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.

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