Did you know that the Byron Community Centre used to host a library, skating rink and the first silent movie theatre in town? Situated in the heart of Byron Bay for over 100 years, the building has a long and rich history. As an independent grassroots non-profit, the community centre has responded to local needs over time to become what it is today.
Byron Bay School of Arts
Library, Reading Room, Dance Hall, Gym and Meeting Rooms
Joseph Yates called a public meeting in 1892 and formed a committee that gathered in a small building behind the Pier Hotel. Soon Yates realised that they needed a bigger building. The committee decided to erect something more suitable in the main square, using £40 it had raised from various functions.
The Byron Bay School of Arts, formed in 1894, was allocated a specially designated block of land on Jonson Street stretching south from the Post Office to Marvell Street. The initial building, which also housed the first public library in Byron Bay, was erected in 1895.
Within 10 years it had become too small to accommodate all the activities for which it was being used. It was decided to divide the block of land in two, sell the southern part which accommodated the old building, retain the vacant part of the block next to the Post Office and to erect a new building there.
The new, much larger, two-story building was completed in April 1907. It quickly became the focal point of the town and a hive of activity, containing the expanded library and reading room, a dance hall, billiard room, a physical club (gym) and meeting rooms used for doctor’s consultations and church services.
In 1910, the Imperial Picture Company ran silent films every Wednesday.
Byron Bay Literary Institute
Skating Rink, Coffee Parlour and Silent Movies
Following another name change it became the Byron Bay Literary Institute in January 1913. A skating rink and coffee parlour were installed. The first silent movies were shown in 1917 and became a regular Saturday feature. The ‘talkies’ commenced in 1931 complete with short serialised movies that continued from Saturday to Saturday to lure the local patrons back each week. In addition to movies, dance nights took place every Wednesday with local bands playing.
Byron Community Centre
Community Services, Byron Theatre and Byron Markets
The building was remodelled in the mid 1930s and continued as the hub of the town and showing movies up until the late 1960s. Activities at the Byron Bay Literary Institute included drama, groups for children, teenagers and adults, boxing and basketball.
Over time, the building was unused and in need of repair work. Recognising the lack of facilities, particularly for young people, resident Jan Dawkins became the prime mover in saving the building and establishing the community centre.
In the early 1980s, the building underwent major repairs and renovations and yet another name change, this time to the Byron Community Centre. This was only possible thanks to fundraising and the hard work of enthusiastic community members and volunteers. However, this no longer included the library service.
In 1987, Byron Shire Council licensed the community centre to manage the iconic Byron Community Market.
The original 1907 building was replaced with a new complex designed by Ian McKay in 2002, after almost 20 years of fundraising and support from many wonderful sponsors.
It included the Byron Theatre, which opened in 2003 as a 246 seat multi-purpose venue from which movies are still shown, nearly 100 years after the first. A multitude of social and cultural services were provided at the community centre.
Supporting Our Community’s Most Vulnerable
Homeless Services, Byron Theatre and Byron Markets
The Homeless Breakfast started in 2004 by Gwen Gould in Clarkes Kitchen in response to community needs. Showers and outreach expanded the homeless services.
In 2009, Paul Spooner took over as the General Manager. Under his guidance and wisdom, and together with the volunteer Management Committee, the community centre consolidated its community focus. A number of essential community services were established and community groups auspiced, some that continue today such as the Byron Youth Service.
That same year, Buddist nun The Venerable Honu Dawson Honu Dawson started Liberation Larder and provided lunch and groceries to an average of 120 people per week who were homeless or doing it tough in the Byron Shire. Liberation Larder uses the Clarkes Kitchen, and the service continues every Monday and Thursday to this day.
In addition to that, Byron Markets acquired the licences for two more markets, the Twilight Market during the summer months and the seasonal Beachside Market for artisans.
Community, Arts and Culture
Community Services, Byron Seniors, Byron Theatre, Byron Markets and Byron Spaces
Byron Seniors started at the community centre in 2011. Originally named the Healthy Ageing Program, activities now include weekly classes of Drumming, Art, Drama and Computer Club.
The Byron Theatre and Byron Spaces were very busy with a huge variety of events and shows including concerts, dances, festivals, screenings, community events, classical ballets, kid’s shows, corporate conventions and voting booths.
The community centre continued to fundraise and seek donors to support its social and cultural programs.
A Community Hub for Today
Fletcher Street Cottage, Community Services, Byron Theatre, Byron Markets and Byron Spaces
In 2019, Paul Spooner retired after 10 years. Staff and volunteers welcomed Louise O’Connell as the new General Manager. Louise recognised that the community centre is the ‘beating heart of Byron’ and saw exciting opportunities in its role delivering benefit to the greater community in the future.
When COVID-19 hit in 2020, the Byron Community Pantry was created as a food outreach service for people who were unable to physically or financially shop. The community centre stayed open throughout the pandemic to provide community support.
A 2021 crowdfunding campaign raised $400K from the community to renovate and reopen homeless hub Fletcher Street Cottage. Thanks to these generous donors, the cottage opened in 2022 and has seen increasing demand for its homeless services.
The community centre takes over the management of the Lennox Community Market in early 2022. Byron Markets now support over 500 local businesses and continues to be a creative hub.
In response to the flood disaster, the Flood Relief Fund was launched in early 2022. The community centre raised $1.73 million for flood relief and recovery. In partnership with NRCF, 107 quick response grants of up to $10K were distributed to community organisations across the Northern Rivers.
The Byron Community Centre is the Winner of the Outstanding Community Organisation category in the 2022 Northern Rivers Regional Business Awards.
Ensuring Our Future with Your Involvement
Fletcher Street Cottage, Community Services, Volunteers, Byron Theatre, Byron Markets and Byron Spaces
The Byron Community Centre underwent a rebrand in 2021. A new website was launched in 2023 to showcase all that the community centre has to offer. Community services and Fletcher Street Cottage continue to provide support for our community’s most vulnerable.
The community centre needs support to continue to run Fletcher Street Cottage and provide vital community services. With no ongoing government funding, the organisation relies entirely on the generosity and support of our community.
Social enterprises Byron Markets, Byron Theatre and Byron Spaces offer an arts and cultural hub for our region.
Today, the Byron Community Centre continues to be a vital part of the Byron Bay community. It is run by a volunteer board of directors and a team of staff, who work together to ensure that the centre remains a welcoming and inclusive space for all members of the community. With its rich history and ongoing commitment to community development, the Byron Community Centre is a shining example of the power of community-driven initiatives to create positive change.
The Byron Community Centre always has its doors open to community. Donate, volunteer or become a partner. Come and be part of the beating heart.
1895: Byron Bay School of Arts
1913: Byron Bay Literary Institute
1980: Byron Community Centre
1987: Byron Markets
2003: Byron Theatre
2004: Homeless Services
2020: Byron Community Pantry
2022: Northern Rivers Flood Relief Fund
2022: Fletcher Street Cottage
Historical facts have been reviewed and approved by the Byron Bay Historical Society
Special thanks to Jani Collins