HISTORY: Newcastle's iconic businesses of the past

GONE but not forgotten. That easily describes once iconic Newcastle businesses which have since disappeared.

Many names came back to mind after I received a telephone call from a reader recently. It was a blast from the past, as disc jockeys on the old Hunter Valley radio days used to say.

The caller was none other than former well-known radio broadcaster David Sayers, of Dungog. 

“Yes, I know some people think I’m dead,” Sayers chuckled. “But here’s something you might find useful. It was a thought that might make a history page story for those people with long memories.

“Have you considered a story about some of the lost businesses of the Newcastle area? A lot of them were once household names, but many people today would just give you a blank stare probably if you mentioned them.

“Many others won’t, because it was part of their era, and a big part, too, maybe, all depending on their age now,” he said.

Shadow master: Scissor artist S.John Ross busy at work creating a silhouette.

Shadow master: Scissor artist S.John Ross busy at work creating a silhouette.

David said his stroll down memory lane was triggered by a recollection of coming into Newcastle long, long ago from Lake Macquarie and what the trip represented. In short, it was a bit of a magical experience with his mum in a more innocent, bygone age about 50 years ago.

“I must have been about five years of age. Mum would take us kids to David Jones, the old Scotts store, now closed at the (western) end of today’s Hunter St Mall,” Sayers said.

Secret spot: Interior of the 1888 municipal baths under the City Arcade.

Secret spot: Interior of the 1888 municipal baths under the City Arcade.

“We’d go up some floors to the DJ’s cafeteria with its great views of the working harbour with its ships and tugs. And then, if we were extra good, she’d take us up to the ‘popcorn man’ and his stall in the old City Arcade, near the former, also now gone, Ell’s Bookstore, in the East End,” he said.

“This man made highly coloured popcorn which we kids loved. He was one of those Yanks who’d come to Australia in World War II and then stayed.

“He was in one of three kiosks trading there at the Newcomen St end of this L-shaped arcade (linking Hunter St with Newcomen St). There was once also a big public baths underneath this same arcade, you know.

“Anyway, the name of this special 1960s popcorn man was Mr Oran Harvey. There was a fruit stall on one side of his shop and a coffee and drinks kiosk on the other. Mr Harvey sold bags of plain or multi-coloured popcorn. Ah, the smell and the taste of his popcorn was as good as those Lolly Gobble Bliss Bombs were later on.

“Anyway, we’d go back very happy by bus to Cardiff. The memory of that then distinctive business has always stayed with me, and probably others, over the decades,” Sayers said.

A few paces away in the same arcade was once New Standard Radio, another Newcastle retail institution and a forerunner of Dick Smith or Tandy electronic stores.

This City Arcade in Newcastle East also deserves a story in itself. The art deco site opened in February 1939 as Newcastle’s first shopping arcade. As David Sayers remembered, it was created by building over the bones of the old Newcastle Municipal Baths dating from 1888.

This roofed-over, now secret empty baths measuring 27.5 metres by 10.5 metres, was fed by seawater pipes and probably existed until 1907.   

Four blocks away at “the top of town” in Newcastle East (see picture) there were once several other iconic Newcastle businesses. They made way for the now expanded Pacific Park, near Newcastle Beach.

On the park edge, but surviving for a long while, was Keith’s Kitchen, a haunt of hungry night owls. All gone now though in the name of progress were the original Golden Sands Hotel and a mini-golf course opposite. 

What most Novocastrians of a certain age mostly remember, however, among the group of shopfronts demolished, about 1979 from memory, are Shipmates and the Vienna Coffee Lounge, a dimly-lit late night rendezvous. This was created by businessman Kurt Piccardi - he owned a few businesses and planted a lot of plane trees around town.

The popular Shipmates fast-food store was a forerunner of the McDonalds chain, right down to the clever packaging and marketing of the products.

It was the brainchild of the pioneer restaurateur Clem Ashford, a tattooed adventurer who returned from the South Seas in 1975 to shake up the local food scene.

Ashford later also created Clams, a landmark seafood restaurant at Merewether. People later claimed it was supposed to have been called “Clem’s” after its legendary owner, but Ashford misheard the suggestion.

The list of now lost Newcastle businesses is very long, too long to be covered on this page. But who doesn’t remember the now defunct Store buildings in various suburbs?  Or maybe, the Chung Hing Chinese restaurant in the city’s West End, near the Royal? It’s said to be the first Chinese restaurant in Newcastle and it was almost opposite the jitterbug hub of Newcastle, the Palais Royale.

And what about other once household names, like the Nock & Kirby hardware stores, Mackies, Reg A.Baker sporting goods stores, Winns retail store which rivalled the city DJs, the Pink Elephant Markets in Hunter St West, the Jolly Roger nightclub, the Blue Peter and Beach Hotels both in the inner city and the former Bel-Air Hotel in Park Ave, Kotara. And who doesn’t fondly recall the Oak milk bar, at Hexham?

Cinemas also gone include Broadmeadow’s iconic Century Theatre at the Nine Ways as well as The Strand, Lyric (later Lyrique), Tatler and Victoria theatres. And let’s not forget the demise of the once popular drive-in theatres, the Skyline at Lambton and the Metro at Gateshead.

On a personal note, one past business that could truly be described as unique, wasn’t local. It was a one-man show and its expat American operator only visited once a year for the Newcastle Show.

His name was Sebastian John Ross, better known as “Scissors John” (1919-2008) who worked the show circuit from Sydney to Proserpine for 60 years.

Known as the ‘silhouette man’, the master showman was famous for quickly cutting out miniature profiles of people from black cards. Over the years he snipped many thousands of individual portraits.

And if that isn’t an unusual business that deserves to be remembered, I don’t know what is. 

mikescanlon.history@hotmail.com