The Birth of Newcastle

It was noon. The three small ships anchored off the river entrance and a boat was lowered into the water for the largest of the three vessels. As the seamen rowed the boat towards the river's southern shore, the youthful commanding officer surveyed the scene.

Several hundred feet off the southern headland was a small rocky island about 200 ft high. The channel between it and the mainland was full of scattered rocks and reefs. The headland was well timbered and beyond was a fairly treeless area, which appeared to offer the best site for a settlement.

The land on the northern side of the river was flat and well-covered with pine and cedar, though there were gaps here and there where timber cutters had been at work.

Friday 30 March 1804

The longboat reached the shore and 21 year old Lieutenant Charles Menzies, Royal Marines, stepped on to the ground that was to be his domain for the next year. The day was Friday, March 30, 1804. Menzies arrived at the Hunter River to found a convict punishment centre which would develop in time to become the City of Newcastle.

There had been a previous short-lived attempt in 1801 to mine coal found on the headland by Lieutenant Shortland. The settlement was abandoned due to the convict superintendent's misconduct.

Charles Menzies

Following a revolt by Irish convicts at Castle Hill on March 4, 1804, Governor King needed a remote outpost where the worst convicts could be sent to separate them from milder rebels and put an end to their plotting.

Menzies was a member of a Scottish military family who was on a ship in Port Jackson when the revolt broke out. He helped to subdue the rebellion and volunteered to command the post. Although Menzies spent only a year in Newcastle, he must be counted among the most important people in the history of the city.

Charles Menzies was born at his family's ancestral castle of Bolfracks in Scotland in 1783. At the age of 15, he joined the Royal Marines with a bought commission as a second lieutenant.

He served on ships blockading French ports and chasing the French and Spanish fleets around the Mediterranean. One of the ships was attached to Lord Nelson's squadron off Boulogne, repeatedly attacking shore batteries and engaged in skirmishes with French boats.

In 1803, Menzies was on HMS Calcutta, which was conveying some convicts to New South Wales and others to form a new settlement of Van Diemen's Land. The ship was in Sydney when the Castle Hill revolt broke out and Menzies claimed to have commanded a detachment of marines which landed from the ship to help quell the result.

Governor King, who had experienced a less serious Irish convict rebellion 13 months previously, had an obsessional fear and hatred of the Irish prisoners (most of whom were in the colony as a result of the Irish uprising of 1798).

Nine leaders of the 300 rebels were hanged and King resolved to send the worst of the rest to Coal Harbour, at the mouth of the Hunter River. Menzies' ambition led him to volunteer for the post of commandant of the settlement.

Naming the settlement Newcastle

As the area around Sydney was known as the County of Cumberland, King decided to give the area around the new settlement the name of another northern English county, Northumberland. And as Newcastle-on-Tyne was the most prominent town in that county, he gave the settlement the name Newcastle.

King issued Menzies with his warrant of appointment on March 15, instructing him to use the convicts in "getting as many coals as possible," cutting cedar, clearing ground for cultivation and "to enforce a due observance of religion and good order."

A fleet of three ships

Two weeks later, Menzies set out with a fleet of three ships, including the armed HMS Lady Nelson, the colonial cutter Resource and a privately-owned sloop, the James. Others bound for the settlement included a surgeon, James Mileham, a botanist and explorer, James Caley, a natural history painter, Ferdinand Bauer, a storekeeper, John Tucker, 11 military guards and 34 convicts (37 according to some sources).

The guards included a sergeant and nine privates of the NSW Corps and one marine. The fact that Menzies was a marine command of a predominantly army corps military form was to lead later to dissension, a challenge for a duel and a court martial.

Among the convicts were three miners, three sawyers (timbercutters), two carpenters a gardener and a saltbailer (to make salt from salt water for both the settlement and Sydney).

First impressions of Newcastle

In a letter to King, dated April 19, Menzies described his arrival and first impressions of Newcastle.

"Previous to the vessels entering the harbour I went in a small boat to examine the situation of the mines and fix on a place the most suitable for the settlement." This he found to be "a most delightful valley about a quarter of a mile from the entrance and south head and close to the mines" (the Watt St area).

"I immediately ordered a disembarkation to take place and began to unload the three vessels.

"The next morning I examined Chapman's Island" (later the site of Carrington) "which would neither answer for a place to settle on or for a place of confinement for the worst of the convicts..."

Menzies said Chapman's Island was too far from the mines and at low water convicts would be able to wade across to the mainland. Coal Island (Nobbys) would be a better place of confinement "from which it would be impossible to effect their escape."

Mining, convicts and 'a delightful spot'

He reported that mining had begun of a 3 ft 6 in thick coal seam. Criticising the mining previously carried out by private individuals, Menzies said the mines had been hitherto dug 'in the most shameful manner, never have they been at the trouble of leaving proper supports, leaving them to fall in any way'. He told Governor King such bad mining would not happen again.

"Fifty more convicts if sent here could be worked to great advantage as I could wish to keep a quantity of cedar and coals always at hand, so as not to detain any colonial vessel which your Excellency may send here, and I am well assured that even with the present small military establishment that they could be manhandled with the greatest security.

Those already here I make work hard and they perform it in the most cheerful manner. As their legs were getting bad from being ironed I released the greatest part of them that I might not be deprived of their labour and as we have always sufficiently upon our guard to counteract any schemes which they may be mad enough to form."

Menzies went on to tell the Government he had taken the liberty of naming "this delightful spot" after him.

Although he continually headed his letters "King's Town, Newcastle," King did not fall for this piece of flattery from the ambitious young man and the name Newcastle remained.

Fortifying the town

At the end of the letter, Menzies suggested placing fortification above the town - presumably on Collier's Point (Signal Hill), the later site of Fort Scratchley - with the guns facing up river rather than out to sea to prevent any vessel seized by the convicts from being taken out of the harbour.

Not without a few dramas

The first few days of the settlement were not without drama. One of the crew members of the Resource, Archibald Scott, was accidentally killed by the explosion of a musket. He was buried near the site of the Christ Church Cathedral.

The three ships set sail for Sydney with small quantities of coal and timber, but in a gale during the voyage, the James was wrecked at Broken Bay. The crew of five were rescued by the Resource.

From sunrise to sunset

Menzies proved to be a very firm but humane disciplinarian. The convicts worked from sunrise to sunset with a spell of two hours in the middle of the day. To reduce the possibility of the convicts absconding, Menzies issued food rations only twice a week, even though he had brought six months' supplies from Sydney. This stopped the convicts from hoarding food - but it didn't stop escape attempts.

Befriending the Aboriginal people

Menzies also made an effort to get the Aboriginal people on side, so that they would not assist any escapees.

One of the early acts was to send an Aboriginal leader, Bongaru (also referred to as Boungaree), and six of his tribe to Sydney to see the white man's colony.

In a letter dated May 24, King told Menzies he was sending the Aboriginal people back in the Resource "victualled for six days and given ... a jacket cap, blanket and 4 pounds of tobacco each."

In a later letter to King, Menzies told of continued good relations with the Aboriginal people, explaining that he had instructed the storekeeper to give victuals to Bongaru, "the most intelligent of that race I have as yet seen. Should a misunderstanding unfortunately take place he will be sure to reconcile them."

"I have given strict directions to the crews of all vessels going up the river to treat them in a friendly manner, as I know they have frequently been ill used by some who are neither guided by principle of humanity."

Extensive stands of cedar

Menzie's oversaw the great exploitation of the areas natural resources to feed the demand for building in Sydney. The extensive stands of cedar were easily reached and cut into logs as far up the Hunter River as the site of Maitland and along the lower reaches of the Paterson and Williams Rivers.

The logs were manhandled to the river, lashed together into rafts and floated down to the settlement. A sawmill had been erected at Freshwater Cove (where Newcastle Railway Station now stands) by a Sydney adventurer called Hugh Meeghan before the settlement was established. Some of the largest cedar trees found in Australia were taken from the banks of the Hunter. A timber mill, from which Lord and Underwood drew supplies as early as 1799, stood on the site of Market Square.

When Menzies departed from Newcastle, there were 133 persons in the settlement. It was not a great number, by any means, but he succeeded in making the township a permanent one.