Showing posts with label Hamilton Mayor George Donald. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hamilton Mayor George Donald. Show all posts

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Gregson Park

As a gift, it wasn’t  quite all it seemed. It was probably the worst piece of land in Hamilton. That’s hard to imagine today, as we absorb the colourful expanses of spring flowering annuals and roses, wander the meandering paths, or watch kids in a playground protected by ancient fig trees.

A big deal was made of it in 1889, when Mr Jesse Gregson, Superintendent of the AA Company, gifted 3.8 hectares of land to the Hamilton Council. The Council had to guarantee to Mr Gregson that the land would be devoted solely to the recreation of workers and their families, and promise to allocate funds for improvement. Was the Council so grateful for this generosity that the reserve was named Gregson Park, in Jesse Gregson’s honour, or was that a condition too?

Entrance gates to Gregson Park commemorate Hamilton’s first Councillors, 2015
Photograph by Craig Smith

For a start, a stream that was part of Styx Creek flowed right through the reserve, and often flooded. Gregson Park was, after all, within the Hunter estuarine system. The lower south west corner harboured a swamp. It was rough, low lying land covered by ti-tree scrub and weeds.

In 1890 Alfred Sharp of Newcastle - artist, architect, draftsman and landscape designer - won the £10 prize for his design for Gregson Park.[1] However, for reasons unknown, not all his ideas were implemented. Sharp envisaged that the stream would be developed into a ‘serpentine lake with islands’.[2]

Instead, in 1891, Council began filling in the waterway with garbage and street sweepings, taking care to cover each layer with ‘clean material’. The creek was eventually drained and filled in. In a local example of land reclamation, thousands of tons of earth and other material were, over time deposited in Gregson Park. [3]

John Goodyer was appointed gardener, with authority to travel to Sydney and buy shrubs and trees. Two bridges were proposed - ‘one over the creek at Samdon Street and one bridge at Lindsay Street.’[4]

Bridge over flood waters in Gregson Park, 1908
Photograph courtesy of Newcastle Region Library

As Gregson Park began to take shape as an urban Victorian park, it quickly became a popular recreational area for the people of Hamilton, as well as a focus for civic monuments.

One of the earliest built structures in Gregson Park was the Hamilton Bowling Club, formed in 1896 – with separate bowling greens and clubhouses for ‘ladies and gentlemen.’ In 2013, almost 120 years of history came to an end when it closed. It is likely the site will be leased for adaptive re-use as a child care centre. [5]

When the tennis courts were built, one court was for residents, the other for teachers and senior scholars at the public school.[6]

Before World War I, in 1905, two 1840s Walker cannons from Victoria Barracks, Sydney were shipped to Newcastle at considerable expense. They were erected in Gregson Park, near the Bowling Club. Later, when this central position was needed for a War Memorial, the cannons  were moved to to the  entrance facing James Street.

One of the cannons in its original position, Gregson Park, early 1900s
The bridge and an early version of the bowling club are clearly visible, with Hamilton School in the background
Photograph by Dr John Turner, courtesy of Newcastle Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Newcastle, Australia

After the sudden death of Hamilton businessman Ramsay Gow, his wife Fanny and family presented a set of iron gates with stone posts in tribute to him. The gates would formalize the James Street entrance. Not far away, in Lindsay Street, the former Gow family residence – 'Fettercairn' - still stands. 

Opening of the Gow memorial gates, Gregson Park, 1908
Lynn family photograph, courtesy of Newcastle Region Library

Ornamental public drinking fountains were often a feature of nineteenth century recreational areas. The ubiquitous water bottle wasn’t carried in those days! Often the erection of a fountain would be linked to an important event or eminent individual.

George Donald  was a well known Hamilton businessman, deeply involved in the Scots Kirk, and Hamilton’s first Mayor. The Donald family gifted the fountain in recognition of George Donald’s contribution to the social and political life of the community. 

Opening of the Donald Fountain, Gregson Park, 29 July 1908
Drinking taps were located on either side; the stonemason did not record his name
Photograph courtesy of Newcastle Region Library

Gregson Park was the place to be, and to be seen, especially by the well-to-do families of Hamilton.

Promenade in Gregson Park, 1908
Lynn family photograph, courtesy of Newcastle Region Library

When the gates at the Tudor/Steel Street entrance were installed, Gregson Park was near-complete. These gates commemorated the members of the first Hamilton Council, which had been incorporated in 1871.

Opening of the Tudor and Steel Street gates of Gregson Park, 1912
Ellen/Helen Tudor, wife of the late publican Thomas Tudor, opened the gates
Tudor Street is named for Thomas Tudor
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, courtesy of Newcastle Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Newcastle, Australia

In 1918, visitors to Gregson Park could enjoy ‘19 large flower beds, several lawns, one mile of walks and two of edging.’ [7] A year or so later, a War Memorial was built in a premier position within the park. Dawn services continue to be held in Gregson Park on Anzac Day.

Dawn service, Gregson Park, Hamilton,1957
Floodlighting the memorial for the first time in 1937 attracted a crowd of 7000 people
Photograph from the Hood Collection, State Library of NSW
No known copyright restriction

By 1929 Gregson Park was very well established, and considered ‘the prettiest resort in the suburb and…unequalled for beautiful surroundings in any other part of the Newcastle district.’[8]

Horse drawn lawn mower in Gregson Park, 1920s
Photograph from the collection of Mrs M Dolahenty
Courtesy Fairfax Syndication

Better equipment was needed for children to enjoy the park. In 1938, a pavilion and children’s playground was opened by the Lady Mayoress, Mrs J E Wiggins. She declared this was money well spent; the area would be reserved for women and small children. She also suggested the novel idea of the Council employing a (paid) female caretaker who would watch the children in the playground while their mothers went off shopping.[9]

Other installations over the years included a fernery, which seems to have disappeared, and a rotunda. This was demolished in 1940.

By 1966, Gregson Park had ‘three times won its class in statewide competitions,’ tended by head gardener Jim Duck, who farmed near Dungog in his spare time.

Now the children’s playground draws in parents, grandparents and carers throughout the day; the tennis courts are occupied; sometimes you’ll find a band practicing beneath the trees. Anyone can join a casual soccer game on Sunday afternoons - that began in 1989.

Gregson Park puts on her best for the big events like Carols in Gregson Park, Anzac Day services, or May Day celebrations. She will embrace a candlelight vigil for refugees, or a boisterous picnic; she will offer us peaceful spaces to stroll, to soak up some sunshine, or laze on the lawns and drowse. She’s there, for everyone.

Gregson Park, Hamilton – Spring, 2015
Photograph by Craig Smith

[1] In the same year, 1890, Alfred Sharp also won a competition for his design of the Upper Reserve, Newcastle, which from 1911 became King Edward Park. Alfred Sharp also designed parks in Islington, Wickham and Lake Macquarie
[2] Official Souvenir of the Municipal Jubilee of Hamilton: 1871-1921.
[3] Peter Murray 2006, From Borehole to Hamilton Jubilee 1848-1921, Peter Murray Newcastle, p. 76
[4] Newcastle Morning Herald, 26 June, 1889
[5] Update from Newcastle City Council, September 2015.
[6] Peter Murray 2006, From Borehole to Hamilton Jubilee 1848-1921, Peter Murray Newcastle, p. 76
[7] Newcastle Morning Herald, 8 October, 1912.
[8]  Official Souvenir of the Municipal Jubilee of Hamilton: 1871-1921, p.29
[9] Newcastle Herald, 14 February, 1938

Saturday, 28 December 2013

The Story of Donald's Corner

‘When you were growing up in Hamilton’, I asked  memoir writer Margaret Colditz, ‘where was the money?’

‘The money’, she responded without a second’s pause, ‘was in Donald’s Corner’.

George Donald [1] was what we’d call today ‘a mover and a shaker’. In late 19th century Hamilton, he had his finger on the pulse in business, civic administration, school and church. With that remarkable combination of vision, persuasiveness and practical skills, it is likely he also had charisma. He died aged 56 in 1887.

We first met George Donald in the post 'The Making of Hamilton' - he was Hamilton's  first Mayor.

George Donald (1831-1887)
Photograph courtesy of Newcastle Region Library

It was his drive and determination that made the Incorporation of Hamilton a reality. This meant Hamilton could levy rates, using the collected funds to improve the environment and circumstances in which people lived. We know he must have been an important civic leader, because there is a thoroughfare named for him, Donald Street, and an imposing fountain in his honour in Gregson Park.

What else can we glean about the man, his influence and his power in Hamilton’s earliest days?

George Donald was Scottish, like a large proportion of early immigrants to this locality. He arrived here in 1859 at the age of 28 to work in the mines. Seizing an opportunity, he became manager of the Hamilton Cooperative Store, an offshoot of the Borehole Cooperative Society.

Hamilton Branch Cooperative Store
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, courtesy Cultural Collections,
 University of Newcastle, Australia

The Cooperative Store inadvertently provided George Donald with the on-the-job training needed to set up on his own. In 1865, just 6 years after his arrival, Donald established a grocery store on the corner of Beaumont and Tudor Streets. This would have been competition for the Cooperative Store.

Donald did well, later adding an ironmonger and chemist to his  family grocery business.

Donald’s Chemist and Ironmonger
Corner of Beaumont and Tudor Streets, Hamilton
Photograph from the Lynn Family, courtesy Newcastle Region Library

George Donald's land extended across two sites on Tudor Street, between Beaumont and Murray Streets. Over time, as evident in the photograph below, the building on the landmark corner site was extended and remodelled, with other businesses leasing space.

Tram outside Donald's chemist, corner Beaumont and Tudor Streets, Hamilton, 
June 10, 1950
Photograph courtesy of Greg and Sylvia Ray

George Donald and his wife Margaret had seven sons and three daughters. With a growing family, George Donald was active in Hamilton Public School affairs. Clearly not afraid of over commitment, he served for periods of time as Secretary of the School Board, and of the Mechanics Institute.

The Presbyterian connection

A striking example of George Donald’s drive and initiative was the impetus he provided for the formation of the Hamilton Scots Kirk. [3]

While a small wooden structure built in 1859 on the corner of Denison and Milton Streets was thought to be the first purpose built church in Hamilton, the Presbyterians worshipping there experienced scandal and schism. That’s another story. Between 1866 and 1868, the church was left without a Minister.

Many Hamilton Presbyterians still travelled to churches in Newcastle on Sundays. In an interesting gesture, the AA Company provided free horse drawn trolleys as transport for Presbyterians and Methodists. When this free service ceased in 1880, George Donald decided to take action.

No doubt using the lobbying and administrative skills acquired as three times Mayor (1872-76), he successfully pursued Hamilton’s claim as a separate Presbyterian parish. By 1882, the parish had installed its own minister, Reverend William Gray. When the old church in Denison Street proved inadequate, George Donald was instrumental in securing the present block on the corner of Tudor and Murray Street for the new church. On a trip to England he negotiated with the AA Company for an exchange of the former site for the new block of land.

The foundation stone for the new Scots Kirk was laid on 29 January, 1887 just several weeks before his death aged just 56. Although suffering ill health dating from his last term as Mayor, George Donald was able to make a visible and enduring difference to his community. A memorial plaque in his honour is on the southern wall of the Kirk.

The Scots Kirk is modelled on the design of Dunfermline Abbey in Scotland, where George Donald was born. On the outside, it appears a modest traditional church building of its time. Inside, be prepared to be surprised by the drama and beauty of ten stained glass windows around its walls, with Rose, Alpha and Omega windows above the choir gallery . [4]

Collage of stained glass windows in the Scots Kirk, Hamilton
Photograph courtesy of

And then the earthquake...

Although the details are obscure, it appears that after his sudden death, members of the large Donald family continued the businesses George Donald had established. The photograph below, taken sometime before the 1989 earthquake, shows a substantial corner building and diversity of tenants.

Remember, George Donald had started out on this site in 1865.

Donald’s Corner before the 1989 earthquake (n.d.)
Photograph from the collection of Mavis Ebbott

The Newcastle earthquake in 1989 severely damaged the buildings on Donald’s corner  but the Newcastle Council prevaricated on its demolition. Eventually, approval was granted. Before the earthquake, occupants of the original two storey buildings had included Donald’s Chemist, a milk bar, the Etna restaurant, a florist, dress shop, barber and estate agent. [7]

 The Niagara Café connection

We know that by 1989, Bob Donald was operating the original Donald's Chemist. When he began to look for new premises, he found ready vendors close by in the Mitsios brothers, Con and John. They had run the Niagara Cafe on the opposite corner from 1956, for 35 years.

The Niagara Cafe is another Hamilton icon, remembered by many Novocastrians  from as early as the 1920s to the 1980s. It was founded by the Karanges family - Greek immigrants now with five generations spread across Australia.[5] An excellent article about the Karanges family can be read here.

Memoirist Margaret Colditz – and many other Novocastrians – remember the early days of the Niagara Cafe. She writes:

‘Peach melbas and banana splits were sold in summer, hot malted milk in winter. Milkshakes hadn’t yet arrived’.[6]

Milkshakes came eventually, however – who doesn’t remember the anticipation of taking possession of one of those fingertip-chilling aluminium containers?

Above the Niagara Cafe was a ‘gambling den’. One of at least three illegal betting spots on Beaumont Street (another was at the Mook family’s fruit shop and home – read more here) it was largely left alone by police. Interestingly, it was not until off-course betting became legal through TABs that police began to crack down on illegal SP betting.

When he relocated his pharmacy across Tudor Street, Bob Donald kept one of the cafe booths as a tribute to the building’s heritage. The booth was eventually moved because of space demands, but the step remained as part of the front entrance until half was tiled over to make a ramp for accessibility. Craig Jeffriess  shared this local history about the Niagara Café on the Lost Newcastle Facebook site. The step was white marble and had 'Niagara Cafe' inscribed on it.

 A coffee shop has now returned to the corner, a franchise of the popular Gloria Jean’s.

Northeast corner of Beaumont and Tudor Streets, once the site of the Niagara Café and Bob Donald’s All Night Pharmacy (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith 

Back on the original ‘Donald’s Corner’, there were no takers for this landmark site throughout the 1990s. The site lay vacant for a decade.

A photograph of a wedding at Scots Kirk shows the vacant block in the background
Photograph from the collection of Robyn Jeffriess

It took the initiative of three local businessmen - Steve Foteff, Van Jovanovski and George Yanis - to give this prime space a new life. As he travelled to other cities, George Yanis had noticed how apartments were emerging as an alternative to hotel rooms. He had already built a block in Donald Street. Read George's family story here.

Nearly ten years after the earthquake, Newcastle City Council approved plans for a new apartment building, the first of its kind in the Hunter region. The original plans had been for three storeys but a Council officer pressed for five for the prime corner site. Five storeys were approved.

The Boulevard on Beaumont was built in 2000 across two sites on 1049 square metres of commercial space. It offers 32 suites - studio and two bedroom – each with kitchen, laundry, and sitting area. A four star facility with bar and restaurant, it was refurbished in 2010 and is now a part of the Quality Suites hotel group.

Quality Suites Boulevard on Beaumont
Southeast corner of Beaumont and Tudor Streets, 
known as Donald’s Corner (2014)
Photograph by Matthew Ward

Once again, after devastation and a decade of not knowing its future, Donald’s corner has been restored to its status as a Hamilton landmark.

An elevated perspective of Donald's Corner
Photograph  from the collection of Mavis Ebbott


[1] My acknowledgement for much of the factual information about George Donald to research by local historian Peter Murray. Refer Murray, Peter: From Borehole to Hamilton Jubilee 1848 – 1921. Self published (2006
[2] Colditz, M: My Beloved Beaumont Street. Manuscript (1990)
[3] Murray, Peter: From Borehole to Hamilton Jubilee 1848 – 1921. Self published (2006)
[4] The Scots Kirk is on the corner of Tudor and Murray Street, Hamilton. It is open to the public every Wednesday between 12 noon and 2.00 pm.
[5] Newcastle Museum, Exhibition on Beaumont Street.
[6] Colditz, M: My Beloved Beaumont Street. Manuscript (1990)
[7]  Newcastle Herald Tues April 21, 1998.