School of Arts

Written and compiled by Micheala Gilligan with thanks to
the research and writing of the late Cynthia Hunter – historian
and the late Mary Duncan

The building’s history

In the 1838 survey of the village of Seaham, land was designated for a Public Building.

In 1899 a subscription fund was set up for the ‘School of Arts’, and the local MP stated that the government would subsidise this ‘pound for pound’.  Up until this time, during the 1890’s, social events such as Dances and Balls were held at East Seaham in a large hall built by Tom Wilson. In 1894 Mr Callaghan, the Blacksmith built a timber assembly room called The Seaham Union Hall.

Much discussion continued at the local Progress Committee about the plans, specifications and site for the building. A building committee was established. The nearby Glen Oak School of Arts had been opened in 1889 and the residents there generously helped the Seaham folk by hosting a ‘Grand Concert’ to help raise funds for the hall.

The Seaham School of Arts opened 21 May 1902. ‘A well packed audience awaited the concert and opening ceremony’ which was followed by a Ball and Supper. The main room of the building was 25ft long by 50ft wide. Two ante rooms (10ft by 12ft) were attached. The contractors were Mr Charles H. Boots and Sons, the price being 204 pounds.

  • 1902 The Seaham School of Arts opened to the public.

  • 1903 Library opened.

  • 1904 Piano purchased.

  • 1910 Kerosene lamps replaced by acetylene gas.

  • 1911 Painting and lining hall with steel (decorative pressed metal)

  • 1913 Windows need replacing on a regular basis.

  • 1916 Permission given to hang photos of soldier boys.

  • 1916 Purchase of 400 gallon galvanised tank to collect rain water, 1 bucket and dipper.

  • 1917 Roll of honour to be erected in the hall.

  • 1921 Addition of a long, narrow room on the southern side of the Hall for a tea room. This was later referred to as the Supper Room where long trestle tables were set up for meals.

  • 1921 Unveiling of the memorial gate at the front of the hall

  • 1921 Military authorities present a machine gun as a war trophy which was placed somewhere near the hall – ‘not to encourage the military spirit, but as a symbol of what had been won for us by our own brave boys’.

  • 1924 Fencing was erected. (There had been a reference to goats on the verandah years earlier and more recently horses had been tied to the palings of the hall – signs of the times!).

  • 1945 Switching on of electric lights – a revitalisation of the Hall!

  • 1945 Purchase of a 600 gallon water tank.

  • 1972 Town water connected.

  • 1974 Addition of new amenities block with septic connected.

  • 1979 Changes afoot! Farmers were closing their dairies and younger families were moving into the area, taking advantage of newly subdivided land. The hall was in need of improvement and there was a move to demolish and re-build. These were times of tensions in regards the Hall, as some residents felt that the Hall was worthy of saving. Luckily their wishes prevailed and major restoration began in 1983. Part of the works involved a new brick kitchen and toilets. The Council was paying for the works but the community was expected to contribute man power and possibly materials. Exterior painting was carried out by a willing band of volunteers. A heritage expert was consulted about the exterior paint colour. She did scrapings which exposed layers of paint from the past 80 years. Ochre was the colour! Suddenly the hall stood out like a beacon! The colour choice was controversial to say the least.

Volunteers begin restorations on the School of Arts

Pictured here in 1980

The freshly painted School of Arts

Pictured here in 1981

The freshly painted School of Arts

Pictured here in 1980

Port Stephens Examiner

15 July 1981

Nostalgia Day – 15 March 1980

At a meeting of Seaham and District Community Association in February, a local history project was planned. Several of the new arrivals in town felt that the many details of the town’s past were known only to a few long-term residents. Despite there being a village of Seaham for over 100 years, little of the historical character remained. It was important that the new residents became aware of the history so that some of Seaham’s distinctive character remained. To that end a ‘Nostalgia Day’ was held at the Seaham School of Arts on 15 March 1980.

The purpose was to :

• Bring long-term and ex-residents together and talk over old times.

• To allow new residents to meet these people and discover some of the history of Seaham.

• To record some of the historical details of personal records and memories.

The day was a brilliant success! More than a dozen old-time residents shared stories, anecdotes and records. Young and willing volunteers photocopied documents, letters,  photos etc. and recorded oral histories. Information collected covered the geology of Seaham, the pioneers, school, churches, river, hotels, School of Arts, 1939 bushfire and a local murder at Deadmans Creek.

All of this wonderful social activity happening in the hall which could have been demolished!

Events and use of  ‘The Hall’

From the time of its opening on 21 May 1902 to the present ‘The Hall has been ‘a social, memorial and educational landmark to the citizens of Seaham district’. The Hall’s building, upkeep and maintenance, upgrading, extensions etc. all required funds and many of the fund-raising events were held in the Hall itself. So its very existence provided an opportunity for community to come together to maintain and improve it.

Committees, office bearers and volunteers over the years met regularly and kept minutes of their meetings. As is often the case in small rural communities, the same family names are recorded through the generations as being involved in working for the community. See Office bearers of Note below.

Meetings often covered the needs of a growing, then ageing facility and discussions on fund-raising events as well as the age-old minutiae of fees for usage. Events reflected the entertainments of the time – a concert of piano solos, recitations, songs, character sketches and string instruments was held in 1906 to raise funds for the library in the hall. A youth disco – that had to be the 1980s!

Following is a brief summary of the varied events and uses of the hall.

On 21 May 1902 a packed audience was present for the concert and lengthy opening ceremony. A Ball and Supper followed. The first 10 years had the Hall ‘hosting’ lectures, concerts, sales of ‘works’, Grand Balls and Suppers.

The funds raised from a concert held in 1904 were used to purchase a piano as well as books for the library, opened in part of the Hall in 1905. ‘Socials’, ‘Musical Evenings’ and ‘Pleasant Evenings’ were held to farewell long-term residents as well as to raise funds for the family of a man who drowned at Glen Oak and for St Ita’s Catholic Church. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the Hall was the venue for ‘Patriotic Concerts’. A debate in 1915 addressed the politics of the time – ‘Is Conscription Desirable?’. It is worth considering that for all these events, the lighting in the hall was initially with kerosene lamps and then in 1910 they were replaced with acetylene gas. Toilet facilities would have been basic until around 1975 when an amenities block with septic system was erected. Town water had been connected in 1972.

The first election to be held in the Hall was the Federal Election in 1925 and polling booths were set up there for many years until Seaham School took on that role.

The Progress Association used the Hall as did ‘The Knitting Circle’, a piano teacher and Dr Ashing of Clarence Town had consulting rooms there. Euchre parties, skating and a ‘Drapery Show’ were activities to draw in a broader section of the community. Towards the last years of World War 1 a ‘Gift Evening’ was held to raise funds for the erection of a ‘Roll of Honour’ for local servicemen. Out of approximately 40 of these, 5 had made the ‘greatest of all sacrifices’. The evening involved the auction of donated produce such as corn, pumpkins, vegetables, fruit, jams, cakes, eggs etc.

In November 1917 a solemn ceremony was held was held to unveil the Roll of Honour. Speeches acknowledged the ‘spirit of sacrifice and duty which prompted so many of the best of the young manhood of our district to enlist’.

The Seaham Soldiers’ Memorial Gates at the front of the Hall were unveiled in a ceremony on 24 May 1921. The piers listed 20 names, 6 of whom had paid the supreme sacrifice. Several returned soldiers were present to hear that the gates were an outward visible sign for ‘the lads’ who had enlisted from Seaham and to celebrate the immortal landing at Gallipoli. Two silky oak trees planted on the first anniversary of the landing stood next to the gates.

The Hall was the centre of the ‘Centenary Celebrations of the Village of Seaham’ in 1938. A Grand Evening Banquet was held for 300 people. The Maitland Brass Band accompanied a procession, including horsemen and flag draped motor cars, through the town to the Park where a Sports Carnival was held.

Fire swept through Seaham in 1939. The Presbyterian Church, the School and 4 houses were destroyed. ‘Two historic homes which were pointed out with pride but a few weeks ago when Seaham celebrated it’s Centenary are now masses of wreckage and the contents have provided fuel for the flames’. (from newspaper article) ‘Porphyry’, the home of Mr and Mrs Ralston was destroyed. The other stone building destroyed was ‘Felspar’, erected by Henry Carmichael for his son. Remarkably ‘only after a desperate fight was it possible to save the home of Mr E Andrews jnr, The School of Arts, the post office and the store. Blistered paint on the walls and burnt grass right to the buildings themselves showed the danger in which they stood during the severest part of the fire’. (from newspaper article)

The survival of the Hall would have meant a gathering place was still available for the survivors of the fire. That must have provided comfort for those left homeless. Later records show that the Hall was to be let free of charge for all Seaham district ‘Welcome Home’ functions celebrating the return of servicemen from World War II.

Electricity was supplied to the Hall and on 29 June 1945, the switching on of the lights was performed at a Grand Ball and Supper.

An interesting event in 1949 saw the Hall rented for the ‘drying of paspalum seeds’.

During the 1960s more Anzac Day services, ‘Sports Dances’, ‘Christmas Tree Parties’ and Oddfellows meetings were held there.

The Education Department used the Hall as a school room in 1962, 1963 and 1964. The P&C Association of the School held fund-raising dances in the Hall. The following is in no way an exhaustive list of activities at the hall through to the present:

Spinners and Weavers, dressmaking classes, Bush Dances, Youth Discos, Octoberfest, New Year’s parties, Heritage Day, Nostalgia Day, Cubs, Scouts, Taekwondo, Yoga, Modern Dancing, Lamington Drives and Preschool.

The Hall has provided a wonderful space for private functions such as birthdays for many locals. The addition of more modern facilities such as the kitchen and covered outdoor area made the Hall an attractive, affordable venue.

Office Bearers of Note

This is by no means a comprehensive list of the large number of contributors to the Hall.

  • Members of the Boag family lived at Seaham until the family was farewelled in 1967. The Boag name appeared on the School of Arts Committee for 71 years. The people of Seaham presented a silver coffee pot to Mr Jim Boag as a farewell gift.

  • Mr P Schmidt was secretary from 1948 to 1968.

  • Two members of the Carmichael family were involved with the Hall from 1902 to 1914.

  • Fisher family – Brothers George and Bill were office bearers from 1947 to 1986.

  • Bruce family – 1939-1956

  • Lamb family – 1902-1920

  • O’Keefe family – 1950-1976

  • Wilson family – 1945-1968

Some of the descendants of these families still live in the Seaham district.

Reverend Henry Carmichael

Gavin Carmichael, son of the Rev Henry Carmichael, was the first patron of the Seaham School of Arts. Henry was one of three Presbyterian clergymen from Scotland engaged by Dr John Dunmore Lang to come to Sydney to form the Australian College in 1831. In 1833 he helped found the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts, the first of its kind in NSW, and he served as vice-president for five years. It became a model for Schools of Arts in the colony where they provided a focal point for education and community activities. After three years he left the Australian College and in 1835 established private boarding and day school in Sydney. This venture was short lived and with his wife Nancy Ralston McClymont and children he moved to Seaham. He built his home ‘Porphyry’ around 1840 and opened the Williams River Grammar School, or the Seaham Lyceum. He advertised for student boarders to be educated with his own children. The Lyceum closed in the 1850s. Henry became an active member of the Seaham, Hinton and Paterson district communities, particularly in education and agricultural matters. Gavin’s son Dickson was the first treasurer of the Hall.

Porphyry is owned by Toby (Gavin) Ralston maintaining a family connection with the land of over 180 years.