In 1928 Martin Alberni (uncle of Marty Alberni whose story was told in the October and November 1995 editions of the R-LCNews) called a public meeting at which the Lysterfield Progress Association was established with George Swan as President, Jack Newton as Vice President and Bill Taylor as Secretary.

One of the Progress Association’s first initiatives was the building of a hall, a project which engaged the generosity and energy of all of the community. Donations were collected and fund-raising activities of various sorts were held. Chief among these were the concerts put on by the children of Lysterfield Primary School. In all, about 700 pounds were raised to purchase materials while all of the labour was freely given at working bees.

The Selman brothers who owned the land, donated the site and Cr. A.E. Selman (who represented the South Riding on the Ferntree Gully Shire Council between 1901 and 1935) became one of the three trustees of the Hall. The other two were Fred Williams and Josiah Hobbs (whose son Gordon later established the Lysterfield Post Office and Store).

After three years of planning and hard work the hall was officially opened by Lieutenant Colonel G.H. Knox (later Sir George Knox) on 11th June 1931. After A.E. Selman’s death,. Herbert Bailey became trustee and for many years the trustees gave great service in maintaining and improving the hall.

A Ladies’ Auxiliary was formed in 1933 to raise money to extend the hall to provide dressing rooms. Those involved included Mesdames Bailey, Reynolds, Gillies, Selman, Hobbs, Williams and Daniels. These women were tireless workers for the hall and other district activities.

From the time of the Grand Opening Ball on 11th June 1931 the hall was a great success and the regular dances and balls held there always attracted good crowds through the 1930s and 40s.

The rapid industrial growth of Dandenong in the 1950s drew people away from Lysterfield and interest in the hall waned. By the mid 1960s the hall had become run down and vandalised and in 1967 the last surviving trustee transferred its title to the Sherbrooke Shire Council as there was insufficient local interest to support the conduct of the hall.

The 1812 Theatre

The Lysterfield Progress Association Hall seemed doomed to become derelict but its salvation came from an unexpected quarter.

The Ferntree Gully Drama Group, The Hut Players, had outgrown the small converted army hut they had used for a theatre since the late 1940s and were looking around for a larger venue with more adequate car parking spaces and one where the neighbours would not complain to the police about the noise.

Barry Doyle in his history of the 1812 Theatre, “The 1812 Theatre 1945 on …” writes:

“IN 1968 THE 1812 THEATRE WAS BORN

The re-discovery of the old Lysterfield Progress Association Hall is where it began. But the only thing which could have conjured up a name as grandiose as The 1812 was that it looked as if it had been the victim of some concentrated cannon fire. Built at a cost of 700 pounds in 1931, the hall underwent a total facelift to fit its new name. Here members of the Hut Players (they kept the name for three plays to take their audiences with them) with friends, supporters, local tradesmen … anyone who could hold a hammer or paintbrush … began the work that, tragically, would soon have to be done again.

Twice the size of the old army hut in Ferntree Gully, The 1812 was re-designed along the lines of The Hampstead Civic Theatre in England. The 18inch-high stage was almost twice the width of the old one, opening up new possibilities in set design.

Thanks to voluntary help, the guidance by honorary architect Joan O’Malley, the renovations cost about $5,000 … and in a little more than two months, the stage at The 1828 was in use for the dress rehearsal of the first production at the new theatre, Bill Naughton’s “All In Good Time”.

(For the uninitiated, The 1812 was so named because the Lysterfield Hall was on Highway 18, Wellington Road; Napoleon Road wasn’t far off. For the historically minded it’s a simple progression to combine the two and bring in their epic battle of 1812. Well, perhaps. Also, the 1812 Overture is used before curtain up each night).

With the move to Lysterfield, the problem of neighbours was beaten. With the new theatre set in an acre of bush, the parking situation was also a worry of the past.”

Sherbrooke Council agreed to a seven year lease at a nominal rental on condition that the hall be brought up to Health Department standards and that the cost of any alterations or improvements be met by the theatre group. Between 1967 and 1972, the 1812 Theatre directors spent $20,660 on considerable alterations and improvements to the hall – and this figure does not include the thousands of hours of voluntary labour put into the project. This effort emulated the vision and energy of the Lysterfield community of the 1920s when they first built the Hall.

Between March 1968 and June 1972 The 1812 Theatre staged nineteen productions at Lysterfield. As well as the plays, the triennial jazz seasons at the 1812 commenced in Lysterfield in March 1969. With a group of performers representing a “Who’s Who” of Australian Jazz, the evening was a memorable one. In 1972, Jazz at the 1812 became a three night season with every performance “not only a sell-out … people were hanging from the rafters!”

The company was going from success to success with audiences large enough to make 20-night seasons the rule. On Friday 2nd June 1972, the cast and audience left the theatre after a performance of “Ring Round the Moon”. It was to be the last performance at Lysterfield. Sometime after midnight, the hall was totally destroyed by fire.

After the Fire

Everyone associated with the theatre was devastated by the total loss of their hall, costumes, sets and props but in the best traditions of the theatre, the company completed the season at the Scoresby Public Hall.

The cost of re-building a comparable theatre at Lysterfield proved to be prohibitive and the company and Sherbrooke Council agreed that the insurance money be best spent on acquiring the old Loyalty Cinema in Rose Street, Ferntree Gully as the new home for the 1812 Theatre.

And so, sadly, the link with Lysterfield ended. All that remains at the site today is the commemorative plaque which reads:

The 1812 Theatre “Speeches pass away but acts remain” Napoleon BonaparteThis landmark serves as a tribute to those whose efforts
and donations ensured continuation of the
1812 Theatre at Rose Street, Upper Ferntree Gully
after it was destroyed by fire at this site on the night
of June 2nd, 1972.

Directors and founders of the 1812 Theatre Limited:
Jan Lowe Pauline Lowe Nicholas Goss
Pam Goss Robyn Miller

Unveiled June 2nd 1980 by The Honourable
W.A. Borthwick M.P. Minister of Health, Victoria.

An interesting postscript with regard to the Lysterfield community’s ownership of the site is revealed in a long article written by the Sherbrooke Shire Secretary, Mr K Matson, and published in the Knox-Sherbrooke News on 30 August 1972. In part it reads: “Of the $27,000 insurance received by council for the loss of the building, council felt that the estimated replacement value of the original Lysterfield Hall – pre 1812 ($6,650) should be retained for future public use at Lysterfield …”

If that $6,650 has not already been spent between 1972 and now it would seem that the City of Knox, having taken over the trusteeship of the old hall’s site, should also take on the obligation of that debt to the Lysterfield community. One suggestion has been that the spirit of the Lysterfield people who built the hall in the 1920s as well as that of the people who transformed it into one of the most vibrant theatres in Melbourne would best be preserved by the construction of a drama facility at the new Lysterfield Primary School, using the proceeds of the sale of the old site. Such a facility should be available for public use out of school hours and could become the home of a Lysterfield theatre group that might in time grow to be as successful as the 1812 Theatre.

Bryan Power