Coal Ships Coal…

Natural wealth

Newcastle and the Hunter Valley are a region of vast natural wealth.

Coal caught the eye of early English explorers, plucked easily from seams on the tiny island guarding the port’s entrance.

Timber, once readily gathered from the very harbour shores, is now felled on the valley’s mountainous rim.

Agriculture spread up the river as the timber departed, consuming fertile river flats. Animal grazing, the second wave, followed to the hills a receding timberline. As the age of dairying subsides, cropping, cattle and horse-breeding persisted.

Loading frozen meat at Newcastle wharves. NSW State Library

A second century of growth spawned steel-making and its swathe of dependent manufactories.

Industry diversified to a broad spectrum during shortages of the second great war, to the point where if indeed the world disappeared, leaving the valley alone in the universe, Novocastrians might scarcely have noticed in their prosperous self-sufficiency.

The final quarter of Hunter history suffered an ebbing decline as city, region, and country, endured drought, intellectual flight, mining and agricultural monocultures, sale and privatisation of public infrastructure, and the nation embracing tariff cuts.

Newcastle and the Hunter Valley survive comfortably on the remnant strengths of prior diversity, the dauntless optimism of its people who knew hard work but rarely hard times, and on the broad and inexhaustible back of coal.

Coal, ships, coal, steel… coal

The early importance of Newcastle derived from coal, mined constantly for over two centuries, its export still, as always, the port’s principal activity.

Repairing, building, servicing and replenishing ships were a thriving sideline of early city life, ceasing only a half-century ago. The suburb of Carrington boasted a State dockyard engaged in shipbuilding, and still there resides a mostly idle floating dock for vessels of low tonnage.

Fifty years ago the port handled four million net tons of shipping that moved seven million tons of cargo, over half of which was coal. Countering this flow was a constant import of iron ore for the local steelworks.

The port of Newcastle, besides being the chief coal-exporting centre of Australia, was a hub for exporting steel product, bulk wheat, wool, dairy produce and timber, with two and a half miles of wharfage girdling a superb all-weather harbour.

In early years Newcastle’s chief line of communication was the sea, and throughout the nineteenth century the port was an important call for coastal trading and passenger services. In the 1830s steamships appeared, as did the Hunter River Steam Navigation Company. Slowly during the 19th century, with the development of rail and road communications, Newcastle lost coastal shipping, and seaborne passenger services declined.

Time’s a-changing

In 1915 a steelworks was opened in Newcastle, turning the city’s industrial focus on iron-smelting, steel-making, and a plethora of industries based on ‘value-added’ steel manufactures. At its peak a half-century ago the Newcastle steelworks had a capacity of 1,000,000 tons of ingot steel per annum. Much of the steel produced was used locally to make galvanized iron, wire and wire-netting, wire rope, steel pipes, general and special alloy steels, and builders’ hardware, as well as in marine engineering workshops and works making structural steel for buildings and bridges.

Newcastle in its prime boasted ship-building, copper and lead smelters, candle and wax works, pottery kilns, silica fire-brick works, an oxygen works, coal gas generation and storage, oil and fuel storage, manufacture of electric light bulbs and fluorescent lighting tubes, a glass works, frozen meat export, bulk wheat export, cotton mills, and many clothing and hosiery factories, foodstuffs processing and packaging – even biscuit, candy, and potato crisp factories.

In the district extending to the coalfields were spinning mills, a rayon factory, works producing cement, super phosphate and sulphuric acid, a factory manufacturing fibre board, and numerous butter and dried-milk factories.

Most of these have paid history’s cruel toll, felled by inexorable drive to large-scale operations constrained by  labour costs.

Newcastle , like any smaller manufacturing or agricultural region of last century, is struggling to adjust to globalised trade and manufacturing.

Leave local infrastructures to themselves and they will progress naturally, of their own accord, in a prosperous self-sustaining balance. While communities and small thriving regions are protected from outside disturbance (by strategic tariffs), they will grow organically the industries and social structures required. [Clark]

We stand, ironically in the world today, rather like our ancient Australian Aboriginal custodians, who naively relinquished their kingdom to our predecessors.