Wealth of history on the corner of Queen & Fitzroy streets, Grafton

19 January 2015

In December 2014, Westlawn’s Head Office building in Grafton celebrated its 25th anniversary.

Coincidently, 2014 also marks the 125th anniversary of the site’s original building which over the years has been variously known as Chapman’s Skating Rink, Fitzroy Theatre and the Trocadero.

The location of Westlawn’s Head Office at the corner of Queen and Fitzroy streets, Grafton has a wealth of history stretching way back to 1862 when the land was granted to Mr J. E. Chapman, Grafton’s first mayor.

In those early years, the corner block was used as livery stables but Mr Chapman had far more grandiose plans for his land. In October 1888, local newspaper, Clarence and Richmond Examiner and New England Advertiser reported that plans were being drawn for:

“A large hall to be erected on the corner of Queen and Fitzroy streets, on the site now used as a livery stables, near Mrs. F. Gray’s boarding establishment. The structure will be specially adapted for theatrical purposes, skating rink, and for holding public meetings, and will seat about 700 persons in the hall.”

Chapman’s Skating Rink opens

Just seven months later, the same newspaper announced that Mr J.E. Chapman’s Skating Rink had opened its doors to an enthusiastic public:

“This building, at the corner of Queen and Fitzroy streets, was opened on Wednesday evening, with a good patronage. 150 skaters occupied the floor during the evening, and there was the usual amount of amusement over the falls of the novices who could not maintain their equilibrium on the rollers.”

Chapman’s Skating Rink, with a capacity of around 2,000 people, was estimated to cost £1,500 to build when plans were first drawn up. But as with most building projects, the costs had blown out to £2,000 by the time the building opened in May 1889.

The new building was described somewhat unflatteringly as having an “unpretentious exterior” with “rusticated walls … and roofed with corrugated iron.”

Inside the main entrance off Queen Street, were separate ladies’ and gentlemen’s cloak rooms “fitted up with many conveniences,” a private office and skate room “fitted up with shelving for skates, well stocked with all sizes”. A nearby staircase led patrons to the gallery above which included the rink, a theatre stage and terraced seating to accommodate 160 people.

Lighting to the building was by way of “three gas sunlights, each with 20 burners,” while 15 footlights illuminated the stage.

Skating proves a popular pastime

The skating craze sweeping the world at that time was eagerly adopted by many Grafton residents, as was reported in the newspaper just weeks after the rink’s opening.

“ … there was an attendance of the outside public of some 600 or 700, every available place of vantage being crammed to witness the skating contest …The floor has been occupied in this amusement for the past two or three weeks, and the patronage so far has been fully up to expectations.”

By July, the Clarence and Richmond Examiner noted the improvement in the skating skills of patrons while reporting on a hotly contested skating competition:

“The concluding events of the skating competition for the Ladies’ Bag and Bangle came off on Thursday evening, at Chapman’s Rink. There was a large attendance of the public, and the performances of the competitors was superior to anything yet exhibited at contests of this character in Grafton.

“During the intervals between the heats the floor was fully occupied by lovers of the pastime, and the improvement made in the art since the amusement became popularised in Grafton is very striking.”

A bevy of VIP visitors

But it wasn’t all thrills and spills at Chapman’s Rink. With its superior seating capacity and theatre well suited to public speaking and lectures, Chapman’s Rink would play host to many VIP visitors over the years.

On 6 June 1899, The Sydney Morning Herald covered a visit to Grafton by NSW Premier, Mr George Reid. After a day of visiting various locations around Grafton, including the Town Hall, Hutton’s Hotel (for a luncheon) and South Grafton’s School of Arts, the Premier addressed a large gathering at the rink.

“In the evening the Grafton Skating Rink, a building capable of accommodating 2,000 people, was crowded with electors and ladies anxious to hear the Premier’s opinions of the merits of the federal question. The Premier, on entering the hall, was warmly cheered.”

In September 1924, The Catholic Press carried the story of a visit by the Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Mannix, to the building now known as Fitzroy Theatre.

“On Friday evening, the Archbishop of Melbourne, accompanied by the Bishop of Goulburn and party, was welcomed at the Fitzroy Theatre, Grafton. The proceedings opened with a musical programme, consisting of several choruses by the children of the Convent School, dances and selections by Mr. L. G. McLennan’s orchestra.”

Then, in November 1945, Fitzroy Theatre was the venue for a large gathering of parliamentarians, visitors and local residents celebrating Sir Earle Page’s 25 years of service as a Federal member representing the seat of Cowper.

But arguably the most celebrated of all visitors to the theatre was Dame Nellie Melba (then Madame Melba), who appeared at The Rink back in August of 1909. The Clarence and Richmond Examiner reported on the excitement surrounding the acclaimed singer’s much anticipated performance.

“For months past the visit of Madame Melba to Grafton has been the principal theme of conversation in musical circles … It was looked upon that this was the most brilliant star that has honoured the North Coast with her presence.

“Madame Melba had a right royal reception as she came on the stage, the ovation continuing for some time. The diva gracefully acknowledged the compliment so heartily given from a Grafton (or rather a Clarence) audience.”

A place of political discourse

From its earliest beginnings, the theatre was a place of political discourse. In fact, no sooner had Chapman’s Skating Rink opened to the public that speakers of various political persuasions lined up to fill the vast space with an audience. Upon the building’s opening, the Clarence and Richmond Examiner and New England Advertiser, noted the interest expressed by one well-known Temperance advocate of the time:

“We notice that Mr. Burnett’s committee have engaged it in connection with his mission, and if the popular Temperance Reformer is greeted with a ‘full house’ he will have no need to complain of the smallness of his audience.”

He may not have quite had the full house hoped for, but a respectable crowd, nonetheless, turned up to hear Mr Burnett lecture on the evils of the demon drink:

“In the afternoon he held a Gospel Temperance Service in Mr. J. E. Chapman’s Skating Rink, when about 800 or 900 assembled. Mr. W. H. Waterhouse, J.P., occupied the chair, and on the platform were Rev. I. Mackay, the Mayor, and a number of prominent citizens.”

And in 1915, the Fitzroy Theatre held a meeting of around 400 prominent citizens that led to the formation of the Separation Movement – a movement dedicated to having the northern portion of New South Wales “annexed to Queensland, or formed into a separate state”.

While inevitably failing to achieve its aims, the Separation Movement remained active into the 1930s.

Dancing at the Trocadero

The building with the “unpretentious exterior” on the corner of Queen and Fitzroy streets was also put to good use over the years as a dance venue. The annual Convent Ball, for example, was held in the spacious theatre.

Convent Ball Was Splendid Success declared the July 2, 1942 edition of the Catholic Weekly.

“The leading event of Grafton’s social year, the convent ball, was held in the Trocadero on June 22. It was the 40th annual event, which will be remembered as one of the most successful held in Grafton for many years. The supper-room was one of the features of the evening … In addition to the large gathering of merrymakers, the gallery was filled with non-dancers.”

In May 1940, the Bishop’s daughter demonstrated the art of ballet at the Trocadero. The Richmond River Herald and Northern Districts Advertiser praised the performance of Miss Dorothy Stevenson as “quite up to the high class standard that had been promised”. In fact, the report went further stating that “it was one of the most artistic and interesting programmes presented in Grafton for a long time”.

Fire destroys Grafton landmark

The good times, however, would not last forever. On 27 March 1987, the Daily Examiner reported on the sad loss of one of Grafton’s landmark buildings when the Trocadero was destroyed in an overnight fire.

The fierce blaze, which woke neighbours at around 1.30am, threatened nearby homes, cracked windows and caused overhead power lines to spark dangerously. By the time the fire brigade arrived, the building was well alight. It could not be saved.

At the time of the fire, the Trocadero’s days (and nights) as the social hub of Grafton had long passed. In its final years, the building was leased to Braitlings Furniture and was stocked with furniture, antiques and bric-a-brac. It was also said to hold country NSW’s largest range of pianos.

Excluding any historical value, the contents lost in the blaze were estimated to be worth around $70,000.

The cause of the fire was believed to be an electrical fault.

New building rises from the ashes

The building occupied by Braitlings Furniture was owned by Westlawn Investments who had purchased the property in 1982. And so, following the fire, Westlawn Investments commissioned a new building for the site first granted to J.E. Chapman back in 1862.

On 16 December 1989, the Daily Examiner reported on the opening of the new $1.2 million office building which would become home to 38 employees of the Department of Social Security.

The grand opening was attended by around 50 people including Member for Clarence, Ian Causley, Federal Member for Page, Ian Robinson, Grafton Mayor, Ald. Mike Emerson, members of the Dougherty family and other invited guests.

While this new building would lack the same joie de vivre as the previous building known as Chapman’s Skating Rink, Fitzroy Theatre and the Trocadero, it would nonetheless play an important role in the lives of so many people across the Clarence Valley. Speaking at the opening, Ian Robinson MP noted that “the Department of Social Security was a source on which more than 15,000 people in the Clarence Valley depended amounting to an annual payout of $70 million”.

In 2002, the government department vacated the building to make way for the growing needs of the Westlawn group. As a local company that provides financial services to locals, invests in the region and supports local community groups through sponsorships, donations and other support, the building on the corner of Queen and Fitzroy streets, remains an important source of prosperity and development for the entire Northern Rivers region.

Copyright © 2015