A Picture Really Is Worth…But Wait, Words are Good Too!

Victoria Hall 1882
Figure 1: Courtesy of State Library NSW

This is an incredible photo for my family history and one that I thought I would never see properly and in such focus. I literally stumbled onto this one at the Mitchell library. I called up a batch of historic photos on Sydney in a bit of a fishing expedition without even realising that this photo was part of the collection. I had seen a very grainy copy of this photo before in an online mention of the history of Sydney’s theatre’s and also in Trove in an article on the history of Castlereagh Street. So you can imagine my thrill when I turned the page and this was staring back at me. Below is a copy of the Trove article.

Victoria Hall Article 1912
Figure 2: Courtesy of State Library NSW

Look at the difference between the two. When you read on you will see how that difference can really determine the amount of information you can glean from a photo. The article written in 1912 confirms without a doubt where Skinner’s Books was in 1882, and it also shows the building where my Great Grandmother Grace Nicoll née Blackwood was born.

Figure 2a: Courtesy of the State Library of NSW
Dove’s Plan 1880 Figure 2b: Courtesy of City of Sydney Archives

What’s fascinating about this map is that it has nearly all the vendor names that appear in the article above. Skinner’s is not here yet. They will move into no. 73 Davidson Jeweller position on the left of the covered passage.

Incidentally, I found a book by Isadore Brodsky called “Sydney’s Phantom Bookstalls” buried in a second-hand bookstall in Ulmarra, on a recent trip to the North Coast of NSW, and it had a copy of this photo in it as well. Talk about pouring when it rains. You know what I mean.

Of course when I first picked up this gem I didn’t know what to expect. I was hopeful that there might be some mention of Skinners or Harry Blackwood, the Skinner’s sticker pictured on the back cover had me very excited. Apart from finding the photo as above, I found this too.

Sydney’s Phantom Bookshops, 1973, pg 101-103
Isadore Brodsky, University Co-Op Bookshop Ltd Broadway, Sydney
Figure: 8 Courtesy of Macvean Family Library

And there he is, my Great-Great Grandfather, Henry John Blackwood, (Harry) and his business partner Robert William Skinner. And in a bizarre twist of, I don’t know why, Harry after Skinner passes away takes on his persona and becomes known as Skinner as well. I can find no information as to why and can only think that he must have thought that it was good for business to continue on as Skinner.

Harry Blackwood as Skinner
Figure 9: Courtesy of the State Library of NSW

That is a picture of Harry Blackwood not R W Skinner.

Now back to the photograph from 1882. What is really incredible, is that the quality is so sharp and so clear that I was able to zoom in to show the detail on the signage of the building. It clearly shows a sign for Skinner’s Bookstall. The first part of the sign is obscured, but you can see the “Sk” mirrored in the reflection of the store window. Then if you look below on the ground you will notice the baskets of books that Skinner’s (Harry Blackwood) was known for.

Now check out the neighbours.

The detail on this lot is also incredible. The clothes, the hats and the attitude. It would be wonderful to know who they were, but I suspect their identities are long forgotten.

According to the Dictonary of Sydney, the Sydney Punch was an, “…Illustrated satirical periodical with various publishers from 1864 until 1888. Modelled on the English Punch magazine, Sydney Punch was established in 1864 by Edgar Ray, one of the founders of the older Melbourne Punch.https://dictionaryofsydney.org/artefact/sydney_punch

Figure 22: Courtesy of National Library of Australia, Trove.
Figure 23: Courtesy of National Library of Australia, Trove.
Figure 24: Courtesy of National Library of Australia, Trove.

The Victoria Hotel is 105 Castlereagh St at this time, and for a while I thought this was the building where my Great Grandmother was born. Grace Blackwood daughter of Harry Blackwood and Jane Grace Skinner née Vaughan. Yep you read that correctly, Skinner not Blackwood. I have a copy of her birth certificate below, check it out.

105 Castlereagh Street
Figure 25: Courtesy of NSW State Library.
Grace Blackwood Birth Certificate
Figure 26: Courtesy of Macvean Family Archives

No father’s name listed, yet Grace is named Blackwood. This remained a mystery for my family for decades. No one knew where Grace or Nanna Nic as she was known was born or when until I stumbled onto some company records at State Archives which then lead me to the above birth record. But first, the photo below shows the actual building where Grace was born. The whole Victoria Hall site was demolished in 1890 and Skinner’s had to move to the new 105 Castlereagh Street site, which incidentally was just a couple of doors up the street, as the numbering changed as well. https://aussietheatre.com.au/features/venue-histories/the-tivoli-theatre

In family history terms, we are so lucky to have this photo. It is the only one I can find of the 105 site and it, of course, is where Grace was born which is significant but it is also the house she grew up in presumably, as they don’t move to their next premises, 119-121 Castlereagh St until 1906 when Grace is 18 years old. But wait, before I show you how I solved this mystery of Grace’s birth and we explore the next Skinners site at 119-121 I have to finish off the story of the Victoria Hall site.

The last of the Neighbours to show you.

Goodwin Bros Signage
Figure 30: Courtesy of NSW State Library.

Then this next article is from 1933 and is a retrospective on D’Arcy and the photo and confirms that it is actually him in that top window. What a find.

Sydney Mail, 4th Jan 1933
Figure 40: Courtesy of NSW State Library.

As I stated earlier, the Victoria Hall was demolished in 1890 and the Garrick Theatre rose in its place.

The Garrick Theatre, 1892
Figure 41: Courtesy of State Library of NSW.

Its a crappy copy of the photo, sorry about that, it is the only one available at the moment. The interesting thing to note is that the Coach builders, Jenners are still there on the right. Where the number 77 is on the awning above, was where the 103 is in the original photo, (look back up to the earlier photos) and the building on the left in this photo is the original Imperial Arcade facade.

It was renamed the Tivoli in 1893, burned down and rebuilt in 1899.https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/collection-items/castlereagh-street-tivoli-theatre

The Tivoli Theatre, December 1906
Figure 42: Courtesy of State Library of NSW.

This photo had no date on it but looking at the dress on the woman on the right it looked early 1900s. I couldn’t help myself I checked out the artist names appearing on the advert boards and look what I found. Trove delivered. Some great stuff and then a quick slap of that, oh yes we are dealing with attitudes 115 years in the past. You’ll see what I mean.

Close up of the Tivoli Advert Boards December 1906
Figure 43: Courtesy of Music Hall Annie Webpress Blog

Then here comes the slap.

Figure 56: Courtesy of National Library of Australia, Trove.

See what I mean? I was literally shocked when I read it. I had no idea the racist terms were used so easily until I saw this. I’m so glad that I found some wonderful information on Cassie and a great couple of photos of her to share with you.

Cassie lived till she was 92, passing away in 1980. If you want to know more about her click the link below her photo, Find a Grave have a great bio on her.

Back to the Tivoli, it operated until 1929 when it too was demolished.

The Tivoli Theatre, 1920s
Figure 59: Courtesy of State Library of NSW.

In its place the Embassy Theatre was built which opened in 1934 and operated until the late 1970s. Keep in mind we are still on the Skinner’s Books site still.

Now the original, beautiful Imperial Arcade built in 1891 is torn down in 1961 and the modern version put up in 1965.

Figure 64: Courtesy of WordPress blog, Scratching Sydney’s Surface
Imperial Arcade 2008
Figure 64: Courtesy of WordPress blog, Sydney Architecture Archive

The above picture shows that the Embassy is long gone, not sure when that happened. But then in November 2008 the Imperial closed and the whole site was swallowed into what has now become the Westfield commercial towers today.

So a little off the topic of Skinner’s but like I have said numerous times, you get more bang for your buck on this blog. I’ll finish off for now with a quick comparison for you of the site 136 years apart and pick up the rest of the Skinner’s story in another post.

Victoria Hall Site 2018
Figure 65: Courtesy of the Macvean Family Archives
Victoria Hall 1882
Figure 66: Courtesy of State Library NSW

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