The House Of Spouse

Aerial view of Atheneum (front) and Coliseum (behind) -corner of Little Bridge and Grenville Streets in Ballarat

Welcome to the house of Spouse a large edifice that went under an even larger title, the Coliseum. It was on a cool, late October afternoon in the historic gold mining town of Ballarat that P. C. Spouse from Auburn, New South Wales captivated one and all on a Miniature Boomerang mouth organ. He blew away thirty two other rivals in a gladiatorial contest to be crowned the 1925 Australasian Mouth Organ Champion. The Coliseum was owned by the South Street Society, whose foundation transpired when eight teenage men (none over the age of seventeen) were invited to form a debating group by William Hill (later Secretary of the Society) in 1879. The first Grand Annual Eisteddfod of Australasia was held by the Society in 1891 and it continues to this day.

The Coliseum’s name was coined in August of 1908 just before the building finished completion. The new establishment was deemed a necessity after people were turned away from the the Grand Gala Choral night the previous year. It only took eleven weeks to construct this amazing building – the biggest in Ballarat. The main hall was 180 by 120 feet, the stage covered 50 x 40 feet and the upper gallery, which could seat 2,000, ran right round the inner sanctum. It was originally hoped that it would seat 10,000, but it never quite met that expectation. The old South Street building was relocated to front the new building in Grenville street and would be renamed the Atheneum.

Original South Street building moved by jinker of fourteen horses to new location in front of the Coliseum and later named the Atheneum (1908)

The National Eisteddfod held at the Coliseum matured from its humble beginnings of debating adding calisthenics, choral, and band (brass and highland pipe) contests to the program. In 1906 a Grand Opera contest was featured with our very own international star Dame Nellie Melba awarding the prizes.

In 1925, after both conjecture and resentment, a Mouth Organ Contest was included in the Eisteddfod with Albert & Sons of Sydney, who owned the Boomerang mouth organ brand, providing £43 in cash prizes plus gold and silver medals. There was just a small catch – it was to be named The Boomerang Championship and contestants could only use their model. At the completion of the contest it appears that participants may have been provided with a new Boomerang De Luxe model (shaped like an actual boomerang), a new line for that year. Many pundits thought a Mouth Organ competition was not in keeping with the fine traditions of the South Street Society. The Melbourne Weekly Times reported in November 1924 of its probable addition to the South Street competition as “..something of a musical novelty, one, that probably few would expect to find on a South Street schedule.” They concluded the brief report with a facetious remark, “It remains for devotees of the tin whistle and jew’s harp to bring their claims before the South Street Society.” It was, however a great success with the thirty three entrants from all across the country competing in front of a crowd in excess of 3,500.

Inside the Coliseum at the inaugural Australasian Boomerang Mouth Organ Championship Monday October 12, 1925 (Sydney Mail, Wednesday December 2, 1925).

Victorian born and raised P. C. Spouse (Percy), returned to his birth state in 1927 (having missed the championship in 1926) to reclaim the title. He then went back to back winning in 1927 and a fourth title was added in 1935.

The World’s News, Sydney 3 July 1926

Runner Up(s)?

And what of the runner up in 1925? Often it’s just about the winner – to the victor go the spoils. Mr H. H. Hirst from Upper Murray (Towong Upper) must have been some exponent falling short by just two points to the legendary P. C. Spouse. Doesn’t appear that he achieved the heady heights in the harmonica world like the winner. There were no more reports of him being placed in any contest that I could dig up in either the print media or in the South Street records.

Photo courtesy of ANU Archives – http://hdl.handle.net/1885/246512

There were two instances of a H. Hirst that I uncovered. Firstly, where he was recalled for a mouth organ selection at the Band Hope Of The Week meeting held in the Geelong Central Hall, March 1928. The second, a mouth organ band photograph from 1929, where he was the conductor of the Excelsior Mills Mouth Organ Band. Was he the son of the famous Gordon Hirst? The man who is said to have revived the woollen mill industry in Australia with his two Geelong Excelsior Mills. Further research suggests not, but maybe he was a relation.

Ancestry records show a Hilton Hirst from South Geelong born 1887 and died in 1957. World War 1 records have a Hilton Hirst, born in 1887, whose registration papers had his occupation as a mill hand mechanic from Excelsior Mills, who was born (and resided) in Geelong. Could it be? I’d say it’s a good chance that it’s the same H Hirst that is conducting the Excelsior Mouth Organ Band. But is he the H. H. Hirst from Upper Murray, who was runner up in the 1925 Boomerang Australasian Mouth Organ Championship? That is the sixty thousand dollar question. Was he working at a mill in the Upper Murray that year? Nothing but questions and conjecture – no certainties.

Archie

I did, however manage to locate the third place getter, J. A. Sinclair of Lane Cove, purely by accident. In an unrelated search an Archie Sinclair was said to have entered the Australasian Championship for a joke and that he was amazed when he was announced runner up. (Townsville Daily Bulletin, 22 November 1945). J. A. Sinclair finished third in the 1925 Championships and was equal second in the imitation section only one point behind the winner Keith Hogan from Chicago, South Australia.

Ray Grieve, author and harmonica historian, confirmed that Archie was indeed J A Sinclair, “Archie or Arthur Sinclair would have to be James Sinclair member of the North Sydney Tramway Mouth Organ Band. He was a friend of P. C. Spouse and they both travelled together from Sydney to Ballarat in 1925 to enter the Championship. Not sure about the other years. He lived somewhere around Chatswood apparently. Gertrude Spouse, Percy’s widow, remembered Sinclair visiting their house often and duetting with Spouse. I’m almost positive that Archie was his nickname. I think he was referred to as Archie when I interviewed some North Sydney Tramway members back in the 1980s.”

Ray added, “It seems that both Spouse and Sinclair were encouraged to enter the Championships – all organized by Alberts. Frank Albert was said to have commented that Spouse was the best player he had ever heard and would have a big chance of winning and urged him to enter the Championship. If Spouse won, he wouldn’t ever bother to find another player to promote the Boomerang. James Sinclair, being his friend probably went along as a second choice and in fact was a ‘runner-up’. He came third. It seems he then devoted most of his time to the North Sydney Tramway Mouth Organ Band, in fact they scored a recording contract soon after.”

North Sydney Tramway Mouth Organ Band in 1933. Is that Archie conducting?

It looks like Archie founded the North Sydney Tramway band not long after his placing in the 1925 Championship. J A Sinclair made the journey to South Street once more in 1928 and was again placed in the imitation section finishing third. He didn’t finish in the top four of the championship section of that year, but he might not have entered. It’s quite possible that’s Archie conducting in the 1933 photograph.

Fire In The House

In 1936 the Coliseum was razed to the ground by fire. I delved into the archives to sleuth the origin of the inferno. The local CFA never responded to my request and South Street Society, although promising some help, didn’t supply any additional information. There was no record in the daily’s of a report of an official inquiry, or even if arson was suspected. My suspicion that it was deliberately ignited cannot be authenticated. Certainly there appears nothing would be gained by the owners as it was under insured, but was there some other motive for someone to burn it down? A disgruntled mouth organ exponent, I doubt it, but you should always look close to home.

It was reported in The Argus, Melbourne 24 March, 1936 that the fire was first noticed by a Mrs F Golden, a cleaner who saw smoke coming from the back corner of the Coliseum stage at 10:15am. The alarm was sounded and the fire brigade arrived quickly, but the fire raged swiftly.

My research into the fire surfaced the following information.

1) The fire was the most serious in Ballarat in fifty years.

2) The fire was discovered by the cleaner Mrs F Golden who saw smoke underneath the stage floor near the middle of the eastern wall, where it’s built over the Yarrowee Creek channeling.

3) Two brigades arrived, but were thwarted by poor water pressure and a steady northerly easterly wind.

4) Fireman gave up on the Coliseum when they saw it was hopeless to save and concentrated on the Atheneum.

5) Within thirty five minutes of the outbreak the Coliseum, a wooden and galvanised building, was demolished.

6) 15,000 feet of movie film (composed of nitrocellulose) accelerated the fire.

7) Paramount Pictures, who had leased the Atheneum for the last twelve months, also lost a new £3,000 Western Electrics (Talkie) Machine and £7,000 of other equipment. This was their last week in the Coliseum with Ballarat Amusements Ltd and South Street Society taking over.

8) The Coliseum and contents was insured for £6,000 (Cost £13,000 to build) and the Atheneum for £1,000. Both buildings were owned by South Street Society

9) Overall damage was estimated between £20,000 and £30,000.

10) Insurance covering the Coliseum and property were not sufficient to meet the liability of £1,100.

11) An incident that occurred less than a month before (February 26) surfaced that “a member of Coliseum office staff discovered smoke in the stage section. Investigations did not disclose its cause and the Ballarat Fire Brigade was informed. Fireman saw smoke issuing from between the floorboards. One of the fireman went into the Yarrowee Creek beneath the building and found a stack of burning papers. He extinguished the fire with buckets of water. But for this application of the water the flames, though not actually in contact with the wooden flooring, might eventually have reached it causing the building to blaze up on that occasion. It was thought at the time small boys had been responsible for setting fire to the papers.” (The Argus, 27 March 1936)

I find the fire a little suspicious and wonder if an accelerant had been used at the ignition point due to the ferocity of the fire. Certainly there were many factors that could have magnified the intensity of the fire and not the least being the wind tunnel below the complex. It would be intriguing to know if the movie film was stored near the middle of the eastern wall where the witness had first discovered smoke. You would think it would have been mentioned in reports. Perhaps a reader might be of assistance? Sad to say that the grand historic building the Atheneum, that was said to have been saved, was bulldozed to the ground in May of that year. Perhaps heritage listed properties wasn’t heard of then.

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