Showing posts with label St Patrick's Day Hamilton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label St Patrick's Day Hamilton. Show all posts

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Northern Star Hotel

‘This must be the best position in Hamilton,’ Des Ramplin observed to his wife Marie, as they were discussing the prospect of buying the 110 year old Northern Star Hotel, in Hamilton.

It was 1986; interest rates were affordable and the Ramplins were ready to take on another challenge.

Marie was born nearby in Cleary Street, and grew up in Hamilton.

‘I never dreamed I’d come back one day as the owner of a hotel,’ she tells me.

In 2016, the Ramplin family will have owned and operated the Northern Star Hotel for 30 years.

Father and son: Des and John Ramplin, 2000
Photograph from the Ramplin family collection

The early years

Richard Nickolls[1] was the first licensee, operating the Northern Star Hotel at 112 Beaumont Street, Hamilton from 1877.[2] This date is important, because it places the Northern Star Hotel as the earliest Hamilton hotel still in existence on the same site, and with the same name. [3]

In 1882, the Northern Star Hotel was put up for sale but withdrawn from auction as the reserve price of £600 was not reached.[4]

We learn something of what the earliest building on the site was like, from a later auction advertisement, in 1884. The Northern Star Hotel is described as:

‘one of the best brick, two storey buildings in Hamilton, with stone foundation, cemented fronts, a spacious and airy balcony, and nearly new, containing 8 beautiful and well finished rooms.’ [5]

The hotel had a bar, underground cellar, detached brick kitchen, a three stall stable, plenty of water, and a 4 room weatherboard cottage at the back with a detached kitchen.

A couple of decades later, in 1912, the hotel underwent what was probably its first major renovation.

1912 renovation plans for the Northern Star Hotel, displayed in the hotel bistro
Photograph by Craig Smith

Five bedrooms were added, along with a new bar, dining room and a cast iron balcony on the upper floor. [6]

Northern Star Hotel, Hamilton (n.d.)
The name of C W Weiss, a prominent Hamilton businessman, is on the front of 
the elegant renovated hotel
Photograph courtesy of Newcastle Region Library

In 1915, Charles Weiss lodged an application for his Northern Star Hotel license to be transferred to Harold J B Robinson.[7]

A match case inscribed with Harold Robinson’s name is in a display case
in the Northern Star Hotel
Phone: Hamilton 21

In 1919 the hotel received a glowing write up in The Catholic Press:

‘Harold J B Robinson is the proprietor of the Northern Star Hotel, and so it is run on the best possible lines. Everyone in and out of Hamilton knows this hotel, because it has acquired fame, being well kept. The accommodation is excellent and the cuisine perfect, for everything is of the best quality.’ [8]

In such a central position, and with a balcony offering a commanding vantage point, the Northern Star became a popular spot for speakers to address the people of Hamilton. In 1916 a gathering heard a debate on whether hotel closing time should be extended from 6pm to 9pm; in 1917, the Mayor of Hamilton presided over a recruiting rally addressed by Trooper Squires and Sergeant Huntley. Aspiring politicians and later, local Councillors would make their case for election from the balcony. The widening of Tudor Street was discussed in 1922.

The following year, in 1923, further renovations were undertaken. The hotel acquired two new bathrooms, a hot water system, a new ‘vermin proof, kitchen,’ and a lounge with an open fireplace. Notably, the Northern Star became the only hotel in the district where guests could park their cars.[9] This had been made possible when, in 1922, a cottage in James Street next to the hotel was purchased and demolished.

Northern Star Hotel, Hamilton, 1924
The roofline appears to have changed by 1924
Photograph courtesy of Newcastle Region Library

Up until the 1930s, hotels were important community venues for many different activities which brought people together. Football, trotting and other clubs held their meetings at the Northern Star, as did unions. Formal events ranged from an installation ceremony of the Star in the East Lodge of the Freemasons, to auctions and inquests.

Hotels could also be sites of criminal activity – reports of convictions for theft, offensive behaviour, brawls, and unruly behavior in and around Hamilton hotels often appeared in the local press.

Northern Star Hotel, Hamilton, 1968
The balcony would soon be removed
Photograph courtesy of Newcastle Region Library

In 1969 the Newcastle Sun carried the headline, LANDMARK GOING. It reported plans for the complete modernization of ‘one of the best known buildings in Hamilton,’ involving ‘the virtual demolition of the existing building.’ Its distinctive verandah with cast iron railings would also be demolished, replaced with a modern awning over the footpath. Its replacement would be ‘one of the most modern hotels in Newcastle.’ [10] But first things first – a temporary bar was established, so that despite the building works, the hotel could keep trading and look after its regulars.

A family hotel – the Ramplins

While Des Ramplin had begun work as a fitter and turner, worked on building construction sites and in power stations, and even owned a taxi, he and Marie were not novice publicans.

Their first experience in hotels was as a husband-and-wife manager of the Plough Inn Hotel at Buladehlah. The couple went on to buy the Royal Hotel in Taree as members of a syndicate, and later, the Fire Station Tavern at Wallsend.

Marie Ramplin (right) and daughter Michelle, Fire Station Tavern, Wallsend, c1982
Photograph from the Ramplin family collection

Marie was no stranger to work. She’d begun in Woolworths variety store in Newcastle, eventually clocking up nearly 15 years there. Marie learned flexibility, multi tasking and the ability to turn her hand to anything as she juggled work and their children, Michelle and John.

When the opportunity to buy the Northern Star Hotel came up in 1986, Marie was there to support her husband. ‘It’s what we did,’ she says. ‘I used to tell Des that if we didn’t make it, we could just start again.’

The Northern Star Hotel as it was when Des and Marie Ramplin purchased in 1986
Photograph from the Ramplin family collection

Des managed the bar and soon had son John ‘stacking up’ – after school and weekends. By the time he was 15 or 16, John was behind the bar – something that could not happen today. Michelle too served when she was home from Sydney, where she was working.

Des Ramplin’s original two page hotel license was a fraction of the length of today’s license
Document courtesy of the Ramplin family

Along with other tasks, Marie attended to the accommodation – 12 rooms upstairs, a mix of double, single and family rooms with bathrooms that are still popular today.

One of the hotel cooks told Marie how she was once asked: ‘Who is that lady who “running walks”?’

‘It’s the owner,’ the cook replied.

Marie Ramplin unpacking stock in the cellar of the Northern Star Hotel c1990
Photograph from the Ramplin family collection

In 1987, the career of the renowned boxing trainer Tom Maguire was commemorated when a plaque was installed on the southern wall of the Northern Star Hotel. Maguire had trained hundreds of boxers, including Dave Sands LINK and had often enjoyed a quiet beer in the hotel. Between 1920 and 1957, Maguire trained 22 Australian champions, one Australasian champion and one British Empire champion at his gym in Beaumont Street, where another plaque was installed.

A plaque on the southern external wall of the Northern Star commemorates
veteran boxing trainer Tom Maguire
Photograph by Craig Smith

Cocktails were a popular offering at the Northern Star in the late 1990s. John taught himself the cocktail trade, and the hotel became ‘one of the best cocktail bars in town’. A relaxed, romantic atmosphere was created, with candles everywhere. Sometimes there were fun themed events like Austin Powers nights.

Once, when a customer’s hair caught fire from a candle, John patted it out with his hand, and then found himself wondering why it was throbbing so much. He ended up in the hospital Emergency Department.

In the Public Bar (l-r) Vladimir Mileski, Nick O’Connell, John Ramplin, late 1990s
Photograph from the Ramplin family collection

In 1996, Michelle Ramplin returned to Newcastle. Completing her Master’s degree in hospitality, she quickly became an essential member of the family team.

A place to celebrate St Patrick’s Day

In the 1990s, ‘Tinker’s Curse’ was a popular band playing Irish music around Newcastle. When it first appeared at the Northern Star Hotel before an enthusiastic crowd in 1996, Shawn Sherlock, a band member who is now a well known brewer, suggested to John that the hotel ‘do something’ for St Patrick’s Day.

The Ramplin family got behind the idea for the first St Patrick’s day to become a big event at their hotel. It was 1998. Marie remembers decorating the bars with shamrocks they’d made themselves and strung on fishing line. Staff and customers were encouraged to dress up.

The Tinker’s Curse at the Northern Star Hotel, St Patrick’s Day 17 March, 1998
Photograph from the Ramplin family collection

The hotel was already well known for Guinness, Ireland’s best-selling alcoholic drink. With the party atmosphere, Tinker’s Curse on the band stand, and Irish dancers, and there was no going back from that first event. ‘The place was going nuts’, says John.

They ran out of Guinness. John was temporarily off duty but was summoned back urgently by his father to get behind the bar.

That first hugely successful event was the genesis of the Irish theme that the Northern Star Hotel uses to such advantage today.

John Ramplin and his niece Marie-Lee, dressed for St Patrick’s Day 2000
Photograph from the Ramplin family collection

John remembers one St Patrick’s Day when there was a fire in the cellar, because a refrigeration unit exploded. It was a frightening experience. ‘We put the fire out, and went on trading,’ John says. The customers knew nothing of the drama unfolding below.

Having a great time - St Patrick's Day, 2001
Photograph from the Ramplin family collection

St Patrick's Day crowds at the Jazz Festival, 2001
Photograph from the Ramplin family collection

The Ramplin renovations

It was time for the Ramplins to begin a phased series of renovations of the hotel that hadn’t seen any changes since its major redevelopment in 1969. Respected hotel architect Bruce Boland was engaged to work with the family to recreate the hotel with the look and feel of a traditional Irish pub. First, in June 1998 was the kitchen and restaurant.

In 2000 the Public Bar was renovated and renamed. It became Finn McCools, after the legendary Irish hero who was protector of Ireland, and Chief of The Fianna, the elite bodyguard to the High Kings. The Lounge was renovated in 2003.

Bar, Northern Star Hotel, 2015
Photograph by Craig Smith

The dining area has been updated as a casual, Irish-themed bistro, also known as Finn McCools
Photograph by Craig Smith

Pew style seating in the bistro lounge creates the comfortable, welcoming feel of a family hotel
Photograph by Craig Smith

Irish proverbs cover the ceiling and walls of the bistro lounge and dining area
This one is a favourite of Marie Ramplin
Photograph by Craig Smith

Des Ramplin was passionate about Australian music, and set out to support young, emerging bands. Michelle Ramplin shows me a book that meticulously documents hundreds of bands that once played at the hotel, including now-familiar names like The Whitlams, the John Butler Trio, Eskimo Jo, Iota and Missy Higgins.

Full-on bands are a thing of the past at the Northern Star Hotel. These days, because of concerns about noise affecting the neighbours, single musicians are dispersed throughout, wherever the customers are seated – no one is far away from music on Friday and Saturday nights. The hotel closes at 11 pm.

Often a hotel is one of the few places open late at night. In suburbs like Hamilton, where there is no longer a local police station, it is not unusual for people escaping violent situations to come in looking for help. Staff can, over time, be exposed to stressful and even traumatic situations.

‘A business is so much more than bricks and mortar,’ Michelle says. ‘The family really acknowledges the contribution of so many staff over our 30 years here. They foster the family atmosphere of the place – sometimes former staff drop in and say they worked here twenty years ago.’

The Ramplin family would have to face its own tragic loss. Des was diagnosed with mesothelioma, and died within a year, in 2006. It was a bitter legacy of his years in construction and the power industries.

Des Ramplin (right) in the midst of renovations in the Lounge
Photograph from the Ramplin family collection

Yet the hotel goes on, adapting to each new challenge. Greater responsibility has fallen on John and Michelle’s shoulders. The operating environment for hotels has become even more complex as a result of changes to the Liquor Licensing laws in NSW.

Nothing seems to stop the Northern Star Hotel from opening.

‘We kept trading through the Pasha Bulker storm,’[11] says John, ‘and the 1989 earthquake. Even the recent super storm!’

Miraculously, the Northern Star Hotel was one of the very few businesses on the western side of Beaumont Street that did not lose power for several days during the storm.

‘Call it the luck of the Irish,’ laughs John.

The Northern Star Hotel, 2015
Photograph by Craig Smith


Thank you to Marie, John and Michelle Ramplin for sharing information and photographs for this story, and to Craig Smith for his photography. Unattributed photos are by Ruth Cotton.

[1] Sometimes spelt Nicholls
[2] Peter Murray, 2006, From Borehole to Hamilton Jubilee 1848-1921, Peter Murray, Newcastle, p. 148; also The Newcastle and Hunter District Historical Society, Vol. VI Part XII, September 1952, Hamilton Part II by W J Goold, p. 185
[3] Bennett’s Hotel in Denison Street is on the site of Thomas Tudor’s Agricultural Hotel, and holds a license that can be traced back to 1865. Other contenders for the earliest hotel still in existence in Hamilton are The Exchange Hotel, also in Denison Street, formerly the Miner’s Exchange which opened in 1880, and the Sydney Junction Hotel, opening in 1881 under the name of the Woods Family Hotel. See
[4] Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, Saturday 6 May, 1882
[5]  Peter Murray, 2006, From Borehole to Hamilton Jubilee 1848-1921, Peter Murray, Newcastle, p. 148
[6] Newcastle Sun, 16 July 1969
[7] Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, Friday 26 November 1915
[8] The Catholic Press, Thursday 28 August, 1919 p. 47
[9]  Newcastle Sun, Saturday 28 July, 1923.
[10]  The Newcastle Sun, 16 July, 1969
[11] The MV Pasha Bulker ran aground on Nobby’s Beach during a major storm on 8 June, 2007. The ship was waiting to enter Newcastle Port to load coal.  A severe storm (dubbed a super storm) said to be worse than the Pasha Bulker storm hit Newcastle and the Hunter on 22 April, 2015. An earthquake measuring 5.6 on the Richter magnitude scale occurred in Newcastle on 28 December, 1989.