Historians to the Rescue

Bob James

Historians, amateur and professional, came to the rescue of community groups in Newcastle recently.

The State Rail Authority engaged in the cost-­cutting move of its shunting and repair facilities from Newcastle City to the more westerly Broadmeadows yards decided to sell off the unneeded- land by public auction. On the harbour ­front and within easy walking distance of an array of beaches, as well as what central business district Newcastle has, the land was expected to raise millions of dollars from developers already seeing ‘international class’ hotels/casinos/ entertainments arising in an area that has seen numerous battles between greed and need.

Unfortunately for the glitz and shock-horror merchants, the issue proved to be perfect for the production of a solid coalition of residents, conservationists, heritage-conscious people from all over and labor militants including the Secretary of the Trades Hall, Peter Barrack. Public meetings proliferated and agitated pleas were directed to the Premier urging that the auction be postponed if not abandoned altogether.

Once the array of opinion against the sell-off became apparent, it was not surprising Acting Premier Mulock deferred the auction to allow full appraisal of the heritage value of the area. It was, however, the intervention by the historians which tipped the balance.

Some 18 months ago Professor John Turner of Newcastle University had noticed brickwork marked with characteristic convict arrows embedded in the ground and asked, through the NSW Heritage Council, that the SRA give permission for a proper ‘dig’ . Just a week before the intended auction and some weeks after the auction-date was known, permission was granted. Some two hundred volunteers and a few better-informed guides during the last possible weekend scraped topsoil from one small part, yet exposed enough to prove this was the earliest known European industrial site in Australia and a totally unique opportunity for learning and emotional re-attachment to white beginnings.

Dr Turner has suggested that from about 1805 the site ’employed’ the skills of hundreds of second offence skilled workers, eg blacksmiths, and that lime for the mortar in such Sydney buildings as the Macquarie Barracks, St. James’ Church, was probably processed there.

The added facts that the area is probably of significance in Aboriginal history, is close to the location of the first European landing in Newcastle, to historic Fort Scratchley and other preserved buildings, and that the SRA has never paid anything for the rental or use of the land in over a hundred years, are further compelling reasons why the whole site should be secured by the State Government in the overall foreshore development as an open-air museum.

Sydney-siders with an interest in the past need, I believe, to be more active in their concern for attempts by non-Sydney people to preserve, catalogue and learn from such areas as this. The struggle Novocastrians have had to see their Regional Museum safely established is a sickening reminder of how biased towards Sydney the State’s allocation of funds is and has been.

This particular instance is one that Sydney can’t hope to duplicate, yet it is of direct importance to significant elements of early-19th century Sydney. We should all keep it in mind.