“I wouldn’t move an inch. I’m a fisherman and there’s the water. Lobsters. Squid. Beautiful beach. Sensational scenery. Unreal”.
When I first meet John Clarke he is emerging from his fishing shed having just freshly salted some lobster bait. It’s the perfect introduction to a man who has spent over three decades writing a weekly column on fishing for the local paper. Since arriving in Fingal Bay in the mid-’70s, John has been a passionate and active member of this seaside community. He has fought long battles to protect the natural environment and written numerous books on the history of the area. When he speaks about his home, it’s not just his vast knowledge or clear pride of place that shines through: it’s his sense of custodianship. Anyone can love a place as beautiful as Fingal Bay but it’s another thing entirely to devote yourself to the place you live, to preserve its culture and help steward it into the future. This is what John continues to do today, and it’s the reason he has become so well known and respected across the region.
From the little ocean-themed entertaining shack in his front yard, John happily shares story after story from the history of Port Stephens: the rise and fall of the oyster industry, the lawless early days of Fingal Bay, the sad fate of the local lighthouse, and even some tips on how to make real progress with environmental activism.
We’re at your home today in Fingal Bay, is this where you grew up?
No, I’m from Tweed Heads. I came here in 1974, as a school teacher. The high school opened here in Nelson Bay in 1975 and I was the first P.E. teacher and sports master. We’ve lived here ever since.
Port Stephens seems like a closely connected area but the suburbs are actually quite spread out and each one has its own unique character. Why did you choose Fingal Bay?
It’s beautiful and it was cheap as chips! I wouldn’t move an inch. I’m a fisherman, and there’s the water. Lobsters. Squid. Beautiful beach. Sensational scenery. Unreal.
What do you know about the history of Fingal Bay?
The emergence of this community dates back to 1930 when the first settler, Jack Barry, built a shack here. He was a plasterer, working on the Civic building in Newcastle. When the depression hit a lot of people started to move up this way. They had no money and I think they thought they’d be better off living in a tent here than struggling in the Hunter Valley or in town. So there was quite a movement of people. The Depression brought up a lot of squatters. Interestingly, Ken Barry, the son of the person who built that shack was 18 months old when he arrived here. He was an only child, and he still lives down there on the waterfront. He’s just had his 93rd birthday.
You’ve written multiple books on the area, often about specific sites like the Lighthouse, and you’ve been involved with the development of the developing Tomaree Museum. What is it that keeps you interested in local history?
History belongs to everybody, so the more people who see it, and learn it, and enjoy it, well, that’s what it’s about. It was my wife Ella and I who started the Tomaree Museum. It’s rolling along but COVID has interrupted things. It’s a reflection of the Aboriginal people, the Worimi folk, and the pioneers, and how Port Stephens grew into what it is today. There are sensational museums all over New South Wales but there’s nothing here in Port Stephens. These things take time to build though. You need money and you’ve got to get the community behind it. There’s a lot to it.
For a place like this, which is culturally connected but geographically spread out, is that an obstacle?
That’s an interesting question. I come from Tweed Heads. The Tweed Regional Museum is in Murwillumbah and there are contributions that come from all the outlying areas. It’s like an octopus – Murwillumbah is the head and then there are tentacles that go out to these other little areas that have all got their own historical societies. Well, the same thing would happen here. I think the head of the octopus will be here in the Tomaree area. This is the growth area. Raymond Terrace, Tea Gardens, Tanilba, Karuah … they’d all contribute but this would be where people would come to see it all. That’s my vision and I think the ideal spot is Tomaree Headland. It used to be the hospital but the Health Department has now vacated that. It’s prime real estate and the entrance to the port.
What is the story of Port Stephens? How did the region and its particular culture emerge?
Well to understand that you’ve got to get back to what we were. Port Stephens was based on fishing, lobsters, and more than anything else, oysters. It was the oyster capital of the world in the 1940s. Port Stephens was synonymous with quality oysters and then the arse went out of the industry and everyone went broke. Stone motherless broke. But it goes way back to the 1880s when oysters just grew wild. They were Sydney Rock oysters, nothing else, and people would make money by chipping them off the rocks and mangroves, putting them in a bag, and selling them door to door. These were just poor people making a quid however they could. They could only sell fish locally because there was no ice, so it was all about those wild oysters and it sort of evolved from there into farming.
Was it local families who were responsible for starting the industry?
It was and there has been a great change recently because the old families that are three or four generations old have started to drift out of the industry. They are the ones who built it. In fact, one sold up just last week, the Diemars. The original Diemar was a German watchmaker and that operation saw five generations. The kids now don’t want to do it, they want to go to University and not slosh around in the mud. But there is young blood coming into the industry, from New Zealand and other places, and they’re doing very well. There’s the family outfit under the Karuah bridge, Cole Bros Oysters, and they’re doing very well. They’ve got a little shop and their farms. They’re going great guns because they’re promoting it. The old families never promoted themselves. But if there was one man who really epitomised or made the industry it’s Fred Phillips, along with his son Stan. They were the driving forces behind oysters in Port Stephens and the family is still farming oysters here today. At its peak the industry was massive. Massive. They had trucks driving up and down the coast, they owned property on Flinders Street in Melbourne, they had Greek oyster openers working 12 hours a day. It was the biggest in the world.
You mentioned that there was a bottoming out at some point.
That was 1984—85 and what occurred was a tragedy. There was a non-indigenous oyster, the Pacific oyster, that entered these waters and started growing on top of the Sydney Rock oysters. The Pacific oyster is much bigger and grows much faster. This is where the troubles started because the farmers had to decide what they were going to do with them. Some farmers thought that they should continue to cultivate the Pacific oyster because they could make more money. A lot of farmers went broke because of this. They were pretty much split. Even brothers within the same family had a different opinion and it caused a lot of friction. Lifetime friendships were ruined. Recently there has been an invasion of POMS, Pacific Oyster Mortality Syndrome, a virus that kills only the Pacific Oyster, reducing the number of this variety in the system, so as a consequence this port has almost all gone back to Sydney Rock.
Is there a reason why oysters grow so well here?
Oysters have got to eat and the mangroves provide a perfect habitat. The water is good too. It’s good quality water. At the moment we’ve got a handle on things but as we’ve seen a lot can go wrong. The oyster is a very sensitive animal, sensitive to too much heat or too much freshwater. There are viruses as we’ve seen. There’s theft too — you can wait three years for an oyster to mature and you’re one week from selling and they’re all gone, sold to the backdoors of restaurants.
It really has been the backbone of development here.
Yeah, alongside fishing and timber on the other side. Timber from Bulahdelah would come down through the Myall River into Port Stephens and off it would go to Sydney and New Zealand.
So there’s a strong history of trade as well, in the port here?
Oh yes. The outer lighthouse first flashed in 1862 and that’s a bloody long time ago. It was happening up and down the coast. Port Macquarie was getting a roll-on and so was Foster and Newcastle. There were a lot of shipwrecks, about five or six hundred, running up on the beach or hitting the rocks. There was a beautiful home on Fingal Island for the three families who managed the lighthouse, but sadly it burned to the ground in 1991, which is not that long ago. Another tragedy, but in coastal towns like this, there are bound to be a few tragedies.
What’s your personal history with fishing?
My father was in the Bait and Tackle industry, so it has always been in the family, but as far as I’m concerned fishing is simply to catch a feed. But the whole thing has been turned into a monster! Rex Hunt started it all. There were a few others earlier than him but he’s the one who put it on TV and made it popular and he changed the whole face of fishing. Now it’s a huge industry. Recreational fishing is a huge industry. My boat, the Stinkpot, is the smallest boat in Port Stephens and I just go out there to get a few fish for tea. Snapper and a few lobsters.
Is it a healthy ecosystem still?
It is but the waters need continual monitoring. They need to be supervised all the time. NSW Fisheries need to do a better job, but they’re understaffed and underfunded and they always have been, just like National Parks. There’s not enough money being put into securing the future environmentally.
It would be great to hear one of your fishing stories.
I’ve sunk boats and I’ve had close encounters with whales. You name it. I remember back in 1975, soon after we moved here, my wife started working at the RSL club in Nelson Bay and she came home one day and said she met a fellow who started working there as a barman. His name was Graham Knott. He was a keen fisherman and he had brought his family, his wife, and three children to Port Stephens for one reason and that was to fish for snapper off the rocks. He asked my wife if I would be interested in going fishing with him. My wife came home and said that he was going to come by at four in the morning, so get your biggest rod and biggest reel and have a pair of sandshoes on. So the next morning, pitch dark, I’m waiting for someone I’ve never met before. He turned up and we drove to the surf club at Fingal and started to walk along the beach. He walked at a brisk pace and was hard to keep up with. Then we got to the Fingal spit, which is very dangerous in the daytime and at night all you can really do is hear it. So he jumped in there and started wading across. We got to the other side and then it was up onto the island, across the island to the lighthouse. Once we reached the lighthouse we walked down onto the rocks and then he did the most extraordinary thing – he took all his clothes off! All he had on were his sandshoes and a knapsack. I could see him every eight seconds because that was when the lighthouse came around and I’m thinking this is bizarre. He said to me “come on, we’ve got to swim” so we swam out to this rock out in the ocean. I’m not a great swimmer so I just sort of half-waded half-staggered my way there until I made it. When I got there I found that he’d managed to get all his clothes back on and he was totally dry and looked like he was ready to go out for tea while I was wet as a shag and very uncomfortable. Then, on his first cast, he caught an 18-pound snapper. I think he went on to catch about 70 of them over the year, he kept a little book. But that’s what he came up with on the first go.
What are some of the changes that you’ve observed here over the years?
Tourism. I think once the road from Sydney improved tourism really kicked off here. People from Newcastle and the Hunter Valley have always come here but it’s definitely grown. A lot has changed with real estate too. When we first came here I paid 20 grand for this place. It was nothing like it is now, this was just a shed in wild bush. But it was three times my annual wage as a school teacher in 1975. Three times your annual wage and you could buy a house. Not today. You couldn’t get a shed for that. So now for a house like this, you could pay two million. I reckon the value has really exploded in the last 10 years.
Do you feel like that has changed the culture?
When we first moved here, there were no young people in Fingal. My two kids were the only kids that got on the local bus. We had no one to talk to. A couple of old families, the rest of them were holiday homes. It was a lonely place to live. All the school teachers were jumping in cars and driving back to Newcastle — they didn’t want to live here, it was too boring! A boring bloody place! But now it’s become a focus of retirement. So a lot of people my age are coming here not to holiday but to live. There’s a little tavern down the end of the road that serves beer and wine and pizzas. Every Thursday that place is chokers with local people here enjoying each other’s company. There’s a real hum. A heartbeat that was never there before. In my opinion, the place is better now than when we arrived. It was beautiful, it’s still beautiful, but it was lonely. There are always people who come here that want to change things but we say: if you don’t like it, bugger off.
What about things like pollution, has that been a concern?
Well with an increase in population there’s going to be greater pressure on stormwater and things like that. But I’m very involved in what goes on. I’ve involved myself in some really massive ding-dong battles. There was a Japanese company, and it wouldn’t have mattered whether it was Japanese or not, but they wanted to come here and take ninety hectares and turn it into pearl farms. Well, that took eight years to fight. 500 people attending public meetings on two or three occasions. I went to Parliament House seven or eight times. Finally, we beat it. We wanted the perfect waters of Port Stephens to remain public and a place for recreation, not private and industrial.
Interesting to consider with the rise of salmon farming and all the horror stories that are coming out of Tasmania
They came here. The same company. Done correctly, I think aquaculture is the way of the future. Done incorrectly it can cause a lot of problems, and that’s what happened here. They lost a lot of money. They set it up out in the ocean and a seven-metre sea turned up and washed it all away!
How do you go about protecting the local area and speaking out about these issues?
NSW Fisheries are based here, out at Taylor’s Bay. I know them and they like to keep in contact with me. They don’t want any negative press. That’s one thing I have in my favour — I’m deep in the media. I’ve got two segments a week on the ABC, I’ve got an article in the Port Stephens Examiner every week and I’ve got a good reading audience for my books. So they don’t want bad press from me. I don’t use it as a weapon, but I’ll be honest. I support development but as long as it’s controlled. The trouble with NSW Fisheries is that it’s a bureaucracy. People come and go.
Another issue I’ve dealt with are pipis. They live under the sand. No one knows anything about them and no one cares about them. But they’re beautiful to eat and tourists were coming here in droves, busloads, pouring out with big bags and taking all of them off the beach. Ripping the guts out of a natural resource. So this had to cease. But the politicians didn’t want to touch it. They thought it would be reflected as a race issue rather than what it was, which was environmental. So that went on for a while. In the end, a bunch of wild boys from Anna Bay were threatening to go out there and take them on with some baseball bats. So I rang the local politician and said: “You’ve got a bit of a problem here”. So he got wriggling and things changed pretty quickly.
Then there were the turtles. We have one of the biggest populations of turtles here. Big green turtles in the estuary. They were drowning at an alarming rate. We were finding them washed up with a net around them, what they call Witches Hats, a type of suspended net for catching crabs. Fortunately, I was on a minister’s advisory council which gave me the opportunity to relay my concerns, and I said “We’ve got to get rid of these”. We were the only state in Australia that allowed them. The politicians and bureaucrats were reluctant to do anything, so I got some photos of drowned turtles and went to the Newcastle Herald with them. Within a week I’d had things changed.
In my advisory capacity, I realised that anyone who supports one political party is kidding themselves. They’re all the same. You can get petitions and sign things — waste of bloody time. The only way you can get change is through the media and with persistence. If you can get one big picture in the paper that kicks them right up the arse.
You’ve written about a few of the local characters from the area. Could you talk a little about some of those, like Kerosine Tin Jim?
There were a lot of rootless people who came through. Squatter and drifters, no shoes, just eking out an existence. Kerosine Tin Jim was Dimitrios Georgis Karageorgis and there’s a lot about him that I don’t know, but he was a Greek man who came here when he was about 13, around the first World War, and he died in 1970. He was very popular and a real character who lived on Broughton Island by himself for 49 years. He never married. Just spent his life fishing, lobstering, laying in the sun. Sadly I never got to meet him and there are very few people around now who can tell you very much. That’s the thing with history, if there’s no one around to record it, it just disappears. And you’ve got to be very careful with that too, not to upset anyone with some of the stories that you can tell. Some people tell me things they probably shouldn’t.
Is there anything of that nature that you can leave us with?
I love talking to old people and hearing their stories. I was asking one old bloke about how he got bait for lobsters. They would catch snapper and use that as bait to catch lobsters. They couldn’t keep snapper because they had no ice but they could keep lobsters because they’d stay alive, and they could sell them along. He said he’d use just about anything he could find for bait! Another bloke had an old horse that he rode in from Rocky Point to the Nelson Bay jetty where his boat was tied up. He had a rifle from the second World War and he took it out and “boom!” — the horse goes into the boat and off they go to Broughton Island. That would have kept him going for bait for a good long while. But that’s just a way that people used to live. Harpooning dolphins, you name it. The fisherman used to get drunk at the Friday night dance, get thrown into jail, but the women didn’t mind because they’d get a little break over the weekend. It was rough, mate! The wild west.
Historical Images c/o John Clarke’s personal collection
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