On Newcastle Harbour with Bob Cook

“I believe that understanding where you’ve come from makes it easier to see where you’re going.”

Bob Cook knows a thing or two about the history of Newcastle. In fact, he has dedicated many years of his life to finding and preserving the stories of how this coastal city came to be. But despite his strong connections to the past, he still believes in change, progress, and that things are generally headed in the right direction. Here Bob talks about Newcastle’s industrial heritage, the wartime fortification of the coastline, the rise and fall of our own Maritime Museum, life at BHP Steelworks, and the importance of remembering.


Where does your connection to Newcastle harbour begin?

The earliest real memories of the harbour for me are from when I started my first job while I was still in high school. I started as a “tray-boy” selling lollies and chocolates at the Theatre Royal (1924-1989) when I was 15 years old. What that involved was carrying a tray and selling food before the show started and during intervals. While the movie was on we had free time so what we used to do was walk along the foreshore. At that time it was heavily industrialised with cranes, railway lines, and boats. I was fascinated by the luffing cranes and I felt terrible when they were eventually pulled down. Now you can’t even imagine the way it used to be on the southern side of the harbour. All of that infrastructure was what made Newcastle important at that point in time, all those heavy operations. It was all open and you could just wander through. None of it was fenced off. You could fish the whole way along. 

What makes the industrial era of the harbor such an important part of Newcastle’s history?

When you look at the birth of Newcastle, the Europeans came here by sea, by ships, and all of the early maps and early drawings show that this southern portion of the foreshore area was the place that it all started. The spot where Customs House is was where the first little gathering of stones was made to produce the first wharf. That was where you tied up so that is what led to the development of the whole area. When you look at the coal industry, which covers the entire history of Newcastle, it was all about that little piece of foreshore between where Merewether Street and Brown Street. That entire area was used for coal loading and was heavily industrialised right from the beginning. It was really only since Joy Cummings (Australia’s first female Lord Mayor, from 1974—1976 and again from 1977—1984) and the bicentenary of 1988 that we started tidying it up and making it accessible to the general public to use as a recreation area.

Newcastle from the Dyke, 1904
Crane and coal skip at Newcastle Harbour

When did the coal industry begin?

Coal mining started in Newcastle underneath what is now known as Fort Scratchley. The first coal that was dug commercially, in 1801, even before Newcastle became a settlement, was dug into the side of that hill, right next to the ocean. They’ve concreted all over the area now but the group that is now known as the Hunter Living Histories (formerly Coal River Working Party) did some investigation into this and using maps sourced from England, they plotted out where they thought the coal mine was. Then they got a drilling rig and went through the concrete and relocated the original first coal mine in Newcastle’s history, which is the birth of everything we have here today. So that’s where it started.

Peter Callan Yard, c. 1915

When did the harbour become a port and a place for trade?

Newcastle was initially a convict settlement and the colony wasn’t really set up there. The main settlement was at Morpeth, then known as Green Hills, and the export of goods and products really flowed down the river. That’s where people who wanted to settle in the Hunter Valley were getting on and off their vessels, at Queen’s Wharf in Morpeth. Free trade was opened up in Newcastle about 1824. The paddle steamer William the Fourth was built at Clarence Town in 1831 and began operating between Morpeth and Darling Harbour in Sydney. Morpeth was considered to be the main port and most vessels who were doing trade didn’t stop in Newcastle because it was only for convicts. There were free people living here but the trade was happening up the valley as far as Singleton, both supplies being brought up to farmers and the goods that they were producing, the wood, the wool, and the wheat being taken back down south to support the colony there. So Newcastle didn’t really become a heavy trading point until after that. It was the paddle wheelers that made all the difference as there were no real roads, so you could only get to and from there by sea. 

Nobbys Beach with Fort Scratchley behind, c.1960.

You’ve recently been working on a project about the fortification of the Newcastle coastline, which includes everything from tank traps to tunnel networks to artillery batteries. When did the construction of Newcastle’s fortifications begin and why was this undertaken in the first place?

The headland where the fort is was originally known as Signal Hill, from around 1804. It was a promontory where a coal fire was lit at night to signal the harbour entrance to sea goers. The lighthouse didn’t come for many years later, not until about 1858. Governor Macquarie down in Sydney decided that too many vessels were being lost trying to get between Fort Scratchley and Nobbys Island. It was a shortcut but a treacherous one where the waters were shallow and rocky. So they were directed around to the north while ‘Macquarie Pier’ was filled in by convicts over a period of twenty or so years to create a breakwall. Around the 1890s there was a perceived threat of Russian invasion. Across Australia there was this sense that the “Russians were coming”. So a gun was placed on the hill that we now know as Fort Scratchley, of course it wasn’t called that at the time, but that was the early development of the fort. And from there we saw a continuous series of development in response to the first and second world wars.

The full scope of these fortifications — which have a heavy concentration in Newcastle and Stockton but stretch right up and down the coast — are really only now coming into focus. Do you have a sense of why it has taken so long to fully recognise and commemorate this part of our local history?

It’s a little bit of the culture of Newcastle and perhaps more broadly Australia, but it comes to do with the fact that it’s a working town, and the people here are not all that concerned with anything else. They work hard during the day and then they need to go to the pub after that or go home and look after the family, and then it’s off back to work the next day. Generally speaking, history is not something they’re interested in. That’s the culture of the people. Wartime was not much different, we got on with the job, worked hard to protect Australia and protect Newcastle. When the war finished, we had a big party to celebrate and then said let’s get back to it. Everyone went back to their job or whatever they were doing and they didn’t care about the war anymore. They didn’t care about all the things that they had to do to protect themselves during the war because that didn’t matter anymore. Soon enough the pub was more important and so was gambling and poker machines and TV and taking the kids on a picnic, all these day-to-day things became more important than worrying about whatever happened to the guns or the fort or anything of that nature. People just didn’t care about anymore and over a period of time, everyone forgot. It’s just the nature of who we are and the way we were. And sadly on every single corner of every street in Newcastle, there are remnants of something to do with the past, but nobody’s interested.

I spent a lot of my working life, nearly all my working life at the steelworks. I started there as an apprentice, and I was still there when I retired. For 36 years of my life, I worked there and then they closed it, and it’s gone. From the time we learned it was going to close, I was trying to get people to see the importance of the place and to recognise that we should start caring about it and preserving the memory of it for the future. Before it actually is in our past, while it was still happening. Most people weren’t interested but a few of us got together and we formed the Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association for the purpose of preserving the memory of the industries that had been a part of Newcastle’s history. So today we occupy Delprat’s Cottage up on the hill, a house that was built in 1914, and that cottage is where we operate from and tell the story of the industries that made Newcastle. We should be telling this story and others like it so that future generations can understand what heavy industry was like and where we came from.

BHP Steelworks, Norm Barney Photographic Collection
BHP Steelworks with Stockton Ferry in foreground

What was the experience of working at BHP like?

It was complex and multifaceted and much of it depended on what you did and where you worked. There wasn’t a single view. For quite a lot of people, the experience was dangerous. There were a whole series of different things that could get you and you had to have a sense of awareness about being at work. You could get run over by a train. Something could drop on you. You could get burned very easily. There were people who were killed there, which means there were people who would go to their job every day knowing that they could die. That’s not something most people have factored into their lives. When you worked at the steelworks you knew they you to be careful or you could be killed as others had been, you knew that on the spot you’re standing, someone died on the job three years ago. So the danger, the heat, and the smell were elements all combined together. There were people of all different backgrounds. There were some rough people there. But they all had a sense of comradery because they were all sensing the same existence. There was a bond between them. A lot of them didn’t even know it until the end was coming, that they cared so much about each other, but they did. It really was a city within a city, even if we didn’t fully realise that until it was gone.

It was obviously an extremely important part of Newcastle’s economy and its culture for nearly a century. What were your thoughts about its closure and the way that it has brought about the changes we are seeing across the city today?

When the steelworks was still operating, in its final two years, there were still thousands of people at work there and the only thing that was really going through their minds was that they were going to be out of a job soon. All the conversation was about what life was going to be like when we were not there anymore. I used to say to people that it was going to be great and that it was going to change everything. And some people didn’t want to hear that. They didn’t agree that the change was going to be good for Newcastle because to all those people the steelworks was Newcastle. But the change was coming. We needed to renew and clean the place up. And that’s what has happened, and in my view, even though I spent my life there and would still like the steelworks to be here, I believe that the closure has done more good for Newcastle than harm. It has made us find new ways and do better things. But in terms of that 84-year history, of what it was, what it meant, what was done, what it provided, and why it was there in the first place, it all comes back to the port, to that deep piece of water, a place to bring iron ore in and then transport locally made steel back out. 

“Shipping at the Dyke End”

Your other area of focus is the maritime history of Newcastle and you were involved in the management of our short-lived local Newcastle Maritime Museum. Where did this collection come from, what happened to the museum, and what is its status now?

Around 1985 I went to Raymond Terrace and had a look at William the Fourth reconstruction being built. I remember thinking that it was a very interesting and unique part of our history that was being recreated. After it was launched I was driving along the harbour and saw it puffing away and decided to join the volunteer crew, as a deckhand, and it was through this that I connected with the members of the Newcastle Maritime Museum. I got involved to try and help promote and support the project. At the time the collection — gathered over 46 years — was housed at Fort Scratchley and not much was being done with it. In fact, it wasn’t being looked after very well at all. Eventually, the Federal Government decided to redevelop the fort, so the museum members and the collection had to clear out. They ended up in a shed down on the foreshore and for a few years, the collection was kept in storage with nowhere to go. 

Peter Morris, the former Transport Minister and Member for Charlestown became president of the Newcastle Maritime Museum, and it was he who managed to raise a little money to show the collection. This enabled us to get a lease on a building on the wharf and open things up with a really quality display. The New South Wales government had set up the Honeysuckle Development Corporation to redevelop all that land, and they became the group we dealt with. This was in 2008, and we had a 10-year lease with three 10 year extensions, so virtually a 40-year tenure. We were paying a peppercorn rent but it was still a challenge to get people to come in and keep things going, and it was a struggle to make any money. There was some poor organisation too, frankly, and costs just weren’t able to be covered, so the Honeysuckle Corporation kicked the Museum out after the initial 10-year lease expired.

So here we are now, more than three years since the Newcastle Maritime Museum closed, and I’m the new president. We’ve managed to secure ownership of the collection, although it is currently stored on land leased by Newcastle Council. There’s a deadline approaching on that lease and so we have been working on a plan for the next stage. I’m not able to talk about it, but it does involve moving the collection to a place where it can be put on display again, hopefully, this time for the long term.

Launching Victoria lifeboat in Newcastle Harbour, 1897

What does the collection contain and what people might be able to see once it becomes public again?

If you can name an object of maritime nature, it’s there. Everything you can imagine from various historical boats: bells and buoys, crockery and cutlery, rusty old pieces of iron from way back. It’s mind-boggling, the range. There are some iconic pieces, the largest and most significant piece is the old Victoria lifeboat. There is a strong history of maritime rescue and shipwrecks in Newcastle. Getting in and out of the harbour in stormy weather has always been the most difficult thing for vessels to do. In the earliest days, particularly when smaller and less powerful vessels came up against strong wind and weather you had serious trouble getting in and out of port. Many, many vessels have been wrecked here. So the way they used to save people in the early days was with a thing called the rocket gun, carried on the rocket cart. They would fire a rope out to the vessel and tie it to the vessel so that people could be pulled ashore. And they built a variety of rescue boats for this purpose too. There is a row of cottages near Fort Scratchley known as the Boatmen’s Cottages and the men who were the rowers of the Victorian lifeboat lived in those cottages. These were professional rescuers who saved people from shipwrecks. There are remnants of these wrecks all over the harbour, so it’s a signature story that has been happening over hundreds of years, right up until recent times with the Pasha Bulker, and the hope is to get the collection back out there to tell this and other stories of the harbour.

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Categorized as Seafolk
Heath Killen

By Heath Killen

Heath Killen is the founder and editor of On A Floating World. Born and raised in Newcastle, he is passionate about the coastline and waterways surrounding his home. Elsewhere he helps people develop brands, campaigns, and projects based on their passions.

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