Showing posts with label Hamilton Fire Station. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hamilton Fire Station. Show all posts

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Whose head is it, really?

Wrestling with the unwieldy pipes, the busy scaffolder took little notice of the small sculpture above the doorway, the head of a bearded man. An earthquake measuring 5.6 on the Richter scale had devastated Newcastle on 28 December, 1989, and he was flat out assembling protective structures around buildings all over the city. In the scheme of things, what did a bit more damage to an old plaster head matter?

The post Tale of Two Buildings told the story of the 1901 Fire Station in James Street, Hamilton. In it, I touched briefly on the restoration of the sculpture of the head of a man that had been above the front door, pictured below.

When I was finally able to speak with two of the other main characters in this story, I learned how a piece of local history can be made – and saved - by coincidence.

As part of the family effort to preserve the old Fire Station building, Mr Victor Lindsay (who had something of an artistic bent) volunteered to restore the head. His sons Mervyn and Robert  had purchased the building.

But who was the head supposed to represent? While the original had survived fairly much intact, the busy scaffolder had made things much worse, and Vic needed a model. He takes up the story:

“One day a chap walking past the building told me it was King George V”, Victor told me. “But I knew it wasn’t him.” King George V had not ascended the throne until 1910 - too late for a 1901 building.

King George V (Wikipedia)

“I did think it could have been King Edward VII though. It was hard to find a picture....."

Bust of King Edward VII, by Francis Derwent Wood (Wikipedia)

Edward VII ruled from 1901 – 1910, and the Fire Station was built in 1901, so this was a possibility. Victor then began the search for a penny, which would have had a profile of the then monarch.


Profile of King Edward VII on a half penny, 1902

Victor eventually succeeded, but the coin (a very soft material), wasn’t much help to him.

Then, one day a woman called Mrs Jean Mears appeared in the office of Victor's son, Mervyn Lindsay, and the problem was solved. The likeness was that of her grandfather, Sam Donn, who had been Mayor of Hamilton in exactly the right year, 1901.

In the photograph below, the white bearded Sam Donn can be seen seated in the centre, directly below the sculpture.

Opening of the Hamilton Fire Station, James Street, Hamilton
2 March, 1901
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, courtesy Newcastle Region Library

Mrs Mears explained to me that she had heard about the restoration, and gone to James Street to check it out. She was shocked to see part of her grandfather’s sculptured head missing. Someone working on the building assured her it would be restored, but no one knew who it was. That’s how she came to be in Mervyn Lindsay’s office, and another piece of the puzzle had fallen into place.

Victor restored the sculpture by reassembling the broken pieces, recreating the head and making a mould from which a new head could be formed. Now firmly fixed above the door by two stainless steel rods, Victor is making sure Sam Donn will stay in place for a very long time...

He would like to see a small plaque in the foyer of the building, naming Sam Donn. I think it should also acknowledge Victor Lindsay’s labour of love.

Almost 90 now, Victor is learning to use his IPad. If he’d had this little device in 1989, how much easier might the task of identifying that mystery sculpture have been?

Unattributed photographs by Ruth Cotton.


A plaque installed on the former Volunteer Fire Station in 2016 commemorates Mayor Sam Donn. It also honours the contribution made by the Lindsay family in saving this building, with social mention of Victor Lindsay's sculpture restoration. Victor Lindsay passed away in November, 2016 aged 92.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Tale of Two Buildings

At the end of last week’s post, I reflected on the lost hotels of Denison Street, and asked the question – why do some buildings endure, while others crumble or face demolition?

I found at least part of the answer in two local buildings.[1]

One used to be the Hamilton Fire Station in James Street, and the other the Mechanics’ Institute, on the corner of Tudor and Milton Streets. Each has a fascinating history.

It was May 1882 when the need for a local Fire Brigade was first discussed at a Hamilton Council meeting. Already some terrible fires had occurred. While the first brigade was established the following year, it was not until a decade later, in 1892, that it acquired a home – a tiny wooden structure (including a fire tower) that can just be seen in the photo below, next to the Municipal Chambers in James Street. Neither of these buildings have survived.

Hamilton Council Chambers, Hamilton NSW December 1892
Ralph Snowball photograph from the Norm Barney collection, courtesy Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

That Fire Station proved inadequate, and in 1901, a new, single story fire station was purpose built for the cost of 300 pounds, also in James Street. A grand community opening was held. In 1906, a second story and belfry was added for a further two hundred and twenty two pounds. Yet another opening was held - Hamiltonians must have loved an excuse to celebrate! 

Fire Station James Street Hamilton 23 October 1906
Ralph Snowball photograph from the Norm Barney collection, courtesy Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

By the mid 1920s, the station had ceased to be used, and was converted to flats. The building was extensively damaged in the 1989 earthquake. Peter Murray describes what happened next:

“Saved from demolition, it was bought by Merve and Robert Lindsay, who restored and converted the building into an office and an apartment....Fortuitously a descendant of Sam Donn supplied a photograph to assist in the construction”.[2]

The former Hamilton Volunteer Fire Station, 2013

This graciously proportioned building, seen above as it is today,  bears the name Hamilton Flats, replacing the words Hamilton Volunteer Fire Station. Above the front door is a sculpture of a man’s head, thought by a local resident to have been King George V. In the event, it was found to be a likeness of Sam Donn, who had been Mayor of Hamilton in 1901. 

The restored sculpture of Sam Donn, above the entrance to the building 
that was former Hamilton Volunteer Fire Station, 2013

The sculpture was painstakingly restored by Mervyn's father, Mr Victor Lindsay. Mervyn Lindsay explained in an email to me how Victor spent many, many months trying to fix the sculpture, and work out its identity.  At the last moment, photos were received of Sam Donn from Sam's granddaughter. Mervyn writes:

"The fragments recovered after the earthquake refused to fit any attempts to replicate George V, but of course worked perfectly for Sam."

We often walk past this building, admire its simple lines and appreciate what the Lindsays have done to ensure it endures.

The second building I want to tell you about is The Mechanics’ Institute in Hamilton. The wooden precursor to the current brick structure was built in 1862 – thirty years before the first Fire Brigade building was built.

The cultural history of the Mechanics’ Institute is every bit as interesting as the history of its building. I’ll touch very briefly on it here.

 In the early nineteenth century, a time when education was the privilege of the elite few, Mechanics’ Institutes were set up in Britain and later, Australia. Their aim was to provide working men with access to technical education – through talks, courses, lectures and books accessible in a reading room. Since books and library subscriptions were beyond the financial means of workers, the Institutes filled this gap, expanding from technical subjects to the humanities, especially literature. Even debating was encouraged.

Eventually, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, initiatives such as TAFE, free community libraries, adult education and compulsory public education for children made the role of the Institutes far less relevant.

Walking past the former Mechanics' Institute building in its unloved state, I feel so sad that this impressive building has lost its purpose

Anzac House, formerly The Mechanics' Institute, Tudor Street,
Hamilton, 2014
Photograph by Matthew Ward

The story of the Mechanics’ Institute building in Hamilton explains something of how the organisation navigated these changes in society.

The first modest weatherboard building experienced a troubled twenty plus years, financially and in terms of its role, from 1862 until 1888. Then, as a result of strong advocacy from some community leaders, a fine new building was commissioned on the same site. It was opened by the NSW Premier, Sir Henry Parkes in August, 1888.

 Designed by Newcastle architect Mr F B Menkens, the Mechanics’ Institute was described as “the handsomest building of its kind in the district”. [3] Upstairs was a reading room with daily newspapers, a library, a meeting room, and a billiards room. Downstairs was a large hall to seat 400 people, with a stage. It must have been a marvellous resource for the growing community.

Three years later, in 1891, an extension to the building was completed, making it symmetrical in accord with the architectural plans. As with many buildings from the 1800s, the graceful cast iron lace verandahs have not survived.

Mechanics Institute Tudor and Milton Streets Hamilton February 1892
Ralph Snowball photograph from the Norm Barney collection, courtesy Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

By the early 1920s, membership of the Institute was a healthy 800, and its educational role was changing to a recreational one as it became more like a community club. Income was raised through dances, musicals, motion pictures, hire of billiard tables --- until the growth of a range of other social clubs usurped this role, too. Once more, the Institute faced big challenges.

In the 1940s the Hamilton RSL Sub Branch purchased the premises, which became Anzac House, next to the RSL Club. It was intended to be used for the future expansion of the Club, which never happened, although it was rented out as a function centre at one stage.

Yet another organisation has had to cope with the changing times, and came off second best.

Effigy above a doorway today, in a deteriorated state, 2013

For a time, though, The Mechanics' Institute had served as a focus for many of Hamilton’s most important educational, social and political activities.

So what is the difference between the former Fire Brigade building, and the former Mechanic’s Institute? Why has one been able to be successfully reinvented, while the other languishes? Both are fine buildings, excellent examples of the architecture of their times.

I’ve begun a list of what I think a building must have to endure -

1.    A solid structure, with durability – while brick is better than weatherboard, brick buildings can disintegrate, and both can survive.

2.    Aesthetic appeal which transcends the passage of time.

3.    Location that is still relevant to its purpose.

4.    Able to be adapted to a new purpose, if its former purpose is superseded.

5.    Someone to love it (with money).

The Mechanics' Institute has stumbled on Point 4, and crashed on Point 5. The Fire Station/Hamilton Flats ticks all points – most importantly, it has someone to love it.

Unattributed photographs by Ruth Cotton.


In 2015 it was reported in the Newcastle Herald that the Hamilton RSL and former Anzac House/Mechanics Institute buildings were to be redeveloped by DJB Developments. Mencken Award winning architect Kevin Snell was engaged and has incorporated the heritage building into Atrium, a landmark residential apartment building. It was completed in January, 2018

Another  story relating to the Volunteer Fire Station is at Whose Head is it, Really?

[1] Historical details about the two buildings gave been obtained from Peter Murray: From Borehole to Hamilton Jubilee 1848 – 1921. Self published (2006)
[2] Murray, P: as above, p. 83
[3] Murray, P: as above, p. 112.