How the Hidden Treasure Hotel got its name: A history of a Newcastle pub

The former Hidden Treasure Hotel after the 1989 Newcastle earthquake. Picture: Newcastle Region Library

BY the 1870s most Australian pubs were going by unimaginative names like the Royal and the Commercial. However, there was one Newcastle pub, which opened in 1877, that bucked the trend, and was given the tantalising sign of the Hidden Treasure Hotel.

Built by Peter Streit, and trading for less than 35 years, the story behind the pub’s name is interesting.

Peter Streit (sometimes spelt Street) arrived in Australia in 1852, and shortly afterwards spent time on the gold diggings in Victoria. He was born in the European territory of Alsace-Lorraine in 1836, when it was governed by the French, before making his way to Australia.

Soon after his arrival in Australia, Streit, with two companions, was ‘stuck-up’ by notorious bushranger, Frank Gardiner, and his gang.

Streit had with him gold to the value of £150, which was wrapped in some pieces of cloth, and which the bushrangers failed to detect in their search.

Having assured himself that the prospectors had no money, Gardiner gave the trio 10 shillings each, and told them to keep off the road in future.

Street came to Newcastle in 1857, and started business as a builder and contractor. Among his contracts was the old Newcastle post office, on the corner of Hunter and Watt streets. In 1869, at the age of 33, he married Lavina Cheers, and they went on to raise five children in Newcastle.

Streit had a career change in 1877 and built himself a two-storey stone and brick hotel in Laman Street, Cooks Hill, Newcastle. The pub, when completed, had a bar, three parlours, five bedrooms and a kitchen, with stables.

A weatherboard cottage with stables was also part of the property. The pub sat at the north-east corner of Laman and John Street, and backed onto Charles Street.

Streit, now 41, licensed the Hidden Treasure Hotel for business in June 1877.

Streit’s advertisement in the Newcastle Morning Herald in 1877

The pub derived its name from the fact that while sinking a well, Streit was said to have came across a tin bucket containing between 60 to 70 silver, and 400 to 500 copper coins. The coins dated from the 1750s to around the 1820s.

Streit’s discovery made big news on the day. The account of how the budding publican discovered the coins was reported in the local papers of the day. It is entertainingly described by reporter Leo Butler in this Newcastle Morning Herald story on October 11 1947:

‘The Pilot’ Scooped the News

By Leo Butler

Peter Bellew was sitting in ‘The Pilot’ office in Newcastle wishing that something would happen. ‘The Pilot’ office, be it said, was not the office that controlled pilots, but the home of one of Newcastle’s two newspapers in 1877. Its contemporary was the “Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ advocate”.

Peter was a smart fellow of 25, well-dressed, frock-coated; wore a large black cravat, tall hat, high buttoned waistcoat with silver watch chain bridging the central expanse; was extensively moustached, the mirror of fashion of 1877. He was leaning back on his chair, his hat despondently over his forehead, feet on the table, a picture of dissatisfaction and gloom such that even the ends of his moustache seemed to droop. He glared at the copy paper he held in his hands. It was a court story from that Thursday morning.

“William Bilgefate, master of the lighter Teaser, was fined £11/7/8 on a charge of illegally discharging ballast into the harbour at Bullock Island…”

It was dull stuff – dull stuff that dried a young reporter’s soul till it was dead and brown like old newspapers. He understood people read this sort of thing… At that moment, the creaky, disillusioned, and dissolving office door was thrown open with a force that severely strained the ancient cobwebs which held it together.

Freckled Interlude

A red-haired, barefoot, hideously freckle-faced lad almost fell into the room. “Youse a reporter?” he gasped. Mr. Bellew scrambled up, for this was obviously news, NEWS.

“Youse a reporter?” asked the boy again. Mr. Bellew nodded.

“Mr Street send me runnin’ down ‘ere. He’s found a treasure in ‘is backyard. Diggin’ a well, ‘e was-out in the backyard. Gold ‘e found. Pirates’ gold, I betcha.” Mr Bellew whipped into action.

“Where is this place?” he demanded crisply, stuffing copy paper into his pocket at the same time.

“Mr Street’s place in Laman-street up at Cook’s ‘Ill. I’ll show yuh.”

Coattails flying, hat held on, walking stick describing simple harmonic motion like a steam-engine piston, Mr Bellew raced out of the office, level with his informant. They swept into Hunter-street, which was crowded at that time of day, full of waltz-time. Clip-clop, clip-clop went the cab-horses, left-right, left-right swung the ladies’ bustles, up-down, up-down moved the vast surface of tall hats, into this rhythmic scene burst Bellew and the boy discordantly.

The Opposition

Suddenly Bellew pulled up, jerked the lad to his side, began to walk quietly, with case, with dignity, as though acting a charade. Keeping a pleasant nothing-to-do, just-taking-the-air smile on his face, he hissed to the boy: “Walk slowly, damn you, or I’ll brain you.”

The reason for this volte-face became manifest when Mr Spencer Browne, of the “Newcastle Morning Herald,” appeared. “Good-day, Bellew. How’s things?”

“Pretty dull, Browne, pretty dull. No news at all.”

The opposition passed ‘on, disappeared round Bolton-street corner and the two resumed their dash.

As people were staring at them, as at least two cab-horses were growing violent (for they collected mad-dashing such as this with another fire in Hunter-street), as a number of bustles had been displaced by the speeding pair, Bellew thought it expedient to take a cab.

They boarded a cab, bade the driver whip up his horse, exhorted him to his highest speed and dismally clip-clopped out to Cook’s Hill at five miles an hour. There they found Mr. Peter Street and his treasure trove.

Let Peter Bellew tell the story as he did in the issue of The Pilot of April 13, 1877 – a good story, a true story, and, what was more, a SCOOP.

“Yesterday afternoon report reached us that a treasure trove, in the shape of gold, silver and copper coins, had been happened upon in the course of sinking a well at Cook’s Hill, the now, fast-rising suburb which lies between Darby-street and Blane-street.

“A representative of this journal left at once for the place and found the lucky finder to be Mr Peter Street, builder, of Laman-street, where he is engaged in the erection of a large hotel. Mr Street lives at present in a small house in the rear of the new building, and between his house and the rear of the hotel he, yesterday, commenced to sink the well where the coins were found.

“There were found in all between 400 and 500 copper coins, some 60 or 70 silver coins. There were also found a couple of clay marbles and the brass ram-rod receiver of an old fashioned pistol.

“The silver coins were four entire Spanish dollars and two with a circular hole stamped out of the centre. These were dated 1804. Mr Street intimated his intention of christening the new hotel ‘The Hidden Treasure’.”

Mr John Bingle, chronicler of Newcastle, happened along and said that the treasure had probably been hidden 50 years before when Cook’s Hill was unknown except to aborigines and convicts.

Peter Bellew ran to three-quarters of a column on the story when he got back to the office and spent an exhilarating but anxious night awaiting the paper next day. What was his joy to see that the ‘Herald’ missed the story. It was a scoop.

“Like the scoop on the coins?” he asked that grim old ruffian, the Editor. This grey eminence grunted. “Yes. But what about the story you missed? This one.”

He pointed to a paragraph in the ‘Herald’. “Yesterday,” it ran, “William Bilgefate, master of the lighter Teaser, was fined £11/7/8 on a charge of illegally discharging ballast.”

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Finding historic coins it seems wasn’t unusual during this time. The Newcastle Morning Herald reported on January 15 1878: 

Treasure Trove – Farthing. While the men engaged in putting up the new fence on the hill opposite the Asylum were digging a post hole yesterday, one of them hit on a not very valuable, but still an interesting relic of the past, in the shape of a farthing of William the Third’s reign. It bears date 1697, and, could it but speak, would no doubt have a strange tale to tell. It is not a little curious to find so many coins of different sorts hidden in and about the precincts of this city, and we have heard many wild elucidations suggested. Perhaps the most sensible is that which would point to the probability of several of the old convicts having planted their little hoards and, forgetting the locality afterwards, left it for succeeding generations to bring the hidden treasure to light. The coins at the Hidden Treasure Hotel are indeed very interesting, and a more extended search might be rewarded with other relics of a bygone time, when banking evidently had not attained the confidence of the community to the extent it now does.

Peter Streit should have stuck to the building trade, as he fell into financial difficulties soon after opening his pub. By February 1878 he had been declared insolvent by the bank. As a consequence the hotel was sold, and Streit went back to the building trade.

Hidden Treasure Hotel, ‘for sale advertisement’, Newcastle Morning Herald April 23 1878

Peter Streit died aged 82 on October 28 1918, seven years after his wife, Lavina and was buried in the Church of England section of the Newcastle Cemetery.

The next prominent publican of the Hidden Treasure Hotel was Thomas Hunniford.

Hunniford purchased the pub for £800 in 1884 and, with his wife Maria, remained as hosts for over 15 years.

Born in Bristol, England in 1827, Thomas Hunniford arrived in Brisbane as a 27-year-old man in 1857.

Like the founder of the hotel, Hunniford also made his way to the goldfields of NSW and Victoria, where he was said to have met with “fair success”.

Weary of the life on the goldfields, he settled down, married and had one child, a daughter, before buying the Hidden Treasure Hotel in 1884.

At the time the hotel contained 10 accommodation rooms, and Hunniford later added another four bedrooms after becoming host.

Tom Hunniford died at the age of 73 in 1900, and his wife took over the license of the pub for a short time before her son-in-law, Henry Charles Hill took over the license. Maria Hunniford died in 1910.

The last publican of the Hidden Treasure Hotel was Isaac Banks.

Two years before the Hidden Treasure closed for business, Banks lost his wife, Annie, who died in November 1907.

The beginning of the end came for the pub named after the cache of historic coins with the 1907 ‘Local Option Poll’. The poll gave voters at elections a choice to reduce, allow an increase, or keep the same the number of hotels in NSW state electorates.

As a result of the 1907 poll, the Licensing Reduction Board brought the chopper down on 13 of Newcastle’s 58 licensed houses on September 14 1909. Among them was the old stone pub at Cook’s Hill, which was instructed to close for business on Friday September 10 1909.

After its closure, the pub became a block of residential flats. It was badly damaged during the 1989 Newcastle earthquake and was later extensively refurbished as terrace housing.

The old pub survives to this day as residential terraces.

The former Hidden Treasure Hotel today has been converted into residential terraces. Picture: Google Streetview

Hidden Treasure Hotel annual licensees

1877-1878: Peter Streit

1878-1879: Frederick Styman

1879-1881: Joseph Petrie

1881-1882: Harvey Robinson

1882-1884: George McNeill

1884-1900: Thomas Hunniford

1900-1901: Maria Hunniford

1901-1904: Henry Charles Hill (Son-in-law of Tom Hunniford)

1904-1909: Isaac Banks

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2020

  • Additional information from Newcastle hotel historian, Ed Tonks:

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Categories: Newcastle hotels, NSW hotels


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