target. An old cinema, perhaps the Century – built 1941 to seat an amazing 1800 people....

The Century Cinema, Nine Ways, Broadmeadow, suffered irreparable damage...
Photograph from the Hunter Region Ambulance Officers' Gazette, 1990, courtesy Newcastle Region Library

The church was repaired. The tower was restored.

Work underway to restore the Wesley Church Tower
Photograph courtesy of Chris Priest

In a delicate engineering feat, the bowed walls were eased back into position over many weeks of gentle pressure from huge strainer bars. Those bars have become part of the historical fabric of the church.

Interior view of Wesley-on-Beaumont, with the horizontal strainer bars just visible, and close up, below (2013)

From the calmer perspective of his retirement years, John tells me:

“I do wonder whether I did the right thing. We were insured, of course, and could have rebuilt. We could have planned and built something more suited for contemporary church life. But there it is, that’s what happened”.

Reverend John Mason speaking at the interfaith thanksgiving service held following the earthquake, Beaumont Street, Hamilton 1990
Photograph from the personal collection of Mrs Mavis Ebbott

Unattributed photographs by Ruth Cotton.


My thanks to Reverend John Mason and Mrs Mavis Ebbott for the story and photographs.

Related post

Wesleyans of Pit Town

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Wesleyans of Pit Town

Pressing his nose against the glass as I hold him up to our high front window, my three year old grandson stares transfixed at the floodlit church tower. Springing from the darkness, it’s so close we can almost touch it, this cake decorator’s fantasy of lacy outlines, turrets and slim arches.

Bell tower of Wesley-on-Beaumont (2013)

It took just three months to build this new Wesleyan Church in 1928, for a Methodist congregation bursting at the seams. A newspaper report at the time described the new building as the “cathedral of NSW Methodism and the largest Methodist church north of Sydney, seating about 600 people”. [1] It quickly became a familiar landmark for the people of Hamilton. How did this come about?

Wesley Methodist Church, Hamilton NSW (1960s)
Photograph in Newcastle and Hunter District Historical Society Archives, courtesy Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

The first Wesleyan Chapel to be built in Newcastle was in Newcomen Street, in front of a cordial factory. The AA Company provided transport on its horse drawn coal trains for its employees and their families from the outlying mining settlements to travel to the various churches each Sunday. Imagine the clanking, the coal dust (despite the canvas covers)  and the innumerable stops!

The First Wesleyan Chapel in Newcastle, Newcomen Street
Photograph reproduced from "Glory Be" , 1845 -1945. Commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Opening of the First Wesleyan Chapel in Newcastle, Ed. Norman F Charge and Eric K Lindgard

There were three times as many Methodists in the Newcastle coalmining communities compared to NSW generally, and the locality of Borehole, Pit Town and Happy Flat was no exception. [2]

Gradually tiring of the long Sunday rides, other options began to be explored by the Methodists here. As early as 1858, services were held in the slab-and-bark private home of a Mrs Clarke, and later in the Borehole School building established by the National School Board on Cameron's Hill. Then, thoughts turned to the possibility of building their own church.

Even in 1869, the south west corner of Tudor and Beaumont Street would have been a convenient location, in the heart of the three bustling mining settlements that trickled from Cameron’s Hill to the flat past Beaumont Street.

You’ll recognise the corner now as the home of the Greater Building Society. A heritage bank building nestles against the protective curve of a six storey building.

The Greater Building Society, Hamilton (2013)

....or you’ll know the Three Bean Espresso's Apothecary Kitchen, famed for its super friendly staff and fast service.

From chapel to café - Three Bean Espresso's Apothecary Kitchen in The Greater (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith

On this corner, a simple, austere Wesleyan Chapel was the first Methodist church building in Hamilton, built in 1869.

Interior Old Church
Photograph reproduced from Hamilton Wesley - a continuing story (Ref. 3 below)

Accommodating 70 people, it can be seen here with the Sunday School hall, built some years later in 1902.

Methodist Church, Parsonage and Mission Hall, Hamilton c 1903
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, courtesy Cultural Collections,
University of Newcastle, Australia

Colliery managers were the “go-to” figures to officiate at special functions in those days. The foundation stone for this early Church was laid by Mr J B Winship, AA Company colliery manager, on 23 August 1869.  

Over 130 years later, during redevelopment of the site by the Greater Building Society’s head office in 2001, footings of the western wall of the church were discovered. Because of their archaeological significance, these creamy sandstone blocks have been preserved where they were found, and the building has been cleverly re-designed around them. They can be viewed through glass tiles in the foyer of the Greater.

One of the footings of the western wall of the original Wesleyan Church,
foyer of The Greater, Hamilton

Methodism was strong in northern England, the home of many immigrants to our coal mining communities. The movement was a reaction to what was seen as the apathy of an Anglicanism that had lost both its heart and its spirit. Evangelistic preaching (often in the open air), enthusiastic hymn singing, and passionate advocacy of the radical notion that the working classes were equal to the upper classes characterised the Methodist movement.

That advocacy of inclusiveness and social justice continues, reflected in the philosophy and work of the present day Wesley-on-Beaumont.

The 1880s congregation was growing, and the small rectangular chapel was remodelled and extended by architect James Cropley. In 1888 a fine parsonage was built for the Minister and his family, on the corner of Tudor and William Streets.

Methodist Church, showing Parsonage at front (n.d.)
Courtesy Newcastle Region Library

In 1901, the foundation stone for a large Sunday School Hall was laid by Mr William Winn. Church bazaars – no doubt the initiative of the women - had been the main source of the £520 needed to buy the land.

Mrs Mavis Ebbott, a local Hamilton and church  historian, explained to me that while this was called a Sunday School Hall, it was originally established as a venue for adult Bible classes. These were especially important before the appointment of a Minister, as leadership in worship had to come from lay men in the church.

Five years later, the church could not hold everyone wanting to attend services, so in 1906, evening services were transferred to the Sunday School Hall. Over 300 people could be seated there, seen at the left of the Church below.

Methodist Church, Hamilton (cnr Tudor and Beaumont Streets) c.1906
Photograph by Dr John Turner, courtesy Cultural Collections,
University of Newcastle, Australia

From the time of brothers John and Charles Wesley, co-founders of the Methodist Movement, the religious instruction of children was especially important. The Hamilton Methodists took up this challenge.

In 1909 a two story building with a suite of classrooms was erected at the back of the Sunday School Hall. This was named Kindergarten Hall. By 1917, Sunday School enrolments were burgeoning. 407 children were enrolled in Sunday School. A third building - Social Hall – was built in 1922 for education, recreation and use as a gymnasium.

In their account of the history of Hamilton Wesley Uniting Church, Don and Mavis Ebbott wrote:

“For many years these halls were filled every Sunday afternoon. All the different organisations of the church used them for meetings and functions. Every former pupil of the old Sunday School would recall the curtain of the stage with the camels walking up the dusty road to Jerusalem”. [3]

Still, the extra Halls were not enough. We learn that in the early 1920s the church building was “taxed to its utmost capacity”. [4]

Many weddings were held in the popular church
Thomas and Gwendoline Griffiths married at the Methodist Church, Hamilton
on 17 September, 1921
Photograph from the personal collection of Alison Edwards

Pressure was mounting for more ambitious development, to meet Church needs. Hamilton was in the midst of a building boom, and its population in 1928 was almost 19,000.

The original Methodist Church and the Parsonage were sold to Australia’s first bank, the rapidly expanding Bank of NSW, on 1 August, 1928 for £3,250. The church had stood for almost 60 years, and was demolished by the Bank.

The sale was to finance a new church building close by, on the corner of Denison and Beaumont Streets.

Built for £13,400 pounds, it was dedicated on 24 November 1928.  The choir stalls alone were built for 70 - exactly the number the first church could hold, in total. Upwards of 600 people could gather in this new "cathedral of NSW Methodism"  -  the one my grandson marvels at from our high windows.

Wesley-on-Beaumont, Hamilton (2014)
Photograph by Matthew Ward

The story does not end here. 

In 1958, the Ebbotts wrote, the halls were refurbished and early pioneers were honoured by naming the halls: the big hall – The Cowan Assembly Hall, the Social Hall – The Harry Jones Memorial Hall, and the Kindergarten Hall – the Josiah Nicholas Kindergarten Hall.

Two of these Halls would not survive the next few years. Cowan and Nicholas Halls, together with a parcel of land that had been the lawn between the old church and the parsonage, were sold. Now, the Greater buildings encompass where they stood.

The sales helped finance yet another building, Fellowship House, which opened in 1962. Purpose built next to the new church, Fellowship House boasted a sanded and polished floor for dancing, and a stage. Mrs Shelia Gow, a descendant of the McIntyre flour milling family, wrote to me that in the late 1940s and 1950s, young people from the Scots Kirk and the Church of England in Hamilton enjoyed combined dances – the Methodists weren’t allowed to dance. By the sixties, however, Methodism had come of age!

Fellowship House, Hamilton (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith

One of the Halls remained, the Social Hall, facing west on William Street. It had become a senior citizens centre but eventually, it too was sold to become a warehouse.

Former senior citizens hall (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith

Wesley-on-Beaumont continues to find new and diverse ways to serve the Hamilton community. Promoting fairness and equality are still foremost on this Church's agenda.

 I wonder what its founders would think of the colourful Fair Trade products displayed in its vestibule, and the coffee shop I found occupying part of its nave? Somehow I think that the army of women who baked and sewed for the countless bazaars to raise funds for a succession of new buildings would feel perfectly at home in Bill’s Place. It’s a volunteer run coffee shop with a play space for toddlers, affordable coffee and delicious home made cakes, and one of the most unusual kitchen windows you are ever likely to see!

Converted kitchen for Bill’s Place, Wesley-on-Beaumont, Hamilton (2014)
Photograph by Matthew Ward

Unattributed photographs by Ruth Cotton.

Reverend Amelia Koh-Butler, Minister Hamilton Uniting Church, and Mrs Mavis Ebbott, local and church historian.

In 2016, the Greater Building Society was renamed the Greater Bank.

Related post

Detail of historical display in Three  Bean Espresso's Apothecary Kitchen

[1] Hamilton Wesley Methodist Church: 100 Years of Christian Witness. Centenary Souvenir 1858 – 1958 (Copy held in Church Office, Wesley-on-Beaumont)
[2]  In her 1979 PhD thesis The Newcastle Coalmining District of NSW, 1860 – 1900, Ellen McEwen’s analysis of 1891 census shows that Methodists were 31.1% of the population of the Newcastle coalmining district, compared with 10.1 % in NSW. A copy of this excellent social history is held in the Local Studies section of the Newcastle Region Library.
[3] Ebbott, Don and Mavis: Hamilton Wesley – a continuing story.... Hamilton Wesley Uniting Church 1858 – 1988. Copy held in Church Office, Wesley-on-Beaumont.
[4] Murray, Peter: From Borehole to Hamilton Jubilee 1848 – 1921. Self published (2006).

Saturday, 15 June 2013

When Good News is Front Page News

To discover and tell stories about Hidden Hamilton, people need to know what I am looking for. What better opportunity to reach people than an article in The Post - the independent local newspaper that reaches upwards of 140,000 households?

After my interview with Post journalist Amelia Parrott, I expected a few paragraphs tucked away inside the next edition. When the story of my blog appeared as the front page feature, I was shocked! Then it dawned on me that my small local effort must be really welcomed.

That was confirmed in the steady stream of phone calls and emails I have received all week. From older people who have never touched the internet, to those for whom it is a second home – the response has been amazing.

Thank you to everyone who has contacted me. I feel very privileged that you have come to me with your stories. They will be treated with the care and respect they deserve.

Please keep the stories coming! Click here to be reminded how to contact me.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Whose head is it, really?

Wrestling with the unwieldy pipes, the busy scaffolder took little notice of the small sculpture above the doorway, the head of a bearded man. An earthquake measuring 5.6 on the Richter scale had devastated Newcastle on 28 December, 1989, and he was flat out assembling protective structures around buildings all over the city. In the scheme of things, what did a bit more damage to an old plaster head matter?

The post Tale of Two Buildings told the story of the 1901 Fire Station in James Street, Hamilton. In it, I touched briefly on the restoration of the sculpture of the head of a man that had been above the front door, pictured below.

When I was finally able to speak with two of the other main characters in this story, I learned how a piece of local history can be made – and saved - by coincidence.

As part of the family effort to preserve the old Fire Station building, Mr Victor Lindsay (who had something of an artistic bent) volunteered to restore the head. His sons Mervyn and Robert  had purchased the building.

But who was the head supposed to represent? While the original had survived fairly much intact, the busy scaffolder had made things much worse, and Vic needed a model. He takes up the story:

“One day a chap walking past the building told me it was King George V”, Victor told me. “But I knew it wasn’t him.” King George V had not ascended the throne until 1910 - too late for a 1901 building.

King George V (Wikipedia)

“I did think it could have been King Edward VII though. It was hard to find a picture....."

Bust of King Edward VII, by Francis Derwent Wood (Wikipedia)

Edward VII ruled from 1901 – 1910, and the Fire Station was built in 1901, so this was a possibility. Victor then began the search for a penny, which would have had a profile of the then monarch.


Profile of King Edward VII on a half penny, 1902

Victor eventually succeeded, but the coin (a very soft material), wasn’t much help to him.

Then, one day a woman called Mrs Jean Mears appeared in the office of Victor's son, Mervyn Lindsay, and the problem was solved. The likeness was that of her grandfather, Sam Donn, who had been Mayor of Hamilton in exactly the right year, 1901.

In the photograph below, the white bearded Sam Donn can be seen seated in the centre, directly below the sculpture.

Opening of the Hamilton Fire Station, James Street, Hamilton
2 March, 1901
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, courtesy Newcastle Region Library

Mrs Mears explained to me that she had heard about the restoration, and gone to James Street to check it out. She was shocked to see part of her grandfather’s sculptured head missing. Someone working on the building assured her it would be restored, but no one knew who it was. That’s how she came to be in Mervyn Lindsay’s office, and another piece of the puzzle had fallen into place.

Victor restored the sculpture by reassembling the broken pieces, recreating the head and making a mould from which a new head could be formed. Now firmly fixed above the door by two stainless steel rods, Victor is making sure Sam Donn will stay in place for a very long time...

He would like to see a small plaque in the foyer of the building, naming Sam Donn. I think it should also acknowledge Victor Lindsay’s labour of love.

Almost 90 now, Victor is learning to use his IPad. If he’d had this little device in 1989, how much easier might the task of identifying that mystery sculpture have been?

Unattributed photographs by Ruth Cotton.


A plaque installed on the former Volunteer Fire Station in 2016 commemorates Mayor Sam Donn. It also honours the contribution made by the Lindsay family in saving this building, with social mention of Victor Lindsay's sculpture restoration. Victor Lindsay passed away in November, 2016 aged 92.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

"Crushed Between Two Coal Skips in the Borehole Colliery, Hamilton"

Ten stark, simple words, in an email sent to me by Hunter historian, Fr Brian Roach.

Ten words, carrying the story of a terrible death, a family tragedy and the weight of more than a century’s collateral damage from the coal industry in the Hunter.

Brian told me his great great grandfather John Uley Roach died on the last day of the year, 1880. I had mentioned to him that I was writing a post about another Hamilton family who had lost not just one but two great great grandfathers in Borehole mine accidents.

Two days later I was looking at the names of 1,795 miners on the Memorial Wall at Aberdare, a small mining community an hour’s drive west of Newcastle

Miners Memorial Wall, The United Mineworkers Federation
 Aberdare, NSW

The Memorial honours miners killed in the course of their work in the NSW Northern District, from Sydney to Grafton in the north, and west to Gunnedah.

Covering the period from 1801 to 2011, it may be incomplete. This is not only because of poor records from the early 1800s, but also because many more miners died as a result of dust diseases or lingering injuries.

Like a bright reflective mirror, the bronzed wall stretched the full length of the garden. On this chilly winter morning, I caught the scent of fading gardenias bordering the memorial garden path as I searched for and found just two names – John Roach -

and Richard Nicholls.

It was the story of Richard Nicholls, shared with me through the Lost Newcastle Facebook site by his great great grand daughter Rhonda White, that started me on this journey.

Richard Nicholls (n.d)
From the collection of Rhonda White

Richard, his wife Catherine and six children lived in William Street, Hamilton for 22 years, from 1875 to 1896. Prior to coming to Newcastle, Richard had been a publican. House blocks around William Street were first released for sale in 1871 – perhaps Richard had been able to save up and buy one of these in 1875. He would have been 37.

It was the pure sweetness in her face that struck me, when I first saw this photograph of Catherine, Richard’s wife and Rhonda’s great great grandmother.

Catherine Nicholls (n.d)

From the collection of Rhonda White

Following the death of her own mother in England, Catherine and her two sisters had been sent by their father to Australia on the ship Africana in 1865. Catherine was 14 years old. The three girls were placed in the care of their maternal grandfather in Sydney.

When Catherine married Richard (already a widower) in 1869, she was 19 and he was 31.

In 1892, Richard lost his second wife. At the age of 42, Catherine succumbed to “phthisis” – a Greek word for the deadly disease tuberculosis, known colloquially as “galloping consumption”. This infectious disease flourished in overcrowded conditions with poor sanitation.

Hamilton Municipal Council was still struggling with the challenge of providing all its residents with safe ways of disposing of human waste (“nightsoil”), as well as clean water.

Catherine was unlucky. The tuberculosis bacillus had been identified a decade before she died, and around the time of her death, effective treatments were being developed. Who knows whether she had any possibility of accessing such care?

Richard was left with the six children. We don’t know how he coped, working long arduous days underground, but by this stage the older children would have been able to help. Most likely a couple of them would have had jobs too.

Three years later, disaster struck this family again.

Newspaper clipping 27 January, 1896

From the collection of Rhonda White

Richard was 58 years old when he was crushed by a fall of coal in the AA Company’s No. 2 Pit at Hamilton.

A Mining Accident
Detail from the bronze frieze at the Miners Memorial Wall, Aberdare

Richard Nicholls died in Newcastle Hospital as a result of his injuries on 14 January, 1896.

Injured Miner being Carried from Mine.
Detail from the bronze frieze at the Miners Memorial Wall, Aberdare

We don’t know for sure, but it is likely Richard had worked in the mines most or all of his life. By 58, he would have been a tough and experienced worker. Given the hazards of the industry, perhaps he had done well to survive this long.

Naked Miner at Work
Detail from the bronze frieze at the Miners Memorial Wall, Aberdare

Rhonda can trace the family’s residency in William Street to 1896, the year Richard died. Nothing is known about what befell the family immediately afterwards. The youngest child would have been 10, the oldest about 24. Rhonda’s great grandmother was 17 when she became an orphan.

At least Catherine’s death might have allowed some time for the family to adjust the loss that loomed ahead. When I see a media report about a sudden death – someone who went cheerfully off to work in the morning as usual, but never returned alive – I can’t help putting myself in the shoes of those left behind.

Who came to the little house in William Street that night, to tell the family a terrible accident had befallen their father and he had been taken to hospital?

After his death next day, did relatives and family rally around? We know that these early mining communities were often tight knit groups, and that the Friendly Societies were important sources of support. I try to imagine how the days following their father’s death unfolded for the children, left bereft of both parents now.

What happened to the house in William Street? Did the older children take on the younger ones, or were they placed in the care of relatives or others? Where did they all find a place to live?

Their last anchor had gone, their strong, hard working father.

Rhonda’s family was struck twice, with the death of her other great great grandfather Reuben Davies at Hetton Colliery in 1911. Yet the family, somehow, has survived through the generations and is now bringing its history to light.

The United Mine Workers Federation continues to work hard to improve safety and conditions for its members. The bronze plaque on the Memorial Wall concludes:

“We can never forget that the real price of coal is the blood and bones of our members, along with the heartache and pain inflicted on thousands of families and friends who lost their lives in winning coal”.

The Memorial Wall can be found in the grounds of The United Mineworkers Federation of Australia, 67 Aberdare Road, Aberdare.

Unattributed photographs by Ruth Cotton.


Thank you to Rhonda White, for story and photographs, and to Fr Brian Roach.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Tale of Two Buildings

At the end of last week’s post, I reflected on the lost hotels of Denison Street, and asked the question – why do some buildings endure, while others crumble or face demolition?

I found at least part of the answer in two local buildings.[1]

One used to be the Hamilton Fire Station in James Street, and the other the Mechanics’ Institute, on the corner of Tudor and Milton Streets. Each has a fascinating history.

It was May 1882 when the need for a local Fire Brigade was first discussed at a Hamilton Council meeting. Already some terrible fires had occurred. While the first brigade was established the following year, it was not until a decade later, in 1892, that it acquired a home – a tiny wooden structure (including a fire tower) that can just be seen in the photo below, next to the Municipal Chambers in James Street. Neither of these buildings have survived.

Hamilton Council Chambers, Hamilton NSW December 1892
Ralph Snowball photograph from the Norm Barney collection, courtesy Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

That Fire Station proved inadequate, and in 1901, a new, single story fire station was purpose built for the cost of 300 pounds, also in James Street. A grand community opening was held. In 1906, a second story and belfry was added for a further two hundred and twenty two pounds. Yet another opening was held - Hamiltonians must have loved an excuse to celebrate! 

Fire Station James Street Hamilton 23 October 1906
Ralph Snowball photograph from the Norm Barney collection, courtesy Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

By the mid 1920s, the station had ceased to be used, and was converted to flats. The building was extensively damaged in the 1989 earthquake. Peter Murray describes what happened next:

“Saved from demolition, it was bought by Merve and Robert Lindsay, who restored and converted the building into an office and an apartment....Fortuitously a descendant of Sam Donn supplied a photograph to assist in the construction”.[2]

The former Hamilton Volunteer Fire Station, 2013

This graciously proportioned building, seen above as it is today,  bears the name Hamilton Flats, replacing the words Hamilton Volunteer Fire Station. Above the front door is a sculpture of a man’s head, thought by a local resident to have been King George V. In the event, it was found to be a likeness of Sam Donn, who had been Mayor of Hamilton in 1901. 

The restored sculpture of Sam Donn, above the entrance to the building 
that was former Hamilton Volunteer Fire Station, 2013

The sculpture was painstakingly restored by Mervyn's father, Mr Victor Lindsay. Mervyn Lindsay explained in an email to me how Victor spent many, many months trying to fix the sculpture, and work out its identity.  At the last moment, photos were received of Sam Donn from Sam's granddaughter. Mervyn writes:

"The fragments recovered after the earthquake refused to fit any attempts to replicate George V, but of course worked perfectly for Sam."

We often walk past this building, admire its simple lines and appreciate what the Lindsays have done to ensure it endures.

The second building I want to tell you about is The Mechanics’ Institute in Hamilton. The wooden precursor to the current brick structure was built in 1862 – thirty years before the first Fire Brigade building was built.

The cultural history of the Mechanics’ Institute is every bit as interesting as the history of its building. I’ll touch very briefly on it here.

 In the early nineteenth century, a time when education was the privilege of the elite few, Mechanics’ Institutes were set up in Britain and later, Australia. Their aim was to provide working men with access to technical education – through talks, courses, lectures and books accessible in a reading room. Since books and library subscriptions were beyond the financial means of workers, the Institutes filled this gap, expanding from technical subjects to the humanities, especially literature. Even debating was encouraged.

Eventually, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, initiatives such as TAFE, free community libraries, adult education and compulsory public education for children made the role of the Institutes far less relevant.

Walking past the former Mechanics' Institute building in its unloved state, I feel so sad that this impressive building has lost its purpose

Anzac House, formerly The Mechanics' Institute, Tudor Street,
Hamilton, 2014
Photograph by Matthew Ward

The story of the Mechanics’ Institute building in Hamilton explains something of how the organisation navigated these changes in society.

The first modest weatherboard building experienced a troubled twenty plus years, financially and in terms of its role, from 1862 until 1888. Then, as a result of strong advocacy from some community leaders, a fine new building was commissioned on the same site. It was opened by the NSW Premier, Sir Henry Parkes in August, 1888.

 Designed by Newcastle architect Mr F B Menkens, the Mechanics’ Institute was described as “the handsomest building of its kind in the district”. [3] Upstairs was a reading room with daily newspapers, a library, a meeting room, and a billiards room. Downstairs was a large hall to seat 400 people, with a stage. It must have been a marvellous resource for the growing community.

Three years later, in 1891, an extension to the building was completed, making it symmetrical in accord with the architectural plans. As with many buildings from the 1800s, the graceful cast iron lace verandahs have not survived.

Mechanics Institute Tudor and Milton Streets Hamilton February 1892
Ralph Snowball photograph from the Norm Barney collection, courtesy Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

By the early 1920s, membership of the Institute was a healthy 800, and its educational role was changing to a recreational one as it became more like a community club. Income was raised through dances, musicals, motion pictures, hire of billiard tables --- until the growth of a range of other social clubs usurped this role, too. Once more, the Institute faced big challenges.

In the 1940s the Hamilton RSL Sub Branch purchased the premises, which became Anzac House, next to the RSL Club. It was intended to be used for the future expansion of the Club, which never happened, although it was rented out as a function centre at one stage.

Yet another organisation has had to cope with the changing times, and came off second best.

Effigy above a doorway today, in a deteriorated state, 2013

For a time, though, The Mechanics' Institute had served as a focus for many of Hamilton’s most important educational, social and political activities.

So what is the difference between the former Fire Brigade building, and the former Mechanic’s Institute? Why has one been able to be successfully reinvented, while the other languishes? Both are fine buildings, excellent examples of the architecture of their times.

I’ve begun a list of what I think a building must have to endure -

1.    A solid structure, with durability – while brick is better than weatherboard, brick buildings can disintegrate, and both can survive.

2.    Aesthetic appeal which transcends the passage of time.

3.    Location that is still relevant to its purpose.

4.    Able to be adapted to a new purpose, if its former purpose is superseded.

5.    Someone to love it (with money).

The Mechanics' Institute has stumbled on Point 4, and crashed on Point 5. The Fire Station/Hamilton Flats ticks all points – most importantly, it has someone to love it.

Unattributed photographs by Ruth Cotton.


In 2015 it was reported in the Newcastle Herald that the Hamilton RSL and former Anzac House/Mechanics Institute buildings were to be redeveloped by DJB Developments. Mencken Award winning architect Kevin Snell was engaged and has incorporated the heritage building into Atrium, a landmark residential apartment building. It was completed in January, 2018

Another  story relating to the Volunteer Fire Station is at Whose Head is it, Really?

[1] Historical details about the two buildings gave been obtained from Peter Murray: From Borehole to Hamilton Jubilee 1848 – 1921. Self published (2006)
[2] Murray, P: as above, p. 83
[3] Murray, P: as above, p. 112.