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.


Christine Bruderlin said...

I can confirm that it is indeed Sam Don, who was my great-great-great uncle. HE was the fire chief for a while and he also served as mayor. Samdon Street is named for him as well.

Christine Bruderlin

Ruth Cotton said...

Thanks Christine. I am learning about the 3 degrees of separation here!
Ruth Cotton.

wykdwytch said...

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Renata Daniel