Showing posts with label Hamilton Wesley Uniting Church. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hamilton Wesley Uniting Church. Show all posts

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, 27 June 2013

“Blow it up over my dead body!”

“A couple of days after the earthquake, I was at home in the parsonage in Beaumont Street when there was a knock on the door. I opened it to a policeman, who told me – the Army is about to blow up the church. They want you there!

John Mason, Minister of the Hamilton Wesley Church  1985 - 1992.

Reverend John Mason
Photograph from Hamilton Wesley, a continuing story 1858 - 1988  
by Don and Mavis Ebbott

The last post Wesleyans of Pit Town showed how over the passage of some 150 years, the fluctuating size of the church congregation dictated decisions about buildings on the site. But there was another great challenge faced by the modern day church that had nothing to do with numbers, and everything to do with a natural catastrophe.

The 1989 Newcastle earthquake damaged the church building badly. Its landmark tower had collapsed, and the northern and southern brick walls had been blown out 7-8 centimetres into a precarious curve. The building could cave in at any moment, bringing everything down.

The church had been covered with plastic to keep out rain, and boarded up for safety.

Hamilton Wesley Church, 1990
Photograph from the personal collection of Mrs Mavis Ebbott

The custodians of the church acted quickly after the disaster. Suters Architects were asked to assess the damage. Church decision makers needed to expert advice on whether it would be worthwhile repairing the building – if not, they would have to begin all over again.

The Army had been brought in to help with the emergency response to the earthquake, and all over the city, buildings were being blown up. “They were having the time of their lives”, John told me. In all, three hundred buildings were demolished in Newcastle after the earthquake.

He resumes his story of what happened that morning.

“In a great flurry I rushed up Beaumont Street to see what was going on. There was the Mayor, the Army people from Singleton, the police – all standing around, waiting for the go-ahead”.

John describes how he confronted the group. “Over my dead body!” he declared with all the authority he could grasp. “We’re waiting for the architects to tell us if it can be saved – and they can’t get a cherry picker to get up into the roof because there isn’t a cherry picker to be had in Newcastle!”

A loud argument ensued. “We can’t wait”, John was told. Then, he saw a familiar figure approaching along Beaumont Street. It was Ed Clode, a Suters architect. John called out to him immediately – “I was never so pleased to see anyone”, John said.

Ed backed up John’s story. Leaving them in no doubt about the consequences of going ahead, John reiterated his position: “If you continue, I’ll go in there, and then you can blow it up”.

The Army sappers did desist, and probably went off to find an easier target. An old cinema, perhaps the Century – built 1941 to seat an amazing 1800 people....

The Century Cinema, Nine Ways, Broadmeadow, suffered irreparable damage...
Photograph from the Hunter Region Ambulance Officers' Gazette, 1990, courtesy Newcastle Region Library

The church was repaired. The tower was restored.

Work underway to restore the Wesley Church Tower
Photograph courtesy of Chris Priest

In a delicate engineering feat, the bowed walls were eased back into position over many weeks of gentle pressure from huge strainer bars. Those bars have become part of the historical fabric of the church.

Interior view of Wesley-on-Beaumont, with the horizontal strainer bars just visible, and close up, below (2013)

From the calmer perspective of his retirement years, John tells me:

“I do wonder whether I did the right thing. We were insured, of course, and could have rebuilt. We could have planned and built something more suited for contemporary church life. But there it is, that’s what happened”.

Reverend John Mason speaking at the interfaith thanksgiving service held following the earthquake, Beaumont Street, Hamilton 1990
Photograph from the personal collection of Mrs Mavis Ebbott

Unattributed photographs by Ruth Cotton.


My thanks to Reverend John Mason and Mrs Mavis Ebbott for the story and photographs.

Related post

Wesleyans of Pit Town

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Wesleyans of Pit Town

Pressing his nose against the glass as I hold him up to our high front window, my three year old grandson stares transfixed at the floodlit church tower. Springing from the darkness, it’s so close we can almost touch it, this cake decorator’s fantasy of lacy outlines, turrets and slim arches.

Bell tower of Wesley-on-Beaumont (2013)

It took just three months to build this new Wesleyan Church in 1928, for a Methodist congregation bursting at the seams. A newspaper report at the time described the new building as the “cathedral of NSW Methodism and the largest Methodist church north of Sydney, seating about 600 people”. [1] It quickly became a familiar landmark for the people of Hamilton. How did this come about?

Wesley Methodist Church, Hamilton NSW (1960s)
Photograph in Newcastle and Hunter District Historical Society Archives, courtesy Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

The first Wesleyan Chapel to be built in Newcastle was in Newcomen Street, in front of a cordial factory. The AA Company provided transport on its horse drawn coal trains for its employees and their families from the outlying mining settlements to travel to the various churches each Sunday. Imagine the clanking, the coal dust (despite the canvas covers)  and the innumerable stops!

The First Wesleyan Chapel in Newcastle, Newcomen Street
Photograph reproduced from "Glory Be" , 1845 -1945. Commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Opening of the First Wesleyan Chapel in Newcastle, Ed. Norman F Charge and Eric K Lindgard

There were three times as many Methodists in the Newcastle coalmining communities compared to NSW generally, and the locality of Borehole, Pit Town and Happy Flat was no exception. [2]

Gradually tiring of the long Sunday rides, other options began to be explored by the Methodists here. As early as 1858, services were held in the slab-and-bark private home of a Mrs Clarke, and later in the Borehole School building established by the National School Board on Cameron's Hill. Then, thoughts turned to the possibility of building their own church.

Even in 1869, the south west corner of Tudor and Beaumont Street would have been a convenient location, in the heart of the three bustling mining settlements that trickled from Cameron’s Hill to the flat past Beaumont Street.

You’ll recognise the corner now as the home of the Greater Building Society. A heritage bank building nestles against the protective curve of a six storey building.

The Greater Building Society, Hamilton (2013)

....or you’ll know the Three Bean Espresso's Apothecary Kitchen, famed for its super friendly staff and fast service.

From chapel to café - Three Bean Espresso's Apothecary Kitchen in The Greater (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith

On this corner, a simple, austere Wesleyan Chapel was the first Methodist church building in Hamilton, built in 1869.

Interior Old Church
Photograph reproduced from Hamilton Wesley - a continuing story (Ref. 3 below)

Accommodating 70 people, it can be seen here with the Sunday School hall, built some years later in 1902.

Methodist Church, Parsonage and Mission Hall, Hamilton c 1903
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, courtesy Cultural Collections,
University of Newcastle, Australia

Colliery managers were the “go-to” figures to officiate at special functions in those days. The foundation stone for this early Church was laid by Mr J B Winship, AA Company colliery manager, on 23 August 1869.  

Over 130 years later, during redevelopment of the site by the Greater Building Society’s head office in 2001, footings of the western wall of the church were discovered. Because of their archaeological significance, these creamy sandstone blocks have been preserved where they were found, and the building has been cleverly re-designed around them. They can be viewed through glass tiles in the foyer of the Greater.

One of the footings of the western wall of the original Wesleyan Church,
foyer of The Greater, Hamilton

Methodism was strong in northern England, the home of many immigrants to our coal mining communities. The movement was a reaction to what was seen as the apathy of an Anglicanism that had lost both its heart and its spirit. Evangelistic preaching (often in the open air), enthusiastic hymn singing, and passionate advocacy of the radical notion that the working classes were equal to the upper classes characterised the Methodist movement.

That advocacy of inclusiveness and social justice continues, reflected in the philosophy and work of the present day Wesley-on-Beaumont.

The 1880s congregation was growing, and the small rectangular chapel was remodelled and extended by architect James Cropley. In 1888 a fine parsonage was built for the Minister and his family, on the corner of Tudor and William Streets.

Methodist Church, showing Parsonage at front (n.d.)
Courtesy Newcastle Region Library

In 1901, the foundation stone for a large Sunday School Hall was laid by Mr William Winn. Church bazaars – no doubt the initiative of the women - had been the main source of the £520 needed to buy the land.

Mrs Mavis Ebbott, a local Hamilton and church  historian, explained to me that while this was called a Sunday School Hall, it was originally established as a venue for adult Bible classes. These were especially important before the appointment of a Minister, as leadership in worship had to come from lay men in the church.

Five years later, the church could not hold everyone wanting to attend services, so in 1906, evening services were transferred to the Sunday School Hall. Over 300 people could be seated there, seen at the left of the Church below.

Methodist Church, Hamilton (cnr Tudor and Beaumont Streets) c.1906
Photograph by Dr John Turner, courtesy Cultural Collections,
University of Newcastle, Australia

From the time of brothers John and Charles Wesley, co-founders of the Methodist Movement, the religious instruction of children was especially important. The Hamilton Methodists took up this challenge.

In 1909 a two story building with a suite of classrooms was erected at the back of the Sunday School Hall. This was named Kindergarten Hall. By 1917, Sunday School enrolments were burgeoning. 407 children were enrolled in Sunday School. A third building - Social Hall – was built in 1922 for education, recreation and use as a gymnasium.

In their account of the history of Hamilton Wesley Uniting Church, Don and Mavis Ebbott wrote:

“For many years these halls were filled every Sunday afternoon. All the different organisations of the church used them for meetings and functions. Every former pupil of the old Sunday School would recall the curtain of the stage with the camels walking up the dusty road to Jerusalem”. [3]

Still, the extra Halls were not enough. We learn that in the early 1920s the church building was “taxed to its utmost capacity”. [4]

Many weddings were held in the popular church
Thomas and Gwendoline Griffiths married at the Methodist Church, Hamilton
on 17 September, 1921
Photograph from the personal collection of Alison Edwards

Pressure was mounting for more ambitious development, to meet Church needs. Hamilton was in the midst of a building boom, and its population in 1928 was almost 19,000.

The original Methodist Church and the Parsonage were sold to Australia’s first bank, the rapidly expanding Bank of NSW, on 1 August, 1928 for £3,250. The church had stood for almost 60 years, and was demolished by the Bank.

The sale was to finance a new church building close by, on the corner of Denison and Beaumont Streets.

Built for £13,400 pounds, it was dedicated on 24 November 1928.  The choir stalls alone were built for 70 - exactly the number the first church could hold, in total. Upwards of 600 people could gather in this new "cathedral of NSW Methodism"  -  the one my grandson marvels at from our high windows.

Wesley-on-Beaumont, Hamilton (2014)
Photograph by Matthew Ward

The story does not end here. 

In 1958, the Ebbotts wrote, the halls were refurbished and early pioneers were honoured by naming the halls: the big hall – The Cowan Assembly Hall, the Social Hall – The Harry Jones Memorial Hall, and the Kindergarten Hall – the Josiah Nicholas Kindergarten Hall.

Two of these Halls would not survive the next few years. Cowan and Nicholas Halls, together with a parcel of land that had been the lawn between the old church and the parsonage, were sold. Now, the Greater buildings encompass where they stood.

The sales helped finance yet another building, Fellowship House, which opened in 1962. Purpose built next to the new church, Fellowship House boasted a sanded and polished floor for dancing, and a stage. Mrs Shelia Gow, a descendant of the McIntyre flour milling family, wrote to me that in the late 1940s and 1950s, young people from the Scots Kirk and the Church of England in Hamilton enjoyed combined dances – the Methodists weren’t allowed to dance. By the sixties, however, Methodism had come of age!

Fellowship House, Hamilton (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith

One of the Halls remained, the Social Hall, facing west on William Street. It had become a senior citizens centre but eventually, it too was sold to become a warehouse.

Former senior citizens hall (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith

Wesley-on-Beaumont continues to find new and diverse ways to serve the Hamilton community. Promoting fairness and equality are still foremost on this Church's agenda.

 I wonder what its founders would think of the colourful Fair Trade products displayed in its vestibule, and the coffee shop I found occupying part of its nave? Somehow I think that the army of women who baked and sewed for the countless bazaars to raise funds for a succession of new buildings would feel perfectly at home in Bill’s Place. It’s a volunteer run coffee shop with a play space for toddlers, affordable coffee and delicious home made cakes, and one of the most unusual kitchen windows you are ever likely to see!

Converted kitchen for Bill’s Place, Wesley-on-Beaumont, Hamilton (2014)
Photograph by Matthew Ward

Unattributed photographs by Ruth Cotton.

Reverend Amelia Koh-Butler, Minister Hamilton Uniting Church, and Mrs Mavis Ebbott, local and church historian.

In 2016, the Greater Building Society was renamed the Greater Bank.

Related post

Detail of historical display in Three  Bean Espresso's Apothecary Kitchen

[1] Hamilton Wesley Methodist Church: 100 Years of Christian Witness. Centenary Souvenir 1858 – 1958 (Copy held in Church Office, Wesley-on-Beaumont)
[2]  In her 1979 PhD thesis The Newcastle Coalmining District of NSW, 1860 – 1900, Ellen McEwen’s analysis of 1891 census shows that Methodists were 31.1% of the population of the Newcastle coalmining district, compared with 10.1 % in NSW. A copy of this excellent social history is held in the Local Studies section of the Newcastle Region Library.
[3] Ebbott, Don and Mavis: Hamilton Wesley – a continuing story.... Hamilton Wesley Uniting Church 1858 – 1988. Copy held in Church Office, Wesley-on-Beaumont.
[4] Murray, Peter: From Borehole to Hamilton Jubilee 1848 – 1921. Self published (2006).