Coal River

The story of Newcastle is a story of the natural landscape and the Hunter River and how it has shaped the human interactions that have taken place within it. It is a story of how local natural resources have supported human settlement here for many thousands of years.

Coal, the Hunter River and the harbour are central to this story. When the Europeans arrived from 1797 onwards, it was noted as a place of abundant resources that could be beneficial for the new settlement at Port Jackson. The Aboriginal residents of the area would soon after bear witness to the rapid and voracious extraction of coal, cedar and lime by the Europeans, who named the settlement King's Town and referred to the "Coal River". 

Historians tell us that the main impetus for locating a penal settlement at Coal River was to exploit the geological and natural resources present here. A convict workforce was sent to the Coal River not only as an act of secondary punishment but to undertake the coal mining and other industrial activities that were needed to produce the building materials to build townships in Sydney. 

The widespread use of convict labour in the new Australian colonies assisted the British government to develop and expand its growing industrial economy, and the coal mining at the Coal River in Newcastle was the genesis of that industrialisation.

Coal River Time Line

1796 Informal accounts reach Sydney of the reserves of coal at ‘Coal River’.
1797 Lt Shortland and his crew enter Coal River and confirm the coal resources.
1801 Formal identification of the great potential of the coal reserves and the river. First brief attempt to set up a coal mining camp.
1804 Formation of a permanent convict/military outpost to mine coal, harvest timber and prepare lime. A light beacon and gun emplacement built on the southern headland. Nobbys Island seen as a useful place for confinement. Aboriginal-European encounters.
1814 Expansion of the settlement in line with Governor Macquarie’s policies. Lumberyard developed. Coal mining extends away from ‘Colliers’ Point’. A farming outpost established at Paterson’s Plains.
1816 Marked increase in development of convict settlement from 1816 to 1822.
1818 Increase in trading envisaged. Macquarie Pier commenced, also other aids to navigation. Significant expansion of building program including hospital, stores, accommodation, gaol, church and windmills.
1822 Penal settlement moved to Port Macquarie. Variable convict workforce retained for public works such as road making, breakwater building, coal mining, property and tools maintenance, and so on.
1823 Beginning of era of transition from a penal/military establishment to a civil settlement with civil administration. Work suspended on the Pier. The built environment of the penal era gradually replaced.
1831 End of era of government-controlled coal mining and beginning of private enterprise mining by the Australian Agricultural Company.
1830s Work resumes on the Pier building, completed in 1846. Lighthouse built on Nobbys Island in 1857. Ballast and sand reclaim the foreshore. Building wharfage and harbour formation, and pilot facilities and navigational aids ongoing.
1847 Occupation of new military barracks. Lumberyard stockade reused for other purposes from the late 1840s. The barracks complex vacated by the Imperial military when the last convict workers left Newcastle in 1855.