Rare view of what Newcastle looked like almost 200 years ago

Turn back time: A rare engraving of the Port of Newcastle in 1822. From a sketch by pioneer John Bingle.LOOK carefully at this historic illustration. Time travel in your mindback to a scene you’ll never see repeated. Pictured in glorious black and white is an engraving of life in maritime Newcastle almost 200 years ago.

Dating from 1822-23, what’s depicted is a very unusual scene indeed. It shows a small sail vessel with the uncompleted Nobbys breakwater – called Macquarie’s Pier – all against the backdrop of very early Newcastle just as its days as a dreaded penal settlement were drawing to a close.

The historic artwork (probably an inked woodcut) comes from a rare, informative book entitled Past and Present Records of Newcastle (1873).

The picture comes from one of the fathers of Newcastle, commercial pioneer John Bingle (1796-1882). He alsocompiled the book, which contains hisimportant historical reminiscences.

The published 1873 picture is labelled‘Newcastle 50 years ago’ and was taken from an earlier sketch he made.

Bingle is now a largely forgotten local business hero. The enterprising gent though is credited with safeguarding the future King Edward Park site for the people. Nearby Bingle Street is named after him.

Besides the unfinished breakwater, clearly visible is the early Church of England structure (with its doomed steeple) just off present Church Street, The Hill. As well, there’s the town’s primitive wharf at the foot of what is now Watt Street, and not one, but two, colonial windmills on the site of the present Obelisk, high above the city’s green lungs, the future King Edward Park.

Look a bit closer and there’s only a rough cluster of buildings in this convict-era Newcastle, also once known as Coal River, then Kingstown. Also clearly visible in the sketch are convicts toiling hard to construct the planned breakwater against the fury of the elements. Above them is Signal Hill. Today it’s best recognised as the East End landmark Fort Scratchley.

Breakwater building was hard, often dangerous, work as it was continually exposed to rough weather. Begun in 1818, the ambitious project to make Newcastle a safe anchorage nominally took 28 years to complete.

That’s because 1846 is the accepted date for the completion of the convict-built ocean breakwall. But, because of the harsh conditions,the sea kept breaching the rocky barrier, brushing aside huge boulders, hurling them into deeper water.

It wasn’t until the 1870s that authorities felt that the constantly reinforced ocean sentinel was finally strong enough to permanently withstand the sea’s fury. Even so, the task for workmen to shore up Macquarie’s Pier remains a never-ending battle to this day.

What is also interesting from Bingle’s 1820s sketch is the risk early coastal traders took trying to enter the Port of Newcastle.

Bingle himself said that because stormy weather slowed progress to connect the breakwater with the then island of Nobbys, ketches and other small boats often took risks to cut through the gap into the safer, calmer waters of Newcastle Harbour.

The tiny wharf at the bottom of Watt Street was also crucial in the 1820s to load coal cargoes to take back to Sydney.

It was so busy in the convict era that present Watt Street was the main street of the infant, convict colony.

But author Bingle was highly critical of our first wharf, even describing it, in retrospect, in 1873, as “a poor specimen of engineering skill”.

He compared it unfavourably to a rough, typical riverbank wharf saying there was “very little improvement” until the railway began in 1855, more than 30 years after he had penned his sketch.

For it was the start of major physical change in the inner city, as we are again experiencing with the looming introduction of light rail. And so, the transformation of the waterfront began, although the heavy railway is now gone.

“In 1858, it became necessary to reclaim the land on which to erect the (Newcastle) railway terminus,” Bingle wrote.

He also reported that, up to that stage, tides lapped up to upper side of Scott Street. And with that gradual waterfront rebuilding came the opportunity to provide more ship berthing facilities.

But more wharf space couldn’t be provided quickly enough, with Bingle reporting that overcrowding was becoming a problem in 1873. It was growing so serious that some ships were being encouraged “not to come (to Newcastle) because the harbour was full”.

Above it all on The Hill was the tower and steeple of an early church on the present Christ Church Cathedral site. Originally, in 1812, a slab hut stood here acting as a church. Then, by order of colonial governor Lachlan Macquarie, a new more permanent church was erected here in 1817-1818.

Unfortunately, it was poorly built by the convicts and the swaying steeple was taken down within a few years because it was unstable.

It stayed that way for 43 years.

A few blocks to the north on the same hill today stands a prominent white obelisk. But once, as today’s artwork shows, there were two windmills there instead. These were used to grind flour for the settlement.

The first one was erected in 1820 and also served as an early important navigational aid for seafarers off the coast.

With new flour mills emerging in Maitland and Morpeth, the major, surviving windmill was demolished in 1847 causing an uproar among mariners who relied on the hill landmark to navigate safely. To placate local anger, the government erected a grand obelisk on the site in 1850. Totoday it’s a local icon and tourist attraction.

ISLAND BUILDINGSPEAKING of building things, how did the former Walsh Island in Newcastle Harbour get so large? Was it all formed naturally? The ‘island’ is now the most eastern part of Kooragang and the giant Stockton bridge has straddled it since 1971, linking the seaside suburb with Mayfield West.

June Conway, who saw the recent Weekenderarticle on the Walsh Island dockyard in the 1920s, reveals that probably most land there was man-made, the result ofport dredging. Quoting from a 2014 EJE heritage report, she said: “Removing silt from the harbour was an ongoing process, but the cost of carrying it out to sea for dumping was expensive. In heavy weather it was impossible. As a means of disposing of the silt in an economical way, it was decided to reclaim an area between Carrington and Stockton which would include three small island (Goat Island, Spectacle Island and Pig Island) and a large mud flat.

“Work began in 1897 with the construction of a stone wall at the southern end of the site and all material previously dumped at sea was discharged into this area. The newly formed island was named after a senior Public Works engineer, Henry DeaneWalsh. Reclamation work continued until 1918 when the island reached about 400 acres (162ha).”

It sounds very similar to how Stockton’s massive southern foreshore was created by pumping harbour silt ashore in the 1960s during more port deepening.