“It’s a hard life, but free”. This is how one resident of Hexham described the place in 1941, a time in which this little suburb — built from driftwood, mud, and fishing wire — seemed to emerge from straight out of the estuary.
On approach to the middle of the century, yet still mired in the Second World War, Sydney-based lifestyle magazine PIX sent staff photographer R. Donaldson to the so-called “slums” of Hexham in order to document this unlikely community, one that the magazine described as living in “a huddle of lowly houses clinging to the tidal edge of Hunter River”.
With the first homes built here in 1820, Hexham is located 15km west of the city of Newcastle and is bordered by water, with the Hunter River to the east, Ironbark Creek to the south, and swampland on all other sides. The narrow areas of land that are suitable for housing are bisected by the busy Pacific Highway and the dirty Main Northern coal railway line. It is decidedly inhospitable and this to say nothing of the mosquitoes, for which Hexham has its own signature species — the Hexham Grey (Ochlerotatus alternans) — as well as its own ‘big thing’ tourist attraction, Ozzie the Mozzie. And yet it continues to support generations, unphased by lifestyle challenges that range from devastating storms to encroaching industrial parks.
In these images, Hexham is more of a proto-suburb, something closer to a fishing village than what we see it as now, made up of itinerant workers, retirees, and young families trying to carve out a dignified life. Many residents were former coal miners who had been forced to take leave of their jobs due to health reasons. It was not uncommon for a couple of senior bachelors to share a room and live out their final days here.
The sense of fierce independence against the odds and the elements can be seen in these photos, from housework that includes sweeping tidal waters off hardwood floors to the use of the river as a place for food, supplies, and recreation.
The magazine described Hexham as “a beacon of men’s independent spirit” and went on to describe everyday life there in more detail:
“In Hexham’s 100 sewerless, waterless, gasless homes live workers, relief workers, dole-men, pensioners. Men of Hexham take pride in their self-reliance. With fishing off their doorstep, their families need not starve. With prawns to be netted and sold for bait an enterprising man can earn something”.
These homes feature site-specific innovations like chicken wire wrapped between buildings to stop children from falling into the water. Driftwood is used in everything from construction to toolmaking to fueling the fire of kitchen stoves. Some residents even manage to grow vegetables in the mud.
The overall impression given to the magazine is that Hexham wanted to be left alone. “We are happy here,” said its residents. “We get along all right”. Many of the residents had been living there for over a decade. A man named W. Butler, who was Hexham’s longest-living resident at the time, had built has three-bedroom home 15 years ago and raised his family there. The hand-written sign on the front said simply “Do Us”.