For over 70 years the Palais Royale in the West End was Newcastle’s most iconic entertainment venue. In its heyday it was a glamorous pleasure palace, in its latter years a shabby shell of its former glory, yet the affection Novocastrians held for this grand old dame never waned. When the building was demolished in 2008 tears were shed and the sadness at its passing was widespread. Undeniably it still holds a special place in the city’s heart, mentioned frequently and with fondness whenever conversation turns to ‘lost’ Newcastle.
Located at 684 Hunter Street the site itself has an even longer and more intriguing history than just the home of the Palais Royale. It’s been an entertainment precinct stretching back to the late 19th century, one which encompassed an early farmer’s market, Newcastle Agricultural Shows and colonial leisure activities such as vaudeville, live performance and early cinema. Given its history it seems inevitable that this would eventually be the location of the Palais Royale, a glittering star in Newcastle’s musical firmament. Today the site has the dubious distinction of being Australia’s largest KFC outlet; but let’s go back to the beginning.
First evidence of the European occupation of the site appears in 1816 when this parcel of land in Newcastle West is part of a property known as the Commandant’s Farm. When British migrant Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld and his family arrived in Newcastle in 1825 they moved into a cottage on the land which he described as being in ‘a very lonely situation a mile and a half from the town’. Maybe the isolation was too much for the family, they stayed less than 18 months, but during their time were able to observe the original inhabitants, the local Awabakal people, conduct ceremonies including a welcome dance, healing rites and a traditional burial.
This part of Hunter Street west was not destined to be a lonely spot for too much longer. In September 1888 a roller rink opened, the Elite Skating Rink, housed in a long weatherboard building constructed for this purpose, stretching all the way from Hunter Street to the railway line which ran behind it. A photo of the Elite Skating Rink’s interior shows a large well-appointed space decorated with bunting, Union Jacks and Chinese lanterns.
A cluster of buildings was now located at this part of Hunter Street. Next door to the skating rink was an ironmonger and next to it was a sandstone two-storey house occupied by the Honeysuckle Station Master and his family. For those in need of an alcoholic drink the Railway Hotel was conveniently situated across the road, this public house had originally been built to quench the thirst of local railway workers.
The skating rink soon became much more than an opportunity to glide around graciously, in colonial Newcastle large public buildings were rare and this spacious structure soon found itself a sought after venue. It housed political meetings, social events and fundraisers for organisations with evocative Victorian names such as the Grand United Order of Oddfellows, Australian and Hibernian Catholic Guilds, Sons of Temperance and the Good Templars. In 1890 it was the site of a spectacular ‘World’s Fair’ a fundraiser held by the Young Men’s Christian Association.
In 1891 the skating rink was closed and the building converted into a fresh produce market, The City Arcade and Western Markets. Renovations to the large wooden structure made it look more dressed up, an ornate bull-nosed verandah was added to the front and a vaulted canopy raised over the central entrance, while large plate glass windows allowed providores to display their wares.
The property was perfectly situated to be a substantial farmers’ market, it backed directly onto the railway line (which still runs behind the site) and was close to the Honeysuckle Railway Station, the original terminus of the first Great Northern Railway Line. In the years before effective refrigeration fresh produce could be unpacked and almost immediately be on tables at the market ready for sale.
Ads in the Newcastle Morning Herald describe the extensive range of food available: wholesale and retail meat, fish, fruit, vegetable and other produce. Later bananas imported from Fiji were on offer, described as available in three states: ‘ripe’, ‘1/2 ripe’ or ‘on the turn’. The markets even boasted a ‘complete ripening plant’ on the premises.
In October 1891 Newcastle was abuzz – the charismatic evangelical leader, General Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, was to pay the city a visit. After a spectacular arrival to cheering crowds, a dramatic military-style procession wound through Newcastle’s streets with the General eventually making his way to the Western Markets building. Here he preached to a packed audience, his demeanour described as ‘animated’ and his sermons ‘stirring and of an hour’s duration’ during which he urged the sinful to come forward, confess their wickedness and pledge that hereafter they would give their lives to Jesus. Many did.
The venue did not stay too holy for too long; in 1894 it was re-fitted to become the Empire Music Hall home to live entertainment and the latest craze – moving pictures. The music hall seems to have co-existed for a while with the produce markets, which by 1905 is simply known as the Western Markets and had expanded to also be the home of the Newcastle Agricultural Society. They held their annual shows there and the large space was also used to exhibit farm animals and poultry, early Newie canines got a chance to strut their stuff at the regular Newcastle Kennel Club shows.
But it looks like those roller skaters were itching to get their skates back on; in 1907 the building was reclaimed as a skating rink and at the end of the following year an outdoor theatre was constructed adjacent to the site which showed silent movies and provided a stage for vaudeville performers. This outdoor entertainment space is sweetly described as a ‘summer park’.
In 1921 the skaters were moved on, the building got an extensive refurbishment and re-opened (again) as a dance hall now called the Empire Palais Royale. The words ‘Palais Royale’ entered Newcastle’s entertainment lexicon for the first time. For seven years it thrived as a popular dancing venue. A rare photograph of the vast interior shows a large crowd of stylish women in Art Deco gowns and bobbed hair accompanied by their slickly groomed partners, no wonder it was now known as the Palais Royale Majestic.
Near midnight on Saturday 20 October, 1928 a fire broke out in the Palais Royale Majestic. The patrons had all left and it was just the orchestra left, packing up their instruments and relaxing after the evening’s performance. Suddenly the lights failed and the venue was plunged into darkness, and shortly afterward the musicians saw a fire start in the roof. Quickly it spread and soon the whole building was alight.
Four fire brigades attended the dramatic fire described as ‘roaring skywards’ and ‘emitting showers of sparks’, but despite multiple hydrants pouring streams of water into the blaze Palais Royale Majestic was burnt to the ground. Within 30 minutes nothing remained but twisted sheets of galvanised iron and a few charred foundation blocks, the much loved dance hall’s days were over. But the Palais would rise again bigger, better and more ambitious than ever. Its story continues next week.
This is part one of a two-part blog on the history of the Palais Royale site, 684 Hunter Street, Newcastle West. Next week: the grand, new Palais Royale rises from the ashes of its predecessor and for over 70 years becomes a much-loved entertainment venue and a Hunter Street landmark.
The Coal River Working Party blog contains a detailed description of the archaeological dig at the Palais Royale site and the remarkable Indigenous history it uncovered:
Early photos of the site, showing the Elite Skating Rink, the City Arcade and Western Markets and the Honeysuckle Railway Station and Station Masters House can be seen online at Hunter Photobank, Flickr and Trove. Most are part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection, Ralph Snowball Collection, Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle. National Library of Australia, via Trove, have records in multiple formats of the site and its changing use over time.