Free Settler or Felon
Convict and Colonial History

The Commercial Inn


The Commercial Inn was formerly known as the Newcastle Inn and was situated on the corner of Hunter and Watt Streets, Newcastle. In November 1859 the building was destroyed in the most disastrous fire ever seen in Newcastle.

Location of the Commercial Inn, formerly the Newcastle Inn in Watt Street Newcastle - John Armstrong's Map of Newcastle c. 1831
John Armstrong's Map c. 1831 showing the location of Simon Kemp's Newcastle Inn/ Commercial Inn in Watt Street Newcastle (centre left)

Simon Kemp

Simon Kemp held the licence for the Newcastle Inn from 1831 to 1834. He held the licence for the Commercial Hotel, corner Hunter and Watt Streets between 1835 and 1837. [1]

In 1835 he announced that he had made considerable additions and improvements to his house and could now accommodate a greater number of travellers than he had hitherto been able to do. Extensive stabling was available and he assured gentlemen and families travelling to and from Sydney that he could provide every sort of accommodation and comfort.

John Rowell

By December 1837 the licence for premises in Watt St. known as the Commercial Inn had been taken out by ex convict John Rowell. John Rowell arrived on the Hooghley in 1828. He was previously proprietor of an Inn in Sydney however his ticket of leave was cancelled in 1834 when two convicts on the run were found at his inn.

At Newcastle Rowell continued to flout the law. He was fined 1 pound in December 1837 soon after he took over the Inn for allowing a light to go out at the Inn. In January 1838 he was fined 20/- + costs 2/6- for a breach of licensing act in allowing tippling in his house.

Lady Jane Franklin visited Newcastle in 1839. She described the Commercial Hotel.....
Lady Jane Franklin - Australian Town and Country Journal 2 October 1875
Alighted from the Tamar steamer at the stone stairs on the side of the quay and walked to the Commercial Hotel up the street on the right. It had a pointed chapel front. The house was shut up and upon knocking on the door a chambermaid appeared in a ragged shift and single flannel petticoat, no shoes, stockings nor nightcap. The house was worse inside - two parlors, one with fireplace which burnt wood and Newcastle coal of which the whole place smelled [2]

John Rowell was granted a publican's licence in July 1839. Two members of the United States Exploring Expedition, Alfred Agate and Horatio Hale stayed at Rowell's Inn when they reached Newcastle in December 1839.

John Rowell died in March 1840 age 37, and his wife Elizabeth Rowell was granted the licence until she transferred it to Hugh McMillan in July 1840.

Hugh McMillan

Hugh McMillan previously ran the Newcastle General Store selling goods such as Victoria dresses, French, Scotch muslin dresses, prints, hosiery, haberdashery, flannels, night caps, merino and cashmere shawls; as well as groceries such as tea, candles, sugar, rice, butter, tobacco etc.[3]

McMillan was also agent to the General Steam Navigation Company and could also offer the service of arranging a passage either to Sydney or Maitland for patrons.[4] Elizabeth Rowell took over his General Store when Hugh McMillan took out the licence for the Commercial.

McMillan was apparently a poor businessman and soon ran into financial difficulties

Burgiss v. McMillan - Huggett v. McMillan.-The defendant in this case was in execution for above 300 pounds; he was formerly a shopkeeper, and lately an innkeeper at Newcastle. He commenced business with a capital of £500, and obtained credit from D. Jones and Co. to the amount of £900, to whom in August, he gave a bill of sale, which they put in force shortly afterwards, and from the sale of stock and furniture realized £280 the property being, according to the insolvent, sacrificed far below its value. In July, the insolvent took the Commercial Hotel, Newcastle, from a Mrs. Rowell, and Mrs. Rowell went into his store, taking the stock at a valuation. Besides, the sums for which he was in execution, the insolvent was indebted in the sum of £800, making his total loss in business in fourteen months near £1600. In consequence of the insolvent's books having been taken by Messrs. Jones and Co., he was unable to show what debts were due to him, and since July he had kept no books. The insolvent was cross-examined at great length by Mr, D. Chambers, but was unable to account for a considerable sum that must have passed through his hands, otherwise, than that the business had been a losing one. His Honor said that he had no wish to impute any dishonest conduct to the insolvent ; but the fact of his having kept no books was such scandalous neglect, that he would feel it is duty to call upon the insolvent to give him in complete, account of all his transactions, from the time, of his entering business to the present day, and he would give no order to Mr. Jones to allow the books to be inspected. Insolvent remanded. [5]

The premises of the Commercial were still owned by Simon Kemp.

Ann McNamara

Ann McNamara was granted the licence in June 1841 however it was transferred to Thomas Groves later that year.

Thomas Groves

In 1842 in Newcastle an inquest took place at Mr. McGreavy's Inn on the body of George Kenniwell who died after an altercation outside Thomas Groves' Commercial Inn. The inquest caused quite a stir in the town and inhabitants flocked to witness the examination. They crowded up to the windows and door and prevented the air from ventilating the room. The Coroner became ill because of the confined space and the inquest was adjourned until the following day. Several witnesses were examined - the chambermaid Mary Boylan, the waiter James Coughlan and the stable boy Francis Hughes however all three prevaricated when questioned and when it was found that Thomas Groves was interfering with the witnesses the Coroner recommended that his publican's licence should not be renewed as he was an unfit person to hold such a licence. [6]

Groves later resided at a farm at Broad meadows.

Wicks Norton

Wicks Norton, who was publican at the Rose and Thistle in Prince St. Sydney in 1830 and the Albion Inn at Maitland in 1837 took over the Commercial Hotel on the day that Groves left in January 1843. [7] A Social Club was organised at the Hotel in July. Meetings were to take place every Thursday evening. Every arrangement was made and the best rooms in the establishment were set aside for this special purpose. It was thought that entertainment of this kind had long been needed in the town[8].

Although Wickes Norton exhorted his friends and patrons from Maitland to visit him at Newcastle, by September of 1843 he was in financial difficulties.[9] When 150 volumes of well selected books in excellent condition were advertised for sale by auction in September 1844, Wicks Norton had already left the Commercial. He suffered another set back in 1846 when he was robbed of £40 when disembarking from the Steamer Cornubia in Morpeth [10]

The owner of the Commercial Inn premises, Simon Kemp advertised in the Sydney Morning Herald in October 1843....The Commercial Hotel is to be let furnished. The house is well furnished, and the furniture can be taken at a valuation or let with the premises. Any industrious person with a small capital would find this a most advantageous opportunity. Apply, if by letter post paid, to Mr. S. Kemp, Newcastle.

Times were tough and before long Kemp decided to sell the furniture at auction. Articles that had been at the Inn included Dining, Pembroke and other tables, sofas, chairs, bedsteads, beds, and bedding, glass, cutlery, table and other linen.

Joseph Croft

In 1851 Joseph Croft announced that he had taken over the Commercial Inn. He had formerly run the George and Dragon at Clarencetown. Joseph Croft arrived as a convict on the Lady Nugent in 1835 and was assigned to James King at Irrawang. In 1845 he married Martha Madeline Francis who arrived free on the Palestine. Joseph Croft spared no expense in furnishing the Inn and laid in a stock of the choicest wines and spirits together with the best bottled and draught ales and porter. Invalids visiting Newcastle will find Croft's Commercial Hotel replete with every comfort.[11]

The Royal Mail departed from the Commercial Inn for Maitland every day.

In 1853 Ashton's circus was giving performances at the Commercial Hotel.

In February 1854 Croft advertised to employed carpenters and builders to erect a wooden building as an addition to the Commercial Hotel. The materials were already on the ground and labour only was required. This may have been the building that housed the Victoria Theatre which was built behind the Hotel [12]

In February/ March 1857 the young children of Joseph Croft, Charles aged 6 and Martha aged 5 died of Scarlet Fever.

In August 1857 Joseph Croft advertised to sell the Queen's Theatre in West Maitland and the Theatre attached to the Commercial Hotel in Newcastle. The houses were said to be in a state of thorough repair and fitted up with every requisite and convenience for dramatic representations. He was unable to attend to his own business and to the business of the theatres conjointly and therefore wished to let them. [13]

Disastrous Fire

In November 1859 the most disastrous fire that had ever occurred in Newcastle destroyed several buildings in the main streets of Newcastle. The Commercial Hotel was one of them. The following account was published in the Argus on 21 November 1859

A destructive fire the greatest which ever occurred in Newcastle, and so serious in extent as to amount to a public calamity occurred here yesterday (Sunday)

The seat of the conflagration, for such it was, extends from Spragg's store, in Hunter street (saved only by the most extraordinary exertions) to the corner of Watt-street, and thence up the west side of Watt-street to the Victoria Inn.

The premises destroyed are those occupied by Mr. Shoemacker, Mr. Hawley, Mr. Stafford, The theatre, Mr. Croft's Commercial Hotel, Mr. W. H. Whyte's butcher's shop, office, and back-houses, and the Victoria Hotel, all of which are complete ruins, the remains of them being now only a few tottering walls. The value of the property destroyed is necessarily large, being estimated roughly at £10,000 or £12,000; but there is room for congratulation in the fact that no lives have been lost, and that the fire was stopped at points where to prevent its further extension seemed at times almost impossible, and where that extension would probably not have been limited to the remainder of the block of buildings bounded by Bolton-street.

The fire was first observed at about a quarter past 2 o'clock a.m., when it was seen to break out in the upper part of the Commercial Hotel, the second story of which building was, in a few minutes afterwards, a mass of flames, which extended almost immediately to the basement, the inmates having little more than sufficient time to escape; and, although the good feelings of the few persons who were first on the spot induced them to assist in removing some of the property which was next to hand in the lower part of the house, but comparatively little was saved. In the meantime the flames, carried by a strong north-east wind, were rapidly extending above, and in an extraordinary short space of time had reached the roof of Mr. Whyte's front premises, in Watt-street, and, spreading across a narrow passage, caught the roof of the Victoria Hotel, the whole of those buildings being almost at once hopelessly in flames. From these latter, also, but little property was rescued. About this period the first engine, from the fire brigade station in Newcomen-street, reached the spot and, worked by such of the brigade as first arrived, and by a number of volunteers, played, under the charge of Mr. Webb, on the back premises, towards which the flames were spending. In this direction the efforts to prevent the extension of the fire to the large store of Mr. Whyte were successful, although the flames, carried by the wind, were driven alarmingly towards it; and although a quantity of dry loose timber, stored up in the space between, was, repeatedly on fire. The direction of the wind had for some time confined the flames in a great measure to the southward of where they first broke out; but now, about half-past 3 a.m., a strong breeze came on from the eastward, which drove the fire along Hunter street, and with most alarming rapidity. The theatre was at once in a flame from end to end. Extending from thence to the butcher's shop of Mr. Stafford, the flames were carried along to the low tenements occupied by Mr. Hawley and Mr. Shoemacker, which it became immediately evident that nothing could save. Here occurred another and more serious struggle, to arrest the progress of destruction, as, if the flames extended to the store of Mrs. Lee (late Spragg's), the destruction of the whole square, at least, became certain.

So hopeless did the struggle here seem- while every possible effort was at this point and elsewhere manfully battling with the fire that along Hunter-street and up Bolton-street an immediate removal of moveable property of every kind instantly took place, the wide street opposite and the Court-house being filled with goods, which the inhabitants of every class were anxiously assisting to remove, even ladies joining in the charitable effort ; but it is deeply to be regretted that, with the success which invariably attends well-meant efforts of this kind, the destruction caused in the removal was, next to the effect of fire itself, of the most serious nature ; Mr. Knagg's extensive stock of medicines, books, perfumery, stationery, furniture, and even fixtures, being, in particular, so damaged and broken as that a thousand pounds would seem not too high an estimate of the loss. By partly anticipating the fire in tearing down Mr. Shoemacker's house, and by the incessant play of the two engines on tho roof and side wall but above all, perhaps, by a providential shift of wind-Mrs. Lees store, which is comparatively a high brick building, although several times on fire at the roof, was almost unexpectedly preserved, and the further progress of the fire was stopped at that side. All this time the flames had been extending, spite of every means taken against them, along the back of the premises of Mr. Whyte, travelling westward; and here they were met by the same efforts to prevent their extension, as, had they reached Mr. Whyte's stables, the dreaded communication with the other buildings would have been effected.

At this point it was again literally a hand to hand struggle with the fire, and it was only by the use of blankets kept continually wet spread on the roofs, by pulling down communications, by the incessant play of the two engines, and by every other available means of throwing water, that it was kept within the mentioned limits ; the closeness of the struggle being appreciable by the fact that Mr. Knaggs' back premises were on fire twice. Here the exertions of Mr. Howden, the foreman of the brigade, with a number of his men, were invaluable ; and it was only by his attention having been fixed on this point from an early period of the fire, and by a providential arrangement made for water, that the fire was stopped. Here also, the mayor, Mr. Charles Bolton, Mr. Knaggs, Mr. Adam, Mr. Richardson, and others, rendered greatest service, and even female hands helped to work the pumps.

Thus far, is a brief history of a calamity which, spreading over a considerable area of ground, was really heartrending to behold, and which will be long remembered in Newcastle. The particulars, thus far if, perhaps, unavoidably inaccurate in some slight details, are correct in outlines ; but it would be difficult to describe the general feeling excited in the town by the fire, and the universal sympathy felt for the sufferers. The exertions of the mass of the in- habitants indeed of all who could render aid were above praise, and nothing but such aid could have kept the visitation within bounds. To a spectator viewing the progress of the fire the scene, apart from its intrinsic horrors, was truly pitiable. The terrified inhabitants of the houses nearest the spot, with their families, deserting their habitations, and filling the streets with those articles which, in the haste of the moment, each considered most valuable. Indeed it was impossible, for a considerable time, to say what houses were safe, as, while a shower of burning matter was carried by the wind in one direction, the intense heat seemed to expose the houses on the east side of Watt-street to most serious hazard in the other. The following, it is known, are covered, or nearly so, by insurance :-Messrs. W. H. Whyte, Kemp, Croft, Knaggs, and Mrs. McGreavy.

It is a matter of some difficulty, where so many exerted themselves, either to notice or withhold names, but it would be both unjust and unwise (as praiseworthy examples) not to give the names, in addition to those already noticed, of Mr. J. P. Luke, Mr. James Buxton, Mr. J. Tippin (who received a rather severe injury in the face). Messrs. M'Pherson, Sharrack, Porter, and Talford, and of Frank (a coloured man). The exertions of the Volunteer Fire Brigade cannot be estimated by any praise here. They were, from the first, the nucleus of the force which met the fire, and combatted with it in every direction, and they hold charge of the burning ruins even to the present moment. The origin of the fire is unknown.

The following paragraph from the Sydney Morning Herald of the next day gives some additional details As stated in our correspondent's letter yesterday morning, a large portion of the property at Newcastle destroyed by fire on Sunday last was uninsured. The Imperial office will be the greatest losers by this calamity, their risks upon the premises owned or occupied by Mr. Croft, Mr. Whyte, and Mr. Kemp, amounting to upwards of £7,000. the whole of which sum will probably have to be paid. The stock and furniture of Mr. Knaggs and Mr. Richardson wore insured in the London and Liverpool Company ; the principal damage to these was caused by their removal, and it is estimated that about £500 will be required to put them in repair. The only one of the buildings insured in the Sydney Insurance Company was that occupied by Mrs. Lees ; probably between £500 and £1000 will be required to make good the loss they have sustained, including that incurred in the removal of foods from the houses. None of the other Sydney offices will be sufferers by the fire. The reports from the Newcastle agents, and also letters from other parties, speak in very high terms of the valuable services rendered by the Newcastle Fire Brigade ; and also by the inhabitants generally in their efforts to extinguish the fire.

Joseph Croft died by his own hand in December 1861. His wife found him lying dead when she returned from a visit to Rev. Chaucer The Sydney Morning Herald reported the circumstances of his death and also that the Commercial Hotel had been destroyed by fire some time previously.

......Early on Saturday morning information was received from Waratah that Mr. J. Croft had committed suicide by shooting himself. Dr. Bowker immediately rode out and found Mr. Croft quite dead, sitting in a chair with a gun between his knees. Mr. Croft has been a long residence in Newcastle. He formerly kept the Commercial Hotel at the corner of Watt and Hunter Street; but on these premises being destroyed by fire some few years since, he retired into private life for a short time, and afterwards purchased the iron building belonging to the Bank of Australasia which he converted into an hotel, known as the Bank Hotel, near the A.A. Company's bridge. Finding his health getting impaired, he once more resolved to retire into private life, taking a cottage at the Foley near Waratah, where he has resided for the last six months. His health became considerably better, but having indulged too frequently in drink for several days past, seem to have quite impaired his mind, and led to the unfortunate catastrophe. He leaves a widow and five children to deplore their loss. The funeral took place yesterday (Sunday) and was attended by large numbers of neighbours and townsmen; many were the expressions of regret and sympathy for Mrs. Croft and family. A lengthy account of the inquest into his death was also reported.[14]

By May 1863 Martha Croft had moved to the Obelisk Hotel:

To parties visiting Newcastle. Obelisk Hotel, near the Obelisk Newcastle. Mrs. (Martha) Croft (widow of the late Mr. Joseph Croft) late of the Commercial Hotel) begs to announce that, having obtained a licence for the above hotel she is now prepared to receive visitors from Maitland and elsewhere. The salubrity of the situation and the beauty of the surrounding scenery comprising an unobstructed view of the South Pacific Ocean; the harbour of Newcastle interspersed with its many verdant islands; the beautifully wooded and picturesque inland country; together with the first class accommodation which the house itself affords, cannot fail to render the Obelisk Hotel a favourite resort for parties from the country whether in search of health or requiring relaxation from the cares and anxieties of business.[15]

Image of the view from the Obelisk in 1885


[1] Certificates for publicans' licences, 1853-1861. NRS 14403, reels 5063-5066, 1236-1242. State Records Authority of New South Wales, Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia.

[2] This errant lady: Jane Franklin's overland journey to Port Philip and Sydney p. 141

[3] Sydney Herald 27 January 1840

[4] The Australasian Chronicle 18 July 1840

[5] Sydney Herald 23 January 1841

[6]; Hunter River Gazette 8 January 1842

[7] Maitland Mercury 7 January 1843

[8] Maitland Mercury 15 July 1843

[9] Maitland Mercury 2 September 1843

[10] Maitland Mercury 26 August1846

[11] Maitland Mercury 4 October 1851

[12] Gould, W.J., The Borough of Newcastle., Newcastle and Hunter District Historical Society

[13] Sydney Morning Herald 31 August 1857

[14] Sydney Morning Herald 31 December 1861

[15] Maitland Mercury. May 28 1863