Thursday, 19 February 2015

Born to perform - Elma Gibbs

The pulling power of a high media profile was obvious even in the Newcastle of the late 1930s. When ‘sweetheart of the airwaves’ Elma Gibbs resigned to get married in 1942, thousands packed the Town Hall for her farewell. When she married Charles Puddicombe, a Newcastle Sun journalist, at Wesley Church, Hamilton, the press of people was so great that as she left the church, she ‘had to be carried to her car over the heads of the spectators’. [1]

The stellar ascent of Hamilton-born Elma Gibbs (1904-1973) began as a child elocutionist, performing in eisteddfods and pantomimes at towns along the north coast of NSW. What next but to become an actress? And later, a ‘Lady Announcer’ at Radio Station 2KO in Kotara, Newcastle, where she shone for almost a decade before marriage and children claimed her attention.

Elma’s career is fascinating enough in itself, as she was an exceptional young woman with skills that equipped her brilliantly for work on stage and radio. Her story springs to life though because of a collection of quality photographs, many taken professionally as publicity shots for 2KO, that have been treasured by Elma’s daughter, Caroline Morris. [2] They take us right into the magic of her glamorous world.

Born in Lindsay Street, Hamilton to parents Caroline and Harry Gibbs, [3] Elma attended Hamilton Public School.

Class 6A c1916 Hamilton Public School
Elma Gibbs is in the back row, third from the right
Photograph from the personal collection of Caroline Morris

Elma learnt elocution and music as a child and performed in eisteddfods and in pantomimes, often with her sister Aphra. Travelling as far north as Lismore, she received a medallion from the Lismore Musical Society, in 1922. At home, she acted and sang in the Newcastle Dramatic Operatic Society.

Elma Gibbs in pantomime costume, 1919
Photograph from the personal collection of Caroline Morris

I can imagine the excitement in the Gibbs household when Elma received a letter from the Managing Director of J C Williamson Ltd, asking her to ask her parents if they would allow her to join their new Comic Opera Company. They wanted her in the Chorus for a new production; she was to have an understudy; attend singing lessons and be paid three pounds nineteen pence per week.

Letter of offer to Elma Gibbs from theatre manager J C Williamson, 7 January 1925
Photograph from the personal collection of Caroline Morris

Over the next 8 years, Elma performed with the New Comic Opera Company in Sydney, traveling to Melbourne, Adelaide, Tasmania and New Zealand.

Elma Gibbs in a 1927 production of Cradle Snatchers
Cradle Snatchers is a comedy about three young women who set out to take revenge when one of them discovers her husband is two-timing her
Photograph from the personal collection of Caroline Morris

In Adelaide, Cradle Snatchers had been ‘freely rumoured’ to be too daring for the city’s theatregoers, and the script subsequently ‘watered down’. [4]

In Melbourne, the church-based United Social Questions Committee attempted to have performances of Cradle Snatchers cancelled, on the grounds that the play was ‘degrading to the sanctity of marriage, and was so suggestive in its inferences as to be unsuited to the ladies of Melbourne theatregoers.’ [5] The Chief Secretary, Mr Prendergast, read a police report that said the play was too farcical to be taken seriously, and that in their opinion, the degree of offensiveness of the play depended on the state of mind of the audience. The 
Committee’s attempt to protect the sensitivities of Melbourne ladies failed.

Elma Gibbs in Noel Coward’s play Hay Fever at the Melbourne Tivoli, 1931
Elma is on the far left, wearing a white dress and white shoes
Hay Fever was the first of Noel Cowards’ comedies to be professionally staged in Australia
Photograph from the personal collection of Caroline Morris

A new career beckoned Elma in 1933, when radio station 2KO [6] based at Kotara in Newcastle, advertised for a Lady Announcer. She applied, and was successful.

Elma Gibbs 2KO 1933 - 1942
Programs hosted by Elma Gibbs at 2KO became very popular
Photograph from the personal collection of Caroline Morris

Elma compered the Correspondence Club, or the OA Club (‘Our Affairs’). Listeners would use nicknames and send in pieces of information, and others would comment. At Christmas time they all sent each other cards and presents. It sounds like a forerunner of talkback radio.

It was Elma’s arduous responsibility to readdress letters and parcels and send on to Correspondence Club members
Photograph from the personal collection of Caroline Morris

Elma Gibbs ran the popular Children’s Session at 2KO
Photograph from the personal collection of Caroline Morris

Grandma’s Hour drew in many older women, not just grandmothers
Photograph from the personal collection of Caroline Morris

Clearly, Elma’s huge personal following made her a publicity asset for the fledgling radio station. In the late 1930s she made a public relations trip south for 2KO in a very smart car bearing her initials.

Written on the back of the photo:
Headin’ South
Elma Gibbs says Cheerio Newcastle as she heads the old chariot for Melbourne (‘shame on you, that’s a libel’, says Elma). We like the embroidery on the door Elma – in fact the whole dam outfit looks very ‘sportin’.
Image from the personal collection of Caroline Morris

In 1940, Elma Gibbs was one of four candidates in the Patriotic Fund Queen Competition  to raise funds for the war effort. Representing the Cheerio Club, Elma raised £2308 representing 553,932 votes.

Cheerio Club Badges commemorating charity fundraisers
Photographs from the personal collection of Steve Wakely

A 2KO Birthday Album celebrating ten years of service from 1931-1941, showcases the station’s announcers, including Elma Gibbs. Conducting ‘Sessions of Interest to Women,’ the power of her salesmanship on behalf of advertises is highly praised, and she is described as -‘a…lady who brings an intensely human touch to a very exacting task.’ [7]

Elma would have been 38 when she married Newcastle Sun journalist Charles Puddicombe on 17 January, 1942. It was the end of her radio career. Daughter Caroline Morris is not sure if 2KO asked her to resign or if it was her own decision. The day before the wedding, a farewell reception for Elma Gibbs at the Newcastle Town Hall attracted thousands of women and children.

Not a seat spare in the Newcastle Town Hall, as thousands of fans farewell 2KO radio celebrity Elma Gibbs, 16 January 1942
Photograph from the personal collection of Caroline Morris

World War II was still raging. Yet how important it must have been to celebrate a happy event such as this, the marriage of such a popular and well loved radio host.

Guests and spectators packed the forecourt of the Hamilton Wesley Church and spilled into Beaumont Street for the marriage of Elma Gibbs and Charles Puddicombe
17 January, 1942
Photograph from the personal collection of Caroline Morris

In what was called the wedding of the year, ‘the press of people around Wesley Church at Hamilton ... was so great the bridal party had difficulty entering the church. The bride was enthusiastically cheered when she reached the church and as she left after the ceremony. ’ The report says that Elma had to be carried to her car over the heads of the spectators. [8]

Charles Puddicome and Elma Gibbs after their wedding ceremony, 17 January 1942
Photograph from the personal collection of Caroline Morris

That seems to have been the end of life in the public eye for the popular and talented Elma. With Charles she had three children – Caroline, Charles (who lived only 24 hours) and David. While she did some occasional and part time work, such as compering fashion parades, Elma did not resume her brilliant career. Yet sand never forgot those who helped her. In 1960 she organised a reunion to celebrate the 70th birthday of her former Hamilton music teacher Mrs E J Oliver Jones.

Mrs E J Oliver Jones and Mrs Elma Puddicombe, 1960
Over 200 former students and choristers attended the reunion to honour 
their former teacher
Photograph from the personal collection of Caroline Morris

And in her home, Elma Gibbs always had her radio tuned to 2KO.

Elma Gibbs, popular announcer at Radio 2KO, at King Edward Park, Newcastle
Photograph from the personal collection of Caroline Morris


Thank you to Caroline Morris for sharing her mother’s story and photographs, and to historian Jude Conway for facilitating our connection.

[1]  Newcastle Sun, Monday 19 January, 1942
[2]  The photographs of Elma Gibbs and notes on her career were passed to me by Newcastle historian Jude Conway, with permission of Caroline Morris.
[3] Harry Gibbs worked for Frederick Ash for some 60 years. Harry and Caroline had 7 children, three of whom died in 1902. Elma’s older brother Stanley, and younger sister Aphra lived.

[4] The Advertiser, Monday 17 October, 1927 p 17
[5] Sydney Morning Herald Thursday 18 August, 1927 p 13
[6] 2KO was founded in 1931 by Allen Fairhall (later Sir Allen) in Kotara and was licensed to the Newcastle Broadcasting Company. The independent station launched from the backyard of a resident's home, with the licensee's dining room being the only studio the station had at the time. Within ten years 2Ko had grown from Australia’s smallest to one of Australia’s leading stations, becoming its fifth and most progressive market.

[7]  2KO Birthday Album 1931-1941, from the collection of Steve Wakely
[8] Newcastle Sun, Monday 19 January, 1942

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Saving an AA Company house in Hamilton

It continues to await its future, concealed in a battle axe block behind 195 Denison Street. This compact nineteenth century residence was once the home of two AA Company Overmen and a Viewer (manager) of collieries.

In 1994, a chance discovery by a young postgraduate student cycling over Cameron’s Hill along Denison Street was to bring hope to this historic house. Vacant since 1963 and the passing of owner Charles Little, it was becoming increasingly derelict.

The Australian Agricultural Company (AA Co.) house, Hamilton, was built in 1849-50.
 It stands as a rare reminder of Hamilton’s mining past (2013)

That young man was David Campbell. The house had come into the ownership of Mrs Naomi McCourt. Living nearby, she was a descendant of the Little family that had had a 140 year association with the house and surrounding land. When the AA Company no longer had use for the house, it was bought by William Little in 1914.

David emailed me after publication of my book ‘Hidden Hamilton.’ I knew he’d been the driving force behind moves to save the house. Now, he filled in some details:

‘The late Frank Eldridge [1] was a good friend to Naomi.  It was in his presence
that I first visited Naomi in her home.  I remember the joy with which I returned to the happy company of my late great aunt, in Skelton Street, after convincing Naomi and Frank of the significance of the house and surrounding property and of the possibility of securing (State government) funding. Frank, Naomi and I, despite the gap in age, became firm friends. I later met Naomi's daughters, Heather (RIP) and Jenny’.

Then began the process of preparing a funding submission to the Heritage Branch of the NSW Department of Planning; in this Brian Suters, principal of Suters Architects, was instrumental. Ran Boydell, now of Galashiels in Scotland, wrote much of the Heritage Assessment. David wrote the historical background.

The result was a happy one – funding was secured to enable the house to be purchased in 1995 by the Newcastle City Council on behalf of the community.  

Participants in a heritage short course run by Newcastle City Council
inspect the AA Company House, July 1995
Conservation Management Documents 2002, Commonwealth of Australia

However, restoration work did not begin for some time. David remembers that some break-ins occurred, and a couple of clocks were stolen from the lounge room, along with an Edison phonograph.

The kitchen in the AA Company house looks abandoned (2013)

David writes:

‘Naomi gave me my own key to the house; Frank Eldridge and I tried to seal the holes in the roof, with Frank holding the ladder while I ventured onto the roof, complete with bicycle helmet in case I slipped off what were then some pretty wonky roof coverings. I used to regularly call in on Naomi on my bicycle and empty the foam vegetable cartons that Naomi had placed to catch some of the water that poured into the back rooms through the corroded box gutter’.

Essential restoration work such as guttering has been completed on the AA Company house

The historic AA Company house is now secure and water tight, but 20 years on, its interior condition is too fragile for it to be opened to the public. I count myself very fortunate that in 2013, Council Heritage Officer Sarah Cameron showed me through the house, with Naomi’s daughter, Jenny Pritchard. Jenny, fifth generation descendant of the Little family, was visiting Newcastle from her home in Moree.

Jenny Pritchard in the living room of the AA Company house (2013)

Today the house is in limbo. A conservation plan has been completed, but funds are a challenge.

It was David Campbell’s vision and ability to mobilise others to work together that originally saved this rare intact example of a nineteenth century mine Overman’s residence.

David Campbell

Is there someone else out there with imagination and drive who can ensure this hidden piece of Hamilton’s history is not only preserved, but also appreciated and enjoyed? The house waits, but for how much longer?

Front door, AA Company house, showing fleur-de-lys design on glass panel (2013)

Update - sale and NSW state heritage listing

In August 2016, the AA Company house was put up for sale by the Newcastle City Council. Purchase by a qualified buyer was approved in May 2017, with a positive covenant to implement the Conservation Management Plan. A portion of the sale proceeds are to go to interpretative plaques highlighting the history of the AA Company in Hamilton.

In August, 2017 this house achieved a special honour for Hamilton: it is now listed in the NSW State Heritage Register. This listing recognises its heritage significance to Newcastle and to the people of NSW.

Even though the AA house is no longer in public ownership, a private owner committed to its heritage, the proposed interpretive plaques and the recent NSW State Heritage listing secure its future as a tangible reminder of the mining origins of the suburb of Hamilton.

See more photographs and read the history of the AA Company house here.

Unattributed photographs by Ruth Cotton.


Thank you to David Campbell for providing further information, and clarifying some historical issues regarding the AA Company house.

[1] Frank Eldridge was in his 80s at this time, and had served in the Army in World War II.