Thursday, 1 May 2014

The Kent



Acrobatic dogs balanced on two front legs on impossibly slim posts, somersaulted, danced and waved goodbye. Responding to the skilful hands of trainer Mr Bill Massey, the small dogs enthralled kids and adults alike. [1]


It was the early 1920s. Massey’s Dog Circus was the first recorded use for a large corner block at 59-61 Beaumont Street, now The Kent. Sometimes the dogs would parade down Beaumont Street to perform at ‘Gilbert’s Paddock’, another vacant block backing onto Murray Street, behind 99-101 Beaumont Street. There, behind the Westpac Bank of today, once the Roxy Theatre, the little troupe would join a steam driven merry-go-round, a joy ride called the Razzle Dazzle, and tightrope walkers mimicking the world’s most famous tightrope walker, Blondin. These couple of blocks could have been the beginnings of an entertainment precinct for Hamilton.


As it would have been - Razzle Dazzle ride, Cony Island, New York (c1900)
Where are the tee shirts?
(No known restrictions on reproduction)


Perhaps anticipating the becoming of Beaumont Street as Eat Street, one of Massey’s terriers was famous for his discerning palate. Local historian Mavis Ebbott tells me that this dog was said to eat meat six days a week, but on a Friday, he would consume only fish.


When The Kent was built in 1924, Massey’s Dog Circus had to find another home. The corner block had been advertised as a splendid site for a family hotel, and so it would become. Hamilton was burgeoning, with 400 businesses and a population of some 14,000 – only slightly less than the city of Newcastle.


The first licensee was Mr William Weiss, followed by Mr Charles Weiss, beginning a family involvement with the hotel that would last for several years.



Hotel Kent, Hamilton (1924)
Charles W Weiss, Proprietor
Photograph courtesy of Newcastle Region Library



Articles and court notices in the Newcastle Miners Advocate and Morning Herald show that The Kent accommodated both guests and longer term boarders. The Hamilton Bowling Club arranged for its competition guests to stay at The Kent – in 1929, the Millions Club from Sydney visited and was ‘entertained to lunch’ at The Kent before the match.


The personal story of Charles Weiss is a tragic one. A highly regarded, kind and very generous member of the Hamilton community, he had many friends. He was listed as one of the most generous donors to the Hamilton Distress Fund in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression. In another example, during Hamilton Shoppers Week in 1924, he donated a prize. In 1929 Charles Weiss and two business partners purchased the land where Hamilton’s first theatre was built. This was the Union Theatre, later to become the Roxy.


By the time war came, Charles was no longer the licensee of The Kent, although he could have been operating it, and by then had other business interests. All this was to come to a sudden end.


Of German ancestry, Charles Weiss’s birth name was Karl.


Australia interned about 7000 residents in prisons and camps during World War II, many of them Germans and Italians classified as ‘enemy aliens’. The fear was that they might be a risk to Australia’s security by assisting their home countries. Charles Weiss was one of those rounded up and taken away, to spend the rest of the war in a prison (or prison camp), somewhere in NSW.


Adele Weiss, a descendant, writes in Lost Newcastle Facebook:


Everything was taken from him and he was devastated beyond comprehension. Not so much because of material things but he loved and adored Hamilton, and his many, many friends. Sadly, he never emotionally recovered from his ordeal here in Newcastle... and was believed to have died of a broken heart.’ [2]


The story of Charles Weiss shows the terrible consequences that would have been repeated in many, many immigrant families in Ausralia.


The outbreak of war mobilised the community. Hamilton had its own Send-off and Welcome Home Committee. In August, 1941 the Committee staged a dance in the Club Ballroom of The Kent, with 500 dancers attending. [3] The puzzle is – where was the Club Ballroom? I believe the first floor was given over to accommodation, prior to the remodelling that created today’s function room. Perhaps there was a ball room squeezed in somewhere upstairs?


Over the 12 years between 1936 and 1948, the licensee of The Kent changed six times. At that time, it was not unusual to have such turnover.


In 1947/48, an influx of Italian migrants was making Hamilton the focus of their community and commercial life. In 1947, 150 families from the village of Lettopalena, in the province of Chieti, in the Abruzzo region of Italy, migrated to Newcastle. Lettopalena had been devastated by an earthquake in 1933, and suffered greatly from bombings in World War II – it has since been rebuilt nearby.


Most of these migrants settled in Islington, to be close to the BHP steelworks where the men could find work. The Exchange Hotel and The Kent became favourite gathering places. There was still a cultural divide. Desmond Watson remembers that when he first became a customer of The Kent fifty years ago in the mid 1960s, aged just 17, the Italians were at one end of the public bar; the ‘Aussies’ at the other.


Today a small group of well dressed, retired Italian men gather each morning at the eastern end of the front bar. They meet for an hour to ‘discuss the affairs of the day’. For years, Briscola, Italy’s most popular card game, and Three Seven (Tresete) were played in this alcove by their predecessors, but now only one of them, Domenico, remains. After the chat, it’s over to the Benvenuti Italian Restaurant for coffee.



The company of men (2014)
(L-R) Mario Lot, Cesare Gattazzo, Domenico di Claudio,
Giacinto di Bernardino



Local historian Doug Saxon recounts his memories of growing up in Hamilton in the 1950s, writing:


‘I used to walk past The Kent almost every day and remember the cellar doors which were set in the footpath and where wooden kegs of beer were lowered by rope into the cellar below. The lasting memory is the smell from the cellar – probably of stale beer. Hotels were essentially male establishments - I can remember men taking drinks to ladies sitting in cars outside the hotel although The Kent did have a female section – ‘The Ladies Lounge’. ...Hotels closed at 6 pm from 1916 until 1955 when 10 pm closing was introduced.’ [4]


When 6 pm closing still ruled, Des Watson remembers drinkers inside the hotel sending drinks and hot chips to pacify women and children waiting in the car. Shandies (beer diluted with lemonade) were considered ‘suitable’ drinks for women.


‘The six o’clock swill’ was a consequence of these limited trading hours. Doug Saxon quotes Bill Muir, who lived opposite  The Kent in Cleary Street:


‘Beaumont Street became a rush of bicycles as workers from the BHP and other industries rushed from knocking off work at 4 pm to get to the pubs for quick afternoon drinks. The hotels were crowded with drinkers almost spilling onto the pavement before the pub doors closed at 6 pm’. [5]

The original public bar – shown below – looked rather different from today. It was set up for access, efficiency and fast action. The barmen worked at speed to serve the shoving, pushing workers desperate to get as much beer into their systems as possible in the available time. Bottle shops only began to appear in the 1960s, and this daily binge drinking had many negative consequences for families.



Public bar in The Kent c1948
Mollie Gahagan is in front
Photograph of bar and his mother is from the personal collection of Peter Pearce



Court reports from the opening of The Kent in 1924 over the next three decades abound with convictions of licensees for ‘having persons on the premises at an unlawful hour’, and of patrons ‘for having carried liquor away during prohibited hours’. In one reported case in 1948, police - who happened to be at the back of the hotel - spied ‘bottles of beer being handed over the fence’. And of course, a multitude of charges for fights, causing affray, assaults and ‘offensive language’.



Kent Hotel, Hamilton, NSW (1959)
Photograph courtesy of Newcastle Museum



What was the ‘saloon bar’ is at the back of the public bar – in this more ‘refined’ setting, drinks would cost a little more. Even the public bar was a misnomer, however, as women were not allowed there, or in the saloon. A common excuse from many hotels was that there were no ‘ladies facilities’.

The Kent had some facilities for women as early as the 1950s.



Giving the boss a hand - cleaning toilets at The Kent (c1950)
(L-R) Bert Harris (Publican), Taff Jones, Ken Burns
Photograph from the personal collection of Robyn White, daughter of Ken Burns



Ken Burns was a regular at The Kent, every afternoon after work. He always stood in the same place, against a window that looked onto Cleary Street. On her way home from the bus and work at BHP, daughter Robyn White would tap the glass against her father’s bald head. If he was ready, he’d get up and join her for the short walk to their home in Cleary Street. Robyn tells me a name plaque was placed at his favourite spot – but was lost in the earthquake.

In 1973, after a sit-in by a group of feminist activists at Hotel Manly in Sydney, gender segregation in hotels gradually began to break down. Des Watson remembers the Ladies Lounge at The Kent well. He disputes it was a ‘lounge’ in any sense of the word today.

‘It was a small enclosed room with a table and chairs’, he tells me. ‘The women had to order drinks through a hole in the wall.’ He describes how they used to bring peas to shell and beans to slice, so they could have dinner ready for their husbands, as soon as they got home.


Ladies welcome (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith



Extended hours, followed by the introduction of bottle shops and the freer availability of take home liquor, meant that hotels became less frenzied, more leisurely places. Newcastle playwright, novelist and comedian Grahame Cooper writes this rainy day reminiscence:

When I was young and stupid (though I’ve learnt the two may not be mutually exclusive) I spent a ‘decent’ amount of time in pubs. This was back in the days when cigarettes didn’t give you cancer, pubs were not generic restaurants/gambling halls, the barman knew your name and invited you to sit at the bar, ‘characters’ gathered to lie about their lives and offer alcohol-fuelled folk wisdom to the young...On rainy days such as today, I was inevitably drawn to the hotels of Beaumont Street, Hamilton and my recollections are of a black and white, or at least sepia-toned stretch of suburb where one could escape the rain and enter a dimly lit, smoky, warm and inviting front bar. The Kent Hotel was one such place’. [6]



Kent Hotel front bar (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith



This peacefulness was shattered on Thursday, 28 December, 1989.


The front of The Kent was savagely stripped away by the 5.6 Richter magnitude earthquake, as the verandah collapsed, taking the external brick wall down with it. Gaping holes that once were rooms in The Kent were exposed to view.




Devastation wreaked on The Kent (1989)

Photograph by Craig Smith of framed photograph hanging in The Kent





Mr Cec Abbott died under The Kent fall.




 
Clearance was a slow job
Photograph by Craig Smith of framed photograph hanging in The Kent



There was pressure on John and Pauline Stirling, part owners of The Kent, to demolish the entire building. Extensive renovations had just been completed, and they resisted strongly, arguing that the damage not structural. Although it looked shocking, it was the hotel façade that was mainly affected. Damage had occurred all along Beaumont Street. The solid timber stays that had supported the awning posts had been replaced by wires in a street-wide safety improvement program instituted by the Newcastle Council.





Clearly visible, wires failed to hold up awnings
Photograph by Craig Smith of framed photograph hanging
 in The Kent



The Kent was closed for up to three months for repairs; long term boarders were found alternative accommodation. Bar patrons moved to other pubs.



 Following the earthquake, the front bar was updated. Local historian Mavis Ebbott tells me that when the panels were stripped back, five were found with the words STRIKE HERE. These were used for striking the ‘strike anywhere’ Swan Vestas matches popular with smokers.




One of two panels from the original bar preserved at the entrance
Photograph by Craig Smith



Renovations following the earthquake saw The Kent acquire a veranda upstairs, with a bull nosed iron roof over the Cleary Street windows.



Kent Hotel c.1990s
Photograph by Craig Smith of framed photograph hanging in The Kent



 Now, veranda patrons have protection from winter winds and the western sun in summer.




New look veranda (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith


Successive renovations, too large a task to document in this story, have left their mark on The Kent. Hamilton resident Craig Smith had taken his last photograph for this post and was on his way out of the hotel when he noticed a hole in the floor, with the wooden hatch suspended back on its chains. He emails me about the experience:
'It took me awhile to realise that this was the cellar door, and I was thrilled to spot the layers of jutting brickwork that descended beneath the surface. And not just the surface flooring of The Kent but the street itself - it was like gazing at a cross-section of Beaumont Street on some archeological dig. It was a fitting way to leave the premises, to then walk out onto the street and carry with me that sense of something hidden and secret, a sense of unexpected delight that is to be cherished in such a historic location in Hamilton'.




Opening The Kent cellar (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith



Up until the late 1980s, NSW breweries owned almost half the State’s hotels. A series of corporate crashes led to breweries divesting themselves of the freehold of individual hotels, with purchasers often being former lessees. Thus, hotels became once again, family businesses.
It was not just pub culture that was changing, but also the very purpose of pubs themselves. Accommodation had long been an essential service offered by hotels. As the market changed, along with customer preferences for more spacious rooms and an ensuite bathroom, hotels such as The Kent found themselves becoming redundant.
On the first floor, perhaps 15 rooms remain of the 20 or so that were once used for guest accommodation. Mostly single, there was one double for the occasional travelling couple. Bathrooms were shared. Long term office staffer Wendy Berlin says that with high ceilings, neat curtains and bedspreads, the rooms would have been well presented for the time.

Each hotel room had a hand basin for guests (2014)


Decorative detail of picture rail in guest room (2014)



The Kent stopped providing accommodation around 1998. Today the rooms are used for office space and storage, although present owner/manager Stephen Hunt recalls that soon after he took over in 2002, an elderly patron was provided with a room until his end days.


While 1998 saw the close of the accommodation era, it also marked a boost in hotel income with the NSW government approval for hotels to purchase up to 15 poker machine/licences. This enabled hotels to compete more directly with the club industry, which had long held a monopoly on these gaming machines. The Kent responded with another renovation to make space for the new machines.


The Hunt family bought The Kent in 2002, having been involved in owning and managing pubs since the 1940s. Part owner Stephen Hunt moved to Newcastle from Sydney with his family to manage the business. The Kent appealed because it is in a thriving area with many reasons for people to visit – a good mix of retail, food and entertainment - with the railway station, the Hunter Stadium and the Newcastle Entertainment Centre close by. Stephen loves the heritage style of the building, its history, and the unique touches that have managed to survive renovations and disaster.



Original fireplace in first floor lounge at The Kent (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith



Throughout The Kent, pressed metal ceilings are still evident.




Pressed metal ceiling, first floor, The Kent (2014) [22]
Photograph by Craig Smith



The hotel dining room was originally at the front, facing Beaumont Street. When the gaming area was enlarged, the dining area was moved to the back.




Remodelling meant these elegant external doors have been permanently closed (2014)


Photograph by Craig Smith




Since 2002 the dining room has been run as part of the hotel - prior, it had been the privately operated Beaumont Restaurant. In 2014, new renovations are under way that will see the dining area restored to the front hotel, hopefully with pavement dining.






Diners will once again enjoy this heritage leadlight
Photograph by Craig Smith, 2014



A large function room on the first floor continues to be important for private celebrations and events.




Stairway to function room, veranda and offices
Photograph by Craig Smith, 2014 




First floor function room has a warm ambience
(Photographs by Craig Smith, 2014)




A piece of history has been retained on the first floor. A club lounge area, billiard room and bathroom was once the private quarters of Newcastle businessman and Kent licensee, Terry Teagle.



Club lounge which opens to verandah
Photograph by Craig Smith (2014)



Patrons can move from the function room to the veranda for a bird’s eye view of what is happening on Beaumont Street.




The veranda is now firmly secured (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith


The Kent has changed over time. Like the whole industry, this hotel has had to respond to broader changes in society, and adapt to survive. Craig Smith emails again after taking his last photos for this blog:

'I've been thinking about The Kent often since I visited last week. It has undergone such a change in its culture and in public perception in the past ten years - from a guaranteed place to witness a close-up fight on a Friday night as I've done - to a rather charming place to enjoy a family meal. It's been so good to watch its new colours flourish'.



The Kent (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith



So much of this positive change at The Kent is due to the influence of Stephen Hunt and his family. In April, 2014 they celebrated 12 years of ownership, and are now a firm part of its 90 year history.


They have always liked the linkage between The Kent and the country of Kent, in England.





The motto of the county is the Latin word, Invicta. It means undefeated, unconquered.
That too, is The Kent.







Acknowledgements
Thank you to Stephen Hunt, Wendy Berlin, bar staff and patrons of The Kent for their help and contributions. Also to Adele Weiss, Robyn White, Peter Pearce, Lorraine Castle and Desmond Watson.

Unattributed photographs by Ruth Cotton.

View a complete set of Craig Smith’s photographs of The Kent on:


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[1] Watch a silent film of performing dogs from the 1920s at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jq5Ow5VLf0
[2] Adele Weiss, Lost Newcastle Facebook.
[3] Trove. Newcastle and Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate. 6/8/1941. 6.
[4] Doug Saxon: Hamilton. Memories of Life and School in the 1950s. 6.
[5] Doug Saxon: Hamilton. Memories of Life and School in the 1950s. 6.
[6]  Grahame Cooper, Lost Newcastle Facebook.