I do love a good Victorian building; they have the kind of gravitas rarely seen in modern architectural practice. We are blessed in the West End for so many reasons, but one of them is in our clutch of grand formal buildings. Forget those detractors, who characterise the West End’s buildings as just abandoned shopfronts, we are home to some of the city’s most venerable Victorian edifices.
One of the best is the former Newcastle Technical College, or the Hunter Street campus of TAFE as it is now known, which has its roots deep in our city’s mining heritage. So much so you could even – at a stretch – say it was an educational centre which was industrially fueled.
It all started way, way back in 1885 when the Hunter River Miner’s Association applied to the Board of Technical Education requesting that the many instructive classes held in various venues around Newcastle which included: mineralogy, practical chemistry, mechanical drawing and building construction (amongst others) all be brought together and taught in one place, such as in a technical school.
Two years earlier the State government had assumed financial responsibility for technical education appointing a distinct body, the Board of Technical Education, to run the Sydney Technical College. Six years later the government took complete control of education facilities and made technical education the responsibility of a sombre-sounding Department of Public Instruction.
As the reputation and status of technical education grew the citizens of Newcastle started campaigning for their own Technical College. In 1890 it even raised a unique type of Hunter-style rivalry, complete with a not-so-subtle political jibe, when a Newcastle Herald journalist put the case to its readers. ‘…there are evidences that our good neighbours at Maitland are taking advantage of their undoubted influence with the Government to have established at Maitland a technical college, to which the people of Newcastle, desirous of profiting by the instruction given at such a place, would have to resort.’
The Herald went on to explain. ‘For too long a period Newcastle people have been forced to proceed…to a sleepy country hamlet, 18 miles away, called East Maitland for technical instruction.’
Maitland had a technical college and Newcastle didn’t? Quelle horreur!
The Newcastle Herald was further put out. ‘If the choice of a site for such a [technical] college is to be made between Newcastle and Maitland then the claim of the former is paramount. The Maitland people, living in a district in which pastoral and agricultural enterprise finds a wide and profitable field, have (other) means of employment open to them.’
The newspaper continued by characterising Lower Hunter residents as ‘dairy farmers’ and ‘growers of varieties of melons and pumpkins’ (take that pumpkin pickers!) concluding, ‘…the claims of Newcastle to a technical college are absolutely incontestable’.
But it was not until 20 February 1896 that Newcastle’s first dedicated Technical College and School of Mines in Hunter Street, Newcastle West, was officially opened. The Federation Romanesque building has an ornate façade of brickwork and highly carved stone which ranges in colour from red to buff. If you don’t know it well the best vantage point is on the opposite side of Hunter Street. Looking back across the road gives a clear view of its detailed and elaborate external decoration, including intriguing grids of terracotta which look like a collection of dark orange flowers and Australian fauna which has been carved into the stonework. A close inspection shows a cockatoo, quoll, possum, kookaburra, lyrebird and a snake – how gorgeous is that?
Given that its growth came directly from the needs of workers for technical education it seems perfect that the college sits right next to Newcastle’s first Trades Hall. They snuggle up together, a stone wall cheek against a stone wall cheek. The unionists are long gone from this building and the old Trades Hall is now TAFE’s administration centre. If you want to know more about the Trades Hall building, I delved into its history in an earlier blog post. You can read about it here: https://westendadventures.wordpress.com/2014/08/13/the-red-shed/
The support the Newcastle Technical College received was astounding. In early 1922 the technical education it provided was so highly valued and in such demand that the city’s Chamber of Commerce and the Newcastle branch of the Manufacturers’ Association took up its cause. They successfully lobbied the NSW Minister for Education for more staff arguing that ‘a skilled tradesman is a distinct asset to the State and the work of the college is therefore of the utmost importance’. More teachers were appointed.
By 1934 the College reported to the State government that no less than 20 Newcastle employers depended upon it for the technical training of their staff. The College had departments in: Chemistry and Metallurgy, Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Physics, Building Trades (carpentry and joinery) and Applied Art.
It focused on the local training needs of the industrial community, especially those of BHP, offering subjects such as oxywelding. The steelworks gave back by sponsoring annual student prizes. The College became so successful that by the late 1930s it was outgrowing its Hunter Street headquarters and work started on a new campus at Tighes Hill.
Today the Hunter Street campus of TAFE is home to the Newcastle Art School, renowned for its high quality and studio-based fine arts training. I think there is a lovely symmetry in their commitment to ‘focus on developing students into professional [working] artists’ explaining that many of the skills taught at the School are applicable in a range of work environments. With TAFE increasingly under pressure and feeling funding cuts so deeply it’s sad that its former industry champions are now so silent. Work, skills and work-based skills. Hmmm, it’s a no brainer isn’t it?
There is a good administrative history of Newcastle Technical Collage on the State Records NSW website http://www.records.nsw.gov.au. Early black and white photos of the Hunter Street campus of TAFE are from the Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle or the Local Studies Collection, Newcastle Library via Hunter Photo Bank and all are used with permission. Articles from the Newcastle Herald, formerly the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, can be found in the digitised newspaper collection on the National Library of Australia website http://www.nla.gov.au
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