Memories of Coffs Harbour High School 1958-59

This article was written by Neil Bonnell recalling his time as a teacher here in Coffs Harbour 1958-59, I’m sure current students would be surprised to see how much has changed but also how much has stayed the same.
pic of teacher (2)
Picture from the “The Beacon” 1958, the Coffs Harbour High School magazine, Neil Bonnell is in the third row.
Sixty years ago, Coffs Harbour was a small seaside town whose main claims to fame were its extensive banana plantations and its role as a major stop on the Sydney to Brisbane railway line.  The population was just 7,000 hardy souls who had to frequently visit Grafton for goods and services which were not available in Coffs.  The Pacific Highway south was liable to flooding or just closure at Nambucca Heads.  The twelve miles (we were not metric yet) north of the town was winding and in poor condition. There was no library or public swimming pool.  We did have a Woolworths and a Coles and the relaxed lifestyle made up for any deficiencies. 
The High School (the only one) at the Jetty catered for secondary students from a wide area.  Those who came furthest were the remaining Macksville students who travelled to and from school on the North Coast Mail.  Others came from Nana Glen in the north-west and Woolgoolga, known as “Woopie” even then, from the north.  Enrolments from both Bellingen and Macksville ceased after high schools were established in those towns.  Bicycles were the most popular mode of transport to school for local students.  Mr Eric Silk, the new Headmaster, used much of his time at school assemblies instructing students in road safety and warning against riding side by side on the road between the centre of town and the Jetty.  
I was regarded as extremely lucky to be sent to Coffs Harbour for my first teaching appointment, as the North Coast was a popular location.  My personal record at Head Office showed that I was qualified as an English/History teacher and was a lieutenant in the CMF.  It so happened that Mr G.A. Paterson who ran the Cadet Unit and taught English and History had been appointed English/History Master at Bellingen.  Someone at Head Office had made an informed choice. I had heard that the Cadet Unit was being run by a World War II Lt-Colonel and I was looking forward to working with him.  It was with some dismay that I learned that Lt-Colonel Paterson had filled that role and that I was expected to be CO in his place.
The Cadet Unit which numbered just under 120 boys conducted an annual camp, paraded in uniform on Anzac Day, provided the bugler to play the Last Post mounted an annual Passing Out Parade and possessed a band which participated in the town’s Anzac Day parade and service.  The signals platoon also provided communications for an important golf tournament at the local course.
Coffs Harbour High was in the process of rapid expansion.  In 1958 there were just over 670 students at the school.  The following year the total stood at about 760 if the records in The Beacon are correct. It was possibly over twenty more.  Only two extra staff were appointed. Relationships between staff and students were generally relaxed and congenial, although there were problem students and some difficult classes.  One of the most eccentric students was Alvin Murray.  He lived north of the town and during one holiday period he amused himself by placing a cardboard box on the highway and climbing inside.  He had poked eye-holes in the side facing the traffic, leaving the open side facing the side of the road.  At the last possible moment he would scuttle out of the box into the bushes.  Another was a boy in my roll call class, whom I privately called “Pedro the Fisherman.”  With a deep knowledge of the truancy laws, he would stay away from school until the last moment when the truancy inspectors would come looking for him. He told me that he spent his time fishing and offered to bring me a crab or two.  Recognising conflict of interest, I politely declined.
One result of my military connections was a message from Mr Silk asking me to go the office where the police were waiting to interview me.  It seems that I had assumed the title of Senior Military Officer in the district, a grandiose title for a mere lieutenant in charge of a small army depot catering for two platoons who paraded once a week.  I think that Mr Silk was considerate enough to mention that the police wanted advice on a military matter.  They had found in the garage of an unoccupied house an “aerial bomb”.  Could I please go and investigate?  As our Regular Army Warrant Officer was in town, I took him with me to see this bomb.  What we found was a 3 inch mortar shell seemingly intact and with a full set of propulsion charges in place around the fins.  We agreed that it was safe to move and took it back to the depot with us on the front seat of the army ute.  The one thing we didn’t want to do was drop it.  Further examination showed that the explosive material had been removed by means of small holes drilled into the side of the shell.  The detonator was still active and we gave that to the local council to destroy.
The staff at Coffs was reasonably stable, as an appointment to Coffs was not lightly given up.  The second most senior teacher in the Commerce Department was content to remain top of the list for promotion to Subject Master rather than be promoted and have to leave Coffs.  The majority of the teachers were well-qualified and experienced.  Most country secondary schools of any size were expected to provide a full curriculum including preparation for tertiary study, the trades and office work.  Furthermore, the teaching staff was refreshed periodically by the promotion system which encouraged upwardly mobile teachers to take their first promotion at each level in the country.  Occasionally, one could also find a pre-war graduate with first-class honours teaching in a secondary school.  Tom Byrne, English/History Master was one such example.
Several of the teachers had bought a few acres where they grew bananas.  Colleagues often helped them to “chip bananas”, which I think meant to remove weeds from around the trees.  If they were paid they had to be careful to keep records and declare their income, as inspectors from the Tax Office made frequent visits to the district.   Banana growers, it seems, were reluctant to fully declare their income.  Another unusual hobby for a teacher was lobster fishing in the harbour by the P.E. teacher who used to pop down there at lunchtimes.  Freshly cooked lobsters, by the way, could be bought for 2/6 (25 cents) at the Co-Op on the jetty.
If some readers are irritated by the sexist terms being used in this memoir, please be consoled by the fact that this was the language of the day.  It was a time when female teachers were fighting to be paid 75% of the male wage.  Equal pay was not to be achieved for several years. The senior members of the teaching staff were the Headmaster and Deputy Headmaster.  Teachers in charge of subject areas were classified as Subject Masters or Mistresses.  The heads of English/History, Mathematics and Science were all male, as were the heads of Commercial Subjects, Modern Languages and Manual Arts.  Female teachers were allowed to run the departments of Classical Subjects (Latin), Art, Home Science and Music.
In the classroom there were some quaint customs.  Boys and girls sat on opposite sides of the room. Boys were called by their surnames and girls by their Christian names.  I don’t remember total segregation in the playground, what there was of it.  There was, of course, no mixed sport with the exception of tennis.  Inter-school visits from Grafton and Macksville were highlights of the sporting calendar.  Boys and girls were part of the same team in athletics and swimming, but competed in separate events.  There was a High School cricket team organized by Don Tom which played in the district B Grade competition.  As it was an adult competition, teachers were allowed to play, as I did.  I believe that Don was elected to the Coffs Harbour Cricket Association Hall of Fame.  In the winter, girls were allowed to play the murderous game of hockey instead of the merely bruising game of Rugby League football.  No one had heard of soccer. Boys’ basketball teams as well as girls’ hockey teams not only competed in town competitions, but also won premierships in 1958.  These victories were won despite inadequate sporting facilities, as outlined by Sports Master R. F. Jarvis in The Beacon in 1959.  The swimming carnival, for example, had to be held in a branch of the creek opposite what is now the Botanical Gardens.
Wednesday afternoons were given over to sport which was held at various venues around town.  The school had no playing fields, just a small area on the railway side of Camperdown Street, which was large enough for softball.  Incidentally, both boys and girls had softball teams.  There were some students for whom Wednesday afternoon was the highlight of the week.  Unfortunately, during February and March particularly, it was liable to rain in the afternoon.  This seemed to happen on Wednesday more often than on other days.  When it was too wet to conduct sport, Wednesday morning’s timetable was repeated.  Disgruntled students and teachers presenting hurriedly prepared lessons was not a happy combination.  I dreaded wet Wednesdays.   To make up my quota of lessons, I was given five periods of P.E. per week in a school without a gymnasium.  In fine weather, I arranged softball matches on the Camperdown Streeet playing area. When it was wet, P.E. lessons were held in a cramped basement with no room for gym equipment.  Three of these periods were on Wednesday mornings when I had to resort to party games and quizzes such as buzz-buzz which was a counting game which required participants to say buzz whenever the number three or a multiple occurred.  Twenty questions and Chinese whispers also featured. When the afternoons were also wet, six periods of parlour games were a strain for all concerned.  It was the job of “Snow” Turner to make a weather forecast at about the time of morning break and declare sport on or off.  On more than one occasion, the weather cleared after the cancellation had been issued and it was too late to restore the sports afternoon.  Snow was not popular when his weather forecast was wrong.
One of the two classes I remember best was 2E 1959, with whom I fought for most of the year but then many years later taught the son of one them. The other was 3A 1958 which contained some very able female pupils.  Frank Walker, who later gained prominence in politics, could only come fourth in English.  He was, however, a most proficient debater.  I often wonder what happened to Bronwyn Phillips, Jill Nelson, Robyn Roche and Marilyn Haworth and what use was made of their talents.  What would be totally unacceptable today was the regular advertisement in The Beacon of The Bank of New South Wales. It offered jobs and training to “young ladies” (who would join the nicest girls) as a stenographer/typist, clerk/typist or in general clerical duties.  Judy Henderson (3A 1959 and Hall Of Fame) obviously didn’t take one of those jobs. Junior males were told that every new junior was regarded as a potential executive.  One of the great successes of the 1959 cohort was Diane Russell, who topped the State in English in the Leaving Certificate.
It was a different world. I had a busy two years in Coffs and gained very valuable experience.  There are those who would say that I was stupid ever to leave. 
Neil Bonnell  2018.

beacon pic 1958 (2)

2018's History Highlights from the Coffs Coast

Throughout 2018, the History Services Unit of the Library, Museum & Gallery Team’s goal has been to make our local heritage accessible to everyone. Whether it be digitally through this Blog, Facebook and our Museum Newsletter – subscribe here or view back issues through Trove here; or tangibly through our museum.
Coffs Harbour Regional Museum’s varied and interesting exhibitions this year have included:

  • Rime of the Ancient Mariner paintings by Geoff Mould and the associated sea themed open mic session on World Poetry Day.
  • Created from a Dream: A Gift of Calligraphy, which presented the beautiful handmade book “The North Coast Regional Botanic Garden – Created from a Dream”
  • Submerged: Stories of Australia’s Shipwrecks which included a very popular after dark event.
  • The Tasma Theatre: Coffs Harbour’s Jewel (currently on display)
  • Bananas to Beautizone: Coffs’ Changing Summers (currently on display)

Over the last 12 months there has been exciting and significant grants won by two talented members of our team that will ultimately have a great impact on public access to our local historical information, these were:

We would like to acknowledge and thank our museum and library volunteers, as well as the community for all of the considerable assistance they have contributed this year and wish everybody a Merry Christmas and a Happy and Healthy 2019.
I wonder whether Rene and Flo McCristal preparing Christmas dinner at the Pier Hotel, Coffs Harbour, 25 December Circa 1910,  would have preferred to have put a prawn on the barbie? Picture Coffs Harbour Collection,  mus07-1572

The Mountain Maid Mine of David Pont


David Pont Miner's pick (photographed 20181115)
David Pont’s mining pick – Coffs Harbour Regional Museum collection

David Pont was a Glenreagh-based man who married Charlotte Shipman in 1889 [1], and passed away in 1936. [2]
His main claim to fame was his “Mountain Maid” mine, which was the principal mine in the brief-lived Lower Bucca goldfield. [3]  The mine produced £20,000 of gold. [2]
While the Lower Bucca goldfield existed for only a few years from 1896, the village which sprang-up next to it, lasted well into the 20th century as an agricultural service centre, which included a school, store, hotel, and Mechanics’ Institute (School of Arts) at various stages.
The mining data sheet for the “Mountain Maid” mine (held by Coffs Harbour Regional Museum) gives a location of 0751E 6402N, which places the mine 200 metres south of the village.
The Upper Bucca goldfield (the Beacon Mines) also produced a village at the same time, but this Beacon Village was dismantled in the months after the Beacon company pulled the plug in 1899.
The Beacon Village was up in the scrub; the Lower Bucca Village was down on the plain.
UPS AND DOWNS. (1929, February 8). Coffs Harbour Advocate (NSW : 1907 – 1942; 1946 – 1954), p. 2.

This miner’s pick reminds us of how hard life was before mechanisation.
Australia’s gold-miners in the 1800s were known as “diggers”, because that’s what they did. Dig.
See David Pont’s miner’s pick at the Coffs Harbour Regional Museum.

  1. Glenreagh – A Town of Promise by Elizabeth Webb, 2001, p.30
  2. PERSONAL (1936, July 31). Coffs Harbour Advocate (NSW : 1907 – 1942; 1946 – 1954), p. 2.
  3. THE MINES AT CORAMBA, BUCCA CREEK AND CORINDA. (1896, August 18). Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton, NSW : 1889 – 1915), p. 5.

Volunteer Geoff Watts November 2018

The little Nymboida Post Office

Figure 1: circular date stamp

The black ink manuscript, Receiving Office cancellation, Little Nymboida, 20 Aug 13, over stamped with a Coramba, N.S.W. 20 August 1913 date stamp, tying a 1d red Kangaroo to piece (see Figure 1), is the only postal marking from this small office in the Northern Rivers Region of New South Wales, recorded by Hopson & Tobin [1]. I am not aware of any other recorded examples.
Little Nymboida Receiving Office
Little Nymboida opened as a Receiving Office on 1 November 1910, operated by Adolph Pauls, a German immigrant and farmer, whose property was located approximately 8 miles from the turnoff at the 8 Mile Peg on the existing Coramba to Brooklana mail route, at a location then known as Eastern Dorrigo [2]. Pauls was also contracted to convey and deliver settler mail exchanged at the 8 Mile Peg twice weekly. Representations by the Mole Creek Progress Association for establishment of a mail service, described the locality as being in the area of the Mole Creek and Little Nymboida River end of Eastern Dorrigo and inhabited by 40 settlers. The location is identified on the period map extract (see Figure 2) [3].
Figure 2: Little Nymboida

Interestingly, Hopson & Tobin recorded a Receiving Office at Mole Creek, 25kms from Coramba, opening on 1 January 1898 and closing on 25 April 1900. There is no reference to this past Office in correspondence contained on the Little Nymboida Post Office file. However, co-incidentally, Hopson & Tobin record Little Nymboida as also being located 25kms from Coramba.
The Progress Association’s desired alternate designation for the proposed receiving office, in the event that ‘Little Nymbodia’ might have been considered unsuitable, possibly clashing with the existing ‘Nymbodia’ Post Office, was ‘Leonora’. Nymbodia was of course Nymboida. As I have pointed out in previous articles, local discrepancies in the spelling of place names was not unusual for the period. The Office name was derived from that of the nearby Little Nymboida River.
Manuscript Cancellation
The manuscript cancellation is clearly in the hand of Adolph Pauls, as depicted in the example of correspondence contained on the Official Post Office File (see Figure 3). Of note, in this document is Pauls’ spelling of the proposed office name, ‘Little Nymbodia’, the spelling also used by the Progress Association in correspondence directed to the Postmaster Coramba.
In respect to the over stamping of the manuscript cancellation it is relative to note that instructions issued to Pauls by the Postmaster General’s Department on his appointment as Receiving Office Keeper included, “The Postage Stamps on the correspondence forwarded in the bags you send should be obliterated by the Postmaster at Coramba”.
Figure 3: Robinson’s four mile map of N.S.W

Little Nymboida was designated a Telephone Office on 4 May 1926 and a Non-Official Post Office in 1927. On 15 July 1931, the Post Office closed and it was again designated a Telephone Office operated by Adolph’s son, Ernest Henry Pauls. The Office temporarily closed for a short period in July 1936, before again reopening in August of that year. It finally closed on 31 August 1950.
Adolph Pauls passed away in 1934 and is buried at the Coffs Harbour Historic Cemetery alongside his wife Elizabeth [4].
[1] Hopson, N. C and Tobin, R S.W. and A.C.T. post, receiving, telegraph & telephone offices : their circular date-stamps and postal history. N. Hopson & R. Robin, [Sydney], 1991.
[2] National Archives of Australia: SP 32/1 LITTLE NYMBOIDA.
[3] E.C. Robinson Ltd Robinson’s four mile map of N.S.W. Published by H.E.C. Robinson Ltd, Sydney, 1913.
[4] Australian Cemetery Index 1805 – 2007 – Compiler: Coffs Harbour District Family Historical Society; Collection Title: Coffs Harbour & District Deaths, Burials, Cremations – 1866 to 2003.
This article was written by Mr Tony Curtis. Tony is a resident of Murrumbateman. He is a member of the Philatelic Society of New South Wales, The Australian States Study Circle Royal Sydney Philatelic Club, the Australian Philatelic Society and the Philatelic Society of Canberra Inc. He is also a member of the Canberra & District Historical Society Society and the Yass & District Historical Society. Tony is a retired former Commissioned Officer with the Australian Federal Police, inaugural Chief Executive of the A.C.T. Gambling & Racing Commission and Chief Executive and Executive Director of ACTTAB Ltd. He was awarded the Public Service Medal in the 2003 Australia Day Honours for outstanding service and in 2001 he received an Australian Group Citation for Bravery in his role as Australian Police Contingent Commander at the UNAMET Mission in East Timor in 1999.
Tony blogs at

The Tasma Theatre – the jewel of Coffs Harbour's cinema

Tasma Theatre, circa 1954, Picture Coffs Harbour mus07-1438
Cinema in Coffs Harbour
In the early years, “moving pictures” came to town with travelling shows that used country halls and other places of public assembly. In Coffs Harbour, the venue was the School of Arts, a basic, hall-like building which opened on the north side of High Street, between Grafton and Castle Streets, in 1904. This was a vibrant centre of community life, used constantly for dances, balls, musical evenings, plays and public meetings. In 1908, it was significantly expanded and re-modelled, with a library and reading room added. From 1912, moving pictures were shown.
Opening of the School of Arts, 16 August 1904, Picture Coffs Harbour mus07-1430
In 1919, the School of Arts committee decided to show pictures themselves rather than leaving such a profitable undertaking in the hands of outside entrepreneurs. An excellent debut was reported: “with a six-reel Norma Talmadge drama and Charlie Chaplin at his funniest, screened by the latest 6B machine”. Mrs Minnie Franklin was employed as pianist to provide background music to the then silent movies. Films were also shown at the Fitzroy Stadium, which doubled as a roller skating rink and boxing arena! It was a rough and ready, open air experience.
In 1926, Lawrence Penn, later Jack Gerard’s partner in the Tasma Theatre, opened Penn’s Jetty Cinema on the site now occupied by the Forestry Building. Films were also shown at the Jetty Memorial Theatre when it opened in 1928 as the Soldiers Memorial Hall. Penn and Gerard later took over the leases at the Jetty Memorial in 1930 and the Coffs Harbour Picture Show at the School of Arts in 1932. The biggest news of the day was the introduction of the “talkies”. In November 1930, Broadway Scandals, an “all-talking, singing and dancing extravaganza” screened at the Jetty, followed quickly by the first talkie at the School of Arts a month later. In June 1931, Penn’s Jetty Cinema burned down in a serious fire.
For country people in particular, the cinema fulfilled two important roles – as a place for socialising and also for entertainment. Up until the 1960s, “going to the pictures” was the big social event of the week. People dressed up for this special occasion. At the Tasma, the program – two movies, newsreels, cartoons and the obligatory God Save the Queen – changed three times a week. Seats needed to be booked ahead on Friday and Saturday nights. The café next door provided drinks and sweets. Many a romance bloomed at the Tasma and a box of chocolates was mandatory. Unlike many cinemas in country towns, the Tasma was never racially segregated. Always the showman, Jack Gerard introduced Horror Nights. Although tame by today’s standards, the loud, spooky music in total darkness brought screams and squeals as patrons stamped their feet in delight. As Jack’s daughter Norma recalls, “the sounds and experience was incredible, and very scary, and LOVED by the people!”
When the Tasma closed in 1968, Penn & Gerard also stopped showing films at the Jetty Memorial Hall, however other operators continued screening there up until the building was bought by the Council in 1982. In 1988, a cinema (now closed) opened in Vernon Street, next to the Cinema Walk Arcade, and Birch, Carroll & Coyle’s five cinema complex on the corner of the highway and Bray Street opened in 1995 and is still in operation. The Sawtell Cinema, first opened in 1941, had been operated by three generations of the Brissett Family but was a casualty of the cost of converting to digital projection and closed in 2012. Due to an extraordinary fund-raising effort by the local community, the cinema was renovated, converted into two cinemas and reopened in 2015. Today, the Coffs Coast is a hub of cinema, home to the Screenwave International Film Festival and [REC] Ya Shorts Youth Film Festival.
The Tasma Theatre – Coffs Harbour’s jewel
The Tasma Cinema opened in March 1937 on the corner of Castle Street and High Street, as Harbour Drive was then known. With an imposing Art Deco façade, it was the grandest building in “Top Town” and became known as the “theatre beautiful”.
Designed by leading cinema architects Guy Crick and Bruce W. Furse, the Tasma Theatre offered big city luxury, seating 113 people in the Royal Lounge, 113 in the Dress Circle and 515 in the stalls – 741 overall. Crick & Furse were responsible for the design of numerous suburban cinemas in Sydney, as well as many throughout regional NSW. They favoured the Art Deco or Moderne style; the comfort and luxury of the buildings attest to the importance of cinema to Australian social life in the early to mid-20th century. As Everyone’s magazine commented in 1936:

Throughout the Commonwealth, comparative palaces now stand in pride as evidences of the solidity of the screen as the greatest medium of relaxation and edification of modern times.

The Tasma Theatre was the pride and joy of business partners Jack Gerard and Lawrence Penn. Penn was the original “Picture Show Man”, an old time showman who toured the countryside exhibiting films. In 1924, Jack Gerard became Penn’s trainee and they toured Queensland and New South Wales. After showing films in temporary locations in Coffs Harbour such the School of Arts and Memorial Hall, they realised their ambitions to open their own cinema when they formed Penn & Gerard Pty Ltd in1932.
The weather was horrendous on the night of the big opening on 15th March, 1937. Thousands of people milled outside while only 400 actually paid to attend the film inside – as Jack Gerard commented in later years, “just why the people of Coffs Harbour behaved in this strange manner, will never be known.” The film shown was The Big Broadcast of 1937 with Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen.
Over 31 years, 9627 films were shown, which according to Jack Gerard was “almost every American and British film produced at that time”. With the beginning of television broadcasting in Coffs Harbour in 1965, the Tasma began to lose audiences. It closed in 1968; the final film was After the Fox with Peter Sellers and Victor Mature. The building was demolished in 1969 to make way for the Waltons Department Store. When the mall was built in the late 1980s, the street layout changed and Castle Street no longer connected with Harbour Drive, so the Tasma site is no longer evident.
Jack Gerard and Lawrence Penn: impresarios
The Tasma Theatre was the dream of two fascinating characters in the story of cinema in Australia.
Jack Gerard was the manager of the Tasma Theatre – but also so much more. Councillor, car dealer, service station owner, amateur geologist, radio operator and innovator, advocate for surf lifesaving, projectionist and newsreel cameraman, Gerard was a well-known figure in Coffs Harbour and across the North Coast for decades. Born in 1907, Jack followed his curiosity and applied his intelligence in many fields. He was the first person on the North Coast to build a single valve wireless receiver for example. Above all, he was a natural showman. In 1953 he painted “Australia’s largest” Union Jack on the facade of the Tasma to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Hundreds flocked to see A Queen Is Crowned when Jack secured the rights to screen this 1953 Technicolor story of Queen Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne. Betty Sara, the mother of the famous Bellingen quadruplets (the first set of quads to survive in Australia), won the Queen Elizabeth lookalike contest. A Queen is Crowned was screened simultaneously at Jack’s two cinemas, the Tasma and the Jetty Memorial. Paid admission reached 7785 – 1785 more viewings than Coffs Harbour’s population at the time! Jack received a letter of congratulations from the Queen herself.

Jack Gerard taking a movie at the Coffs Harbour Racing Club’s inaugural meeting, 7 August 1948 Picture Coffs Harbour mus07-9088

He won Australian and international awards for showmanship, including for his promotion of Walt Disney’s Cinderella and the Australian film Robbery Under Arms, when he re-enacted the robbery in Coffs Harbour’s High Street. A keen “ham radio” operator, he had over 6000 world-wide radio contacts, including the Cuban communist leader Fidel Castro and his brother Raul! For 31 years, Jack filmed newsreels for Cinesound Review and Fox Movietone news. With the advent of television and the resulting decline in cinema, Jack produced features for television for a short while before retirement. His most popular newsreel was the 1953 coverage of five lions escaped from the circus who roamed the streets of Coffs Harbour.
Lawrence Penn was, as the Coffs Harbour Advocate described upon his death in 1952, “one of the most colourful figures in the Australian motion picture industry.” Indeed, the 1977 film The Picture Show Man was inspired by Penn’s life and was based on his son Lyle’s memoirs of them touring the countryside and showing films in the 1920s. He launched his film business in Newcastle but really established his career in Tamworth where he ran a large open air cinema. Following the death of his first wife, he took to the road in a horse and buggy as “Penn’s Pictures”, using a hand-operated projector and limelight. In 1924 he purchased one of the first Western Electric amplifiers and coupled it to a radio receiving set to broadcast reception. He employed Jack Gerard to demonstrate this new use of technology throughout the country towns of New South Wales and Queensland.
Lawrence reputedly had an “excellent baritone voice” and provided entertainment between pictures, along with his various trained dogs. His star performer was a cattle dog named Dempsey, regarded as “the cleverest dog in Australia” – he was filmed for world distribution in the early 1920s and was renowned among filmgoers. Penn settled in Coffs Harbour in 1930 and together with Jack Gerard and alone, ran many of the cinema venues in town. He retired in 1949, leaving Jack to run the Tasma in the final years.
Experience the Tasma Theatre at the Coffs Harbour Regional Museum
Take the time to enjoy some of Jack Gerard’s work on the screen when visiting the Museum to look at the cinematic items on display:
Former Jetty Memorial Hall and Tasma Theatre seating 1931, 1937
Timber, cast iron, upholstery
The row of timber chairs are some of the remaining, original 100 wooden seats installed in 1931 at the Jetty Memorial Theatre, then called the Jetty Memorial Hall, by Jack Gerard who had secured a license to screen films at the venue. The seats with cast iron bases were transferred from the Tasma Theatre when it closed in 1968. In 2016, both sets of chairs were donated to the museum when the Jetty Memorial Theatre upgraded its seating.
Tasma Theatre screening record book 1947- 48
Leather-bound book
The large ledger-style book records the films screened at the Tasma in the years 1947 and 1948. It shows the many different distribution companies Jack Gerard dealt with to deliver a varied and current program to Coffs Harbour audiences – he was proud of the fact that both Cinesound Review and Fox Movietone newsreels were broadcast simultaneously with Sydney and that the cinema showed all the latest movies. It also records the length of the film in feet!
Tasma and Memorial Theatre programs 1948 – 49 and 1955
Three monthly programs for the two theatres operated by Penn & Gerard. Every film screened at the weekends was classified as suitable for general exhibition, showing a commitment to children that paid off – they were the theatre’s most loyal customers to the end. As Jack later remembered, the children’s matinees were full houses while adult were “forsaking new and exciting film productions in colour and presented on a giant screen, in favour of viewing oldies in black and white presented on a tiny glass plate”- television.
Written by Joanna Besley, Curator, Coffs Harbour Regional Museum and Regional Gallery

Through the lens of a 12 year old’s toy camera

This is a guest post.
If I hadn’t rediscovered these photos after over 40 years I would still believe that a photographic career could have been mine! It was 11th April 1970, a sunny Saturday and a crowd of 20,000 (more were expected) eagerly awaited the royal visit.
For my last birthday my grandfather had given me $2 which I had ‘wasted’ (according to my mother) on a toy box camera. Said camera had proven itself to actually take photos and was now loaded with it’s first role of colour film for the big event. The fact that my mother was using black and white film was touching because I’m pretty sure I didn’t pay for the developing of the film (not on my allowance)!
It was a six hour visit by the Queen, Prince Philip and Princess Anne with the royal yacht moored in the harbour. (Is that a naval escort waiting outside the harbour?). No one had said that it wasn’t a good idea to take photos into the sun but I swear the royals were there somewhere! They were off to morning tea so we headed for town centre to await the royal procession.

Coffs Collections mus07-13978

My mum’s photos showed the anticipation of the crowd but my photo of the chauffeur and the royal wave taken with my arm stretched above the people in front is my favourite!

Coffs Collections mus07-13981

Next it was off to Park Beach for the royal march past and after while the royal procession headed to a banana plantation (the big banana?) we headed to Bruxner Park to once again await them.

Coffs Collections mus07-13985

Unfortunately once again the scoop royal picture eluded me as my last two photos were taken of 1970 Coffs Harbour and my 12 shot 127 size film was finished.

Coffs Collections mus07-13988

Lucky mum was there to capture the royal party on her camera when they arrived.

Coffs Collections mus07-13985

All in all an exciting day for Coffs Harbour and a very exciting day for a 12 year old who never did get into photography.

Coffs Collections mus07-13984

Paul Rogan, Museum Volunteer
Photos Joyce and Paul Rogan.

Coffs Collections mus07-13979

Solving our history mysteries: "it’s a long lane that has no turning"

Early in 2018, the Coffs Harbour History Services team put out a call for information about four subjects: Gallows Beach; the location of Calder Brae; life in the old police station which is the current Museum’s home; and the origins of a porthole from a wrecked ship.

Gallows Beach

Corambirra Point, with Gallows Beach on the right, 1956-1960; part of mus07-11104
Photographer: Desmond Eeley

A surfing afficionado explained that such terminology is common for beaches which are a little harder to surf at, so names such as Guillotines, Razors, Boneyards and Dead Man’s Beach are common. At the opposite end of Boambee beach is “Trapdoors” which is a local surf spot at the mouth of Boambee creek. Trapdoors and “the gallows” as such, go hand in hand in the context of sinister actions. [1]

The turn off to Sawtell, 5 km south of Coffs, can reveal some good quality waves. Trapdoor is the best set up in this area. Right when you first see the beach, there is a big, grassy bluff that you can drive up on – to the left is Trapdoor. Surfing Australia’s East Coast, Nat Young, 1980 ISBN 0725510544

There were also iron structures near Gallows beach to facilitate work in the nearby rock quarry, and one of them was a grim reminder of a gallows.

Calder Brae
In the early 1920s, during the last years of its life, Calder Brae was a house on a farming  property along the Coramba Road (opposite Roselands Drive). The house was rented, and its surrounding fruit trees are still remembered today. [2]

HOUSE BURNT (1925, January 20). Daily Examiner (Grafton, NSW : 1915 – 1954), p. 4.

The home seemed to have an attraction for flames:

Local and General News. (1918, March 13). Coffs Harbour Advocate (NSW : 1907 – 1942; 1946 – 1954), p. 2.

Life in Coffs Harbour’s first police station and court house

Coffs Harbour Courthouse and Police Station, Coffs Harbour, N.S.W., circa 1925; mus07-857
Photographer: Peter Jensen

Museum staff are still keen to talk to family members who resided in the building at 215 Harbour Drive, which served many purposes before becoming the Museum in 2014.

The porthole
This porthole in the collection of the Coffs Harbour Regional Museum is believed to be from the Keilawarra shipwreck. It is on view as part of the travelling exhibition Submerged: Stories of Australia’s shipwrecks until the end of July 2018.

Keilawarra port hole
from the Coffs Harbour Regional Museum collection

The shipwreck is one of several described in the Museum’s publication for sale titled Local shipwrecks: Wrecks in the Solitary Islands Marine Park 1843-1933, and the request for information related to the discovery of the porthole. The Museum would welcome further details.

Read more here: FATAL COLLISION AT SEA. (1886, December 11). Weekly Times (Melbourne, Vic. : 1869 – 1954), p. 7.

The task to fill in our historical gaps continues.


  1. with thanks to Mitch Hardcastle for this information.
  2. with thanks to David Pike and Elizabeth Simpson for these details.


The story of the Coffs Harbour Jetty

Coffs Harbour Jetty 4 July 1946, Coffs Collections, mus07-5972

The Jetty is an icon for Coffs Harbour because it was part of the beginning of the city’s economic growth. Before the jetty was built, logs were hauled to a site at the showground by bullock teams.  From there they were rolled into Coffs Creek and floated to its mouth on the outgoing tide by using bullock teams, ropes and pulleys. The logs were manoeuvred through the water to waiting ships beyond the line of surf.  Using ships’ winches, the logs were hoisted aboard. The process of loading was difficult and hazardous and, as the industry grew, it was necessary to construct a suitable jetty.

The builder
A builder and contractor, Mr Thomas L Lawson, was the successful tenderer.  Construction of the new jetty began in 1890.  The original length was 1641 feet (500.17m).    During construction a violent storm washed away 300 ft (91.5m) of the partially built structure.  The total expenditure of the completed jetty in August 1892 was £12,482 1s 8d ($24,964.10). The Public Works Department (PWD) accepted control of the jetty and was responsible for all future maintenance and improvements. The jetty was described in a newspaper article as ‘an outlet for our produce and an inlet for our necessities’.

Opening of the Jetty
Adjacent to the shore end of the jetty were calf and sheep pens, a goods shed and a wharfinger’s cottage. On completion of the goods shed the opening ceremony was arranged by Messrs Lee, Marles and Gill for Friday 5 August 1892.  A beautiful arch was erected over the western end of the jetty and the goods shed was adorned with ferns, greenery and flags and delicious food was presented there.  A banner suspended from the arch bore the words “Success to Coffs Harbor” while from a cord profusely decorated with flowers and ribbons hung the bottle of “fizz” with which the oldest resident of Coffs Harbour, Mr Peter Moller, was to perform the opening ceremony.
The arrival of Mr O. O. Dangar, Member of the Legislative Assembly, at 11.30am was received with cheers.  A large crowd gathered to witness the ceremony which, after a few words from Mr Moller, was duly performed amid cheers. Mr James Gill, Wharfinger, then read an address to Mr Dangar on behalf of the residents. Mr Dangar responded to the speech congratulating the people on the completion of the work. After the speeches, the Coramba Brass Band played suitable music and then a special luncheon was held.  At dusk, some people departed but others enjoyed a ball in the goods shed.
OPENING OF THE COFF’S HARBOUR JETTY. (1892, August 6). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 10.

Development of the jetty
In 1909 a new 80ft x 30 ft (24.38m x 9.14m) cargo shed was provided, as well as a large waiting shed at the outer end of the jetty and additional trollies.  In 1909-10 the outer end of the jetty was widened and a duplicate tram line laid.
In 1911 the Public Works Department imported a new 1910 steam locomotive (Orenstein & Koppel No. 4365) and the jetty was strengthened to accommodate it.  This replaced the draught horses previously used to pull the trollies.
In 1912 gas lighting was added to the jetty.  In 1914 widening of the jetty to 41 feet (12.49m) and construction of 320 feet (97.53m) extension was completed.
During 1915 the rails were converted to 4 ft 8 ½ in to be compatible with the new railway line being laid from Raleigh to Coffs Harbour.

Sleepers for New Zealand at Coffs Harbour jetty 28 August 1946, Coffs Collections, mus07-5963

In April 1946 further extensions were completed.  The jetty was widened at its base to accommodate a loop line to the new Northern Timber Depot and the track layout on the jetty was altered considerably.

Jetty Cranes
A single railway line of 3ft 6in gauge was laid along the centre.  A five-ton (4.53 tonnes) capacity steam derrick crane, built by Rogers of Newcastle, was erected near the end of the jetty for loading vessels.  The first crane driver was Dan Shea.  Pop Sampson and Cecil Owen Walsh were engine drivers. A number of small wooden trollies were provided for the conveyance of cargo along the jetty.
In 1906-07 the crane was replaced by a 7 1/2-ton (6.80 tonne) capacity steam derrick one from the Clarence Harbour Works, built by Ransomes and Rapier.  By 1909, increased traffic at the port facilities necessitated the jetty to be upgraded. In 1914 a second steam crane (10-ton capacity) was erected at the outer end of the jetty.

Shipping timber at Coffs Jetty, 1908, Coffs Collections, mus07-3893

Two new steam cranes were purchased for use on the jetty in 1928-29.  The first was a five and a half ton (4.98 tonne) capacity crane at the base of the jetty and the second, a seven and a half ton (6.80 tonne) capacity travelling crane.

In 1947 a timber floodlighting tower was erected to facilitate night work. Two diesel electric travelling cranes, Nos 209 and 210, provided prominent landmarks in the port area.  The cranes were constructed by Messrs. Stothert and Pitt of Bath, England in 1944 for use in the Normandy invasion of France.   No. 210, which was bought from Evans, Deakin and Co Ltd of Brisbane, was erected on the jetty in December 1947 with special rails being laid for it.

Loading timber 1950, Coffs Collections, mus07-2773

In 1949 electric travelling gear was installed on the crane.  By July of that year the North Berth steam crane had been removed, leaving No. 210 as the sole operational crane.  This was later joined by No. 209, the inner crane, identical to the other one, which was supplied by the State Dockyard.  This crane became operational in August 1955.  The main function of the cranes was to load timber onto ships but, they were also used for jetty maintenance, especially pile driving.  With the cessation of regular shipping from Coffs Harbour in the mid-1970s they fell into disuse.  After 1973 owners of fishing vessels relied on the cranes to lift their boats on and off the jetty for maintenance and servicing.

The first cargo loaded at the jetty was a consignment of sugar from Alexander Herman’s mill at Korora.  Although the jetty was not completely finished, Mr Lawson allowed Mr Herman to use the builders’ trucks to carry the sugar to a chute at the end of the structure, where it was loaded into the tiny ship Byron commanded by Captain Hunter.
Over a ten-year period from 1906, more than 400 ships a year called at the jetty.    During the following years, better rail transport and improved road conditions plus the build-up of sand in the harbour resulted in fewer ships calling at the jetty.

Passengers boarding the S.S. Fitzroy at Coffs Harbour jetty with Muttonbird Island in the background, circa 1920. Coffs Collections, mus07-2931

The most popular passenger vessel to leave Coffs Harbour for Sydney was the SS Fitzroy, commanded by Captain James Colvin.  It left the jetty at 3pm every Sunday arriving in Sydney the next day.  Passengers were embarked in a large basket which was lifted from ship to jetty and back again by one of the jetty cranes.

Replica of the basket used for embarking / disembarking of passengers at the jetty             Photographer: Marie Davey, 2008

Inside the basket were two rows of seats facing each other which held a total of eight people.
By the 1970s the jetty had begun to slip into a state of disrepair.  The last regular trading vessel to call at Coffs Harbour, the Abel Tasman, paid its final visit in 1973.  The Lorrana loaded the final commercial shipment on 22 July 1979, when it sailed for Lord Howe Island with a cargo of provisions.

End of Commercial Activity
In 1982 most of the railway track was removed to enable replacement of defective timber decking.  Several sheds were demolished and two piles replaced. Due to their unsafe condition, the cranes were demolished by April 1984.  Their removal ended nearly a hundred years of commercial activity on the jetty.

The Centenary
Residents dressed in period costume for the jetty centenary celebrations held on 2 August 1992.  Bush ballad recitals, tug-o-wars, whip cracking, hay cart rides, buskers, model steam engines, vintage cars and historical photographic displays delighted the many people who came to witness the centenary of our icon.  There was a working model of the Timmsvale sawmill brought to life by Dudley Timms from the original stationary mill built by his father 50 years previously. A short official ceremony on the jetty was held at 11am Sunday when a giant birthday cake was cut by special guest, Marjorie Nelson (nee Jackson).  The week of festivities culminated in a Gala Ball held in the Town Hall on 8 August 1992.
jettycentenaryAnd Beyond
The jetty became unsafe and was closed in 1990.  A spirited campaign  by local historian Naomi England sought to save it. It was listed under the Heritage Act and as it was the only remaining jetty on the North Coast, the New South Wales Government decided to conserve it.  A Save the Jetty Fund was launched in 1992 with its goal being $100,000 towards the total cost. Work began in March 1996. Timber used was blackbutt, tallowwood and spotted gum.  The original piles were made of turpentine. The decking was removed and replaced.  A firefighting system was installed with safety fencing, lighting and seating benches.  The final cost was $3.8 million. jettyrefurb
As the jetty was closed to commercial shipping for 20 years and to the general public since 1990, there were big festivities to celebrate the re-opening on 11 October 1997.  Mayor Cr John Smith, and Andrew Fraser, Member for Coffs Harbour, officiated at the opening and the ribbon was cut by Carl Scully, Minister for Roads, NSW.  A re-enactment of a scene depicting Captain Korff stepping off the steamboat Mary was the highlight.  Sporting events, displays, food, drama and musical concerts were also enjoyed. There was a Best Decorated Boat competition and night entertainment including sky diving by Coffs City Skydivers and fireworks.
Our jetty is now enjoyed by tourists and residents alike for recreational purposes – walking, swimming and fishing and will continue to be an icon for our city.

More details are available in the Jetty’s entry in the NSW State Heritage Register.

Ships and Timber – a short history of Coffs Harbour port and associated railways, Dr John Kramer, 1984, 994.43 KRA
Coffs Harbour 100 years down the track, Jean Donn-Patterson, 994.43 DON
OPENING OF COFFS HARBOR JETTY. (1892, August 10). Macleay Argus (Kempsey, NSW : 1885 – 1907; 1909 – 1910; 1912 – 1913; 1915 – 1916; 1918 – 1954), p. 4.
Reminiscences of Jetty Town, 2015, 994.43 REM

The Advocate
17 August 1956 First cargo
10 December 1981 Cranes on jetty
2 May 1992 Save the jetty fund
22 July 1992 Working model of Timmsvale Sawmill
31 July 1992 The Centenary
1 August 1992 Gala Ball for centenary
4 August 1992 Outlet for produce inlet for necessity
14 May 2001 PWD have control of jetty.  Replacement of crane
Jetty Times, 9 March 1996 Jetty restoration
The Coffs Harbour Advocate, 14 October 1997 Re-opening ceremony

Compiled by Museum volunteer, Marie Davey

Back to Sawtell in the ’70s


(1971, January 14). Sawtell Guardian (NSW : 1971 – 1975), p. 1.

In the first half of the 1970s, an enterprising President of the Sawtell-Boambee Chamber of Commerce believed that the village needed its own newspaper and the Sawtell Guardian was launched. The President, Nancy Sanders, was its sole editor.

WHO IS NANCY SANDERS? (1971, September 2). Sawtell Guardian (NSW : 1971 – 1975), p. 1.

Published almost every Thursday between 1971 and 1975, this free newspaper gave a succinct four page snapshot of life both within and beyond local borders:

It offered a healthy mix of headlines, serious news articles, classifieds, business advertising, television and radio guide, along with local sport stories.  Conversations with long-term local residents said that the “Sawtell Guardian” served as a significant social conduit at a time when interest in what others were up to seemed incredibly high. Fast forward 48 years to the prominence of social media, and interaction, and one may argue that the “Sawtell Guardian” was ahead of its time.  From garden parties, to wedding commentary, to welcoming home individuals from holiday absences, there was a great deal of focus on prominent families and people.

Martin Wells, Vice President of the Sawtell Chamber of Commerce, 2018

Via a collaboration between Coffs Harbour City Council’s History Services, the Sawtell Historical Society which has cared for the original print copies, the Sawtell Chamber of Commerce and the National Library to digitise it for posterity, the Sawtell Guardian is now available for all to read in Trove.  Sawtellcollab2

A wide range of historical content includes the reason behind the naming of Sawtell and other places in the Coffs Coast region.


Derivation of Place Names (1973, June 28). Sawtell Guardian (NSW : 1971 – 1975), p.1

For all those who grew up in Sawtell in the 1970s, the ability to “go home” without leaving home is an engaging possibility; while those who have never experienced this village life before will enjoy the lively snapshots which Nancy Sanders recorded as she kept an eye on the life happening around her.

The inclusion of the Sawtell Guardian into Trove was marked with a special event in April 2018.

Created from a Dream: a gift of calligraphy

Created from a Dream
The Coffs Harbour Regional Museum has curated an exhibition to feature a very special community project – the exquisite handmade book created by the Coffs Calligraphers in 2007 on the occasion of their 20th anniversary and presented as a gift to the city.
This unique book recounts the transformation of the North Coast Regional Botanic Garden from a night soil depot to the stunning garden it is today – all beautifully inscribed by our city’s talented calligraphers. While the Botanic Garden is a well-known attraction, perhaps not so well-known is the fact that Coffs Harbour has one of Australia’s most active calligraphers’ groups, whose members include some of the country’s best calligraphers.
The group formed in 1987 and is still going strong as a hub of calligraphy. The book project began with a vague idea of “a community -based ‘something’” that would celebrate Coffs Calligraphers’ first 20 years and at the same time, give something back to the City. Successful in securing funding from Coffs Harbour City Council’s Community Arts and Cultural Development Small Grants Program in September 2006, the project began in earnest early in 2007. A further sum of $1000 was made available from the Council to commission local craftsman Neil Scobie to design and create a special display cabinet to permanently house the manuscript.
The book was developed in consultation with the Friends of the North Coast Regional Botanic Garden. It includes a time line of events, Gumbaynggirr history, special areas and plant collections, as well as the birds and fauna that inhabit the Garden. Members who worked on the book included Paivi Ranta, Carol Hellmers, Gloria Rigby, Judith Kilburn, Barbara Austin, Colleen Little, Maxine Kohlhagen, Lexie Arlington, Lynne Arnold and Robyn Lawrence. A truly local effort, the special interleaving papers were silk screened by Insight Screenprinting and the book was bound in suede and embossed by Nigel Lovett of the Coastal Bookbinding Co.
The North Coast Regional Botanic Garden
The North Coast Regional Botanic Garden was officially opened on 17th September 1988 as the centrepiece of Coffs Harbour’s celebration of Australia’s bi-centenary. The opening was the culmination of decades of vision and sheer hard work by many members of our community.
The site was first identified as a location for a botanic garden in the 1959 Coffs Harbour Planning Scheme, developed by Roy McRae, a Sydney town planner. At that time the area was known as Wilson Park and had been used as a rubbish dump from 1938. Prior to this it was used as a night soil depot – the place where the town’s “dunny cans” were emptied before we had a sewerage system.
Unfortunately the proposal for a botanic garden was forgotten and it was not until 1973 that the potential of the site was again recognised. Following a canoe trip along Coffs Creek, local conservation group the Ulitarra Society came up with a concept for a botanic garden. They spent three months intensively consulting with local community organisations to gain their support and in November presented a well-documented and researched submission to Council. The Plan for Management of Natural Areas, Coffs Creek prepared by Alex Floyd, Peter Roberts and Lloyd Jones was hailed as “a visionary plan” by the Coffs Coast Advocate. “If we let this opportunity slip through our fingers it may never come again”, the paper declared. Two years later in 1975, Reserve 89558 was gazetted for the Botanic Garden.
Such a visionary plan took time to implement. A conference held at the University of New England in May 1980 led to a development plan, which was then adopted by Council. John Wrigley, curator of National Botanic Garden in Canberra was engaged as consultant. In the same year, the Friends Steering Committee formed at a public meeting leading to the inaugural meeting of the Friends of the North Coast Regional Botanic Garden on 9th April, 1981. A small and dedicated group worked tirelessly at weekly working bees to clear the site of weeds and remove years of rubbish, then built paths, planted new areas and created the extraordinary and beautiful green space now in the heart of our city.

The new Botanic Garden, Picture Coffs Harbour mus07-13020

This post was written by Jo Besley,  Gallery and Museum Curator, Coffs Harbour City Council
The exhibition is open for viewing at the Coffs Harbour Regional Museum from 6 April until 12 May 2018.