On Bondi Beach

Book Review

On Bondi Beach is a collection of 54 autobiographical accounts of Bondi, compiled by a team of social scientists from NSW University. A broad range of perspectives gives the reader considerable insight into the character of Bondi and how it has—and hasn’t—changed over the years. The project was conceived by Ann Game, whose strong personal connection to Bondi inspired her to record how locals felt about the place.

My favourite story describes the onslaught of a southerly buster. In Land and ocean meeting, Murray Cox shares a childhood memory of leaning into the wind at Ben Buckler after hordes of people had evacuated the beach. Another pearl is Todd Jackson’s Guys suss other guys out, which gives a surfer’s view of what really matters: catching waves! In Surfers ruled the beach, Luke Kennedy grapples with the legacy of past surfers and the radical transformation that beset Bondi in the latter decades of the century. In other stories, we learn of the tremendous support given to less-fortunate members of the community, most notably by Fran Wootton, who established Norman Andrews House.

On Bondi Beach

The value of community is invoked throughout the book, with revealing anecdotes and personal reflections. One begins to sense that Bondi is composed of innumerable communities flowing in and around each other. The editors are to be commended. On Bondi Beach is a valuable contribution to the study of Bondi.

Dan Webber

Released: 20 October 2013

Bondi Stories Vol.1

First issue!

I would like to thank everyone who contributed material to this issue, and the many unique souls mentioned in their stories, some of whom are among the dearly departed. It is with great pride and a solemn heart that I respectfully acknowledge the many voices contained in these pages.

A huge thank you goes to the artist, Victoria Peel, whose pastel of South Bondi graces the front cover. Victoria’s great-great-great-uncle was none other than Barnett Levey, who is the subject of Bondi’s first larrikin, the last story in this issue. Vicki’s good friend, Joolee Eadie, is to be thanked for her photos of Andy Cochran, Barry Ross, Gary Moffatt, John Eccleston, Robert Fox and Wally Newell. These appear with the story by Robert Conneeley, entitled: The Hep Pit, which was actually taken from an interview by Matthew Ellks, who just happens to be his nephew.

I would also like to thank Margaret Dupré for her poem and the accompanying photos, one of which is credited to Dick Hoole, the surf film maker. In one of the photos, Margaret appears with her daughters India and Saffron sitting in front of the Pavilion. The decision to begin this first issue of Bondi Stories with a piece by Margaret Dupré is both a privilege and a tribute to one of Bondi’s classic characters.

Thanks also goes to Greg Webber, for his delightful vignette, entitled: Fuck Off, Trog!, and also for suggesting the name Bondi Stories, instead of Scum Valley, which was the original plan. Phil Leadley’s piece, entitled: The Lost Valley, bemoans the loss of community at Bondi, only to rejoice in its resurrection, through the bi-annual surfing contest and Old School Bondi Crew reunion. Thanks also goes to Mark Coleman, Richard Feyn, Michael Zaracostas, Lawrie Williams and Craig Robinson for sharing their accounts of one notorious beach inspector. Initially posted on Facebook, their comments appear within the article, entitled: The Beach Inspector. We will see if this becomes a regular feature.

A couple of blokes who have contributed immeasurably to surf culture through the medium of print, are John Witzig and Bruce Channon, both of whom documented Bondi’s surfing culture in the early seventies. John Witzig’s article, here entitled: The Beach Scene, captures the playground-like atmosphere of the urban beach. The piece by Bruce Channon, entitled Panache, is a uniquely revealing interview with some of the greatest names in Bondi’s surfing folklore: Brad Mayes, Steve Corrigan, Bruce Raymond, Ron Ford and Victor Ford.

I am especially grateful for Cheyne Horan’s contribution, entitled: The Hill, because it describes the world I entered as a kid stepping off the bus each day from Rose Bay in the mid-seventies. Ronnie Silcock gives us a taste of surf culture in the sixties, with a vignette entitled WindanSea. And his contemporary, John Sullivan, has given us an insider’s perspective on the legendary Bluey Mayes, whose life of surfing began in the 1930s. Harry Nightingale’s profile of his father, “Salty”, takes us back even further, to the very beginning of surfing in Australia. I cannot thank him enough for this contribution.

Last but not least, I would like to express my deepest appreciation to the B’nai B’rith Society for granting permission to include the article, originally entitled: Bondi’s First Jew, which was written by Bro. Dr. George F. J. Bergman and published in B’nai B’rith Bulletin, in 1955. I have taken the liberty of changing the title to: Bondi’s first larrikin, to suit the broader public. The story of Barnett Levey is uniquely relevant to this magazine, when you consider that his residence Waverley House was named after a famous novel with a social agenda. Perhaps, Bondi Stories is echoing the very same sentiment. In light of his commitment to literature as a vehicle of social development, it is an honour to carry on his legacy.

Dan Webber

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Old Bondi struggles to stay afloat

Published by Reuters in April 2002

Sunday morning, and Sydney’s Bondi Beach looks the same as it has for decades, tired and dishevelled, like a party girl with smudged mascara after a late night.

Garbage bins overflow with takeaway food wrappers and beer bottles litter the gutters. Drunks, like modern-day vampires, scurry home as the sun’s rays hit Australia’s most famous beach.

Surfers bob up and down in the waves as the Pacific Ocean licks an arc of white sand – the first of thousands of people that will flock to the waves during the course of the day.

But Bondi, once washed with sewage on the incoming tide until Sydney built a new wastewater treatment plant, is changing.

Last summer 1.9 million sun-lovers flocked to Bondi, which hosted the beach volleyball for the Sydney Olympics in 2000. But most visitors no longer head for the beach and surf, but sip lattes and cappuccinos in cafes overlooking the sand.

And the hordes of tourists have been closely followed to the seaside suburb by developers – leaving many residents worried their beloved egalitarian lifestyle will be swept away.

“I think Bondi it is losing its sense of community. I think it is losing its soul,” says Uniting Church Reverend Paul Cameron, who preaches at the “Chapel by the Sea”.

Just six km (four miles) from central Sydney, the suburb is now one of Australia’s most fashionable addresses, touted by real estate agents as home for the young and successful.

A dilapidated house a few streets back from the beach recently sold for A$1.22 million (US$650,000), beachside apartments sell for millions, and the paparazzi hunt Nicole Kidman and Keanu Reeves in Bondi’s trendy new cafes.

Around 64,840 people live in the nine square kilometres (3.5 square miles) around Bondi, a population density of 7,200 persons per square kilometre (18,500 per square mile) – compared with two people per square km for the whole of Australia.

Thousands of backpacking tourists crowd into backstreet hostels each year, including around 75 illegal hostels, local government officials say.
Concerned residents fret that Bondi is being loved to death, with litter, pollution, crime and traffic congestion on the rise.

Cameron says homelessness and drugs are also growing problems facing the new Bondi. “We have had a fairly safe service and now it has become a little bit more extreme,” he says.

TWO BONDIS

A social plan developed by Waverley Council, the area’s local authority, reveals Bondi’s split personality.

Its population is older than Sydney at large, with 14 percent of people aged over 65. There are more one-parent families, 43 percent of residents do not own their home but rent, and a third of residents are low-income earners.

But new residents are typically middle to high income people whose children have grown up, or childless professional couples – and they outbid the traditional residents for housing.

“High rents and loan repayments are causing low and medium income families with children, particularly those over 12 years, to move out of the area in search of cheaper housing,” the social plan said.

Ask Bondi’s old residents about the “gentrification” around them and they neither like it nor understand it.

“I don’t like the change, nyet. I love the beach and water,” declares an elderly Russian, who with three friends has played dominoes for the past 25 years at the same table alongside the Bondi Pavilion on the edge of the sand.

The new Bondi is so busy partying it has little time for the past. Forty years ago Bondi boasted one cafe, two milk bars and two fish and chips shops.

Today it is a culinary wonderland from the “Gusto” delicatessen, where beatnik types sit on milk crates on the street, to “Hugo’s” where couples dine by candlelight under cosy blankets to keep the sea breeze at bay.

But even Bondi’s cafe owners bemoan the rapid changes. Shop rentals have soared to around A$5,000 (US$2,660) a week for a small shop – five times the going rate 10 years ago – forcing many to make way for homogenous multinational fast food chains.

“People are getting squeezed out,” says Peter Berger, whose family has owned the “Gelato Bar” cafe since the late 1950s.

“There’s no way you can pay those rents. You can’t just put your prices up because people won’t come in,” says Berger.

He is happy with the influx of tourists which have bolstered his business, but not with Bondi’s inability to cope with its growing popularity, especially the mounting litter which spills from garbage bins at the end of each day.

“Bondi is an Australian icon it should look better…but it looks abominable. It should be more classy,” says Berger.

BOURGEOIS BONDI

Waverley Mayor Paul Pearce has lived in the area all his life. He says Bondi’s population is now more “bourgeois”, creating tensions within those seeking to preserve old Bondi.

“In a sense we have preserved the buildings, but to some extent we are losing the people,” he says.

“The old style community at Bondi which was very much centred around the surf clubs, a very blokey (male) sort of culture, has certainly changed but there is a relatively coherent sense of community amongst newer residents.”

But old Bondi refuses to die – not without a fight.

Cockroach-infested flats from the 1930s which have yet to be reincarnated still litter the beach streetscape – cheap rent for groups of Japanese surfers living their “Endless Summer”.

Old ladies with tattoos on their wrists from Nazi concentration camps engage in the traditional Sunday family promenade along the beach.

Bondi is a multi-cultural enclave with 24 percent of residents born in non-English speaking countries, such as Russia, Hungary, Poland and the Ukraine.

But even a bastion of old-Bondi, the Icebergs winter swimming club perched on the southern headland, is not immune to change.

Riddled with concrete cancer, the club faced demolition until a benevolent developer transformed it into a multi-million dollar glass and white edifice.

Social membership of the Icebergs, with its new five-star restaurant and cafe, has become one of Sydney’s hottest tickets.

But each Sunday morning in winter, just like their founders 73 years ago, the “real” Icebergs race each other in their ocean pool, reminiscent of a time when all you needed to be a Bondi resident was a pair of swimming trunks.

MICHAEL PERRY

Postcard Bondi Beach: A cultural melting pot

Published by Reuters in March 1992

As the sun’s first rays stretch across the sands of Bondi Beach and onto its ageing 1920s shops, Australia’s most famous beach looks a little seedy and hung-over.

Saturday night is party night at Bondi. Sunday morning is not a pretty sight. Garbage bins overflow with refuse from late-night take-away diners: pizza cartons, hamburger wrappers and cans of Foster’s beer litter Campbell Parade which skirts the beach.

Mini-skirted party girls wearing enough make-up to plaster the crumbling Hotel Bondi scurry home.

Agile joggers in swimsuits sidestep a few bleary-eyed tourists with British accents who wobble drunkenly head-first into the surf, jeans and all.

Before long, it’s the turn of the elderly migrants from eastern Europe, power-walking along the concrete promenade in a uniform of tracksuit, towelling headband, sandshoes and thick gold jewellery.

In the water, bobbing up and down like circus seals in fluorescent costumes, are Bondi’s famed surfers.

Scores of young Japanese, in Australia to learn English, join the line-up in the water as long as the waves stay waist-high. When the swells grow, their numbers thin.

Despite its jaded appearance Bondi has become home to a potpourri of nationalities.

The Waverley municipality which surrounds Bondi, covering nine sq km (three sq miles), is home to more than 60,000 people. According to the latest census 39 per cent were born overseas, 24 per cent in non-English speaking countries.

Walk along Campbell Parade and you will hear not only various versions of English, but more than 25 other languages, mostly east European, Russian, Hebrew, and Spanish.

By mid-morning the screams of young children echo from the northern end of the beach as Australia’s junior surf lifesavers, the Nippers, go through their paces.

North Bondi is the domain of the beach’s long-term, working class residents. The small ocean rock pools offer safe swimming for children, while Ben Buckler, Bondi’s northern point, shelters mothers and babies from summer’s blustery nor’easterlies.

Overlooking the northern corner is Tobruk House, a club for returned servicemen, an enclave of conservative Australia circa 1940s — cheap beer, bingo and weekly in-house movies.

In stark contrast, the southern end of the beach is Australia 1992; hedonistic, trendy, loud and naked.

On two cylindrical ramps heavily-padded skateboarders perform their landbased surfing before wide-eyed tourists.

Renovated blocks of flats have been turned into chic cafes where a capuccino sipped over the morning papers is de rigueur for writers, artisans and actors — Bondi’s newest arrivals.

By midday, when the blistering sun is high above, the southern sands are littered with naked and semi-naked bodies, their owners oblivious to the fact that Australia has the highest skin cancer rate in the world.

One woman sunbather has two swimming costumes — one to wear on the beach, the other in the water. For some men a small pouch and a piece of string suffices.

Bare flesh attracts not only sand flies but voyeurs who linger nonchalantly on the promenade. But no one seems to mind — after all, this is the beach where the local boardriders’ club is called ITN (In The Nude).

Carved out of the rocks that form the southern point is the white-washed Bondi Icebergs swimming club, established in 1929. Just 1.15 dollars (1.12 U.S.) buys a glass of beer and the best view of Bondi, albeit it through salt-encrusted windows.

On the first day of winter each year the elite male club, the Icebergs, throw huge chunks of ice into their ocean pool before diving in.

As Bondi bakes, the air fills with exotic smells from Thai, Vietnamese, African, Italian, and Lebanese restaurants.

Bronzed inspectors cruise up and down the beach, walkie-talkies in hand. In the first two months of 1991, around 500 people, many of them Japanese or English, had to be rescued from Bondi’s pounding waves, despite multi-lingual signs stating where swimming is safest.

By mid-afternoon, a cacophony wafts through the heat from the Bondi Pavilion, where a reggae band seduces dreadlock dancers and first generation Italian-Australians strut to ghetto-blasters.

In the 1930s, when a crowd of 80,000 sun worshippers was not uncommon on a hot weekend, the pavilion was an open air venue for tuxedoed big bands.

Today it is a community centre featuring yoga and aerobic classes, as well as a money change and souvenir shop for busloads of Japanese tourists.

As dusk descends the east European migrants return with their families for an evening stroll along the promenade before dinner at either the Jewish Hakoah Club or the Russian Black Sea restaurant.

Anglo-Saxon Australians have deserted the beach for dinner in front of the television and the Sunday night football replay.

By nightfall, the beach is empty but for the surfers who stay long after dark waiting for that one great ride.

MICHAEL PERRY

Bondi

Published in Tracks in January 1971

The crews hang at various places. At the tunnel, the second ramp, the first ramp, the rocks near the end of the beach, and at the baths. There are younger kids at the tunnel. They are swollen in numbers because it’s hot and it’s nearly holidays. They’re young and stoked and they haven’t yet acquired specific characteristics like the other groups. Or if they have they’re keeping quiet about it so far.

Bondi gets good in winter. A lot of waves and the crowds are not bad. In summer it’s the most populated bit of beach in the country. From the harsh dawn there are joggers and strollers and sitters and swimmers. There are hundreds of kids that walk out of the wilderness with a board under an arm and a towel in a hand and sunburn cream on a nose. On those summer weekends it’s glary at six o’clock and the sun is hot when it’s an inch above the horizon. The kids pull on their shorts, squint at the good peak that’s formed in the south corner, look around for someone’s wax. Old men do Yoga amongst the rocks. Joggers jog out of the hills and along the concrete promenade. And the surfers hit the peak, and it’s crowded by seven o’clock.

There are a lot of people. They go by one another without recognition. In the water, despite the crowds, there isn’t a fierce competitiveness. There are too many people for that somehow. They withdraw to their own worlds. The simple facts of survival ensure a respect and consideration that is implied mostly, and almost carelessly.

Brad Mayes is one of a lot of good surfers at Bondi. He hangs mostly at the second ramp. His surfing shows traces of Ted Spencer, perhaps the littlest bit of Nat, and it’s probably representative of the strongest group at Bondi. There are influences from the Wilderness community at Yamba and the characteristics aren’t any sort of turn or cutback. They are more basic versatility and adaptability. The waves they ride have sorted that out. It’s good surfing and Bondi surfers handle any place pretty well. They formed a club called East Coast last winter. One of the reasons was that they’d be able to take the young kids away on trips. They have not done that yet, but they’ve won a few contests and they’ve had a split in the ranks. The Fords pulled out of the club because they didn’t think that they were getting enough out of it. They’re called the Reformers. They didn’t get all that stoked about the social turns and the kegs that blew some of the club bread. And you don’t make it with the Fords if you’ve got a girlfriend.

There are four Ford brothers and five or so others that are pretty tight. Most weekends they hit Narrabeen. It stands out immediately in the quick arm swinging turn cutback. When they’re at Bondi they hang at the baths. And sometimes they wear coloured singlets while they’re surfing. When they wore them at Angourie it didn’t show too much insight into the vibe of the place. They go northside in a white Kombi that’s got McCoy stickers and ‘Northie forever’ written on it. They look alike and they surf alike and they take some of the young kids places that they wouldn’t otherwise get to go. It’s three or four hundred yards from the second ramp to the Baths. Clashes at Bondi have their own restrained sort of style.

The Fords ride McCoys with the rest of Narrabeen. Brad just bought a chined Hayden from Spider and Garry at Robert Conneeley’s surf shop. For the moment there’s no one shop that’s the fashionable thing. There are a lot of backyard boards and some of them aren’t very good, but no one seems to care too much. There is a sprinkling of Shanes, Astro Boy rides one, and Wayne Williams rides a board he made himself. Young Brock, who’s the artist of the second ramp, rides a Wilderness. Naturally.

Smaller groups of surfers gather at spots along the wall and on the sloping grass above the beach. It’s not too different to any other beach. Except Bondi has its own brand of person and surfer. He’s a product of the density of population. There are so many kids who live within ten minutes of the beach. To get along, they have to be resourceful, and they have their own kind of detached consideration. And when you watch the surfers in the water you realise how good they are. The locally grown product of the most concrete metropolitan beach in the country is pretty hot. They get more waves than most people realise. As many as anyone who consistently surfs a home beach. They know its mood and the hour when it’s likely to be good. In winter they’re happy to hang at home. The water south is cold, and for short weekend trips, when they go, it’s south. They haven’t preached the Southern Trip and so far it’s untouched by the media. Some of them think that the southside generally has had a bad time from the magazines. That it hasn’t got the recognition that it deserves. Others sense that that’s the best thing about it.

Bondi’s got nothing much going for it. It’s a product of the worst absence of environmental planning in history. It’s garlanded by sewerage outlets to the north and to the south, and every time the rain tries to wash the beach into the sea the Council get their bulldozer out and fixes things up. If they left it alone, the bank in the south corner would probably be much better, much more.

Over population makes the summer weekends nightmares. They are gross in the worst possible way. The kids recognise it, dislike it, and put up with it. And they carry this discipline into their surfing. Somehow, out of it, with the normal number of casualties, has come a group of surfers with an extraordinary basic strength. As individuals, their surfing is balanced and straight. As a group they’re not overbearing. Bondi’s got nothing much going for it but it’s kids.

JOHN WITZIG

Barnett Levey: First Jew in Bondi

First published in B’nai B’rith bulletin, July, 1955.
By Bro. Dr. George F. J. Bergman.

What was Bondi like in 1833? Turning the pages of the N.S.W. Calendar of this year, I found the description of a “bush walk” from Macquarie Place in the City to Bondi Beach.

Early map of Bondi

There was no Central Synagogue, neither were there flat houses there: but “some good specimens of weeping birch are seen here which, when in bloom, are singularly beautiful. There are also specimens of zunika palm, also the fern tree, and on the right, in the bush—where the Shanghai Jews now live in Bronte flats—the fan palm commonly called the cabbage tree may be found; a little further is a grassy spot indicated by the ruins of a house. The bays on this part of the coast, backed by barren rising ground, have something of a peculiar loneliness about them. The solemn roar of the breakers, the shiny shady beach, unmarked by human foot—and the low but beautiful shrubs make up a scene to be peopled by imagination. Botanists resort hither to view, in flower, many shrubs rarely to be met elsewhere”.

Here we are! Bondi, the lonely botanical bush garden of a hundred and twenty years ago. The beaches never trodden by thousands of feet . . . a ruined house, that was all!

The Calendar speaks also of a “bushroad, leading to a hill on which stands Levey’s tower, an octagonal obelisk, commanding an excessive view”, and “a quarter of a mile further we come to Waverley House, built by Mr. Barnett Levey”.

Waverley House

Waverley House was the first house in the district.

Here Barnett Levey, first Jew in Bondi, and more or less the first permanent inhabitant of this suburb lived in a marvellous home which for many years formed the attraction of the district. And he even foreshadowed the great builders of the great flat houses of the twentieth century, because we read also in the Calendar: “Adjoining is Waverley Crescent, a range of cottages projected by Mr. Levey, but of which only 2 or 3 are completed”.

Barnett Levey

Barnett Levey

Who was Barnett Levey and what kind of a man was he?

Barnett Levey was an English Jew and a free settler. It was in 1817 that we first hear of him, and at this time, although only 19 years of age, he was already a perfect businessman.

His brother, Solomon Levey, who was one of the greatest merchants in the city and partner of the renowned banker and general merchant Daniel Cooper, bought in 1817 for the price of £400 a property at 72 George Street which was then called “Sergeant-Majors Row”, as many Non-Commissioned officers lived in this street. Solomon sold this property in the same year, 1817, to Barnett. This is the property on which Dymocks Building stands today.

Barnett opened there a store and established himself as General Merchant, selling not only tobacco, sugar, tea and, of course, spirits, but also providing spiritual nourishment by selling books and prints.

The business flourished well and in 1826/27 he erected a warehouse behind the store. He called it “Colchester Warehouse”. It was an imposing five storey building, the plans of which had been designed by Sydney’s leading architect, the convict Francis Greenway.

He also built there a flourmill and Colchester House was topped with a windmill which provided the power for the flourmill.

He then had the store remodelled as a hotel —the Hotel Royal—for which he obtained a license.

His fortune seemed to be made.

It was at this time that he built his residence on the corner of what is now known as Old South Head Road and Pine Avenue and called it “Waverley House” after the novels of Sir Walter Scott, his favourite author. It was a two storey building in pure Georgian Colonial style, in an elevated position, commanding the view of Sydney to the west and of the ocean to the east and surrounded by gardens.

Waverley House once served as a school for destitute girls.

There is a reference to Waverley House in the “Sydney Gazette” which, one cannot doubt, caused widespread comment and amusement in those days. In the “Sydney Gazette” of October 15th, 1827, we read:

“Mr. Barnett Levey, besides the erection of his frightfully lofty temple in town, is also building a handsome dwelling house upon his estate on the South Head Road, within a few minutes from Bellevue. As soon as the house is finished, Mr. Levey intends erecting a church near his estate for the benefit of the neighbourhood in that direction”.

This note, inserted probably by a practical joker, very soon found the appropriate answer. Two days later, the following “Letter to the Editor” was published in the “Gazette”:—

“In this morning’s paper you make a great error. As far as your statement goes as to building on my little estate is true, but as to building a church is totally wrong. I think a grog shop would find more inside passengers on that Road.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant, B. Levey”.

The house was demolished in 1904, after it had served as a convent and subsequently as a school for destitute girls and later as a boy’s school. In 1924 a modern house, called “Eurangai” was built on this place.

Barnett held open house in Waverley and in May 1928 he was broke. He had to borrow £4402 on the security of his famous mill. And in addition, through this mill, he had come into trouble with the Government.

Levey must have had very good connections in Government circles as long as Macquarie and Sir Thomas Brisbane were Governors. He was, with Sir John Jamieson and the three first explorers of the Blue Mountains, the only person to whom land in this district had been granted before the general opening up of the area and the land sales there started.

But under Brisbane’s successor, Governor Darling, the situation must have deteriorated very much and he must have fallen out of favour. The reason for it was that famous mill and a letter concerned with it.

We are in the year 1827 and in the time of the awakening of the Australian settler to national independence, of the revolt of the free settler against the tyranny of the Governors. This revolt was led by the lawyer William Wentworth, famous through his participation at the first crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1813 and later to be one of the greatest Australian statesmen. It was Wentworth, who in his first “free” and not Government inspired newspaper “The Australian”, seconded by Wardell’s “Monitor”, attacked the Government.

It seems that many of Sydney’s Jews and Barnett Levey in particular took an active part in the agitation and in the open criticism of the Government which had started by the end of 1826 approximately. The Jews were not afraid to speak up.

The Jewish community of this time was by no means negligible.

The first report of the York Street Synagogue, dated 1845, says that “in the years of 1827/28 the worldly conditions of the Hebrews in this colony had considerably improved for various reasons”. And it was then that a Mr, P. J. Cohen offered the use of his house for the first organised Jewish services. From different sources it is evident that the first Jewish congregation was founded in 1832 Mr. G. B. Montefiore being its first president. A temporary synagogue was used and called “Beth Tephilla”.

But let us return to Barnett Levey and his mill.

In Series 1, Volume XIII of the “Historical Records of N.S.W.”, I found a private despatch of Governor Darling of 6th February, 1827, to the Under Secretary of State, Mr. Hay, in London, after whom, by the way, Mount Hay near Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains had been named.

Here Darling opens his heart to his superior and writes:—

“I have alluded to Mr. William Wentworth in some of my late letters, as appearing desirous to lead the public and degrade the Government on all occasions; I cannot perhaps furnish a better proof than by sending the enclosed copy of a letter to the Attorney General, written in Mr. Wentworth’s hand, but signed by a person by the name of Levey, who is of the lowest class, having commenced erecting a windmill in the centre of the town of Sydney on ground to which he has no claim. The Attorney General was instructed to desire that he should desist, to which he sent the answer drawn up by Mr. Wentworth. The style and the tone of the letter speak for themselves”.

The letter is indeed, impertinent enough. It is dated 30th January, 1827, addressed to Mr. W. H. Moore, Attorney General, and reads:—

“It is not true that I have ever had any notice to discontinue the building of the mill on my premises, although it has been notorious to the Governor and the whole Colony that this building has now been in progress for upwards of nine months. The enclosed certificates from my neighbours, who are most interested in the abatement of this nuisance, if it be one, will shew they do not view it in this light; and I can only say that, if it be a nuisance, the Government windmill is an equal nuisance, and I will take care, shall meet with the same fate as mine. I decline furnishing you with the particulars of my title to the yard upon which the building is being erected. I believe it to be as good a title as any in the town, and I will take care to defend it, if it be sought to be impugned. If this notice had been given me in due time, I might have desisted. To desist now, would be next to ruin; and if the Government are really anxious about the lives of His Majesty’s subjects, as it pretended, let them pay for their default in not giving me notice sooner, and I will leave off.
I am B. . . . . . B. Levey”.

No wonder that Governor Darling, depicted as “remaining hypersensitive to criticism” became enraged by this letter.

But nothing happened and Governor Darling went very soon afterwards the way of most of the early Governors, back to England, into temporary disgrace.

Although under the new Governorship of Sir Richard Bourke, Levey came into grace again, his finances did not improve.

It was then that he conceived the idea of retrieving his shattered fortunes by establishing a theatre, the first permanent theatre in Australia.

To finance this enterprise, he started with giving concerts. He obtained in June 1829, a license from the Governor to open a concert for vocal and instrumental music and for the performance of plays. Colonel Allen of the 57th Regiment gave him permission to use the Regimental Band at the first concert.

Barnett gave several concerts in the “grand saloon” of his hotel. He was his own star artist and although his pathetic rendering of the still famous convict ballad “My Love has gone to Botany Bay” was loudly cheered, money came in very slowly.

By May, 1830, his finances were desperate. Soon afterwards even the windmill was taken down. He then evolved a scheme to sell the “Royal Hotel” on the so-called “tontine system” under which, as the original subscribers to shares died off, the capital and interests accumulated in the hands of the survivors until the fortunate one who lived the longest owned all the property. However, although the impressive name of the grazier-magnate John MacArthur headed the list of the subscribers, the scheme flopped. The Hotel was eventually sold in auction in 1831 and Levey became a jeweller and watchmaker.

But this indefatigable planner was by no means beaten. In 1832 he popped up with a series of nice “At Homes” in the Royal Hotel at which he induced 500 persons to take out modest subscriptions of 5 shillings towards establishing the theatrical venture so dear to his heart. At these “At Home” concerts he was again mostly his own actor and sang to nine songs at one evening, patriotic, sentimental and comical ones.

And now he started in earnest on his theatre plans. He gathered a company of actors and prepared a temporary stage in the saloon of the hotel and in a shed at the rear of the building. The 26th December, 1832, may be regarded as the birthday of all legitimate drama in Australia. It was on this day that Barnett Levey opened his theatre with Douglas Jerrold’s play “Black-eyed Susan”.

On 25th December, 1827, he inserted a notice in the “Sydney Herald” as follows:—

“To the Poets of Australia. Barnett Levey offers a silver medal with a suitable inscription engraved thereon, for an approved opening address to be spoken on the first night of the Theatre Royal, Sydney, composed and written by a Native of the Colony and to be submitted for the approval to the Committee of Management who are gentlemen of talent and of the first respectibility”.

In 1833 a licence was granted to Levey by Governor Sir Richard Bourke for instituting dramatic performances as a regular thing, with the restriction on that he would only perform such pieces as were licenced in England by the Lord Chamberlain.

In the same year, 1833, Barnett Levey built the “Theatre Royal” on the land adjoining the hotel, a large handsome structure, seating nearly 1000 people in the pit, gallery and two tiers of boxes. Admission charges were 5/- for the dress circle, 4/- for the second circle, 3/- for tha pit and 2/- for the gallery.

Sydney had been starved of drama for so long that the theatre was crowded when it opened its doors on 5th October, 1833, to witness the opening performance of “The Miller and His Men”.

Barnett Levey, surveying the scene, might well have believed that his troubles were over—but he was to be sadly disappointed.

The newspapers with one accord, blasted the performance, declaring the feminine players “timid” and the males either “mouthed abominably” of “moving with a jerking stiffness”. The troubles increased when brawls broke out among the tough ex-convicts who frequented the gallery.

A letter to the “Monitor” complained that the theatre was full of “unshaven, half-intoxicated filthy scoundrels” and the “Sydney Gazette” thundered about the “half-tipsy, half-strumpet audience”.

I cannot describe the troubles he had with his actors who went sometimes on strike, or went off on a drinking bout. They were a colourful and eccentric lot. And they had to be versatile. His leading Shakespearian was Conrad Knowles. In one evening he played Shylock, sang a duet “Pretty Polly Perkins” with Mrs. Jones, gave a comic recitation in broken English—that will say probably in Yiddish—and wound up the night’s work in playing the leading role in a bloodthirsty melodrama, “The Italian Brigand”.

Despite squabbles with the players, financial crises and the blast of the critics who accused him of encouraging the “mass of debauchers and gaping idlers”, Levey battled on.

In 1835 he lost control of the Theatre to six lessees, but a year later was back in control again.

He kept the wolf from the door with a long series of bloodcurdling melodramas, including “The Wizard of the Moor”, “The Devil’s Ducat”, “The Spectre Bride”‘. “The Murder on the Hearth”, “The Shadowless Man” and many others.

He was occasionally able to bask in vice-regal patronage, as Sir Richard Bourke several times honoured the theatre with his presence.

On October 1st, 1836, Levey could proudly advertise the appearance of the first London actress on the Australian stage, Mrs. Chester, straight from the hallowed boards of Drury Lane.

At this time he was obviously still engaged in other enterprises, as the Minutes of the Australian Gaslight Company record that at a General Meeting of the shareholders held at the Royal Hotel on 29th June, 1836, Barnett Levey was appointed one of the directors of the Company.

In April, 1837, he staged a “grand national and patriotic pageant” at which 40 members of the 4th Regiment “by the kind urbanity of Major England”, joined the cavalcade, rigged out as members of Napoleon’s Old Guard.

But by now, although only 39, Barnett Levey was a sick and exhausted man, worn out by the interminable wrangles to make his theatre pay.

The mass of complications proved too much for him. On October 2nd, 1837, he died, leaving a distressed widow and four young children.

His widow closed the theatre for a week, then re-opened it and struggled on until March 22nd, 1838, when Sydney’s first theatre, the Theatre Royal of Barnett Levey closed its doors. It stood empty and deserted until it burnt down on St. Patrick’s Day of 1840.

What were the Jewish connections of Barnett Levey and what position did he hold in the Jewish community of Sydney? About that we do not know very much, because the first records of the Sydney congregation date only from a time after his death. But there is hardly any doubt, that he was a member of the first congregation and took part in its religious and social life. His brother Isaac Levey—Solomon had returned to England—was a foremost member of the congregation and its president in 1854 and the family is still existing in Australia. The late Colonel A. W. Hyman, a well-known personality in Sydney who, in the first volume of the Journals and Proceedings of the “Australian Jewish Historical Society”, published a short biography of Barnett Levey, was his great-grand-nephew, a great-grandson of Isaac Levey.

I would like to close this lecturette with the testimonial which Mr. C. H. Bertie gave to Barnett Levey in his “Story of the Royal Hotel and the Theatre Royal”:—

“Barnett Levey was a true pioneer. He possessed initiative and force and ahove all, he had the unquenchable courage which defied defeat and is only conquered by the hand of death. He was a little in advance of his time, otherwise his descendants today would number probably a baronetcy in the clan and a large rent role to support it”.

And I may add to this appraisement of the “Father of the Australian Theatre” the words which were written quite recently in the “Sydney Morning Herald” when the person of his contemporary, the philantropist J. G. Raphael, was remembered on the occasion of the demolition of his old house at 54 Young Street, Sydney:—

“He was one of the many worthy Jews who came to this country in the early days and who made good”.

Commonwealth Pacific Cable System

The ship is the C.S. Retriever, which is laying an undersea telephone cable system connecting Australia, NZ, Fiji, Hawaii and Canada.

The Commonwealth Pacific Cable System (COMPAC) was an undersea telephone cable system linking Canada, Hawaii, Fiji, New Zealand and Australia. At a cost of $100 million, the link contained 11,000 miles of telephone cable, which provided 80 two-way speech channels or 1,760 teleprinter circuits. The Overseas Telecommunications room still exists under Queen Elizabeth Drive between 2nd and 3rd ramps. It was originally staffed by people who would relay information using morse code.

The cable has existed in different forms for over 100 years and it has been upgraded a number of times. The room was known as the Cable House and was originally operated by the Australasia and China Telegraph Company. In 1911 the cable room was under a band rotunda in the park at Sth Bondi. Every now and then the cable is exposed when the beach is eroded by big seas.

In 1911 the cable room was under a band rotunda in the park at Sth Bondi.