Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Inside Gow's Drapery - the Gow Girls

The first trainload of migrants passing through Hamilton waved wildly to the crowds of spectators gathered along Beaumont Street. Men and women alike, the ‘new Australians’ stretched precariously out of windows the length of the train, as if they wanted to physically touch the people welcoming them. They were on their way from Newcastle to a migrant camp inland, thence to a job, and hopefully, a new and better life.

The staff from Gow’s Drapery had left their counters for a few minutes to join the crowds, and be part of history.

I heard about this excitement in Hamilton from four women who began their working lives at Gow’s Drapery in the 1940s – early 1950s. Within this brief window in their lives, between leaving school and getting married, ten young women forged lifelong friendships. Over more than 60 years, they have kept in touch, sharing life’s milestones, joys and grief. Now, just four of them remain.

(L-R) Val Kavanagh (nee Stewart), Gwen Fuge (nee Bailey), Phyllis Watson (nee Marks) and Joan Little (nee Watson)
The women meet each month for lunch in one another’s homes
Photograph courtesy of Aurora, Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle

Gow’s, on the corner of Beaumont and Cleary Streets, where a Discount Chemist now stands, was also known as Montrose House. In its hey-day in the 1920s, it rivalled even the city stores like Winn’s and Scott’s in its advertising and range of merchandise. One of the earliest department stores, Gow’s Drapery closed in the early 1960s.

Gow & Co. Store, Hamilton, NSW 15 August, 1898
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection, 
in Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, NSW

I’d already written a post about ‘Fettercairn’, (the story is here) the stately home in Lindsay Street, Hamilton that Ramsay Gow had built in 1903 for his wife and large family. Nine of their twelve children survived, and Ramsay himself died in 1907.

It is said that Ramsay’s wife Frances (Fanny), daughter of a Maitland publican, was the driving force behind the store. I wanted to know more about the store itself – what it was like working there, what was sold, how staff were treated. Meeting these four wonderful women was my opportunity.

By the time our four women were starting work at Gow’s, the store owner was Mr Walter Gow, Ramsay’s son. The Manager was Mr Ray Hitchcock, fondly known as ‘Hitch’.

For decades, Gow’s had been a reliable source of retail employment for young school leavers, especially girls. Val lived around the corner, in Cleary Street, and actually ‘applied’ for a job. Phyllis lived in the same street as Mr Hitchcock. He’d known her growing up, and when she lost her job in town because she’d contracted measles, Mr Hitchcock invited her to join Gow’s.

Gwen’s mother shopped at Gow’s, supporting 7 children alone on meagre government Child Endowment payments. As soon as Gwen reached the legal school leaving age of 14 years 9 months, she left school and started work at Gow’s to help her family. It was 1947.

‘There was no interview’, confirms Gwen.

 For Joan, migrating from Wales as a young woman in 1952, it was her aunt who rang Gow’s and asked for a position for her niece. That’s how things were done in those days.

Today, walking into department stores David Jones or Myers, we are confronted with a glittering sea of cosmetic counters. I wondered what one saw first, walking into the ground floor of Gow’s?

‘Skeins of wool’, Phyllis replies. ‘A whole wall of wool’.

How priorities have changed.

Once the skeins were purchased, they had to be wound into balls at home before knitting could begin – a tedious task for which children were often enlisted to help.

On the left, the women remember, was the manchester counter – sheets, towels, blankets, quilts; on the right, haberdashery – all the things needed for home sewers. There was a long counter for measuring out fabric, one just for buttons and buckles, another for ribbons.

At the back of the store was the fashion – frocks, coats, hats, gloves, hosiery, handkerchiefs, underwear – with a girl in charge of each counter.

Val, and later Joan, both worked as cashiers in a wooden cubicle in the centre of the store, the cash tray in open view. Unlike the rest of the store, which had bare boards (‘I was shocked when I first saw this’, says Joan, fresh from Wales), the cubicle had linoleum to prevent the pennies shipping through the spaces between the boards.

Sales assistants did not handle cash. Instead, they wrote out a docket in duplicate for each transaction, placing it with the customer’s cash in a tube that whizzed on a high wire across the store to the cashier. The cashier would then place the correct change and one copy of the docket in the tube, sending it on its way back to the counter it had come from. For me as a child this fascinating activity took the boredom out of shopping with my mother in a similar store in Narrabri!

Staff worked a 48 hour week, extending until 9 pm on Fridays, and Saturday mornings.

The women tell me that Gow’s was ‘just like a big family – we were family’. Mr Gow came in every day at 10 am, and did his rounds of the counters. While Phyllis remembers being reported once to Mr Hitchcock by Mr Gow for ‘not smiling’, all agreed they had good bosses. Mr Hitchcock even attended a staff member’s wedding.

Wedding of Elva Roberts (10 November, 1951)
(L-R) Joan Pascoe, Dot Moore, Ray Hitchcock, Elva Roberts,
Gwen Bailey (now Fuge), Phyllis Marks (now Watson)
Photograph from the personal collection of Phyllis Watson

When each Hamilton business was asked to nominate a staff member to be its charity queen for the Hamilton Festival, and lead the fund raising for their chosen charity, it was Joan who was the lucky one.

Charity queens on stage at Gregson Park for Hamilton Festival c1953
Joan Watson (now Little), dark hair in the centre,
represented Gow’s Drapery
Photograph from the personal collection of Joan Little

Another important event on the girls’ social calendar was making their debut. Usually at the age of 17, girls attended a ball with their partners, making their first public appearance ‘in society’ as a young woman. It was their ‘coming out’. When I saw Gwen’s photographs of her debut at the Newcastle Town Hall, I asked whether there were any social barriers for girls wanting to do this.

‘Not at all’, she says. ‘We were very poor. No washing machine, no refrigerator, no vacuum cleaner. My father died aged 44. A very dear lady bought the material for my dress; a dressmaker made it up. We had a lot of help from so many beautiful people’.

Gwen Bailey (now Fuge) dressed for her debut c1950
Photograph from the personal collection of Gwen Fuge

As a child, Gwen remembers being told by her mother at meal times:

‘If I sit down without a chop on my plate, I don’t want any comment’.

When Gwen and her siblings were earning and saving, they arranged to have a washing machine delivered to their mother at home as a surprise. She sent the delivery driver away, declaring there was no way she could possibly afford to buy a washing machine. Of course, it was successfully re-delivered next day.

Easy credit for such purchases was unheard of. The first floor of Gow’s was ‘the office’ where customers went make their fortnightly payments against purchases ‘on lay-by’, or against their cash orders. Cash orders seem to be a type of loan system popular in the days before the advent of credit cards.

In time, Gow’s expanded into a building next door, which became the domain of menswear. The window displays at Gow’s were the highlight of Beaumont Street – Jimmy Canning, son of the family of Cannings Newsagents, was held in high esteem for his skills as a window dresser.

The voices of friends no longer present can still be heard as we chat in this New Lambton living room. Some of these had experienced working in Gow’s during World War II, when reels of Silko cotton were rationed. Others remember curtain material being used to make dresses as it was cheaper; short skirts were worn for the same reason. When nylon stockings were scarce, young women would colour their legs with a cream something like tanning lotion, and then use an eyebrow pencil to expertly draw a seam down the backs of their legs. What contortion – and excellent eye hand coordination - must have required!

It was marriage that brought an end to this happy period of independence for these young women, and opened the door to new life experiences. Post war, women in public sector jobs (including teachers), and in many businesses, had to resign from their positions once they married to make way for the returning men. Val married in 1951.

‘There was no sympathy’, she says. ‘I had to go immediately. They didn’t want to pay my next week’s wage’.

It was a Lord Mayor of Newcastle – no one can remember which one – who put his foot down. His recently married secretary was, he said, his ‘right arm’. He could not possibly do without her. So things began to change, and women found their rightful place in the workforce.

Reunion of staff from Gow’s Drapery, Waratah, probably May 1991
Photograph from the personal collection of Joan Little

Two other stories relating to this post are about the  Gow family and their stately home in Hamilton, 'Fettercairn.'


Thank you to Gwen Fuge, Phyllis Watson, Joan Little and Val Kavanagh for sharing their stories. Also to Cinzia Saccoro for putting me in touch with these women in the first place, and to Tracey Edstein, Editor, Aurora and Shirley McHugh, writer for Aurora.

If you can add details or images to this story, please email me at hiddenhamilton.com.au.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Nina's IGA - Family Kiriakidis

If you walk into Nina’s IGA expecting a one-size-fits-all suburban grocery, be ready to be surprised. Nina’s is anything but average.

When I came to live in Hamilton, and visited IGA, I was fascinated by the products I found. Lentils and other pulses were clearly visible at eye level, not hidden away on a bottom shelf. Fetta cheese came in the biggest buckets I had ever seen, but it had also been decanted into smaller tubs just the right size for me. I spotted luscious home made fig jam, European style biscuits and breads, ‘square’ noodles, filo pastry, and puzzled over long stems of dried Mountain Tea. As well, all the standard Australian staples are stocked.

An eclectic mix of products from many countries at Nina’s IGA products
Photograph by Craig Smith

Over 27 years, George and Nina Kiriakidis have shaped this little store to reflect their customers’ wishes. They cater to the evolving tastes of locals, as well as to the desire of Hamilton’s migrant families to continue to enjoy the foods of their homelands. They have seen off their only real Hamilton competition, Clancy’s. By continually adapting and providing exceptional customer service, Nina’s IGA offers a friendly alternative to the giant supermarket chains.

Nina’s IGA, with a reminder of the devastation of the 2007 floods 
Photograph by Craig Smith (2014)

George is first generation Greek Australian. His parents Constantine and Sofia Kiriakidis were from the town of Katerini, near Thessalonika, in Central Macedonia, Greece. When they decided to flee the instability of civil war, they were already married with a small son, Leo. The year was 1954.

They knew nothing about Australia,’ explains George. ‘They thought it was the name of a village’.

What a surprise they must have had, landing in Sydney, travelling north  and finding themselves at the Greta Migrant Centre. Greta is a coalmining town on the New England Highway, between Maitland and Singleton. The Migrant Centre was positioned to provide a ready source of migrant labourers to the mines and related industries of the Hunter.

The small family moved from the Migrant Centre to Newcastle, where they lived with a Polish family in Maryville for a few months. Constantine’s father had given him a parting gift of the equivalent of 500 pounds. While some of it had been ‘loaned’ to a ship board friend in need, Constantine still had enough to buy a house in Tighes Hill. Once settled, they rented rooms out to other migrant families.

Constantine and Sofia intended to return home when the unrest had settled. That never happened. Instead, Constantine worked at BHP and they raised a family of four sons – Leo, George, Jordan and Chris.

(L-R) Leo, Jordan, George, with Chris between parents
Constantine and Sofia Kiriakidis
Photograph from the personal collection of George and Nina Kiriakidis

Sofia’s father had been a teacher. George feels her education enabled her to adjust more readily to speaking English. Sociable and outgoing, mixing easily with his peers, George seems not to have been aware of any discrimination at school or growing up.

Like so many young Newcastle men of his time, George followed his father into BHP. He gained technical qualifications as a mechanical engineer.

George had encountered tragedy in his twenties, losing his fiancé, and then his best friend to cancer, and his godfather, all in a short space of time. He’d known Nina from when she was 16, and on their first meeting, felt an instant attraction to her.

Towards the end of a dozen years at BHP, George was finding the large organisation impersonal and became interested in giving business a try. With Nina, his first venture was a snow ski shop at Marketown in Newcastle West. So began their journey into the world of small business.

Already Nina had a maturity beyond her years. Her father Spiro Zambelis had died when she was just one year old, leaving her mother Eleni to bring up Nina and her older brother Dennis alone. Nina’s parents had migrated to Australia in 1960 from the island of Ithaca, in the Ionian Sea off the coast of Greece. They settled in Hamilton.

Spiro Zambelis
 Photograph from the personal collection of George and Nina Kiriakidis

Eleni Zambelis
 Photograph from the personal collection of George and Nina Kiriakidis

Nina’s mother did unskilled work to support her family, and spoke Greek with her children at home. Consequently Nina began school knowing very little English. This affected the confidence of a shy and sensitive little girl who already was taking on responsibilities beyond her years.
George remembers exactly when they bought the ‘Cut Price’ grocery store from the Watsons at 73 Beaumont Street, Hamilton – later to become Nina’s IGA.

‘7 February, 1987’, he says.

George was 31, Nina still a teenager at 19.

George and Nina quickly realised that if their business was to succeed, they would have to do something different. Trading hours were being gradually deregulated in NSW, especially for smaller retailers. To stand out from the competition, George and Nina decided to open the shop from 8 am to 10 pm, 7 days a week. This was an enormous commitment. George’s brothers Chris and Jordan became involved, and staff were employed to help cover the long shifts. George took responsibility for the business side, including purchasing, and Nina managed the floor.

Brothers Kiriakidis (L-R) Jordan, Leo, George, Chris in front (1972)
Personal collection of George and Nina Kiriakidis

With no prior experience in the grocery business, they learned by trial and error. ‘Cut Price’ had purchasing systems in place, and at first, George and Nina followed past practice.

In the 1990s, their confidence grew as they responded to customer needs, and developed a wider range of suppliers. Customers wrote down their specific requests in a book Nina kept on the counter.

The range of foods and flavours expanded from those of Greece to include Italy, Croatia, Cyprus, Lebanon and Egypt. There are jars of Ajvar, a hot roasted pepper spread favoured by Greeks; Cortas hummus from Lebanon; Minos giant beans from Greece; Franck Jubilana coffee from Croatia; Strianese tomato sauces from Italy; and long slender sprigs of dried oregano.

Food to fascinate in Nina’s IGA (2014)
 Photograph by Craig Smith

On Thursday, 28 December 1989 George and Nina were awaiting the arrival of the first child. Like many a firstborn, the babe was overdue. George was already in the office at the shop, and Nina was on her way. George remembers a man coming in and asking to use the toilet. The next thing he knew was the building shaking...Absolute chaos ensued as shelves broke and products tumbled in all directions onto the floor.

Is chaos the word?

Photograph from the personal collection of
George and Nina Kiriakidis

Ceiling collapsed onto the dairy cabinet
Photograph from the personal collection of George and Nina Kiriakidis

George still wonders what happened to the man in their toilet.

Nina's Cut Price in Beaumont Street, Hamilton, 1990
Photograph from the personal collection of George and Nina Kiriakidis

George and Nina’s daughter Sofia – named for George’s mother and known as Sofie - was born in the Waratah Hospital. Nina was sent home promptly as a safety precaution. That afternoon, she was serving coffee at home to 30 well wishers.

Some Beaumont Street businesses remained closed for up to 3 months after the earthquake. George and Nina were one of the few business operators insured for loss of profits. Nina enjoyed an unexpected maternity leave with her new baby. Soon though, she was back at work, with Sofie never far from her side.

Once back on their feet after the earthquake, in 1991 George and Nina purchased the building in which Nina’s operated.

The following year, interest rates soared. This was a time of financial pressures for many, and the Kiriakidis family was no exception.

George speaks of the great respect he has for their business.

'The business is our boss’, he explains.

We all work hard for it. We try to be complete within ourselves – efficient, clean, providing a great service’.

In 1992 their second daughter, Eleni, was born. Eleni was named for Nina’s mother.

Nina gradually stopped going into the shop, as she struggled with her health and sense of well being. Certainly, the years of long hours at the shop took their toll. Nina’s strong work ethic, her personal style and responsiveness to customers meant that, in George’s words, ‘Nina was three people’.

‘I knew everyone, what they wanted’, says Nina. ‘If they smoked a particular brand of cigarettes, the pack would be on the counter waiting for them when they came through’.

Nina’s warm, friendly style draws people to her. Perhaps it was inevitable that this sensitive young woman who loves quiet, creative pursuits would need time out from the constant exposure to people demanded by long hours of retail business. For George, interacting with others energises him; it is his lifeblood and he thrives on it.
In her 8th year, Eleni developed a cold that quickly became something much more sinister – meningococcal disease.
‘Eleni was a bit of a tomboy’, says Nina. ‘She wasn’t one to complain. I’d taken her to the doctor, and was sent home with a diagnosis of flu’.

Nina goes on to tell how she’d later taken Eleni to hospital, but no one seemed to be taking the case seriously. She’d begged staff to ‘at least monitor Eleni’s headaches’. When Eleni began screaming, they all watched in terror as lesions started appearing on her arms.

A lumbar puncture followed, and the doctor warned George and Nina that if Eleni survived, she would suffer brain damage. Their daughter slipped into a coma. She was administered massive doses of antibiotics. Two weeks passed before she came out of the coma.

Miraculously, Eleni made a full recovery. Today, she’s the competent, businesslike  manager of Nina’s IGA and is planning her upcoming wedding.

Fate hadn’t finished with Eleni.

George left home in the winter darkness at 5 am on Thursday 18 August, 2005. Securing the house, he left Nina and their two daughters sleeping peacefully.

He was driving to Sydney to pick up supplies for the business. Normally his brother Jordan did this run every three weeks; it was an unusually early start for George. After picking up a staff member, the two men were on their way.

Just before 7 am, near Strathfield, George’s mobile phone rang. He didn’t get to it in time, but saw that it was Eleni, now 13 and a high school student. He called her back.

‘What are you doing up?’ he asked.

‘There’s a man here and he wants some money’.

George couldn’t work this out. Did Eleni need money for a school excursion?

A man came on the phone, speaking calmly and in a typical Australian accent.

‘I’ve got your daughter. I want money’.

George sprang into action. He ended the call, phoned his brother Chris and sent him to check on Nina and the girls. Chris found Eleni gone.

The police were called, and a cordon quickly thrown up around all of Newcastle’s exit points. Within three hours, Eleni was found, and safe.

It had been a shocking ordeal. Yet Eleni remained calm and acted with courage and common sense throughout. She’d been woken about 5.30 am by a young man who threatened her with a blood-filled syringe unless she gave him money. Taking two laptop computers, a handbag and car keys, he bundled Eleni out the window and into the family car. She’d had to show him how to operate the controls before the man drove them to various ATMs to try to withdraw cash using stolen credit cards.

The end came at a Bolton Point address, where the man had gone to either buy drugs or dispose of stolen goods. A woman saw the young girl sitting in the car, became suspicious and got her out on the pretext of a cup of tea. She then took Eleni to Argenton’s Club Macquarie, where they contacted police.

In an interview with The Herald [1] George says:

‘I knew she was a strong girl. I knew her personality and the way she deals with things. I am very proud of her’.

At the time, Eleni could not be named by the media for legal reasons. She told the same interviewer:

‘I wasn’t stressing or anything; I was helping him so he didn’t get upset’.

When the perpetrator was finally brought to court, he was charged with aggravated break, enter and steal; kidnapping; and aggravated indecent assault. He was sentenced to over 11 years imprisonment.

These headlines shocked Novocastrians buying
their morning papers

The Kiriakidis family is Greek Orthodox. George and Nina make no secret of the pivotal part their personal spiritual practice plays in their lives. Whatever challenges life brings them, their faith is their anchor.

Altar in the Church of the Holy Apostles, Hamilton
Palm Sunday (2014)

What lies ahead for Nina’s IGA?

Nina is back at the shop on a part time basis. Sofie has completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in film and cultural studies, and helps out. Eleni is making her mark as the next generation of food retailers, reflecting changing customer preferences for fresh, healthy food. She sees value in differentiating further by stocking more organic, vegan and locally produced products. She points to Over the Moon milk – ‘real milk, non homogenised from Jersey cows, with visible cream on top’ – just how it used to be.

Back to the future and Over the Moon

Stall holders from the Olive Tree and Farmers markets are beginning to seek more mainstream outlets like Nina’s IGA for their boutique products. Soon, we can expect to find goat’s milk, macaroons and luscious Sugar Jones handmade desserts - a work of art in themselves - on Nina’s shelves.

Sugar Jones Desserts
Photograph by Eleni Kiriakidis

For George, who is working on replacing the extensive picket fence around his home, keeping an eye on the business and thinking about his next travel adventure, family is everything. He is fiercely protective. The picket fence might be an outward symbol of this. But the bastion that will keep this family safe whatever life throws at it in the future is not an external one. It is this family’s faith, and their deep, visible commitment to one another.

(L-R) Sofie, Eleni, Nina and George Kiriakidis (2014)


My thanks to George, Nina, Sofie and Eleni Kiriakidis for sharing their story, and to Father Nicholas Skordilis for allowing photographs inside the Church of the Holy Apostles, Hamilton.

Palm Sunday in the Church of the Holy Apostles, Hamilton (2014)

[1] The Herald, 19/8/2005, ‘Girl in kidnap drama’, 1.

Friday, 11 April 2014

From sandy track to Eat Street - the becoming of Beaumont Street

It’s the cosmopolitan Eat Street of Newcastle – and so much more. Say ‘Beaumont Street’ and ‘multicultural eats’ springs to mind – not just the first comers the Italians and Greeks, but nowadays  Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Himalayan, Mexican, Turkish, Lebanese and Fijian.

Train commuters disembarking at Hamilton are welcomed by this sign
Photograph by Craig Smith

Beaumont Street wasn’t always the eclectic high street it is today. It began life as the very poor cousin of Denison Street (once called Winship Street). Denison Street in the late 1800s was ‘the main road’ - through the mining settlements of Borehole, Pit Town and Happy Flat, and on into Newcastle. At almost every intersection, Denison Street was marked with a boisterous public house. There were 10 hotels, men-only domains, in Denison Street alone.

When Frank Beaumont arrived in Newcastle in October, 1853 a job was waiting for him - Mine Manager for the Australian Agricultural Company. I’m not sure when Beaumont Street was named for him, but at first, it would have seemed a dubious honour.

Originally, Beaumont Street was a sandy, muddy track meandering from Glebe Hill towards the present location of the Hamilton Station. Early accounts describe Beaumont Street as ‘only a bush track...almost overgrown with ti-tree scrub, with little brown snakes popping their heads out from behind the shrubs’. [1] Bush fires – some very large – broke out as close as Pit Town and as far as Wallsend and Hartley Vale.

Horse drawn buses were the only means of transport; otherwise people walked from home, to work in the mines or the few shops, over the deep rutted tracks. It was a ‘two mile walk’ to Newcastle.

Sandy track that was to become Beaumont Street, 1897
Australian Agricultural Company field near Glebe Hill, NSW
16 November, 1897
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection, courtesy of Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

Newcastle was the place to shop. Miners were paid fortnightly, as they had been in the mines in the north east of England. It was a deeply ingrained habit to go on a fortnightly shopping spree as soon as the men had that pay packet in their hands. This made it hard for local shopkeepers. In the mining settlements, only the basics were appearing - Winn’s tiny general store on Cameron’s Hill, a butcher’s shop opposite what would become Gregson Park, and Webster’s general store (and Borehole’s first post office) on the corner of Denison and Webster Street. These premises were the Borehole Cooperative Store, a miners’ initiative.

By 1872 there were just five shopkeepers in Hamilton, including the Co-operative Store, and Donald’s store, an early Hamilton landmark. By 1891 there were close to 5,000 people in Hamilton, a sizeable community that would begin to demand more local shopping.

The demand for a railway station at Hamilton, suitable for commuters, had also been growing and that same year, 1872, a platform (two, actually) for the Great Northern Line was opened. However there were no railway buildings at all. Beaumont Street must not have extended as far as the station, because accounts show that the municipal council had had a road 6 feet wide cut through the scrub on the Hamilton side, to provide access. Nevertheless, passengers had to climb fences on either side to get to the platform.

It was not until 1890 that the NSW government made a firm commitment to build a proper station with large platforms, waiting rooms, a booking office, refreshment rooms, staff rooms, a high level bridge and a footbridge for the Beaumont Street crossing.

By 1906, when the next  photograph was taken, Beaumont Street was beginning to look like the main street of any Australian country town. The pavement was kerbed and guttered, though the ruts in the road made by horse drawn vehicles were obvious.

Beaumont Street, Hamilton, NSW April 1906
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection, courtesy of Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

The advent of the railway station would have a critical effect on the development of Beaumont Street. Rail travel was hugely popular and convenient; the new station became a magnet for commercial development. The Sydney Junction Hotel, the Hamilton Station Hotel, and later the Kent Hotel and The Northern Star Hotel, all caught the wave and drew patrons away from the Denison Street hotels. Over the coming decades, most of the Denison Street hotels died, leaving only The Exchange Hotel and The Bennett Hotel surviving.

By 1912, the expansion and progress of Hamilton was being commented upon favourably in the press – it was considered a progressive suburb, desirable because of its neat, well kept streets on flat terrain, its pleasant appearance and quality buildings.

By 1915, over 10,000 people lived in Hamilton. Shops in Beaumont Street continued to flourish, becoming larger, often made of brick, with higher frontages. Banks and other services sprang up. Hamilton had the attraction of two large recreation areas – Gregson Park, and Learmonth Park. By 1918 land values in Beaumont Street had risen from 5 pounds per foot to 12 pounds per foot.

Hamilton residents no longer had to travel to Newcastle to have their shopping needs met. As the Newcastle Herald pointed out:

‘This is the main business thoroughfare, and the most active shopping centre in the district outside of Newcastle’. [2]

Beaumont Street railway gates (1945)
Photograph courtesy of State Library of NSW

It was not just the trains that precipitated the decline of Denison Street and the consolidation of Beaumont Street. The introduction of steam trams, running along Tudor Street westwards, as well as along Maitland Road to Mayfield, diverted people away from Denison Street .

Electric tram on Tudor Street, near Chaucer Street, Hamilton (1950)
Photograph courtesy of Noel Reed collection

Over the century that was to follow, Beaumont Street would undergo many incarnations. Perhaps the most significant event in its long history, however, shaping what it is today, has been the 1989 Newcastle earthquake. The earthquake was a traumatic experience for the street, its businesses, the people of Hamilton and beyond.

Newcastle Herald staff reporter Clare Morgan vividly describes her car journey from Rankin Park to Newcastle. Passing the collapsed Century Theatre at Broadmeadow, she thought there had been an explosion. Approaching Hamilton, she writes:

‘By this time traffic had slowed to a crawl, and I saw the devastation around Beaumont Street.

The front of the Sussan store had collapsed, and the street was littered with the rubble of buildings that only moments before had been standing.

The lift shaft atop the Greater Newcastle Permanent Building Society was cracked and looked unsteady.

A haze of dust lingered in the air.

I thought the suburb had been the victim of a bombing or gas explosion...

People stood around the street, wandered around in a daze, or tried  to help direct the traffic that was beginning to build up.

There was no panic but most of the crowds seemed bewildered and shocked.’ [3]

Chaos on Beaumont Street 14 January 1990
Photograph by Clarice Eyre,  courtesy of Lorraine Castle

For some Beaumont Street businesses, like Clancy’s Supermarket run by Ian and Kerry Hart, the devastation of the earthquake would be a point of no return.

‘Three years work gone in 10 seconds’, Mrs Hart told a Newcastle Herald reporter. [4]

We worked seven days a week, 15 hours a day and now it’s all gone’.

Watching the demolition of their building from behind the barricades were its owners for 10 years, Peter and Marceline Tynan. For them, the demolition was regretful but necessary. [5]

Gone - Clancy’s Supermarket after the earthquake,
14 January 1990

Photograph by Clarice Eyre, courtesy of Lorraine Castle

Beaumont Street was closed for business for at least 5 weeks after the quake, while demolition areas were made safe, buildings assessed and essential repairs carried out.

Keeping Beaumont Street alive (1990)
Photograph courtesy of Newcastle Museum

A few businesses, like the Commonwealth Bank, Pina’s Delicatessen, and Hookers Real Estate reopened quickly. [6]

The Northern Star Cafe sustained minimal damage, and cafe owners Lorenzo and Ada Bizzarri lost little time becoming a going concern again. It was a different story for the Niagara Cafe and adjoining shop, originally built on the north east corner of Beaumont and Tudor Streets by Greek immigrant George Kostakas. The building was partially demolished.

Damage to Niagara Café, 14 January 1990
Photograph by Clarice Eyre, courtesy of Lorraine Castle

While Greek immigrant brothers and cafe operators Con and John Mitsios carried on, a year later they closed their doors. After 35 years, they decided to take a break, and devote more time to their passion, soccer. The Niagara Cafe would become Donald’s Late Night Pharmacy, as Bob Donald’s shop across Tudor Street had been damaged beyond repair.

Buildings that had been severely affected like the Kent Hotel, where Mr Cecil Abbott died, took much longer to be restored.

The Kent Hotel after the earthquake, 14 January 1990
Photograph by Clarice Eyre, courtesy of Lorraine Castle

The 1919 built Hamilton municipal building was demolished. Its replacement, with a plainer profile that still reflected the Edwardian style original, was estimated to cost $1.35 million. The characteristic clock tower was reinstated, reusing clock faces and mechanisms recovered from the original structure. However, the clock tower is now in a slightly different position, standing more towards the north eastern end of the building.

Gone - Hamilton Municipal Chambers
(June 1986)
Photograph by the late Percy Sternbeck, courtesy of Coalfields Heritage Group,
Sir Edgeworth David Memorial Museum, Kurri Kurri, NSW

Some buildings had their future disputed because they were considered to have heritage value and were marked for preservation. The landmark building on what was known as Donald’s Corner, on the south east corner of Beaumont and Tudor Streets, was subject to a demolition ban. Newcastle Trades Hall Council had taken this action at the request of the Hamilton Residents Group. The ban was lifted on 11 May, 1990 after reassurances that future development of the site would be sympathetic to the broader plans for the precinct.


Gone - an easterly perspective of Donald’s Corner, Hamilton (1986)
Photograph by the late Percy Sternbeck, courtesy of Coalfields Heritage Group,
Sir Edgeworth David Memorial Museum, Kurri Kurri, NSW

Over a longer period, concept plans were developed for the new-look Beaumont Street. Urban designers sought to capitalise on its European-style street life enjoyed by Greeks, Italians, Macedonians and others, and preserve the heritage of its quirky shops. This hiatus period was a worrying time for businesses, especially those that had been under-insured. Many businesses reported their trade had dropped by half. Even though ten percent of buildings had been demolished; building owners fared better than business owners. After repairs and restorations were completed, largely funded by insurance pay outs, landlords were able to charge higher rents as premises had been substantially upgraded. Some business owners chose not to continue, or to move elsewhere.

Point of no return – once a shoe shop in Tudor Street,
14 January 1990
Photograph by Clarice Eyre, courtesy of Lorraine Castle

The Beaumont Street community has always been resilient. The street did recover, and it became a success story. Retail outlets and services continue to be attracted to the critical mass of shoppers, and even more varied eating and entertainment options are being offered.

Almost 25 years on since the earthquake, Beaumont Street is on the brink of reinventing itself once again. It’s not just the coffee culture that is becoming more discerning – craft beer has arrived, and function centres like The Depot on Beaumont are setting a new standard in sophistication. Barely perceptible, just emerging, is the demand from consumers for a different eating experience, with food that is fresh, healthy and local. Perhaps another incarnation is in the wings for Beaumont Street.

Paleo food comes to Hamilton
Photograph by Craig Smith

Read more about the early beginnings of Hamilton here.

[1] Peter Murray: From Borehole to Hamilton Jubilee 1848-1921. 40.
[2] Newcastle Morning Herald, 26/1/1918
[3] Newcastle Herald, 29/12/89.
[4] Newcastle Herald, 10/1/90.
[5] Newcastle herald, 12/1/90.
[6] Newcastle Herald 10/1/90.