Monday, 29 July 2013

Greater Stories to be Told

“I rushed out the front door - everyone was coming out of their homes. I looked towards Beaumont Street from our elevated front driveway. I could see the Greater tower – it was leaning to the left side, not vertical, it appeared to be wavering, and I thought, This is not good!”

A few minutes before, Lynn Mangovski had been enjoying her Christmas leave from the Newcastle Permanent. She had just returned from a spot of shopping at Kotara, and was making a snack for her children. Suddenly, through the large kitchen window, she noticed that all the birds had taken flight, hundreds of her husband’s pigeons.

Photograph by Kris McParland
Cover for his book 'I'll Wait Here' (

“They seemed to be just hovering in the air”, Lynn recalled. “It was so quiet, and I thought, There is really something strange happening”.

At that moment, Lynn felt the house shake strongly, stop for a second and then start again. Grabbing her son and daughter, she rushed outside. That’s when she saw the Greater tower waver....and realised she wasn't wearing any shoes!

Inside the Greater that morning of 29 December, 1989, staff felt the building lurch and the floor roll underfoot. Huge diagonal cracks appeared in the walls.

Wall cracks inside the Greater building
Photograph by Chris Priest

The processing machines jumped 16 centimetres.

Disk and magnetic tape drive machines
Photograph by Chris Priest

Gerard Walsh[1] who worked in information technology, was in his office chatting to his boss, now CEO Don Magin. “One thing I learned that day”, Gerard told me, “was never to lean against a window. That’s where I was, when suddenly the power went off, the air conditioning stopped, and the whole building moved – like a giant got hold of a bottle and shook it”.

Don Magin was fortunate he had not been sitting at his own desk that morning – or he would have found himself under a falling bookcase.

The lifts were out of action, and Gerard remembers running down the stairs.

“Plaster was coming off the walls, lying everywhere”, he said.

Damage to stairwell inside the Greater building
Photograph by Chris Priest

Later, with John Arnold and Greg Davis, Don Magin did a final check throughout the building to be sure no one remained inside.

Staff gathered outside the building. Sandra Davis[2] remembers wild speculation about what might have happened. “BHP has blown up!” “A plane has crashed into us!”  Without radios or mobile phones,  the only thing staff knew was what they had experienced.

Everyone had been evacuated so quickly that women’s handbags were still inside; men had left house and car keys in desk drawers.

Greg and Sandra Davis lived at what was then 123 Denison Street (since demolished and now part of the Greater’s staff car park). As no one could go home, Sandra and Greg invited staff to their place.

“We had plenty of Christmas leftovers”, remembers Sandra, “so everyone got fed”. Fortunately, staff numbers were down because of the Christmas/New Year break.

Like so many Newcastle buildings affected by the earthquake, the Greater was cordoned off for safety reasons, and scaffolding erected.

The Greater  building under repair January 1990
Photograph from the personal collection of Mrs Mavis Ebbott

Competition for technical assessment services, labour, and equipment was fierce. Extensive restoration work was required before the building was safe to enter.

Building Society customers still needed access to their funds. Loan approvals needed processing. The way the organisation responded to the crisis tells much about its spirit, and has echoes of its origins.

Twenty three years later, I am having coffee with Lynn – now a Greater employee – and Craig Eardley, the Greater’s public relations consultant[3]. We chat about how the building society set up a makeshift head office in the home of Greg and Sandra Davis.

There, a skeleton staff occupied the lounge room, dining room, kitchen and second bedroom. “We cleared the dining table, set up card tables - the only bedroom I wouldn’t let them use was our bedroom”, Sandra confirmed.

Dress rules were relaxed, and as the photo below shows, staff seemed to be enjoying the change of venue. The policeman on duty at the Beaumont/Denison Street corner joined them for the shot.

Skeleton staff of the Greater outside 123 Denison Street, Hamilton 
Front row (L-R) standing Peter Thompson
Front row (L-R) seated Ian Liddell, Wayne Goodchild, unidentified Police Officer, Chris Priest, Sandra Davis
Back row (L-R) standing Greg Taylor, Gary Pickett, Leah Goodchild, Don Magin, Nicholas Read, Mick Young, Ian Hartley, Mirella Liddell, Carl Saide, Jack Bailey, Greg Davis, Bill Prince, Donna Ryan, Gerard Walsh, Wayne Dean, Andrew O’Neill (in shadow), John Arnold.
Photograph courtesy of Sandra Davis

Using the latest technology, rented mobile phones and computers operated via dial up telephone lines, staff managed to carry out their work. Gerard Walsh remembers the mobile phones provided by an obliging Telstra came in two parts – a battery (“a bit like a car battery, not as big”) and a bulky handset.

Only a few key staff were allowed inside the building by police. One critical task was to upload financial data from the branches onto the head office machines.

Police Security Pass for Greg Davis
Photograph courtesy Sandra Davis

Gerard recalls urging Cathy Jones, who was processing the customer payroll deductions, to hurry. She refused to go until she had finished. “These people won’t get their pay if I leave now. Just wait!” she ordered Gerard.

Cathy Jones at her workstation
Photograph by Chris Priest

Each day, Sandra went to the barricades at the intersection of Denison and Beaumont Streets to collect  the staff lunch orders. Beaumont Street was eerily quiet.

Barricades at the corner of Beaumont and Denison Streets
Photograph by Chris Priest

Another house in Hamilton (belonging to a staff member’s relative) was the depot for delivery of the magnetic tapes of data, which were then carried by hand to 123 Denison Street. Gerard’s Merewether flat was used at the weekend.

After a week or so, the building was safe for staff to return.

I said earlier that they way staff responded to the crisis had echoes of its origins. What did I mean?

The Greater wasn’t always the glamour building of Hamilton.

The Greater headquarters turns red for the Salvos Appeal (2013)
Photograph supplied by Craig Eardley

It started as a single office in Beaumont Street run by Mr F W Lean, whose wife was his Assistant.

Portrait of  Mr F W Lean in Three Bean Espresso's Apothecary Kitchen, 
Beaumont Street, Hamilton

Can you imagine applying for a loan by taking part in a lottery style draw? And then if you were the lucky one, having to pay no deposit? Or little or no interest?

That’s how things worked in 1924 for some lucky Novocastrians, when Mr Lean got together with Mr K A Mathieson Snr.

Photograph courtesy of the Greater Collection

At this time, home ownership was beyond the reach of many, because of high unemployment and the economic depression. Then along came Starr - Bowkett societies. They were modelled on a scheme set up in England by a London surgeon Dr T E Bowkett, who was also a progressive thinker and a unionist.

The societies were mutual self help institutions, aiming to bring home ownership to their members at the lowest possible cost. Despite problems in the UK, they became quite popular in Australia.

The system worked like this. Each member bought shares and made contributions on a weekly basis. A lottery would determine which member received a home loan. When all had drawn and repaid their loans, the society would terminate.

Later, a man by the name of Richard B Starr made some changes to the scheme, which helped make it more profitable. Hence the Starr - Bowkett Scheme, which was the start of what was to become the Greater Group, through the work of Lean and Matthieson.

It’s time these two gentlemen stepped out of the shadows, because their contribution has been inestimable. They were co founders of the first Greater Group Starr-Bowkett Society. Mr Lean had a long career with the Greater and at the age of 81, was awarded the Order of Australia for services to the community. Mr Mathieson was awarded an MBE. 

In 1945, The Greater Newcastle Co-operative Permanent Building and Investment Society began. Its first office was in Lindsay Street, Hamilton.

Staff of the Greater Newcastle Co-operative Permanent Building
and Investment Society in 1946
Photograph courtesy of the Greater Collection

The society has changed its name over the years and is now known as Greater Building Society Ltd, reflecting its reach beyond Newcastle.

The history of the Greater is entwined with that of the Wesley-on-Beaumont. That church’s story is told in the post Wesleyans of Pit Town.

Not only do these organisations share earth, and bricks and mortar. They also share values, though they express them differently.

The inclusiveness of the Wesley-on-Beaumont, welcoming people from all walks of life is not dissimilar to the imperative that drove the early founders of what is now the Greater – that people should not be excluded from the opportunity to own their own home. Innovative ways needed be found to help achieve this.

It is the block of land bounded by Beaumont, Tudor, William and Denison Streets that contains their shared land use history.

Interestingly, the present day Wesley-on-Beaumont (built in 1928) stands on the site of the original Hamilton Branch of the Cooperative Society (the Borehole Cooperative Society, 1861) [4] So the co-operative movement had already staked out this locality.

Hamilton Branch of the Co-operative Society (n.d.)
Courtesy Newcastle Region Library

In 1869, the first Hamilton Wesleyan Church was built on the intersection of the south west corner of Tudor and Beaumont Street. A two story Parsonage was built on the corner of Tudor and William Street.

In 1928, the Church and the Parsonage were bought by the rapidly expanding Bank of NSW, for £3,250. The 60 year old church was demolished by the bank, which replaced it with its own structure, at the cost of £6221 pounds. The Church was then able to finance its “cathedral to Methodism”, where the original Cooperative Society had once stood.

Like the Wesleyans before it, the Building Society progressively acquired and developed its buildings in response to the growth of the organisation.

The Greater Newcastle Hamilton Branch c.1950 – 1960s
Kennedy's Photographs courtesy of the Greater Collection

In 1946, when its Lindsay Street offices became inadequate, the Building Society moved to a new one story building on Tudor Street, between the Parsonage and the Bank of NSW.

In 1951 the Building Society purchased the Parsonage, which was being operated as a boarding house. This building was extended, shops were erected in front of the original façade, and a second story was added.

Original building with second story addition and shop front extension Tudor Street
Photograph courtesy of the Greater Collection

 In 1964 the Building Society built a three story building in Beaumont Street and redesigned the frontage to the Tudor Street buildings.

In 1976 a further three storeys were added.

 Greater Offices c.1990s
Photograph courtesy of the Greater Collection

  Also that year, 1976, the Building Society bought the Bank of NSW building, which had ceased operating, and moved its main branch there.

Before the Greater – Bank of NSW, Hamilton, undated
Photograph courtesy of Newcastle Museum

Major repair work was undertaken in 1990, following the earthquake.

Scaffolding supporting the structures for repair work, 1990
Photograph Chris Priest

The final step in transforming this site was taken over a three year period, from 2001 to 2004. Designed by Suters Architects, a new 6 story building extension has been integrated closely with the existing six story block, and the restored Bank of NSW building. The beautiful 1930s neo-classical building is now heritage listed.

Former Bank of NSW building, now part of the Greater Building Society (2013)
Photograph by Matthew Ward

It was during this redevelopment that the footings of historical Wesleyan Chapel were found and are now on display in its foyer.

Storyboard telling the history of the site, on the walls of the 
Three Bean Espresso's Apothecary Kitchen

The tower of the Greater might have wavered before Lynn Mangovski’s eyes that December morning, but it didn’t crash.

From humble beginnings, with a single office and assets of just £11,000, today the Greater has assets of almost $5 billion, 800 staff, and the largest branch network of any Australian building society. This has all happened over my lifetime.

Still customer owned, and true to its founding values, the Greater puts profits into supporting charity partners to make a long term difference to families and communities.

I was writing this as news broke of the appointment of a new Prime Minister for Australia, Kevin Rudd. Many Members of Parliament were retiring, and giving their valedictory speeches. Earlier, I had heard an interview with retiring Independent MP Tony Windsor. He said there was a saying he always remembered – The world is run by those who show up. [5]

Somehow that seemed to fit this great story of Lean and Matheison, the inspiring staff response to a natural disaster, and those who followed to make history anew.

 A selection of front pages relating to the Newcastle earthquake
Photograph from the Greater Collection

Unattributed photographs by Ruth Cotton.


In November 2014, fifteen months after this story was posted, a book capturing the highlights of this blog will be published by Hunter Press. In a special collaboration, the Greater Building Society  generously  sponsored the book Hidden Hamilton. This ensured a quality publication retailing at an affordable price. Hunter Press and author Ruth Cotton gratefully acknowledge this support.

In June 2016, the Greater was renamed  the Greater Bank.

[1] Thanks to Gerard Walsh for filling me in on technical details, and providing prints of Chris Priest's photographs. Thanks to Chris Priest for permission to use the photographs.
[2] Thanks to Sandra Davis for the information and photos she provided, and for identifying staff in the photo of skeleton staff working at the Davis home after the earthquake.
[3] Thanks to Lynn Mangovski and Craig Eardley for their assistance. Thanks also to Chris Mogford for accessing photographs from the Greater Collection. Some information for this post has been sourced from: “A Brief History of the Greater Building Society and Hamilton”, written by Australian Museum Business Services, Australian Museum, 2005.
[4] Personal communication from Hamilton historian Mrs Mavis Ebbott.
[5]  Attributed to Richard G Weingardt, an American structural engineer and leadership activist.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Why does a blacksmith have a shop?

It was his private retreat, even though the sound of hammer against anvil blasted my five year old eardrums. I loved crouching against the slab timber wall at a safe distance, watching my father lean into the silken shoulder of one of his beloved horses, the animal lifting its front leg as a magical reflex.

There was a relationship between my father and each horse. It seemed as if they had entered into a pact; as if it knew my father would armour it against vulnerability from soft or broken hooves if it stood still.

Not a day passed when my father did not ride a horse, mustering sheep and cattle on our property. He tended the hooves of all his horses, meticulously and personally.

When local historian Mrs Mavis Ebbott showed me this photograph of Frank Hazel’s blacksmith shop at 162 Beaumont Street, Hamilton, I was back in my father’s “blacksmith’s shop” instantly.

Frank Hazel's Blacksmith's Shop, Hamilton
From the private collection of Mrs Mavis Ebbott

I saw the horseshoe, a red, live and dangerous thing, grasped in my father’s tongs as he extracted it from the coals of the forge.

Tongs and hot iron horseshoe

 I saw the glint of the pointy nails waiting in their wooden box, soon to be driven into the wall of the horse’s hoof.

I heard staccato hammering as the hot shoe was beaten into a perfect fit.

 I shivered at the sound of the rasp, as my father smoothed the edge of the hoof with methodical strokes.

All around me was the silence.

Immobilised by its weight,  I dare not move and alarm the horse. 

John Patterson was the first blacksmith in Beaumont Street, in 1901. It’s just a couple of minute’s walk from where I live, in this post industrial city of Newcastle. Over the years, the “shop” changed hands – James Goddall (1950) and finally, Frank Hazel.

Blacksmith's Shop Panel from Beaumont Street Exhibition
Newcastle Museum

When Frank Hazel opened his shop, there were more than half a dozen smithies nearby. [2] I imagine that this was “the smithies’ strip”, and that business was brisk – the regular cycle of shoeing horses, and seasonally, repairing metal “tyres” on wooden wheels of carts and other horse drawn vehicles.

Blacksmith at work
Photograph courtesy

Horses and carts were used by “The Store” bakery for bread deliveries to Newcastle homes until 1975. At its peak, “The Store” had 80 horses, stabled at Clyde Street, Hamilton North, on the same site as the ovens where the bread was baked. [1] “The Store” maintained its horse drawn delivery carts long after others had motorised, thus ensuring continuing business for the blacksmiths.

The Store Bread Carts (n. d.)
Courtesy Newcastle Region Library via Doug Saxon

As times changed, Frank Hazel became more of a city blacksmith. While he still made horseshoes, picks, and ploughs, he also mended babies’ prams, billycarts and tricycles. Gerard Walsh, now retired from the Greater Building Society, remembers "some time in the 1970s", taking Frank a big steel trolley from the office to have its wheels repaired.

In 1983, a young apprentice hairdresser, Ann Hardy, would park her car near the racecourse and walk past the blacksmith’s shop on her way to work at the Kathlyn Beauty Salon. Now a historian and Secretary of the Hunter Regional Committee of the National Trust of Australia, Dr Hardy remembers the unpainted weatherboard building practically on the street, out of place among the houses, yet somehow still looking as if it had been there a very long time. She recalls:

‘As I walked by, I never stopped to talk to the man busy working with his tools. I can remember the noise, the clanging and banging, but I didn’t dare look inside this male domain’.

Frank closed the shop in 1995. A private residence now stands in its place.

Streetscape with 162 Beaumont Street in the foreground (2013)

So why does a blacksmith have a “shop”?

Blacksmiths tended to be located on the edges of townships or main thoroughfares, quieter spots where horses could be easily left with the farrier. The Beaumont Street smithies were at its southern end, well away from the main shopping centre. Of course blacksmiths needed a “shopfront” for customers, even if it was just an open shed like Frank Hazel’s. My resident “brains trust” suggests that “shop” might be short for “workshop”, a place where manual or mechanical work gets done.

My father had a dedicated shed/shop/workshop for blacksmithing among the usual array of farm buildings – machinery sheds, haysheds, milking shed, woolshed. Then there was “the blacksmith’s shop”, and I could never work out why it was called a “shop”.  Especially since his only customers were his own horses.

Once a meditative sanctuary on a busy farming property, my father’s “shop” now sits empty. Only his tools remain.

Assemblage of blacksmith's tools
Photograph by east-lothian-museums

Unattributed photographs by Ruth Cotton.

[1] Saxon, Doug: Hamilton: memories of life and school in the 1950s. Doug Saxon, Fishing Point (2010).
[2] Newcastle Morning Herald, Article by Jennifer Cox, “The Smith’s Job Changes”, 27/1/1965.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Survival of a Stately Home

It means “a pile of rough stones”. One of Hamilton’s rare surviving late Victorian homes, Fettercairn is truly a survivor. Over the past 110 years, it has reinvented itself time and time again.

Fettercairn was built in 1903 for Mr and Mrs Ramsay Gow. The imposing two storey, 50 square house was an unambiguous statement by its owners of achievement and prosperity. Its crenellated parapet towered above the small cottages in Lindsay Street. The fretwork tracery on the barge boards, the tooled stucco, and the Victorian cast iron balustrades would have required specialised craftsmanship.

Gow's Residence, Hamilton NSW (16 May, 1903)
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, part of Norm Barney's Photographic Collection, held by Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

Ramsay Gow’s parents, John and Jean Gow, arrived from Scotland in 1839, going first to Tomago, and then to Newcastle, where Ramsay was born.

Ramsay worked for the Harbour Authorities (he was listed in 1901 as a carpenter). He married Frances (“Fanny”) Birkby, daughter of the owner of the White Horse Inn, Maitland. They had 12 children. Seven daughters and two sons survived. [1]

Perhaps it was the example and support of Fanny’s publican father that equipped her to become a retailing entrepreneur.

The Gow family owned a large clothing and drapery store in Beaumont Street, on the corner of Cleary Street. Gow’s Drapery became a Hamilton institution.

Gow’s Drapery, known as Montrose House, corner of Beaumont and Cleary Street, Hamilton, 15 August 1898

Photograph by Ralph Snowball, part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection, courtesy of Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

Local historian Doug Saxon, writing about life and school in Hamilton in the 1950s, [2] remembers Gow's as the largest shop in Beaumont Street, much favoured by his mother and grandmother. He recalls it as a shop where “not much money had been spent on updating the shop fittings in the time since it had opened”. There were two buildings – as Doug Saxon describes them, the original building had womenswear and manchester/haberdashery; the menswear department was a separate building but linked to the main shop.

Gow's eventually went out of business, unable to compete with larger shopping centres.

I have not found much more information about the Gow family, although their prominence in the community is confirmed by Peter Murray:

“In January, 1908, memorial gates were opened at the Steel and James Street entrance to (Gregson Park). These were a gift to Council from Mrs Gow and family and were erected in 1907 in honour of her late husband, Ramsay Gow, a local businessman, whose private dwelling, ‘Fettercairn’, still stands.”[3]

Entrance Gates, Gregson Park, Hamilton (n.d.)
Courtesy Newcastle Region Library

Despite its eventual decline, Gow's Drapery would have been the main source of the prosperity that enabled the family to build Fettercairn. I recall reading somewhere that Mrs Gow moved into Fettercairn as a widow. If it was built in 1903, and a memorial to her husband was gifted to Council in 1907, this could be close to the truth – at least it seems probable he did not live to enjoy his new home for long. Yet the business apparently continued for decades.


Mr Gow's House "Fettercairn" at Lindsay Street, Hamilton,
22 April 1904
Courtesy Newcastle Region Library

Eventually, Fettercairn was sold and became a private hospital.

Here we get an interesting glimpse into the development of maternity services in the area. Retired Newcastle paediatrician and local historian Dr Robert Evans told me that by 1942, private hospitals were key providers of midwifery services. Some of the 27 private hospitals in the Newcastle area provided medical and surgical services as well.

Already, I've come across quite a few Novocastrians who were born in Fettercairn, and one who had his tonsils removed there! Fettercairn had 17 midwifery beds, and these were usually managed by nurses, with private doctors visiting. It was 1951 before Newcastle Hospital acquired a midwifery section, according to Dr Evans. Fettercairn would have been  an important institution for Hamilton mothers-to-be.

The dynamics of service provision must have shifted within the health system when Newcastle Hospital assumed a maternity services role. In 1954, Fettercairn changed hands. It became a boarding house for young people coming  from the country to further their education in Newcastle. The large hospital kitchen would have served the boarding house well.

Does anyone know anything more about this period of Fettercairn's history?

In 1978, Fettercairn was bought by a well known Newcastle surgeon, Dr James Holley. Living here with his wife and five children, Dr Holley  began what would would turn out to be a ten year program to restore the historic property.

 In the early years after purchase, Dr Holley set up a surgery in the lower level front rooms. Several rooms and adjoining buildings were demolished to provide a large backyard in which frangipani, ti-tree, lilli pilli, wisteria and cannas grew. In 1987 an inground pool was added.

The labour of love that was the restoration of this grand old home was suddenly halted when the December 1989 earthquake struck. Hamilton was at the epicentre of the quake, and Fettercairn sustained very significant structural damage.

Estimates to repair Fettercairn ranged from $160,000 to $750,000. The Holley family felt that having invested so much time and money restoring their home, they were unable to continue that scale of investment to bring it back to the pre-earthquake standard, so laboriously achieved over so many years. In May 1990, James Holley applied to Newcastle City Council “with great sadness” for permission to demolish Fettercairn. [4]

Dr Holley's application to Council reports that the building had been inspected by the Australian Eagle Insurance Company. The Company considered Fettercairn unsafe for occupation; it had been irreparably damaged and they had therefore paid out all claims against it.

What followed was a heated community debate over what should be done. Some people thought the Holley family were entitled to do as they wished; others (including many Novocastrians who were born at Fettercairn in its hospital days) wanted it preserved. A relative of the original builders, the Gow family, Mrs Jenny Watson, heard of the proposal from as far away as South Australia. She wrote to Dr Holley and the National Trust, urging that Fettercairn be saved.

On 18 June, 1990 the Heritage Branch of the NSW Department of Planning refused the application to demolish Fettercairn. Ten grounds were stated, including:

  • “Fettercairn is a valuable item of the local environmental heritage. Its cultural significance is related to the early development of Hamilton and the Gow family, who were prominent members of the Newcastle and Hamilton community since about 1850.
  • It is a fully intact example of an upper middle class Victorian villa that is rare in this area of Newcastle.” [5

Most interestingly, the letter confidently declares:

No financial hardship will be suffered by the owner if the building is conserved as he has advised that he has already been paid out by his insurance company”.

Understandably, Dr Holley was apparently furious. As reported by Mike Scanlon in the Newcastle Herald (29 June, 1990), Dr Holley countered that he disagreed very strongly that the house could be readily repaired. He had a letter from his insurers saying that his property – which he loved – was uneconomical to repair. No one from the Heritage Branch had inspected the home.

The Newcastle City Council endorsed the Planning Department’s decision. A grant of $2000 was given by the Minister for Planning to fund an engineering and feasibility study for Fettercairn.

It is interesting to reflect on this battle and its outcomes. Clearly, relatives of the Gow family were not in a financial position to re-purchase the property that long ago had left the family’s hands. Yet the representations of Mrs Watson would have had some impact on deliberations by the Department of Planning, as did the community debate.

Dr Holley might well have felt backed into a corner, with his right to make the best decision on his own and his family’s behalf, compromised.

Since then, clarity and transparency have been established around the processes affecting NSW heritage buildings, so purchasers and vendors know what they are getting themselves into. Fettercairn is now listed by the Newcastle City Council on the heritage schedule to its Local Environmental Plan.[6]It is described as an above average example of a late Victorian residence.

What happened to Fettercairn after the earthquake?

In 1994, Fettercairn was sold by Dr Holley to Newcastle printmaker and photographer, Philip Gordon. Philip was looking for an art gallery in which to showcase exhibitions of Australian artists, and he was prepared to take his time carefully repairing the damaged building.

Over the next 18 months, Phil committed himself full time to this painstaking, labour intensive work.

He recalls that local engineer Mervyn Lindsay had assessed the property and done some specifications for the work required. This was Phil’s guide. Merve told me that Fettercairn was the name of the village and brewery in Scotland where his own family had originated.

Phil’s biggest job was the cracked brick walls – the internal walls were solid brick, the external ones were cavity. Carefully – so the wall did not collapse – he drilled out the cracks, raked out the crumbled mortar, and repacked the spaces with fresh mortar. This was all done by hand, and 700 buckets of mortar were used. The walls were then rendered.

The archways upstairs were particularly difficult because the bricks had been cut individually by hand to form the curve.

The internal and external walls were connected with metal S wall ties – upwards of 500 of these were replaced.

Metal S wall tie on external wall of  BarZingahh, Newcastle (2014)
Photograph by Matthew Ward

The floors of beautiful kauri pine were restored and polished. Interior design help was sought to choose appropriate heritage colours.

Phil told me how he approached the home as an archeological dig, finding enough items to fill a display cabinet in his present home.

The spaces behind the many fireplaces and the gap between the pressed metal ceilings and floorboards yielded up some fascinating treasures. The ceiling spaces housed gas pipes that had been installed for the lighting, and moisture condensed on them. From time to time, some floorboards would have to be raised to access the pipes. Phil imagined that when this was happening, the children of the house had fun dropping childish items into the dark spaces.

Lipstick, and a Victorian Christmas Pudding Doll, found at Fettercairn
The dolls were a Scottish tradition, used in Christmas puddings
as a good luck charm

Antique dropper, found at Fettercairn

Phil Gordon tells how one day when he was working on the house, a woman who was a descendant of the Gow family arrived. Phil showed her some of the items he had recovered, and she remembered one of the balls. She told him how “old Mr Gow” would “only tell you once” to get into the horse and sulky. She had been playing with that ball, but it had disappeared and she dared not search for it, for fear of being left behind. When she returned, it was nowhere to be found. After all those years, here it was!

A collection of marbles, including a Blood Alley (separate), and a cigarette butt embedded in mortar, found at Fettercairn

Phil staged upwards of 75 art exhibitions in Fettercairn, including artists such as Dallas Bray and Nigel Milsom, sculptor Peter Speight and the Novocastrian Quilters. The elegant, high ceilinged rooms provided a perfect setting for the work. Visitors were awed by the surrounds, which sometimes threatened to overshadow the art work.

I asked Phil if the house would have been practical to live in.

“It was hard to heat, hard to clean”, Phil agreed.

Coca Cola Yo-Yo and remnant of clay pipe, found at Fettercairn

In 2000 Fettercairn changed hands again, returning to its past use as a private family residence. “I’m glad there are children there again”, says Phil. “It’s a fabulous place for kids, with so many nooks and crannies and places to hide”.

Fettercairn is impossible to miss, walking west along Lindsay Street from Beaumont Street. While it has weathered into the streetscape, its red brown Flemish bond bricks and Queen Anne casement windows are still marks of distinction of this grand survivor.

To my way of thinking, Phil Gordon proved something – that sustained work of skill, care and patience can create a miracle of restoration. As I said in Tale of Two Buildings, one of the critical factors that determine whether a building endures is having someone to love it. Perhaps buildings are not all that different from people, after all.

Fettercairn (2014)
Photograph by Matthew Ward


Unattributed photographs are by Ruth Cotton.

Note: Dr Holley and the present owners of Fettercairn were invited to contribute to this story, but no response was received.

[1] Thanks to Mrs Mavis Ebbott, local Hamilton historian, for information on the Gow family. Valuable other information for this account has been derived from an anonymous HSC Senior Geography Project titled “Fettercairn” : How does and historic Hamilton building reflect the changes that have occurred in a suburb of Newcastle over the last century?” (11 July, 1994). The HSC assessment project was passed from Dr Holley to the next owner, Philip Gordon, thence a copy came to me. As yet, I have not been able to ascertain the author.
[2] Saxon, Doug: Hamilton: memories of life and  school in the 1950s. Fishing Point (2010).
[3]Murray, Peter: From Borehole to Hamilton Jubilee1848 – 1921 (self published) 2006.
[4]Letter from R Power, Manager, Heritage Branch, NSW Department of Planning, to Newcastle City Council, 15 May 1990, from Dr James Holley.
[5] Letter to Mr Lewis, Town Clerk, Newcastle City Council, 18 June 1990.
[6] The Newcastle Heritage Register is a database of all heritage items and heritage conservation areas in Newcastle. Refer to