Thursday, 11 December 2014

A community celebrates its stories

It wasn’t until I took my place near the lectern, ready to speak, that I saw the crowd that had been tucked around the corner, out of my line of sight.

Gathering for the launch of ‘Hidden Hamilton'
Photograph by Matthew Ward

Momentarily, I was shocked at how many people had gathered. I’d been immersed in signing books, focused on a queue of people that just kept on replenishing itself.

Mervyn Roberts and daughter Annette reach the top of the book signing queue
Historical story boards line the walls
Photograph by Craig Smith

The Three Bean Espresso café was a perfect venue for the launch. At once intimate and expansive, its chameleon spaces wrap themselves around small and large groups as needed. History is on the walls and under the flooring, telling of the earliest Wesleyan Chapel uncovered during renovations for the Greater Building Society.

Almost every story in ‘Hidden Hamilton’ was represented by someone in the room that evening. As well as people who starred in stories, there were many descendants of others no longer with us.

Celebrating a family: Terea Purnell and Stephen Lee, daughter and son of legendary jitterbug dancer and skater of the 1940s and 1950s, Phyllis Mook
Photograph by Matthew Ward

Invitations had been sent to everyone who had contributed stories, information or photos to my blog and book, or who had helped and encouraged me in my quest to discover my suburb. Some guests had travelled long distances, even returning from holidays for the event. That enthusiastic crowd signified how many people had a share in what I had created.

Hidden Hamilton was no longer mine, but ours.

The finished product: books on sale
Photograph courtesy of the Greater Building Society

I named three living treasures of Hamilton’s history that night. 

Ada Bizzari, who with late husband Lorenzo operated the Northern Star Cafe for 18 years from 1974. 

Silvia Saccaro, who with her late husband Rigo ran the Gelateria Arena for 20 years from 1969.

Ada Bizzarri and Silvia Saccaro with author Ruth Cotton
Photograph by Matthew Ward

And then a last minute discovery, and a very last minute inclusion in this book - Mervyn Roberts, the only surviving partner of Jim’s Dairy Delite Bar.

Mervyn Roberts and daughter Annette Roberts
Photograph by Matthew Ward

What an honour to have these feisty survivors with us still. How much have I learned from them!

The stories in ‘Hidden Hamilton’ are enriched by anecdotes and snippets of information from the Lost Newcastle Facebook page, founded by former ABC journalist Carol Duncan. Launching 'Hidden Hamilton', Carol spoke eloquently of her journey creating the site, and tapping into a wellspring of passion for disappearing Newcastle.

Irrepressible and eloquent - Carol Duncan
Photograph by Matthew Ward

‘Hidden Hamilton’ connects with this very same passion.

‘Losties’ – ardent followers of the Lost Newcastle Facebook page Anna Gross and Carla Brinkworth
Photograph by Matthew Ward

I stumbled into blogging because I wanted to share what I was discovering about Hamilton, about what was hidden, or in danger of disappearing. In time, I realized I was doing something for the community, not just myself.

When I needed high quality images of present day Hamilton for the book, Matthew Ward and Craig Smith stepped up. They met for the first time at the launch, and of course – admired each other’s work!

Matthew Ward snapped by Craig Smith

Craig Smith snapped by Matthew Ward

Newcastle’s cultural institutions were behind the project  – the University of Newcastle Cultural Collections, The Newcastle Museum, The Newcastle Region Library.

The University of Newcastle and the Coal River Working Party (CRWP) encourages community initiatives like ‘Hidden Hamilton’
Dr Ann Hardy, Secretary, CRWP, Gionni Di Gravio, Chair, CRWP and University of Newcastle Archivist, with his wife, artist Catherine Kavanagh Di Gravio
Photograph by Matthew Ward

The Hamilton business community believed in  what I was doing – after all, I’d talked about it enough – and provided financial support for the launch. 

People who know so much more than about local history than I ever will, got me out of trouble on more than one occasion – people like Peter Murray, Doug Saxon, Ed Tonks  and Mavis Ebbott.

Local historian Mavis Ebbott has her copy of ‘Hidden Hamilton’ signed
Mavis once led regular history walks around Hamilton
Brian and Anita Agland, who feature in the Epilogue, are at the right
Photograph by Craig Smith

If all this sounds like a team effort, it really was.

Yet even more teamwork involved collaborating with Mark MacLean and Christine Bruderlin, of Hunter Press. When we began, Christine warned me that producing a book like this was the most technically complex of publication projects. She was absolutely right – but the end result is worth it.

I would not, and could not, have achieved 'Hidden Hamilton'  without them.

Professionals to the core - Mark MacLean and Christine Bruderlin, of Hunter Press
Photograph by Matthew Ward

Every project needs a champion. ‘Hidden Hamilton’ has Lynn Mangovski – a Hamilton resident and senior executive in the head office of the Greater Building Society. We wanted to produce a book that was both high quality and affordable, and the Greater’s sponsorship has made that possible.

My greatest reward has been to witness the joy this book has brought to so many people.

Soon after the launch, I attended  a routine appointment with my local GP. Immediately, he told me he'd seen my book. I’d never mentioned it to him.

‘How did you find out about it?’ I asked.

‘My patients keep bringing it in to show me,’ he replied.

I asked if that was because they were in the book.

‘No, no,’ he said. ‘They are just so proud to have something written about Hamilton!’

If you would like to receive each new post in your email box immediately it is written, just complete the Follow by Email box on the home page. Click here to find it. 


With Hunter Press, I would like to warmly thank the following local businesses:

Hamilton Chamber of Commerce for sponsoring the launch of Hidden Hamilton.

Fordtronic Sound and Video for providing audio equipment, free of charge.

Other local businesses for additional sponsorship of the launch –

Jim Garis Accounting
Hamilton Clock Tower Markets
The Kent
Nina’s IGA
Beaumont Street Newsagency.

The Greater Building Society for sponsoring publication of Hidden Hamilton.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Bernie's Bar

It was a yawning gap in my story about gay Hamilton of the 1970s and 1980s and the wine bar at the corner of Beaumont and Donald Street.

I wrote in that post  about the O’Beirne Grocery, established around 1915 at 34-36  Beaumont Street. Already selling bottled wine, it became a ‘wine saloon’ in 1926. Remodelled in 1970 by new licensee Bernard Sarroff, the ownership of what had been Bernie’s Bar changed again around 1974.

Then - a gap. We next discover the wine bar as the Centurion in the late 1970s, set to became a gay friendly space. Drag queens thrilled the punters with their performances, and wild times were the norm. Over almost a decade, this wine bar drew the crowds, becoming Pete’s Wine Bar, and later Tess’s.

Now I know what happened in the gap. Jackie Ansell contacted me, and shared her experiences as co-owner of what was known as Bernie’s Bar, and her own wild ride during just two years in 1974 -1975. Jackie and her then husband, Keith Thorn, took over the wine bar in partnership with Ken Lease Constructions.

Jackie and Keith Thorn relax in Bernie’s Bar, 1974
Photograph: The Newcastle Sun

Jackie’s daughter was just 16 months old, but she plunged into transforming the dingy premises. The young family lived above the bar, just as the O’Beirne family had done through the Great Depression and World War II.

The Thorns wanted to retain a mid-Depression style in the redecoration, with old style pin up photographs above the bar. Cream coloured walls were highlighted with green, silver and black stripes; the ceiling and carpet were olive green. Echoing these colours, peacock feathers draped from wall vases, ferns stood in every corner, tables were white pine church pew style, and – there were fashionable bar stools!

‘We even had one of the first microwaves in Newcastle’, remembers Jackie.

A three page feature in The Newcastle Sun (February 14, 1974) carried a glowing story, photos and advertisements from businesses involved in the transformation. [1] The 'new' Bernie’s Bar was promoted as something completely different from local clubs, hotels or restaurants of the day, with wine, food, music and a friendly, casual atmosphere.

‘We strive for a happy mixture of wining, dining and relaxation...cider is always on tap and customers can also enjoy a glass of red or white wine or champagne,’ Keith told the newspaper.

Wine’s the thing
Photograph: The Newcastle Sun

Then there was ‘Bernie’s Bomber,’ a cocktail invented by Jackie.

‘It was a lethal mixture,’ she says. ‘Green Ginger Wine, Bianco and Cottees Lime Cordial. It was so popular that some nights, patrons got through six flagons of it.’

Where is she now?
Sue Henderson, one of five ‘wine wenches’ employed at Bernie’s Wine Bar, 1974
Photograph: The Newcastle Sun

Food served included ‘succulent barbequed steaks and salads, fish with wine sauce, garlic bread, spare ribs cooked in honey, herbs and soya sauce, and chicken chow mien...who couldn’t enjoy themselves?’[2]

Local bands like the Electric Jug Band, Maryville Jazz Band and the Maitland Bush Band played regularly. A folksinger would entertain lunchtime customers. Taped music and all the latest local, overseas and underground singles were always available.

Jackie remembers the place often being crowded, especially on cabaret nights, with people ‘hanging out the doors’.

‘We were one of the few places with a license to stay open till midnight’, Jackie explains. ‘The Star closed at 10 pm, so their customers came on to us after that.’

A crowd outside Bernie’s Bar, 1974
Photograph: The Newcastle Sun, courtesy Jackie Ansell

When I showed Hunter Press publisher Christine Bruderlin this photograph, she pointed to a young woman  wearing seventies flares.

‘That could have been me’, she exclaims. ‘We loved going there. And under age, too!’

‘We had our hippy phase, and our gay phase,’ Jackie says. ‘Then there were the painters and dockers, who were pretty aggressive. But the Hamilton locals sorted them out!’

For Keith and Jackie, their life phase as bar owners and operators came to an end too, as they went on to do other things. But they set the scene for what was to follow, leaving others to write the chapter of the unique part played by this wine bar in the life of gay Hamilton.

Jackie Thorn, now Ansell, 1974
Photograph: The Newcastle Sun


Thank you to Jackie Ansell for sharing this story and newspaper clippings.

If you would like to receive each new post in your email box immediately it is written, just complete the Follow by Email box on the home page. Click here to find it. 

[1] The Newcastle Sun, February 14, 1974.
[2] The Newcastle Sun, February 14, 1974.

Monday, 20 October 2014

The Queen's Arms on Cameron's Hill

He was a man of influence in Hamilton – James Cameron. So influential was he that the locality boasting his hotel, the Queen’s Arms, became known as Cameron’s Hill. Cameron’s Hilll supplanted Winship’s Hill, which had been named for James Barron Winship, a mine manager for the Australian Agricultural Company from 1860.

Australian Agricultural Company subdivision sale poster
Cameron’s Hill, Hamilton c1911
Winship Street (formerly Lake Macquarie Road) [1] is now Denison Street
Courtesy Newcastle Region Library, from collection of Margaret Haigh

When I was researching the hotels that flourished in the late 1800s along Denison Street for my blog post Hotel Heyday in Denison Street  I was uncertain about the exact location of Hamilton’s second hotel, the Queen’s Arms. More than a year later, Helen Cramp contacted me with information that confirmed its location, and added rich detail to the Cameron story.

James Cameron owned three blocks of land on the western brow of the hill, from 188 – 192 Denison Street. The property is described as:

‘Allotment of land situated Hamilton having a frontage of 127 feet 9 inches to Winship Street by a depth of 300 feet through to Belford Street, with a frontage of 64 feet 9 inches to that street. The erections thereon consists of brick building containing eleven rooms and two rooms in wood together with stabling of wood and iron, known as the Queen’s Arms Hotel’.

Extract from record of deceased estate of James Cameron,
23 September 1907
State Records of NSW, courtesy personal collection of Helen Cramp

Today, little trace remains of the Queen’s Arms.

The fronts of these homes at 190 –192 Denison Street are said to retain some of the brickwork from the original hotel.

Next door, 188 Denison Street, was thought by owner Helen Cramp to have been on the site of the stables. The house was rebuilt by Marjorie Cramp in 1989. Daughter Helen remembers it was not uncommon to unearth horseshoes as she was gardening at the back.

Horseshoes, deteriorating with age, from the site of the stables
of the Queen’s Arms.

Helen grew up on Belford Street, next door to the house that had been the Cameron’s family home. She remembers a gracious brick house with steps leading up to a curved front verandah. The house remains, although much has changed.

Chimneys more than a century old can still be glimpsed on the now renovated former residence of James Cameron,
in Belford Street, Hamilton.

Who was James Cameron?

James Cameron migrated from Scotland in 1838 aboard the ‘Brilliant’, one of the ships brought to Australia by Presbyterian clergyman John Dunmore Lang, carrying impoverished Scots displaced by the Highland Clearances. Cameron had some experience in farming, and as a butcher. With wealth from the goldfields, he arrived in Borehole in 1856, building the Queen’s Arms soon after. It began trading in 1859.

Cameron was a keen sportsman, encouraging local sporting events like athletics and foot racing. His great love, it seems, was racing – local historian Peter Murray notes that Cameron was President of the Newcastle Jockey Club for 25 years. He bred, trained and raced horses, and the Cameron Handicap was named for his son James George Cameron. [2]

A horse bus service to Newcastle operated from the Queen’s Arms
Unsourced image reproduced from Peter Murray, 2006,
From Borehole to Hamilton Jubilee, 1848-1921

When tax was levied on deceased estates, the administration letters provide a list and valuation of every conceivable item belonging to that person. Those listings reveal their net worth and indirectly, their social standing.

James Cameron had invested in real estate in Newcastle and Maitland, and collected rent from his properties. Horse buggies, harnesses and bridles were included in his estate, no doubt relating to the horse bus service he operated. At the time of his death, James Cameron owned another hotel, a two story brick building known as Cameron’s Family Hotel. It was

‘...situated Hunter Street West, Newcastle having a frontage of 40 feet to Hunter Street West by a return frontage of 165 feet to Steel Street in Hamilton West...’[3]

However, it is the list of ‘household furniture and effects’ that I found so moving, as it lays bare the state of family’s domestic life. From the extensive list, it seems the Camerons lived quite comfortably. Among James’s personal assets were a family Bible, an Austrian chair, elephant ornaments, a biscuit barrel, a teapot, a meat mincer, a meat safe, and a piano. How distressing it must have been to have a stranger come into the home  when a family has just lost its breadwinner, to assess every item in the house for taxation purposes.

Listed in the deceased estate of James Cameron – a gold watch, a gold chain, a trinket and a gold ring
Extract from record of deceased estate of James Cameron,
23 September 1907
State Records of NSW, courtesy personal collection of Helen Cramp

James Cameron was survived by five children – a son, James George Cameron, and four daughters. The daughters were Jessie Elizabeth Baker, Elizabeth Ann Sharp, Sarah Sophia Cameron, and Louisa Jane Sharp.

As Helen Cramp was growing up next door to the Cameron’s old home in Belford Street in the late 1960s, she remembers the two elderly ladies who lived there – sisters Elizabeth Sharp and Louisa Sharp. They had married brothers, and came to live out their widowed years in the inherited family house.

Helen’s family was regularly invited into their home to watch television on Friday nights. The Sharp sisters decided what programs would be watched, and no doubt enjoyed the company. In a commercial break they served Helen’s parents tea, and the three children cordial and mixed lollies. I asked Helen if she remembered anything about the inside of the house.

‘Just that it was huge, and dark,’ she told me.

One of the Sharp sisters – Helen can’t recall which one – had had an arm amputated at the elbow, as a result of a fall from a fence.

Now, Helen is researching the Cameron family. Through her work and connection with the land they owned, even the horseshoes she’s dug from the earth, we have a tangible to link to Hamilton’s second hotel, the Queen’s Arms, to its owners and to its past.

Helen Cramp, 2014

If anyone can add to this story, please email


Thank you to Helen Cramp for sharing the results of her research, and to Margaret Haigh for providing further information and images.

If you would like to receive each new post in your email box immediately it is written, just complete the Follow by Email box on the home page. Click here to find it. 

[1] Personal communication to Helen Cramp from her mother Marjorie Cramp. Marjorie Cramp rebuilt the home at 188 Denison Street, Hamilton in 1989.
[2] Peter Murray, 2006, From Borehole to Hamilton Jubilee 1848 – 1921, 146-7.
[3] Extract from record of deceased estate of James Cameron, 23 September 1907
State Records of NSW, courtesy personal collection of Helen Cramp