aka Port Darwin / Palmerston
A former frontier outpost, Darwin is situated on the Timor Sea and is the capital of the Northern Territory, otherwise known as the Top End. Before the European settlement in the late-1860s, the Darwin area was the home of the Larrakia Aboriginal people. The first settlement, named in honour of British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, was linked to the rest of Australia via telegraph in 1870 and had its first newspaper, the Northern Territory Times and Gazette in 1873. The Palmerston District Council was formed the following year, and in the 1880s the outpost received a population boost when gold was discovered at nearby Pine Creek. The city was renamed Darwin in honour of naturalist, geologist and botanist Charles Darwin in 1911. At the same time the territory was granted independence from South Australia and officially recognised as the Northern Territory.
Being the closest port to the Dutch East Indies (known as Indonesia from 1949), Palmerston/Darwin was an alternative entry or departure point for some entertainment companies coming to, returning to, or departing from, the Australian mainland – as opposed to Perth, North Queensland or Brisbane. Among the nearby destinations favoured by variety and concert companies were Singapore (Straits Settlements), Manila (Philippines), and Batavia in the Dutch East Indies (later Jakarta, Indonesia).
1: Governance of the Northern Territory was overseen by New South Wales from 1825 before being transferred to South Australia in 1863.
2: Darwin is located 3,137 kilometres (1,949 miles) from the Australian capital city, Canberra and therefore closer to the capitals of five other countries – these being Dili (East Timor), Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea), Jakarta (Indonesia), Bandar Seri Begawan (Brunei) and Ngerulmud (Palau).
3: Among the troupes and artists established as having used Darwin to leave or enter Australia during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the Ada Delroy Company (1903), Kate Howarde and Elton Black (1909), Abbott & Martell (1916), Williamson Variety Company (1919 and 1920), and magician Dr Raymond and Company (1929).
Left: Mitchell Street, Port Darwin ca. 1880s. Right: Port Darwin ca. 1880s.
Photographs by William Marie Wilson. Sourced from his great-great-granddaughter Judy Henry (N.T. Police Museum and Historical Society Inc).
aka Don Stadium
(1913-1932) Corner of Cavenagh and Bennett streets.
Florence Budgen (1868-1960) opened her film exhibition business, the Don Picture Show, at the Darwin Town Hall [below] on 22 February 1913. The following year she transferred the venture to her newly built open-air sports and entertainment venue the Stadium (its association with Don Pictures saw it often referred to as Don Stadium). The premises, which was largely used during the “dry” months of the year had actually hosted its first boxing event on 17 October 1913, but was forced to remain vacant for most of 1913/14 wet season. Operated by at least two other owners prior to its closure in 1932, these being Budgen’s brother Percy Wallace (ca. 1916-19), and George Wedd (ca. 1919-), the Stadium also hosted occasional vaudeville shows (including vaudeville and pictures or boxing and vaudeville).
1: Among the touring variety performers and companies identified as having appeared at the Stadium were magician Abbott and fighting acrobat Martell , and the Williamson Variety Co. Abbott and Martell were in Darwin as “through passengers” on the S.S. Houtman in 1916, while the Williamson company played several nights while their ship to the East was in port in 1919. The company played a return engagement the following year.
2: The Stadium site was purchased by Christina Gordon, proprietress of the Victoria Hotel, in 1932. Although the building was demolished soon afterwards it was not until 1935 that Gordon’s Don Hotel opened for business. The new hotel was initially managed by her son, Wallace Gordon and his wife.
3: After World War II the building was converted into Abbott House, a hostel for women. It is now the site for Darwin’s ABC studios.
Image source: Northern Territory Library.
aka Palmerston Town Hall (1883-1911) / Darwin Town Hall (1911-1937) / Old Town Hall
The Palmerston District Council’s Town Hall was opened on 10 March 1883 and over the next five decades served as an important social and civic space for the isolated community – being used for council meetings, as a court house and library, and as a venue for social and civic gatherings. Up until the early 1900s almost all of the entertainments were staged by local amateurs. The first variety entertainment to be staged at the Town Hall was a minstrel show put on by the local Dramatic and Musical Society (27 July 1883). Many more were produced by the Society over the remainder of the decade. Ventriloquist Prof. G. W. Corbett was possibly the first professional entertainer to play there (14 Sept. 1891), while the Ada Delroy Company‘s 1903 season was likely the first by a touring troupe.
1: The Mastodon Minstrels were advertised to play the Town Hall in early April 1883. The show was cancelled, however, when the steamship Nelson was forced to continue on to Hong Kong without stopping at Palmerston.
2: Minstrelsy’ popularity with Top Enders led to the formation of several other local minstrel ensembles, many of which played the Town Hall. Among them were the Railway Amateur Minstrels (late-1888), Port Darwin Minstrel Troupe (mid-1900s), and the Darwin Nigger Minstrels and Larrakeah Minstrels (both early-1910s).
3: One of the last visiting entertainers to play the (old) Town Hall was magician Dr Raymond. His company played a two night season in April 1929 on its way to Singapore. Others known to have appeared at the Hall were Kate Howarde and Elton Black (1909), and Percy and Madame Verto (1913).
3: After the Darwin Town Council was dissolved in 1937 the Town Hall building was used by the Commonwealth Bank until its own premises was completed in 1940. The Royal Australian navy occupied it from 1941 until 1959 as part of its shore base, H.M.S. Melville. Prior to being completely destroyed in 1974 by Cyclone Tracy, it served as a motor vehicle registry and as a museum.
4: Following the opening of Darwin’s second Town Hall in 1954 (situated at the corner of Mitchell and McLachlan streets) the former civic building came to be known as the Old Town Hall.
Image: Palmerston Town Hall (1883). Source: Northern Territory Library.