21 January, 2014

Hamilton's gay history

The police were great. They were really good. I mean to say, there was the wine bar at Hamilton, and we all used to go up there. And one night, I staggered out of the ...Star, and I was going to the wine bar. I was walking to Hamilton, and the police said to me, “Would you like a lift?” and I said, “Only if I can ride in the back”. So they put me in the back of the paddy wagon and pulled up at the .wine bar, and I got out and said, “Thanks boys!” and everyone in the wine bar nearly had a nervous breakdown!’ [1]

While it is not clear exactly which Hamilton wine bar is being referred to, this was ‘Stella of the Star’ speaking in an interview with gay activist John (‘Doreen’) Pearce. The interview was for a book which was to become the landmark gay and lesbian history of the Hunter. [2] With ‘Glenda,’ Stella sang and performed in extravagantly outrageous drag costumes at venues such as the  Star and Criterion Hotels, helping them become known as safe gay spaces in the Newcastle of the 1970s and 1980s respectively. 

Stella performing at the Criterion Hotel
Photograph from the collection of Jon Mancinelli

This is the story of one of Hamilton’s gay bars, and of the small role it played in the larger ‘coming out’ of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. But first, what was it like to be non-heterosexual in Newcastle, in the days before consensual sex between men was decriminalised (1984), and anti discrimination was enshrined in our laws (1982)?

In the Introduction to ‘Out in the Valley - Hunter gay and lesbian histories’,  the Editors Jim Wafer, Erica Southgate and Lyndall Coan, explain their motivation for writing this history. It was the year 2000. Even then, it seems, they knew they were taking a calculated risk, as there were some local gays and lesbians who preferred their history to remain hidden. Their fear, grounded in searing past experience, was that community relations would not improve; that even more exclusion and rejection would result.

Nevertheless, the history was written -

‘.....in the hope that the stories we present will be a source of support for future gays and lesbians in the region’, ... to show... ‘how those who preceded them as Hunter homosexuals managed to survive...

‘But we have also written it in the hope that the broader community will understand us better and shun us less’. [3]

Parasol covered with 24 silver wine cask bladders
By Ralf, shown in Newcastle Museum Exhibition ‘Hunter Pride’
Photograph courtesy of Newcastle Museum

A glimpse of how things used to be...

Three years before, in July 1997, an important watershed in the gay and lesbian history of Newcastle had been celebrated. The first gay and lesbian exhibition in a public museum outside of a capital city in Australia was held at the Newcastle Museum. It was titled ‘Hunter Pride: a celebration of the lives and loves of the Hunter gay, lesbian and transgender community’.

The first night was attended by 200 people, and opened by guest of honour, Kevin Coleman.

Who was Kevin Coleman?

The significance of Kevin’s appearance at this civic event can be best understood by shining light on his early life experiences.

Born in Adamstown in 1934, Kevin Coleman realized he was ‘different’ around the age of 14, as a student at Marist Brothers Boys High, Hamilton. At 15, he became an apprentice boilermaker at Civic Workshops. Kevin was the life partner of Keith Robinson, from 1950 until Keith died in 1992.

Keith Robinson owned a menswear shop in Hunter Street, Newcastle in the 1940s – 1950s.

At that time, police were determined to enforce laws which made sexual acts between men a crime. Their procedure was to obtain names, then question those men in order to obtain more names, and so on. Keith’s success and visibility made him a high profile target.

As a young gay man in 1952, Kevin was one of those ‘names’ identified, pulled in and harassed by police in an attempt to have him incriminate his partner. When two detectives came to the Civic workshops, he was called to the Works Managers’ office, and then taken away.

While incredibly, Kevin withstood sustained pressure of police questioning, others could not. Kevin saw charges laid against his partner, who in effect was driven from Newcastle to seek a fair trial before a jury in Sydney. Although successfully defended, at great cost, immense damage was done to Keith’s business and livelihood. Kevin explains:

‘It really ruined him. Well, they were very, very narrow attitudes. Newcastle was rather a smallish place in those days. They didn’t care if you were charged or not. Once you got your name in the paper, you were guilty... People used to walk past his shop, and peer in to see who he  was’. [4]

Kevin explained at interview for ‘Out in the Valley’ how police would walk into a store, such as a menswear shop (‘Rundles, or Elliotts’), say they had evidence that 'so and so' was a homosexual, and the person would be sacked.

‘That is what it was. Long as your name was in the paper. That’s all they were after....Civil liberties just didn’t exist’. [5]

As well as Kevin going to high school in Hamilton, there was a connection for Keith too. ‘H’, an interviewee for ‘Out in the Valley’, tells of going to a housewarming party at Keith’s flat in Tudor Street –

‘He had a party. Probably about half a dozen, or eight or ten people I suppose, in that building of flats down in Tudor Street, one block this side of Beaumont, on the left going out. And there was no furniture up there. I think there was carpet on the floor, we just sat round on the carpet having drinks. That would be 1949, 1950 I would think.[6]

Gown with 70 silver wine cask bladders
sewn on blue halter neck dress
By Ralf, shown in Newcastle Museum Exhibition ‘Hunter Pride’
Photograph courtesy of Newcastle Museum

So then, to the 70s and 80s...

What changed, between the 1950s and the 1970s, when ‘Stella’ talked about the police keeping an eye out for her?

What happened was the 60s – a decade of political and social upheaval, in which young people challenged the traditional attitudes and values of their parents and the society in which they had grown up. The advent of the contraceptive pill for women accelerated the women’s rights movement. There was greater acceptance of sex outside traditional monogamous relationships, and of diversity in the way sexuality was expressed.

A wave of protest movements swept the western world, spearheaded by student activists. Protestors targeted the Vietnam war, conscription and the nuclear industry, and advocated for racial equality, women’s liberation and Indigenous rights. Campaigns for law reform went hand in hand with protests.

Vietnam moratorium demonstration in front of main building
Sydney University 1971
Photograph courtesy of University of Sydney Archives G3_224_0252

Although there would be much backsliding, Australian society became more tolerant, over time.

Back in Hamilton...

The Newcastle Museum identifies two gay wine bars active in Hamilton in the 1970s and 1980s. One of those mentioned on the Exhibition panel was reportedly at the back of a restaurant/function centre at 60 Beaumont Street. [7] The Capana was built on the site formerly occupied by landmark Hamilton business, Gow’s Drapery. That building was demolished when Gow’s went out of business, unable to compete with nearby shopping centres. [8]  Read more about the Gow family here.

Whatever informal gatherings may have occurred at the back of the Capana, later the Glacier, they were short lived – perhaps only a matter of weeks.

It was another long established wine bar that endured over several name changes, creating a lively and colourful history throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

This gay friendly space that people talked about was Pete’s wine bar in Hamilton. It had been called the Centurion in the mid seventies, was renamed Pete’s (which is the name it is generally remembered by now) in the mid eighties, and had another name change in the late eighties when it became known as Tess’s.

According to the Newcastle Museum Exhibition on Beaumont Street, Pete’s was on the same site as the Glacier. However, further research [8]  shows Pete’s to be at 34 Beaumont Street, on the south west corner of Donald Street.

O’Beirne’s wine saloon

Hamilton resident Trish O’Dowd tells me that a wine bar had existed on this site from 1915. The original building at 34-36 Beaumont Street (prior to the 1989 earthquake) was the creation of her grandfather, Mr Bernard Myles O’Beirne. He built it as a family home and business for himself, his wife Blanche and their five children. At the outset of World War 1 (1914-1918), this must have been a courageous venture.

The first business was O’Beirne’s Grocery, which also sold bottled wine.   Sometime after Bernard O’Beirne's death in 1926, the family gradually transformed the grocery store into a ‘wine saloon’. Fortified wines such as sherry, port and muscat were popular with the regulars.

By the time Trish was born, the house had been divided into four flats. Trish’s mother and aunt worked in the bar. Trish lived with her widowed mother and brother in the downstairs flat until she was thirteen. She remembers the mysteries of the large cellar, and the family atmosphere created by having extended family, tenants, and bar patrons all nearby. The O’Beirne family remained involved with the ‘saloon’ until 1970, when Mr Bernard Sarroff took over as the new licensee.

Mr Sarroff intended to do some updating. He would convert the original bar into a stylish club bar, making the environment more modern and comfortable, with carpet instead of linoleum, and wallpaper. [9]

There is no information about what happened after Mr Sarroff took over. By 1975, however, it appears the ownership had changed, as well as the clientele and the atmosphere. It was no longer a place where elderly gentlemen would sit alone, nursing a small glass of port for an hour.

Denis Michael Yates was one of the 'new wave' patrons, writing on Facebook (Lost Gay Newcastle):

‘I remember when it was one of the three places we could go socially – the middle bar at the Star, and a bar at the Terminus Hotel being the others...I also remember it as a closed door wine bar where you had to know to gain entry... it served as a major part in my early gay life, a great fun place...we even danced on Beaumont Street after it closed at night, to music from Ray Stuart’s green Torana hatch, before heading off to the Vienna Coffee Lounge. There was no access to the cellar when I went there and the music was a juke box’.

When I posted a request for information about the Hamilton wine bar on the Facebook Page Lost Gay Newcastle, the response was a tsunami of memories. For many, the wine bar marked an unforgettable period in their early experience of being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, in Newcastle.

In its first incarnation as a gay friendly bar, it was called the Centurion.

Bar of the Centurion
Photograph from the collection of Graeme Aldred

One of the owners was Graham Christensen. ‘Christo’ seems to have been a colourful boss. Some Saturday nights, as one story goes, he would empty the till takings into a paper bag and head off to another pub for a late session, presumably with some mates.

No beer was served here, but Green Ginger Wine, Strongbow Cider and Cinzano Bianco were worthy substitutes, for most.

Here, I have to let go of my desire for an orderly timeline. Graeme Aldred speaks for many respondents when he writes on Facebook:

‘it’s hard remembering the 80s – most of it is a blur!’

At some point a dance floor became part of the scene, with coloured lights (considered ‘very stylish’) and draped fishing nets to lower the ceiling and create an atmosphere. Drag performers like Rhonda, Raylene, Shirley B, Glenda Jackson, Gavin Ping, Trudy Burnett, Chris Ambler, and Jaymie Swan entertained the punters, and many wild times were remembered. Early performances were a kind of early karaoke with the juke box.

Some of the drag performers in the Hamilton Wine Bar
Photographs from the collection of Jon Mancinelli

The cellar doubled as a dressing room for the ‘stars’, or a venue for after-hours partying with the amenable owner. Once it became an art gallery. A unisex toilet suited all.

The double fronted wine bar from the O’Beirne’s time seems to have been downsized, with a flat upstairs. The wine bar of the 1970s and 1980s sounds an edgy place, where disaster was never far away. Here are some samples:

‘Broke my ankle there one night. Don’t know how, but next day I was told I did it there’

‘Being locked in to stop the bikies getting us’

‘I will never forget the flat upstairs catching fire’

‘Some idiot trying to ram his car through the front of the wine bar...’

‘I remember many fights out the front..’

‘Being DJ and watching the cockroaches get a free ride on the records’

‘Yes, a very bawdy place...’ [10]

‘Lisa’ writes about hiding an escapee from Cessnock gaol in the upstairs flat:

we could see the police coming and he would hide in the roof space. The manhole was in the linen cupboard and they kicked the door in and got him....’ [11`]

The venue was usually packed after pub closing time. To stay open as late as it did, it was necessary to provide the customers with food. Again, I’m not sure of the timeline, but ‘Roddy’ recalls –

‘...little plates of spaghetti bolognaise, dreadful stuff, and then it got to the stage where you’d get a packet of cheese and three jatz on a plate’. [12]

This Hamilton wine bar is remembered for far more than its late night drama. For its patrons looking back with nostalgia, it was that magical period in their lives when nothing was settled, authority was there to be flouted, the world was a risky place and just possibly, all things were possible. A sense of family was forged within a group of people who found themselves outsiders.

It would not last. Pete’s (and its variations) had a mixed clientele, which in its later years, also included men who became aggressive to others on the basis of their sexuality. Jim Wafer records a lesbian patron explaining how things changed when the mix became volatile, and bashings and fights began. This was no longer a safe space. [13]

34 Beaumont Street, Hamilton (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith

The building appears to have been rebuilt or remodelled after the 1989 earthquake. Pete’s wine bar was not directly on the corner, but the first doorway on the south side at the first white sign. Pete's may have occupied both buildings at different times - certainly O'Beirne's began with the double frontage.

Gay liberation

Gay liberation came to Newcastle – and Hamilton – in the early 1970s. Jim Wafer remembers the movement holding consciousness raising sessions in people’s homes, including his share house in Swan Street, Hamilton. To some this became known as “Gay Liberation Headquarters”. There were other houses as well, including one in Bibby Street, Hamilton, and Chin Chen Street, Islington. The movement seemed to lose impetus; perhaps it was a matter of readiness and timing. Jim Wafer tells much more of that story in 'Out in the Valley'.  
The coming of HIV/AIDS

As this deterioration in the social milieu showed itself at Tess’s wine bar, changes that would have a profound effect on the broader non-heterosexual community were starting to occur.

In 1982, the NSW Anti Discrimination Act of 1978 was amended by the Wran Labor Government to make it unlawful to discriminate against a person on the grounds of their homosexuality in employment and other areas. The anomaly was that sexual acts  between men were still illegal. In May 1984 the Labour government passed another bill which decriminalised consensual sex between males over the age of 18. Keith Robinson lived to see these changes, the result of a sustained campaign for law reform.

Again, in 1982, the first case of AIDS was diagnosed in Australia, by Professor Ron Penny at St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney. The man diagnosed was an American tourist.

The discovery and spread of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), which causes AIDS, was a disaster for gay men in Australia. Yet within the tragedy would lie the seeds of change. As the public health crisis unfolded, resources had to be mobilised for research, education and health care. Huge government budgets for HIV/AIDS were the envy of many lobby groups for diseases such as cancer.

Australia has received international acclaim for the way it responded to HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s. In particular, its strategy of using people from the affected communities as peer educators for others at risk broke new ground.

Education and support organisations of community groups of gay men, injecting drug users and sex workers received government funding and support, working in partnership with staff from government services.

The magic word was partnership. It signalled something of a revolution. Government agencies would be working together with groups that only a short time before, had been criminalised, marginalised and often treated with contempt. 

So it was that homosexuality became much more visible – it had to be talked about since HIV/AIDS was on legal, political, community and health agendas. John Pearce, a Novocastrian who was interviewed extensively for ‘Out in the Valley’, became a prominent HIV/AIDS activist in Sydney, establishing both the AIDS Council of NSW (ACON) and the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation. ACON’s first employee, he observed how things had changed. In his new role, he said -  

‘...it actually was politically advantageous or appropriate to be out..’ [14]

ACON logo on its Facebook Page (2013)

The Hunter Branch of ACON was established in 1988. Towards the end of that year, I accepted a position in the NSW Health Department which would place me in the eye of the storm that was peak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

In the three years that followed, I had a box seat for a remarkable and tumultuous period of social change. At last, the community had to confront and accept that gay men existed, and that they were dying.

Australian AIDS Memorial Quilt No. 99 
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
Photograph courtesy of Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

It was well known among my health colleagues that regional and country areas were challenging environments in which to be gay. Kevin Coleman, who left Newcastle for 20 years and then came back, makes an interesting link between the attitudinal changes that eventually came, and the 1989 Newcastle earthquake –

‘It was definitely harder growing up (gay) in Newcastle...but I think it is changing slowly...And since the earthquake there has been a sort of change in attitude’. [15]

The gay men who were in their teens and twenties in the 1940s and 1950s, now in their old age, will never forget the real oppression they experienced.

‘They were afraid', said Newcastle Gay Liberationist Paul Cole, ‘and with good reason’. [16]

For a short while, Hamilton provided safe spaces for gay, lesbian and transgender people at a time that proved to be a turning point in the way Australian society would regard and treat them. More recently, the Sydney Junction Hotel in Hamilton hosted the Unity Nightclub. When the licensee changed, the group was given its notice late in 2013 and has had to find a new home. 

I wonder, are such safe spaces still needed, or can we be confident that our city has truly come of age in accepting the differences that flourish here?

Gay and Lesbian Information Service T-Shirt
Photograph courtesy of Newcastle Museum

Unattributed photos by Ruth Cotton


[1] Out in the Valley. Hunter gay and lesbian histories. Edited by Jim Wafer, Erica Southgate, Lyndall Coan. Newcastle History Monograph No. 15. Newcastle Region Library.  2000 p. 115
[2] Out in the Valley p.2
[3] Out in the Valley p. 2
[4] Out in the Valley p.67
[5] Out in the Valley p. 67
[6] Out in the Valley p. 70
[7] The Newcastle Museum Exhibition on Beaumont Street locates this at 66 Beaumont Street. The former owner, Mary Bortolus, interviewed for this post, locates it at 60 Beaumont Street, which appears to be correct.
[8] This is confirmed by local historian Doug Saxon, and differs from information in the Newcastle Museum Exhibition, which places Deitz Hardware on the Beaumont/Cleary Street corner. However, Deitz’ Hardware was on the corner of Beaumont and Lindsay Streets. Reference Saxon, D: Hamilton – memories of life and school in the 1950s. Fishing Point, NSW, D. Saxon (2010)
[9] Newcastle Herald 1970, ‘Wines and Drinkers’. Exact date not available.
[10] Lost Gay Newcastle, Facebook
[11] Lost Gay Newcastle, Facebook.
[12] Out in the Valley p. 242
[13] Out in the Valley p.146
[14] Out in the Valley p.137
[15] Out in the Valley p.137
[16] Out in the Valley p.134

1 comment:

jaymie swan said...

great article brings back lots of fond memories thanks Ruth