History | The Store's influence | Mike Scanlon

Horsin’ around: Part of the large horse-drawn fleet of Store bread carts pictured at Hamilton North in late 1973.
Horsin’ around: Part of the large horse-drawn fleet of Store bread carts pictured at Hamilton North in late 1973.

FAMILIAR city structures are disappearing quicker than ever before in Newcastle. The elevated walkway from the Hunter Street Mall over the former Newcastle heavy rail was the first to be dismantled. Earlier, it had seemed it would be there forever. 

Now comes news that the controversial Queens Wharf tower is to be demolished by Newcastle City Council in mid 2018 after 30 years’ service.

Until now, however, public criticism has been levelled instead at the NSW Government over its decision to soon raze the iconic Store building in Hunter Street West. The Hunter branch of the National Trust immediately slammed the decision, questioning the planning process that approved the building’s demolition for a bus interchange and residential tower.

The Store building, especially its façade, is listed as an important local item on the state heritage register because of its cultural and social significance. It’s a highly charged, emotional issue, especially when you consider what The Store represents to past generations of Novocastrians.

The imposing Hunter Street building was once the headquarters of the Newcastle and Suburban Co-operative Society Ltd, more popularly known as The Store.

Until the 1960s, the society had a stranglehold on Newcastle retail trade, based on loyal customers rewarded by a famous ‘divvy’, or dividends rebate, returned every six months from their purchases. People then often re-invested their money towards new fridges, furniture or washing machines.

At its peak in 1974, The Store organisation had more than 98,000 committed members. It had its own health fund, funeral fund, travel agency, credit union and a barber shop.

Besides the Hunter Street premises, there were stores in Wallsend, Stockton, Edgeworth, Belmont, Boolaroo, Toronto and Teralba. Charlestown and Mayfield were the last branches to close in 1980.

Selling everything from food to insurance, plus helping community causes, The Store was seen as the largest and most successful co-operative society in the southern hemisphere 

For many working class families particularly, The Store was Newcastle. The co-operative once had 1450 employees, 15 retail stores and 11 service stations.

Last waltz: Redhead’s Julie Lomax with a 1981 Herald front page recording the closure of the iconic Store building in Hunter St. Photo: Mike Scanlon

Last waltz: Redhead’s Julie Lomax with a 1981 Herald front page recording the closure of the iconic Store building in Hunter St. Photo: Mike Scanlon

Established in 1898, the Hunter co-operative had grown from a British tradition brought here by immigrant coal miners. Decades later, it was a real Hunter retail phenomenon.

In 1942, for example, The Store was reputed to have the largest bakery in Australia, making about 62,800 loaves a week. In 1956, the co-op board built what was claimed to be then the largest bulk warehouse in Australia.

So, what went wrong? As an institution, The Store finally ended in April 1981, the “victim of affluence and apathy” despite surviving two world wars and the 1930s Great Depression.

BHP’s decision to start its Newcastle Steelworks in 1912 had originally played a big part in The Store’s growth. But the rise of big suburban shopping centres, people being able to afford cars to get around and a feeling that The Store’s goods were too expensive compared with other retailers, all played a part in the retailer’s demise.

Shareholders voted to wind up The Store in 1981. From 1982 the Hunter Street site became the home of the Pink Elephant Markets. In September 1987, the building was the last of The Store’s properties to be sold off.

One person who remembers The Store’s heyday is Julie Lomax, of Redhead, who contacted Weekender after finding an old Herald news clipping.

“I was doing my family tree and came across this front page report I’d kept from Friday April 10, 1981,” Mrs Lomax says.

“It’s very topical now with news the Store’s Hunter Street building is to go. The heading reads, ‘Last Tango at The Store after 83 years of Newcastle trading’ and shows my old Store boss, its display manager Charlie McLean, fooling around for the camera with a bunch of store dummies. It’s quite an eye-catching photo and that’s Charlie to a T. He was a character, a bundle of energy. A gorgeous man.”

The picture shows McLean waltzing with a life-size retail shop model against a backdrop of other shopfront dummies. The story continued that McLean had trod the light fantastic for the Herald camera to illustrate that at 5pm that day the main doors of the Hunter St Store building would close for the last time, signalling the end of the 83-year-old co-operative. The picture was further captioned that McLean’s silent dance partner and the other models were among the oddest items from The Store to soon go under the auctioneer’s hammer.

 “Looking back, The Store was a great institution. It was a wonderful place, full of beautiful people. It was a pleasure to go to work every day,” Mrs Lomax says. “And their Newcastle window displays every Christmas were legendary. You’d take the kids there to look at all the dazzling lights and they’d be delighted.

“I was at The Store for about four years. My job was speaking on the public address system, not in Newcastle but at their Charlestown branch (now occupied by Hilltop Plaza).”     

Mrs Lomax had another reason to remember The Store’s influence: “These were the days when they operated a lot of horses and had a fleet of bread carts, doing home deliveries. We had just moved into Hamilton and one day I suddenly found this unattended cart outside. Its horse was eating the grass on my front lawn. I rang Store management to complain they should feed their horses breakfast rather than having me provide it.”

The Store’s bakery and big stables (from the 1930s), at Clyde Street, Hamilton North, were an impressive enterprise. All sorts of items were once delivered by Store employees to people’s doorsteps. There were daily deliveries of bread, milk (until the early 1960s) groceries, fruit and vegetables, even blocks of ice. It’s a whole way of life that gradually vanished. 

The firm’s Hamilton North stables had housed 125 horses. Until perhaps 1975, cars shared suburban roads with colourful, if slow, bread carts whose drivers stood at the back jiggling the reins. In fact, horse-drawn Store vehicles, not petrol powered vans, once operated 120 bread, milk and grocery cart runs. Today there are none.