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Highett Hall

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The Demolition of the Highett Theatre watched by Mr Don Petrie, president of the Highett Chamber of Commerce and Mr A Collins the publicity officer, 1966. Courtesy Leader Collection.

Several Highett residents believed in 1924 it was time that their district had a “commodious hall in which to conduct amusements and entertainments”. In an effort to achieve this goal P W Coleman with the assistance of E Fallon convened a meeting of interested people at his home. This occurred on April 16, 1924. Shortly after this meeting several others followed.

A provisional committee was formed which set out the features required in a community hall. First, members believed the hall should be able accommodate all classes of entertainment. Secondly, it should be profit earning. Thirdly, it should be owned and controlled by the people. Fourthly, it should be in a commanding position, and finally it should provide for future requirements. [2]

To construct a hall which met these characteristics a public company, Highett Public Hall Company Limited, was registered and incorporated on June 16, 1924 with a proposed capital of £5000 made up of £1 shares. H H Shackell, G A Stayner, and H A McKittrick were the provisional directors. An appeal for subscribers was immediately launched at a meeting in the Moorabbin Shire Hall. Eighty nine people responded, buying a total of 925 shares. This number increased to approximately 1600 by 1926 and at that time several new directors were added to the board; P W Coleman, C P Connelly,V J Munro, and E Swarbreck. H H Shackell was chairman with H A McKittrick company secretary.

The directors were keen to get started on their project, and began by seeking a site for the new building. Although several sites were offered and considered, the decision was to purchase a 60 x 140 ft block in Highett Road, approximately one hundred yards from the railway station at a price of £10 per foot. [3] The next task of the directors was to obtain a design for the new hall and for this they gained the honorary services of La Gerche and Gower of William Street, Melbourne. The design the board accepted consisted of a main hall, 80 x 48 ft, with kitchen, cloak rooms, and conveniences, and a supper room, 20 x 40ft, over two shops, 20ft x 15 ft, with conveniences. This was well in excess of their immediate needs but the directors were looking to the future. In the short term they realized what was actually built would be conditioned by available finance.

The money raised through the issuing of shares was insufficient to meet costs of land and hall so a loan of £1500 was negotiated with the Cheltenham ES&A Bank. With access to these share and bank monies, the company called tenders for the erection of a hall, 80 x 48 ft, with cloakrooms and stage. The successful tender was for £1,880 taking the total investment in land and building to approximately £2,800. [4]

Before giving final approval for the construction of the building the Health Department demanded that a twelve foot right of way be added to the site. This was done and work commenced on laying the foundations of the building. [5] Shortly after the opening of the building the company secretary, H A McKittrick, was writing to the Public Health Department assuring the authorities that the company had let a contract for the modifications required by them, but the contractor had failed to commence the work. As a result the company was negotiating with another contractor to undertake the work. However, H McKittrick also pointed out that some other work required by the Health Department was expected to be completed within three days but this was being delayed because of the need to demolish the ladies toilets. In general the company was experiencing difficulty in getting the required work done but were hopeful it would all be completed before the end of the month. McKittrick also informed the Health Department that work associated with the kitchen would not be undertaken until the plans and specifications were approved by the Department. [6]

Despite these problems the hall was officially opened on September 11, 1926 by O R Snowball, the local Member of Parliament. (The Moorabbin News reported that the hall was used before the official opening for a footballers’ dance on August 10, 1926 and by the Charlstonites) There were insufficient seats for the large crowd that had assembled to view the hall and listen to the guest speakers; indeed many were unable to find standing room in the hall. [7] Mr Snowball told the audience that the building of the hall was a big step forward in the progress of Highett and urged those present to take up shares in the enterprise. He claimed shares were within the reach of everybody at £1 each and they would be a valuable asset to hold. Any individual could take up to five hundred shares at £1 paying 2/- on application, 2/- in the first month and 1/- each month thereafter until they were fully paid up. Snowball reminded those present that several members of the Highett community had acted as guarantors for a bank loan and as such took on a large responsibility, for should the venture fail they would be liable to repay the loan. He urged all to share the financial responsibility by investing in shares.

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Share Certificate for the Highett Public Hall Company, 1924.

During the evening the music provided by the Moorabbin Band, under the direction of Mr Brine, allowed young and old to perform old time dances while the youth “Charlestoned gaily around the floor.” This new dance craze amongst the younger members using “every known step and some unknown” brought expressions of admiration from some onlookers. The Moorabbin News reported, “Apparently the directors have no fear as to the stability of the hall, for they frowned not nor bemoaned the fact that the floor would not stand the strain.” [8]

Less than a month later the hall was in the news again when a ‘fracas’ occurred at a dance. According to the newspaper report, it was “an unpleasant brawl caused by hooligans from up the line.” One of their group had been ejected from the hall earlier in the evening because he was under the influence of liquor. Shortly after he was joined by three car loads of friends seeking restitution. Things became so willing that the assistance of the police was required to quell the disturbance. [9] Despite this temporary commotion the hall became the centre of entertainment and celebrations for members of the Highett community.

The first anniversary of the official opening of the hall was celebrated with a fancy dress ball. People, often in highly original costumes, packed the decorated hall and danced to the music provided by the Renown Orchestra. Prizes were given to adults for the most original costume and the best sustained character. Mrs Codrington won the latter prize with her Old Mother Shipston portrayal. Miss Olive Kemp as Rolfe’s Tea was awarded first prize in the most original category. Children in the various age groups won prizes for costumes entitled, Odds and Ends, Vikings Daughter, Jilted Jane, Indian, Butterfly, John Bull and Sunflower. [10]

Five years after opening the hall the directors were desperately searching for new sources of money. The income from hiring out the hall for entertainment and other functions had fallen significantly. Many families were struggling to survive the Great Depression that commenced with the stock market collapse in New York in 1929. For many people money was scarce. Priority for any available disposal income was family maintenance, food, clothing and shelter, rather than entertainment. By June of 1931 H A McKittrick was writing to the ratepayers of the Shire of Moorabbin asking them whether they wanted to retain the hall as a place to hold meetings and conduct entertainments or whether they were content to see it converted into a factory or store. [11]

The problem the company faced was a request from the bank for it to reduce its overdraft. When times were good, in the first three years of its existence, the company was able to meet all expenses as well as purchase equipment and furniture. However with the onset of the depression the annual income dropped to a figure below running costs despite the unpaid work by directors, secretary and other helpers.

The directors of the company could not identify any solution except to sell the property either to a private buyer by tender or auction, or to the Shire Council. Cr George reported to a meeting of Council the results of his discussions with the company directors on the future of the hall. The directors wanted the council to take over responsibility for the hall and the debt of £1500. They suggest that a levy of 1½d in the £ be placed upon ratepayers to resolve the situation. Cr George said the bank manager at Cheltenham was willing to provide an overdraft for a fifteen year period. [12] A few weeks earlier the Council had been informed by the bank official that the total overdraft on Council accounts had reached the legal limit and enquired when it would be reduced so there was no hope of solving the situation with financial resources available to the Council at that time. [13] The immediate suggestion of Council was that a public meeting should be called to discuss the issue.

Cr John Allnutt, the president of the Shire, called a meeting of interested people to consider the suggestion that the Council should take over responsibility of the hall and that the overdraft should be liquidated through the imposition of a special rate on the net annual value of properties. Under the proposal, property owners in the area bounded by Bluff, Bay, Chesterville, and Wickham roads would be required to pay the special rate. [14] The meeting resolved that the Council be petitioned urging the civic authorities to adopt the proposal..

Three weeks later the secretary of the company, H McKittrick, was writing to ratepayers appealing to them to sign the petition. [15] In his letter he pointed out that the extra rate would cost 9d per annum on an annual assessed value of £6, or if a house was owned with a market value of £800 and an assessed value of £40 for rating purposes, the cost would be 5/- a year. Given the amount being requested was ‘so small’ McKittrick asked people to sign an enclosed form and return it to him so that it could be attached to the petition to Council.

Arising from the petition and following further discussion with the company directors, Cr George asked that a public meeting be called for September 23, 1931 to identify the views of residents regarding the possible purchase of the hall. The Shire Secretary noted that the Council had also received a counter petition signed by a number of ratepayers. [16] No sale to the Council occurred and the hall remained in private hands for decades

By April 9, 1932 a report of a vaudeville programme to be presented on behalf of the football club in the Highett Hall was calling for support from the ‘shareholders’. [17] Indeed it was not until thirty plus years later that it was announced in the local paper that the Moorabbin Council had purchased the hall from the then owners. [18] Prior to this the ownership of the hall had passed to F V Fogarty who in August 1949 applied for approval from the Health Department to add an entrance foyer and improve the toilet arrangements for patrons. Until the improvements were implemented it was noted that the men would have to continue to use the external conveniences at the rear of the premises. [19]

Earlier, in June 1945, the hall was used as a picture theatre. [20] The programs exhibited were advertised each week in the local paper drawing attention to the movie stars and the ratings given by the film censors. Destry Rides Again, starring James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, was rated as not suitable for general exhibition, while Pardon My Rhythm, featuring Gloria Jean, gained a general exhibition classification. [21] Tom Sheehy wrote that in 1956 films were switched between the Highett Hall and the Cheltenham Soldiers Hall for screening every night except Sundays and Tuesdays. [22] By that time the Highett picture theatre business was close to its demise, influenced no doubt by the introduction and competition from the new communication and entertainment innovation, television.

Over the next ten years a variety of proposals to make use of the hall or site were presented to the Moorabbin Council. They included reception rooms, a service station, and another theatre. It was considered by two chain stores and at one time was the despatch centre for an engineering company. But it was the Council who purchased the property in 1966 for $25,528 implementing a request first made to it in1931 by the Directors of the Highett Hall Company. However, the Council’s intention was not to restore the derelict and vandalised hall as a community resource but to demolish it and use the acquired space to build a branch library, a comfort station and to provide parking for visitors to the shopping centre. In addition to the hall, an adjacent block of land owned by the Commonwealth Bank was also purchased at a cost of $7,500 with a deposit of $750. Eventually the money for these purchases was repaid from a special rate placed upon business properties in the area and levied at the request of the Highett Chamber of Commerce. [23]

Don Petrie, a former chamber president and chairman of the parking committee, saw the purchase of the hall as the most important development in Highett for years, and one which he believed would prove of great benefit to shoppers as well as traders. Not only would it would provide valuable parking directly on to Highett Road, it would also open up the centre. He pointed out, it was the first major step in the traders’ plan to augment the available parking space and council’s first use of the money gained from the special rate. [24]

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Placing a memorial plaque outside the Highett Library, 1979. Courtesy the Leader Collection.

In August of 1966 the remnants of the hall, built more than thirty years previously through the actions of local citizens, was demolished to be replaced by a library and parking for an increasingly mobile community. The library, a branch of the main City of Moorabbin Library at Bentleigh was opened by the mayor, Cr Bill Fry, on August 1, 1969 amidst acclamation from local people. [25] Today the building continues to serve the Highett community as the Highett Branch of the City of Kingston Library and Information Service.

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The Highett Branch of the Library and Information Services of the City of Kingston, 2004.

Author

Graham J Whitehead

Footnotes

  1. The assistance of John Brooks in providing the results of his own research into the establishment of the Highett Hall is gratefully acknowledged.
  2. Moorabbin News, September 25, 1926.
  3. This is the current site of the Highett branch of the Kingston Library and Information Service .
  4. Letter to Ratepayers from H A McKittrick.
  5. Moorabbin News, February 27, 1926.
  6. Correspondence from H A McKittrick to Secretary of Health Department, October 23, 1926.
  7. Moorabbin News, September 18, 1926.
  8. Moorabbin News, September 18, 1926.
  9. Moorabbin News, October 9, 1926.
  10. Moorabbin News, October 1, 1927.
  11. Correspondence from H A McKittrick, secretary, to Ratepayers of the Shire of Moorabbin, June 15, 1931.
  12. Moorabbin News, May 2, 1931.
  13. Moorabbin News, April 25, 1931.
  14. Moorabbin News, May 23, 1931.
  15. McKittrick – Correspondence to Rate Payers, June 15, 1931.
  16. Moorabbin News, September 12, 1931.
  17. Moorabbin News, April 9, 1932.
  18. On April 18, 1937 a deputation from Highett ratepayers meet with Moorabbin councillors to suggest the hall should be purchased and made the town hall. While the Mayor, Cr J Allnutt, was sympathetic he failed to see how it would be a sound financial venture for the council when it was such a loss to Highett. Moorabbin News, April 24, 1937.
  19. Correspondence from Cowper Murphy & Associates, Architects to Secretary of Health Department, August 23, 1949.
  20. Moorabbin News, June 28, 1945.
  21. Moorabbin News, August 9, 1946.
  22. Sheehy, T., Battlers Tamed a Sandbelt, 1985 page 131.
  23. Moorabbin News, June 15, 1966.
  24. Moorabbin News, June 15, 1966.
  25. Moorabbin News, August 13, 1969.

Article Cat. Historical Features
Article Ref. 274

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