Newcastle ~ A Potted History

Defining Newcastle
A place of punishment - and a scramble for coal

In a spirit of friendly rivalry a Sydneyite might suggest little has changed in two centuries, that Newcastle is still a coal city and a place of punishment. 

In retort, a Novocastrian would remark that criminals from Sydney still seek refuge in Newcastle. Economic gain is eternally driven by cheap labour and free resources.

 Thus began Newcastle, as a source of easily gathered coal and timber and a literally 'captive' workforce. Not just any coal, but high-quality black, bituminous, low-ash, low sulphur, high-energy thermal and metallurgical coals. Not just any timber, but magnificent white, golden, and red cedar, rosewood, box and "ash." And not just any cheap labour, but unpaid prisoners with government-financed militia to manage them. 

BC 68,000 - AD 1790

The story of Newcastle is the same story played out on all the great continents in the past 500 years. "Native" peoples in symbiotic equilibrium with nature, overrun by Europeans whose civilization was infected by a virulent mind virus: ruthless competitive commerce and its handmaiden, colonialism.

Australian aboriginal place names surrounding Newcastle ... Awaba, Bahtahbah, barrahinebin, Barrahingbin, Bo-un, Bolwarra, Boolaroo, Burrinbingon, Doorabang, Gan Gan, Kooragang, Kurri Kurri, Merriwa, Minmi, Mulubinba, Onebygamba, Quirindi, Tahlee, Tanilba, Tinonee, Tirrikiba, Tomago, Umina, Wangi Wangi, Warrawalong, and Windywoppa ... and glorious ancestral home to the Awabakal, Worimi, Gingai, Wonarua and Geawegal communities, and their neighbours the Birbai, Kamilaroi, and Darkinung.


Captain James Cook's journal on the bark H.M. Endeavour:
Thursday, 10th May 1770. In the P.M., had the wind at North-East by North, with which we stood in Shore until near 4 o'clock, when we Tack'd in 23 fathoms Water, being about a Mile from the land, and as much to the Southward of Cape 3 Points. In the night the wind veer'd to North-West and West, and in the morning to South-West. Having the advantage of a light Moon, we made the best of our way along shore to the northward.

At Noon we were by observation in the Latitude of 32 degrees 53 minutes South, and Longitude 208 degrees 0 minutes West, and about 2 Leagues from the land, which extended from North 41 degrees East to South 41 degrees West. A small round rock or Island,* (* Nobby Head, at the entrance of Newcastle Harbour, formed by the Hunter River. Newcastle is the great coal port of New South Wales. It has a population of 20,000, and exports 1,500,000 tons of coal in the year. - Ed. W.J.Wharton, 1893) laying close under the land, bore South 82 degrees West, distance 3 or 4 Leagues. [ From the excruciating detail, one notes how much time they had on their hands ]

Thus began Newcastle's story - from the realist interpretation of modern history.


Convict William Bryant and escapees from Sydney arrived by cutter in 1791, setting a trend followed by Sydneysiders ever since. Soon, a scramble for coal would become the city's - then the region's - raison d'etre.


A party of convicts who stole the boat Cumberland and escaped by sea in September 1797 were pursued unsuccessfully by Lt. John Shortland who, during the chase, discovered a river he named after Governor Hunter:

"into which he carried three fathoms of water in the shoalest part of its entrance, finding deep water and good anchorage within. The entrance of this river was but narrow, and covered by a high rocky island, lying right off, so as to leave a good passage round the north end of the island between that and the shore. A reef connects the south part of the island with the south shore of the entrance of the river. In this harbour was found a very considerable quantity of coal of a very good sort, and lying so near the water's side as to be conveniently shipped; which gave it, in this particular, manifest advantage over that discovered to the southward. Some specimens of this coal were brought up in the boat.


Not long after, Simeon Lord, James Underwood and other traders sent vessels to the Hunter for coal and timber, and in 1799 a cargo of coal from the district was hauled to Bengal by the barque "The Hunter" - the first oversea export to be made, while the first 'direct' coal shipment went to the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, via the "Anna Joseph" three years later.


In June 1801 James Grant in the Lady Nelson took Lt-Governor, Colonel William Paterson, to the Hunter and on the 14th landed on a small island off the mouth of the river. Paterson called it Coal Island, but the name "Nobby(s)" was its destiny. A member of Paterson's party, Ensign Francis Barrallier, charted the entrance and lower part of the river.

The entrance of Hunter's River is in latitude 32 degrees 57 minutes south, distinguishable by an Island on the south-east side of its entrance which in coming from the northward appears like a castle, being perpendicular on the south-east side and 203 feet high: the north side is steep and covered with grass. It is the northernmost high land from Sydney to the Heads of Port Stephens from which it lies north-east 6 leagues. The intermediate space being a sandy beach.

The tides both in the harbour and entrance runs very strong, and in some places not less than four miles an hour and sometimes from four to five. The ebb in general is much stronger than the flood: 9 3/4 hours in the harbour makes high water full and change, and rises six feet perpendicular where the Lady Nelson anchored, and four feet when she was higher up the river. In the harbour there is good shelter from all winds and plenty of room for more than 100 sail of shipping. There is plenty of water to be had on the north shore by digging a very little way down. There are three wells already dug, and the water is very good. On the south shore there are plenty of runs of fresh water.

James Grant wrote to Governor King reporting the survey of the Hunter River and the work of the party under Lt. Col. Paterson. [Facsimile of Grant's letter to Gov. King.] Newcastle's natural beauty had already begun working its magic:

It may be imagined that coals were found in great plenty when I mention that the schooner sailed with forty tons, and that we had only one man employed to dig the mine. The spot where these coals are found is clear of trees or bush for the space of many acres, which are covered with a short tender grass very proper for grazing sheep, the ground rising with a gradual ascent intersected with valleys on which wood grows in plenty, sheltered from the winds, forming the most delightful prospect.

This place might serve as a station for the woodcutters and colliers (named Collier's Point by Paterson - where Newcastle city now resides). It affords pasture for sheep, its soil in general being good ... and plenty of excellent fish caught, particularly mullet, with a fish much resembling the herring which I am inclined to think go in shoals. On an island in the harbour a tree is found, the quality of whose timber much resembles that of the ash, and from the great numbers growing there has given this name to the island.


A party of soldiers and convicts was sent, huts erected, and the men set to work to mine coal. The settlement was abandoned in 1802 because it was too isolated from Sydney to receive proper supervision, but in March 1804 King was instructed by the Colonial Office to re-establish it. In the same month he appointed Lt. Charles Menzies, of the Marines, as commandant of Newcastle. King gave the settlement the name of Newcastle and the name Northumberland to the county, but Menzies called the village King?s Town in honour of the Governor - a name that appeared occasionally in official documents until about 1830, but which soon disappeared from popular use.


Settlement resumed in 1804 and was named Coal River and then re-named Newcastle, after England's famous Newcastle-upon-Tyne. From 1804 to 1824, Newcastle was used as a place of secondary punishment for convicts who transgressed while serving their original sentences, and its reputation was unsavoury. Lieutenant Purcell, the commandant in 1820, described Newcastle as "the Hell of New South Wales." 

The convicts sent there were employed as cedar- cutters, miners and the most recalcitrant as lime-burners - literally burning shells for lime, on the harbour side of the northern Stockton peninsula. The cedar- cutters, who began by obtaining timber as close to Newcastle as the modern suburb of Waratah, had later to go farther afield, even beyond Maitland. They lived in the bush and sent the timber down as rafts. The worst convicts worked as lime- burners on the peninsula where Stockton is now situated. Coal was first mined at Collier's Point under what is known as Fort Scratchley, but numerous mines were later opened in what is now the city centre.


In that year a shaft was sunk on the hill near Newcomen and Ordnance streets. In the early decades of coal mining tunnels and shafts pierced the cliff faces around the harbour heads and down the coast. A beacon was already on Signal Hill (or Allen's Hill) in 1813 to aid mariners, and it was used until a new light was built on Nobbys in 1857. In 1817 Captain James Wallis, the commandant of the day, completed Christ Church on the hill, site of the now-Cathedral, described then as "a very handsome church with an elegant spire." 

A school was established in 1816 and a hospital a year later. When Macquarie became Governor, in 1810, there were only two streets in the town, and he ordered fresh ones to be laid out. In 1821 these streets (which correspond roughly with the main streets of the present day) were called Macquarie, Wallis, Elizabeth, Patrick, Cowper, George and Wellington - none of which names survive in the city today, though suburban streets bear these names.


Governor Macquarie ordered start of breakwater to join Coal Island to shore creating the port, and became known as Nobbys Head, its present fond designation. In 1819 major flooding occurred in the Hunter. Flood debris was later noted by Hunter Valley explorers to such extraordinary heights above river beds they became cautious camping near on their banks.


In 1821 the town contained 13 houses of Government officials and 71 belonging to prisoners, besides barracks to accommodate houseless prisoners. In 1822-3 Henry Dangar surveyed town allotments and the surrounding district to plan the town's future.


Military rule in Newcastle ends, and while several dozen prisoners remain to work on the breakwater, nearly a thousand are shipped north to Port Macquarie.


At the beginning of the second period of Newcastle's history, in 1824, the town was no more than a poor cluster of houses near the foreshores of Port Hunter, with the reputation of being a harsh penal settlement. There are conflicting figures as to its size and population at about this time. One account says that in 1821 its population was 1169 persons; a second, in 1827, about 23 houses and 200 people; a third, in 1829, Newcastle contained about 50 inhabited houses and 400 people. 

Confidence in the region was confirmed, however, by charter to create the Australian Agricultural Company, with land grants to breed sheep near Port Stephens, while James Busby was given land near Branxton and wine grapes, ever the European agricultural staple, were then grown.


Over the next ten years work progressed on linking Newcastle to Sydney by land, using convicts to construct the "Great North Road" that passed through impossibly rugged Hawkesbury river pass. Though the Great North Road was completed in 1828, the sea route to Sydney remained most desirable.


Coal was at first mined by the Government, but in 1828 the Australian Agricultural Company acquired the sole rights to work the mineral, together with large grants of land for mining purposes in the area now occupied by Merewether and Hamilton. The Government continued working its mines until 1831, when the A.A. Company took over completely. The first company coal was shipped to Sydney in the steamer Sophia Jane in December 1831. 

The company continued expanding its mining activities and sank several shafts close to the city; its last mine (the Sea Pit) was sunk in 1885. From 1831 to the mid-1840s the company held a complete monopoly of coal mining in the Newcastle district, and this, together with the manner in which its land grants hemmed the settlement in, slowed down the growth of the township. The company's monopoly was broken by James Brown, who first opened a mine at Four Mile Creek in 1844.

The Australian Agricultural Company in 1831 opened Australia's first railway. For many years after its establishment, Newcastle's chief line of communication was the sea, and throughout the nineteenth century the town was an important port for coast-wise trading and passenger services. In the 1830s steamships were introduced on the coast, including the famed William The Fourth paddle steamer launched at Clarencetown (considerably inland!), a replica of which exists today. In 1839 the Hunter River Steam Navigation Co. was founded. In 1838 the town went blarney-boyo when 140 Irish and Welsh miners arrived, invitees of the A.A.C.

Convict Francis MacNamara, popularly known as 'Frank the Poet' wrote this while employed by the Australian Agricultural Company.


A council for the Newcastle district was established in 1843, but, being dependent for funds on money collected in tolls, its work was limited. First edition of the Maitland Mercury, one of Australia's oldest newspapers, was printed. The Mercury is still publishing. Nobbys (Coal Island) joined the mainland with completion of the first breakwater in 1846. Though Newcastle was proclaimed a municipality in 1859 (James Hannell, first mayor), and became a parliamentary constituency in the same year, it was earlier proclaimed a city in 1847 when William Tyrrell was appointed first Bishop of Newcastle. Subsequently this proclamation was cancelled and Newcastle was made a city for a second time in 1885.


From then onward, the mining industry developed rapidly under private enterprise, and those irrepressible Irish and Welsh probably incited the first recorded strike by coal miners - and we don't mean a coal seam. Burwood mine was opened in 1850 and Wallsend in 1858, and others appeared at Waratah, Lambton, Cardiff, Stockton, Hexham and New Lambton in the 1860s. 

Increasing trade in coal soon wrought a change in Newcastle. In the 1850s the Australian Agricultural Company sold some of its land near the city and the residential area was able to expand south and west to Cooks Hill and Islington. The English and Australian Copper Company built a copper smelter at Murdering Gully near Burwood Beach, south of Merewether, in 1850, the same year the now famous obelisk replaced a windmill on The Hill to assist shipping. In 1853 the Hunter River Railway Co. was incorporated to construct a railway from Newcastle to West Maitland, but two years later it got into difficulties and the work was taken over by the Government. 

A line from Newcastle to East Maitland was opened in 1857. 1854 greeted the Hunter Region Coal Miners' Protective Association - one of the nation's first unionised labour affiliations. 1858 welcomed The Newcastle Chronicle, a weekly journal of mining, shipping, court and local news, three years after the Newcastle Telegraph began its 30-year run.


Within Newcastle and its suburbs, omnibus services (motorized in 1918) operated since 1861. In 1864 a visitor observed that the "pocket village" had become "a flourishing and progressive town." The opening of the South Maitland fields in the last decade of the nineteenth century set the seal on Newcastle's position as a coal port. In 1901 the city had a population of 50,000, and by 1911 this had grown to 55,000; by 1921 to 84,000; by 1933, to 104,000. At the census of 1947 the population was 127,138.


The breakwater that joined Coal Island to the mainland created an all-weather harbour - almost. In 1875 it was extended from the island into the ocean protecting the harbour and wharves from any rough seas. In 1876 the first copies of The Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners Advocate were read, the new daily combining the Newcastle Chronicle and Wallsend's Miners' Advocate, the latter established three years earlier. The first hydraulic crane was built in 1878, dramatically accelerating coal handling, and within two decades the port had 12 hydraulic cranes and 5 steam cranes loading coal.


A steam tram was put into service between Newcastle and Wallsend in 1887, and services to other suburbs were inaugurated later. Electric trams were introduced in 1923, but were by 1950 replaced by diesel-powered motor buses. 1885 saw a huge 22 acre site near Tighes Hill house one of the largest factories of its type. Charles Upfold (1834-1919) built his Sydney Soap and Candle Company, replacing a smaller factory at nearby Wickham. In 1889, upon the completion of a bridge across the Hawkesbury River, Newcastle and Sydney were joined by rail. Newcastle is on the Pacific Highway, the coastal road running from Sydney to Brisbane, and was 107 miles from Sydney by this original scenic route.


The English and Australian Copper Company builds another copper smelter at Broadmeadow and a zinc smelter at Boolaroo, later to become the Sulphide Corporation. This idyllic, beautiful, sun-soaked little city, perched atop cliff-edged hills and straggling along the Hunter estuary, anticipates a future of warmly peaceful leisure, readily poised - after its first one hundred years - for the headlong plunge into industrialization and turmoil of the twentieth century. Its first ten decades were immensely kind. In that blink of civilization's eye a fully self-sufficient city and environs appeared. Such great wealth was created that before the century turned Newcastle possessed an array of grand Victorian architecture - incredibly, most of it still in tact today. 

The very same heritage that Sydney has almost inevitably degraded since 1950 in a frenzy of entrepreneurial redevelopment, changing irrevocably Sydney from the world's most quaintly beautiful city into an ongoing centre of endless construction, windy noisy canyons, terminal traffic congestion, toll roads, hour-long sojourns to anywhere, unaffordable housing ... .. such heritage magically survives in that original "hell hole" Newcastle, and the tables are fully turned. Newcastle is now the premier, most desirable and attractive, lifestyle city on Australia's east coast.

Further reading:

* Too much history is never enough. Newcastle City Council offers this marvellous collection of historic notes on Newcastle
* University of Newcastle has an extensive collection of images and texts on early Newcastle. Many of the images are reproduced on this website with their kind permission. Many of these are available for viewing on Flickr, others blog style, in addition to the original research at the University website (login required).
* Robert Dawson’s vivid and clearly written book on his experience with Port Stephens aborigines, an account begun in 1824 with his appointment as chief agent of the Australian Agricultural Company. 

This is superbly written in plain modern English and essential reading to gain a feel for those early days, especially with its direct relevance to Newcastle. Dawson explains incidentally in his narrative much that is never otherwise known about early Australian settlement. Robert Dawson was also a superb and skilled judge of people, which he applied effortlessly to the native people, and many fine humanitarian (though ultimately exploitative) relationships provide us with both the mindset of Europeans, in all their deficiencies or noblesse, and the fine qualities of the Worimi tribes and their own and reciprocal pragmatism, intelligence, humour, and indeed mischievousness.


Reprints are still sold, or sample at Google Books. The timeline above was (obviously) created from online and print sources, and may unintentionally repeat mistakes of others.

Grant's letter to Gov. King

H.M. Armed Surveying Vessel Lady Nelson, Hunters River June 24th 1801.

My Dear Sir,

We arrived here on Sunday the 14th indecipherable last having sailed from Sydney on the Thursday before; nothing very interesting in particular occurred; farther than that anxiety which is common to all passengers when they find themselves out; in regard to the time they have marked out for the length of their passage. 

This was very much prolonged by my pilot's mistaking the place. After having passed Reids Mistake I stood off and on an Isld. in a considerable deep hight for one night; as it took me a considerable part of the next day to gett in with it as the ebb had sett me some distance off the shore before daylight nevertheless I had sounded in 24 fms & 35 during the night ?? nor was it until we were within ?? of a mile off the Isld. & ?? I began to be very uneasie on finding the latd did not agree with that laid down on the chart (which is pretty correct as their will not be 4 miles difference) that this man would allow him self to be wrong. It being calm I immediately brought up with the ridge & Dr Harris went on shore to examine the place. When he came on board he informed indecipherable me there was nothing their like the place we wanted. 

However mortifying this might be it had a very good effect; for some of my friends about me who thought I was very shy of the shore; more especially when they found themselves farther than they expected from it in the morning. Though we not only might have suffered ourselves but the schooner also; whom I had ordered to keep close to me during the night & had a light up at the mast head for him. During the time we remained at anchor we caught some very fine snappers sufficient to serve all hands. Next morning we were abreast of what I took to be the true entrance - & my worthy pilot recognized the same.

 I went in the launch with Dr Harris to examine the entrance which is one of those that I wish to have as little to do with as possible & did all but [indecipherable] night across ; the tremendous sand rollers on the landwd. hand (though a perfect calm) together with a heavy surf breaking on a reeff off the eastern end of the Isld. from the narrowness of the channel occasioned a very heavy swell in the middle of it; so much so that judging the next sea would break I was glad to heave the boats head round to it ?? but finding there were intervals we ran in ? got on the top of the Isld. which is on one side 200 & ful perpendicular hight & hoist the New Union Jack as a light to the vessels to stand in; We made what [distance?] we could on board; & with our boat & swells got in where you see the second anchor is laid down in the chart - & marked from thence under the Isld. during the night. 

As the tide of ebb would not permit us to gett nearer without [warping?] and the Schooner following us in I requested Dr. Harris would go out and bring her up; outside the [indecipherable] until slack water & then bring her in- which he did off the tail of the [indecipherable] where you see the first anchor laid down - & brought her safely in where you see the first anchor laid down. These births however owing to the swell breaking very heavy between the Isld. & the main on one side & the outside swell occasions much eddie tide - & are in my humble opinion unsafe for any vessel to stop in only through necessity. The chart however will point out this more clearly to you than any thing I can say further on the subject. As the survey of the entrance of this port appeared to me to be essentially necessary in case of your wishing to send other vessels besides the Frances here & who had not the same opportunity of knowing the Channel I pointed out to Mr Barrallier the propriety of enclosing to you that part of his survey which included the entrance - For he has got up a considerable distance farther ? 

As I judged this would be satisfactory to you. The soundings are got at low water on Sunday last as I went on purpose with Dr Harris & him to obtain them ? The wind being then off the land as it is still blowing fresh when though it may appear strange there is hardly a ripple on the beach ? all the extensive flat of sand rollers is smooth & still & the passage between the main & the Isld. is in the same state where it brakes? when there is a light air from the East . Twenty or thirty deep. The colliers went to work the day after we arrived & they have worked very well. Until such time as we could find out Ash. Isld. the sawyers were sent on shore abreast of the ship where they were employed in cutting cork wood into plank of six inches & which wood I have this day put on board the schooner 14 pieces in number & five ash oars which is all we have yett ready. There is also one cask of beef which I was supplied with from the store previous to my sailing this last time which on our broaching we found stinking & unfit for use this I have also returned; so that you should be satisfied of its condition; & as it is supposed to contain the hundred weight which will diminish my stock considerably I will thank you to send me; if it is in you can spare it; one in leiu by the vessel you send back. 

I have been enabled to make some savings of salt provisions by fish; & it is my intention if we are as successful as we have been to lett [them] the people have two days in the week fish in leiu of beef or port & which I have spoke publickly to them on this consideration that it is probable you are on short allowance at Sydney I have besides the fish which has served my people together with sending the Schooner some ? salted down a small cask of excellent fish. ? They are mostly mullet or a sort of herring which at times are plenty here. I sent it to Mrs King & hope she will accept of them with my best respects. The salt is what I have saved from the provisions ?? so that it is not what you sent on board ?? but as we expect plenty more fish; the Colonel wants more salt. Palmers people is this evening coming; nine in number; they are half starved as they say they have had nothing to eat but what they could catch these eight days. 

The place where the cedar is they report to be 60 miles up so that as they know it; & we having only two sawyers it will be no bad job if they assist us after they finish their own work which they could not do for want of victuals - & were travelling to Sydney when they saw the vessels from one of the hills & came down. They have cutt some thousand feet of cedar & sawed it & I think it is the Colonel?s intention to make them assist us. As this river is very extensive it will be necessary to gett up with the vessel as far as possible not only on account of the survey but that we should be as much [central?] as possible the sawyers being as it were at the top of the river & the colliers at the bottom. I feel the want of boats more than any thing; as the survey has required two ? on account of the want of points & for which flaggs are substituted & the river is of that extent that it would be endless work to pull on and shift every flagg with one boat. Then when the Colonel has one for his use which in general is [Dr Harris's?]. The weather is frequently too rough for her & when she is gone we have no boat for the ship. In order to remedy this I have ordered the schooner she being now loaded & having two large boats to leave the [indecipherable] with me which I hope will meet your approbation. 

As Colonel Paterson had an idea from seeing a large black streak on the Isld. in the entrance that the coals would be easier got here I was alarmed he would perhaps send the Schooner their to load. And judging this to be the case ?? we talked of the possibility ? risk etc, & all allowed it to be very safe except your humble servant; who was obliged to say it was no place for any vessel to lay in safely in. On examination along with the miner; the strata was found laden but the bottom strata on the [indecipherable] level with those on the opposite side where we have got the greatest part of those in the Schooner was found better ? but the sea & eddie tide has thrown up immense large round stones about this Isld. which must be removed as they are worked; & they can only work tides works they being overflowed every flood. Now as there are two stratas of coals of 22 inches depth through an extensive tract of land & none can be better indecipherable on the main; & also at hand; why risk any thing however possible it might be to gett at them ? 

Their can be no point in vein but one; that is dispatch. This is the ninth day since we arrived here & if you allow us one day to organize our parties &c with only one miner it will be found those we have got can not be difficult to gett at nor can they be scarse as the schooner is loaded. however he still has an idea of working the coals about this Isld. & my ideas are about the safety of the vessel who must lay their to take them in when you can lay in a place of safety so near. A man named Loft came in on Sunday last cast away in Underwoods boat their were three of them ? two died; & he was nearly starved ?? after giving him every necessary assistance I have sent him round in the Schooner. I will thank you to send us a grindstone ours from the frequent grinding of axes is almost worn out. I will not trouble you further than by saying we are all well & I believe well pleased & contented ?? Harris is very good company & useful & has profited from your advice towards me ?? but I am not fond of his principals ?? lett his morals be what they will. I am dear sir with respect & best wishes to your family 

Your obedt. servt. Grant His Excellency Governor King &c &c 

NB When the Isld. in the entrance [bore?] WNW 3 or 4 miles the Latd. was Obsd. to be 32?57' & in the harbour I have observed in 32?51' nearly at Colliers Point & that laid in the chart is 32?53' [indecipherable] I mean the chart I got from you. 

On H.M. Service His Excellency Governor King &c &c &c Sydney Grant. The people have cut instead of 2000 feet between five & six. From ones being unwell we have sent him & his partner by the Frances.

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