The Great Depression, 1929-1932, had a prolonged and sustained influence in Australia with unemployment rising sharply, hitting 21 per cent in mid-1930 and continuing to climb as the economic catastrophe deepened. The devastating impact reached its peak in mid-1932 when almost 32 per cent of Australians were out of work.
In Newcastle the shocking social and economic consequences of the Depression were felt across the city. Tooth & Company announced they would be suspending brewing operations at Castlemaine Brewery at the end of June 1931, putting upwards of 100 men out of work, some of whom had been at the brewery for 30, 40 or an astounding 50 years. The company said it would now bring beer to Newcastle by ship from Sydney and the old brewery would become merely a depot.
The announcement was met with widespread outrage and in response a large public meeting, organised by trade union officials with the official support of Newcastle Council, was held in the Town Hall. The meeting appointed a deputation, led by the Mayor, to plead their case to Tooth’s imploring them to continue the brewery’s operation. They were unsuccessful. One year later an auction was held on site and a large crowd watched as almost 500 lots, all the brewery’s horses, harnesses, lorries, building materials, office equipment, old hotel counters and plant machinery was sold.
By 1938 improving economic conditions meant Tooth’s began extensive alterations to the old brewery, improving the depot’s facilities and installing refrigerated cellars. As part of these improvements Castlemaine Brewery’s enormous smoke stack was pulled down. It had been a notable West End landmark on Hunter Street and was described by contemporary commentators as now standing like ‘a silent sentinel’ to an earlier time. Novocastrians gathered in large numbers to watch the giant brick chimney being demolished and it didn’t disappoint – crashing to the ground in a huge cloud of dust and sounding like ‘a rumble of thunder’.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this refurbishment was the almost 21st century proposal by Tooth and Company that they subdivide the old brewery site, bounded by Stewart Avenue, Parry Street and Wood Street into residential allotments. A preliminary application was submitted to Newcastle Council and approved with the recommendation of the City Engineer. What ever happened to this great idea?
As late as 1948 the Merewether branch of the ALP was holding out hope that the brewery might re-open, seeing this as the answer to local beer shortages which had given rise to a beer black market. The brewery site appears to have been little used during this time as Newcastle Court records of the late 1940s describe criminal activities on the grounds including a string of break-ins, thefts and incidents intriguingly described as ‘loitering for an unlawful purpose’.
Tooth & Company ceased using the site in 1974, transferring their stock to a new depot in Cardiff. The site was sold and for a while the buildings operated as the Pink Elephant Markets.
In 1988 Australia celebrated its bicentenary and the cultural grants associated with this saw the creation of Newcastle Museum. They bought and restored the old brewery site, breathing new life into this impressive industrial building which for the first time in over half a century saw people once again pouring through its front doors. Twenty years later the Museum closed as it prepared for its move to Honeysuckle and the old brewery again fell silent
Even the once indomitable brewing giant Tooth and Company has gone; in 1983 it was acquired by Carlton and United Breweries which spent the next decade selling off Tooth’s extensive collection of hotels. In 2010, after not trading for many years, the company was delisted from the Australian Securities Exchange.
NSW Environment & Heritage recognise the importance of the old brewery granting it heritage status and describing it as a ‘set of 19th century building on a significant scale’ which ‘has been a major visual landmark on Newcastle’s skyline’. What’s next for this grand West End building? It’s waiting to be re-born.
Old photos of the brewery and its staff were taken by Ralph Snowball and are part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection, Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle. Newcastle Library also holds photos of the brewery in their digital image database Hunter Photobank. The Illustrated Sydney News, 13 July 1878 has an early sketch of the Castlemaine Brewery. The Powerhouse Museum has a beautiful lithograph of the brewery in its Tooth Collection which can be seen online: 86/3270 Tooth Collection: Lithograph of Castlemaine Brewery & Wood Bros.& Co., John Sands Australia early 1900s. An excellent history of the brewery is ‘The Castlemaine and Great Northern Breweries, Newcastle, New South Wales’ by Damaris Bairstow in Australian Historical Archaeology, issue 3, 1985 (the journal is now known as Australasian Historical Archaeology).
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