Discovery and Founding of Newcastle

The colonists come to Newcastle

History documents that Captain James Cook noted Nobbys Head on his expedition along the east coast in May 1770. History also shows that in 1791, William and Mary Bryant, their two infant children and six escaped convicts ran their six-oared cutter into 'a small creek' somewhere close to the present city. The Hunter River was also visited in 1796 by a party of fishermen, who brought samples of coal back to Sydney. 

Then September, 1797, Lieutenant John Shortland was sent north from Port Jackson to search for a number of convicts who had escaped. Lieutenant Shortland made for Port Stephens, where he thought the fugitives would take shelter, but after unsuccessfully searching the bays and inlets, he sailed for home. While returning he entered what he later described as "a very fine coal river" which he named after Governor Hunter.

While this is the orthodox view of the founding of Newcastle, we now see this as only part of the story. The larger story of human habitation of our city is very compelling. When the colonists from the south began to explore the Newcastle area, it was already occupied as the country of several Aboriginal groups - the Awabakal, the Worimi, and the Mindaribba clans. When Shortland came ashore on September 9, 1797, he noted the visible presence of Aboriginal people, making note of camps and fires, as he chose his landing place at Signal Hill. 

The area we know today as Newcastle remains the country of the traditional owners and we celebrate these stories today. Encounters between the Aboriginal population and the arriving Europeans is an area of immense interest which tells a powerful story of defence of country, invasion and displacement, and epic cultural, social and economic change. The stories of modern Australia are reflected in our local stories.

Lieut. Shortland returned to Sydney Cove with a sketch of the harbour and reports of the abundant coal in the area. Over the next two years several ships sailed to the Hunter for coal and by 1799 sufficient quantities had been brought back to make up a shipment for export. This shipment went to Bengal. It is acknowledged by historians as the first ever export of a commodity from modern Australia.

Coalhewers, timber-cutters, and more escaped convicts

By the turn of the century the mouth of the Hunter River was being visited by many of the new arrived Europeans, including coalhewers, timber-cutters, and more escaped convicts. Governor King, who took office in 1800, decided on a more positive approach to exploit the now obvious natural resources of the Hunter Valley.

Besides coal, vast cedar forests covered a huge tract up the Hunter, a source of urgently needed building timber for the infant Sydney colony.

Governor King sent an expedition in HMS Lady Nelson, commanded by Lieut. James Grant to survey these resources and explore the Hunter. On board were Lieut. Col. Paterson, Ensign Barallier, J.W. Lewin, a mining expert, five sawyers, and a crew of nearly 60.

The Lady Nelson accompanied by the schooner Francis arrived off the mouth of the Hunter River on June 14, 1801, and Col. Paterson named the island at the river mouth Coal Island. It is now known as Nobbys.

A short lived first settlement

Governor King decided to establish a small post at the river mouth however this first settlement was short lived. Its population comprised Corporal Wixtead being suddenly replaced by Surgeon Martin Mason. Surgeon Mason's rule ended in a mutiny, and Governor King closed the settlement early in 1802.

A settlement was again attempted in 1804 as a place of secondary punishment for unruly convicts. The settlement was re-named Newcastle, after England's famous coal port. The name first appeared by the commission issued by Governor King on March 15, 1804, to Lieut. Charles Menzies of the Royal Marines, appointing him superintendent of the new settlement.

The new settlement comprising convicts and a military guard, arrived at the Hunter River on March 27, 1804, in three ships, the Lady Nelson, the Resource and the James.

Newcastle remained a penal settlement for nearly 20 years, and, despite the natural beauty of the surroundings and the mild climate it was a nasty place. The military rule was harsh, often barbarous, and there was no more notorious place of punishment in the whole of Australia than Limeburners' Bay, on the inner side of Stockton peninsula, where incorrigibles were sent to burn oyster shells for making lime.

Lime made by the convicts at Newcastle was used in the building of Sydney's old Supreme Court, St. James' Church and many other works. The lime corroded the hands and eyes of the convicts, many of whom, wearied and enfeebled by hunger and whippings, collapsed in the lime and died.

A building boom began

Under Captain James Wallis, commandant from 1815 to 1818, the convicts' conditions improved, and a building boom began. Capt. Wallis laid out the streets of the town, built the first church on the site of the present Anglican Cathedral, erected the old gaol on the seashore, and began work on the breakwater which now joins Nobbys to the mainland. The quality of these buildings was poor and only (a much reinforced) breakwater survives.

For these works, and for his humane rule in the convict colony, Capt. Wallis earned the personal commendation of Governor Macquarie. In Governor Macquarie's opinion the prison colony was too close to Sydney and in any case the proper exploitation of the land was not practicable with prison labour.

An end to military rule

In 1823, military rule in Newcastle ended. The number of prisoners was reduced to 100 (most of these were employed on the building of the breakwater), and the remaining 900 were sent to Port Macquarie.

Freed for the first time from the infamous influence of the penal law, the town began to acquire the aspect of a typical Australian pioneer settlement, and a steady flow of free settlers poured into the hinterland.