The North Queensland town of Charters Towers is situated 134 kilometres south-west of Townsville and almost 1,350 kms north of Brisbane. Founded in the 1870s when gold was discovered at Towers Hill on Christmas Eve 1871 by 12-year-old Aboriginal boy, Jupiter Mosman, the town was named after both the location of the gold and after the Gold Commissioner, W. S. E. M. Charters. A total of ten major gold reefs were eventually mined. Charters Towers’ boom years were 1872 to 1899. During that period the town operated its own Stock Exchange, while the population at one stage reached 30,000, making it Queensland’s largest city outside of Brisbane. It was officially declared a town in 1877 with John McDonald being elected its first mayor. The railway line to the coastal port of Townsville was completed in December 1882.
Many former mining towns like Charters Towers comprise a number of small suburbs. In a few instances these suburbs predate or were at one time more important than the town we know today. They also sometimes had there own purpose-built or irregular entertainments spaces. Charters Towers’ suburbs are: Richmond Hill, Queenton, Millchester, Mosman Park and Lissner.
MANCHESTER UNITY HALL
(1880-) Gill Street.
Situated at the rear of Gill Street, the Manchester Unity Hall was officially opened on 22 September with a banquet and a ball. The building had been used as early as 28 August, however (when a public tea was held by the Weslyan Church). Designed by John Longden the hall was the first brick building to be built on the goldfield and still stands there today. Although no records have been found which indicate the hall was leased by professional touring theatre companies it was often used for local concerts, balls, community events and meetings (including various lodges). Around 1909 it also doubled as a skating rink.
1: Not to be confused with the Miners’ Union Hall (aka M.U. Hall) in Mosman Street or the Manchester Unity Hall in Millchester.
2: Manchester Unity was established as a mutual aid society in Melbourne in 1840. It has since expanded into such business areas as health insurance, general insurance, building society, investment products, holiday flats, retirement and aged care complexes.
Image source: Australian Town and Country Journal 3 May (1884), 27.
(1875) Gill Street.
Oddfellows’ Hall opened on 10 August 1875 with a grand ball. The following night the Bijou Star Troupe began a season of variety and burlesque there. Over the next few years it hosted touring minstrel, variety and dramatic companies, balls, touring cosmoramas and panoramic displays, community meetings, concerts and lectures etc. By the end of the decade, however, increasing competition saw the hall lose favour as an entertainment venue and it was thereafter used only for local activities and meetings. It was also used as a school on at least two occasions from the mid-1880s. Oddfellows’ Hall was still being used by the Charters Towers community in the early1900s.
- More details (research notes)
1: Among the other popular culture entertainments to appear at Oddfellows’ Hall were Madame Silby (mesmerist, 1875), Smith and Co’s Grand Panorama of the Franco-Prussian War (1875), Wheeler Comedy Troupe (1875), St Vincent’s Comic Concert Co (1876), and Dr Carr (“Fun, Mirth and Philosophy,” 1877).
2: The two known schools to operate out of the hall were the Charters Towers Grammar School, run by Mr A.E. Binks (ca. 1884) and the Charters Towers Girls Grammar School, operated by Miss Bertram (ca. 1894). The German Lutheran community also used the hall in the early 1880s.
Image source: Northern Miner 29 Dec. (1875), 3.
OLYMPIA SKATING RINK
aka The Rink
Built as an open-air skating rink the Olympia commenced operations on 1 July 1909 with music by a local orchestra. A 2,000 seat grandstand was added in August thereby allowing Birch and Carroll to exhibit films in the evenings from 4 October. Their opening night features illustrated songs by Gladys Moncrieff. After transferring their Olympia Pictures to the School of Arts in 1910 the operated once more as a skating rink. Additional entertainment was sometimes engaged, including local singers and various bands. It was also used for boxing tournaments and religious gatherings. Under the Foxlee Brothers management (1913-) it became known simply as the Rink. Advertising for the venue ends after September 1915.
- More details (research notes)
1: Not to be confused with Charter’s Towers’ long-running Olympia Theatre in Gill Street (aka The Stadium).
2: Gladys Moncrieff remained until 16 October 1909. She was replaced by the Chronomegaphone (featuring sound and vision of Harry Lauder singing some of his biggest hits). Live variety acts to play under Birch and Carroll’s management included Tom Burrows (club swinger) and Chester Harris (singer). Albert Lucas also provided commentary for selected films along with his own between-films monologues.).
Image source: Northern Miner 4 Oct. (1909), 1.
PRINCE OF WALES THEATRE
aka Sportsman’s Arms Music Hall
(1875-ca. 1876) Mosman Street.
Attached to the rear of the Sportsman’s Arms Hotel, George Cooper opened the Prince of Wales Theatre on 14 October 1875 with Foley’s Magnet Troupe. Although Cooper continued to advertise his theatre through until February 1876 as being “where the best dramatic talent of the district is always found,” no details of any further performances have yet been located. When Axall Walter took over the hotel that same month he advertised the venue for five months as being the “finest music hall in the North.” Details regarding its entertainments and operations after July 1876 are presently unknown.
- More details (research notes)
1: George Cooper took over the Sportsman’s Arms in September 1875. He soon afterwards held boxing contests at the hotel.
2: Both Cooper and Walter held licences for music and dancing at the Sportsman’s Arms. It is unclear if these also applied to the theatre/music hall.
SCHOOL OF ARTS
The Charters Towers School of Arts opened in December 1878, almost three years after a similar institution opened in Millchester. Over the next five decades the building was used as both a community space (including library) and as an entertainment venue. Despite the availability of several purpose-built theatres and halls the School remained a popular alternative for touring theatre companies up until the early 1900s, with productions ranging from minstrelsy and vaudeville to pantomime, comic opera and musical concerts. During the 1910s and 1920s it was home to at least three moving picture firms – Lyceum Pictures (1909-10), Olympia Pictures (1910-1912) and Tivoli Pictures (1915-ca.1930). All three companies included vaudeville acts as part of their programs.
1: Tivoli Pictures appears to have dropped vaudeville by the mid-1920s. The School of Arts was used primarily for community activities from the 1930s onwards. It was for a while occupied by the Miners Accident Association before being acquired by the Regional Council and converted into a library. In 1953 the building was moved to the back of the block to allow room for the George Foy Memorial Square.
2: There is some confusion regarding the origins of the School of Arts building. The Charters Towers Regional Council website records: “1878: Meetings to bring about the construction of the School of Arts which opens in December in Mosman Street are conducted at John Gard’s Clubhouse Hotel.” A 1953 article in the Northern Miner notes, however: “When first constructed it was the Q.N. Bank; a few years later it became the Union Bank; later still the School of Arts” (3 Feb. 195), 1).
Image: ca. 1888. Source: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.
STADIUM / OLYMPIA THEATRE
(1910-ca. 1966) Gill Street.
Although known for more than five decades as the Olympia, this Charters Towers open-air venue was built as a boxing stadium. However, soon after opening on 7 May 1910 it was also showing pictures and vaudeville as well. On 19 October 1912 Birch and Carroll transferred their Olympia Pictures from the School of Arts to the Stadium in association with T.V. Coyle, thereby marking the start of the Birch, Caroll and Coyle partnership. Under their management the Olympia continued hosting both moving pictures and vaudeville, an association that continued irregularly into the late 1930s. It also served as a roller skating rink in later years. The theatre’s last owner, Jack Feldt closed it down after establishing Tors Drive-In in 1965.
- See also: Olympia Amusement Co (aka Olympia Pictures)
1: Not to be confused with the Olympia Skating Rink (1909-1915). George Birch and E J. Carroll took their Olympia Pictures trading name from that venue, having exhibited there between October 1909 and April 1910, and transferred it to the School of Arts, and later the Stadium. The Olympia (Pictures) trading name was eventually adopted as the venue name.
2: The Stadium was built by a company headed by W.F.R. Boyce. The first fights were promoted by Warney Henry.
3: Jack Feldt, owner and general manager of Feldt’s Theatres Townsville and Charters Towers, also operated the Regent Theatre (cinema) and the Royal Theatre (live performances) in Charters Towers.
Image source: – Wes Stacey Archive of Architectural Photographs, National Library of Australia.
Constructed of iron, timbre and weatherboard, Charters Towers’ Theatre Royal reportedly held upwards of 2,000 people, and played host to a wide variety of entertainments during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including boxing tournaments, vaudeville/minstrelsy, legitimate drama, opera and film. Harry Clay used the theatre almost exclusively for his annual visits (1901-1918), initially playing seasons there of up to two weeks. Virgil T. Coyle (later of Birch, Carroll and Coyle) was also associated with the Royal during the late-1900s/early-1910s. Many international stars played there, as did numerous leading Australian companies and acts. The Royal was still a viable venue for vaudeville and cinema up until the 1940s. The Towers Players took it over as their base in 1962.
Millchester was both a mining site and the preferred place of habitation in the 1870s because of its several watercourses, Buchanans, Millchester and Aberdeen Creeks. The town centre was on Millchester Road where it crossed Millchester Creek. The district’s first primary school opened there in 1874. At one time Millchester boasted five hotels, Catholic and Anglican churches, a School of Arts, and for a short time the district’s court house. As mining leads petered out in the late 1870s, Charters Towers overtook Millchester in importance.
SCHOOL OF ARTS
The Millchester School of Arts opened on 9 November 1875, a little over a month after a call for donations for the purpose of erecting it was publicised in the Northern Miner. The first night featured Baker’s Grand Hibernicon and Panorama of Ireland, and Concert and Comedy Company. Typical of most Schools of Arts it hosted all manner of theatrical entertainments (minstrel troupes and concert and panorama companies etc), as well as community events (including the local amateur dramatic company) and religious meetings. Companies that visited Charters Towers during the late-1870s to play bigger venues like the Theatre Royal and Oddfellows Hall sometimes opened for a few nights at the Millchester School of Arts.
- More details (research notes)
1: The building was destroyed by fire on 4 January 1881.
2: Another visiting troupe to play the venue was the Empsons company in 1880.
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