Second blasting tunnel found in Nobbys headland

Tunnel vision of civic leaders by Matthew Kelly
Tunnel vision of civic leaders by Matthew Kelly

Link to online Newcastle Herald story 3 June 2009 – Second blasting tunnel found in Nobbys headland

The Search for the Nobbys Gunpowder Tunnels

The University of Newcastle’s Coal River Working Party is currently preparing a scoping document for the New South Wales Heritage Branch which sets out our goals for archaeological investigations within the Coal River Precinct (NSW State Heritage Register No1674).

A team consisting of Roslyn Kerr (Geologist), Russell Rigby (Geologist), Peter Sherlock (Director, Monteath & Powys), Arthur Love (Coffey Geosciences) and Cynthia Hunter (Historian) are currently working on this Project.

The discovery of the second Nobbys tunnel entrance was made late last month by Roslyn Kerr, whilst investigating a series of maps and photographs and plans with Russell Rigby and Cynthia Hunter.

To bring you up to date with our researches we have prepared the following account.

At the entrance to Newcastle’s Hunter River (originally named Coal River) was a small, but prominently tall, island. It was originally 203 feet high. It was sighted by Captain Cook on May 10th 1770 as a ‘small clump of an island’ and became known as Nobbys.

Sir Thomas Mitchell in 1828 recorded its Aboriginal name as ‘Whibayganba’. The missionary Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld in 1855 recorded the Aboriginal dreaming story associated with the land mark that believed it was the abode of an enormous kangaroo that shook itself from time to time.

Nobbys’ position, directly at the mouth of the fast flowing Hunter River, meant sailing ships had great difficulty entering the harbour. On one side of Nobbys lay rocky shoals and its height could take away the prevailing winds from their sails, causing them to lose steerage and flounder.

With the development of a prison colony at Newcastle in 1801 and 1804 and the frequent passage of sailing ships between Sydney and the Hunter River, the problems, which Nobbys caused to shipping, persisted, with many vessels wrecked on the rocky shoals surrounding the island.

Governor Macquarie conceived a plan to join Nobbys to the mainland with a 650 metres long breakwater, known as Macquarie Pier, working from both the island and mainland.

Convict labour was employed and rock was quarried from the top of Nobbys to assist with this breakwater and thereby assist entrance to the river.

In 1816, just prior to construction of the breakwater, Nobbys was used as an island prison for ‘refractory’ female convicts (seen by the authorities as obstinate prostitutes).

The breakwater was begun in 1818, but its construction was interrupted for a time after Governor Macquarie’s term of office expired in 1823. It was re-commenced in 1836 after a public outcry forced authorities to act in repairing and completing the link from the island to the mainland.

A gang of convicts known as the ‘Nobbys Gang’ was marooned on the island, steadily hacking into it to construct the Pier, while another convict gang, known as the ‘Chain Gang’ worked from the opposite side on the mainland. Some questions surround where the convicts stayed on the island – did they commence the tunnels to live in? How far did they extend? This is just a part of Nobbys mysterious and hidden past.

The colonial government authorities in 1853 eventually cut off the top layers of Nobbys, leading to one of our mysteries.

Today Nobbys stands less than half its height at 29 meters (96 feet) with the one of the oldest continuously operating lighthouses on its summit.

In 1853 whilst leveling off the top of the island to prepare it for a lighthouse, Lieutenant Colonel Barney, who was the soldier and engineer in charge of the operation, enthusiastically supported the suggestion of the Colonial Secretary to use gunpowder to ‘demolish’ the island to speed up the work. By this time Nobbys had been quarried for breakwall material, giving the island an ugly shape, and Barney ordered the two tunnels to be constructed, each 150 ft long, with chambers for explosives, to be driven into the landmark. Barney and his engineer T. Gother Mann had planned three tunnels, and thought they may have needed a fourth.  However, it seems that only 2 tunnels were actually dug, both to a distance of 24 metres into the island.  Tunnel excavation was stopped after Newcastle residents protested to the Government.

One newspaper report from 2 May 1918 states that the name of ‘Lieutenant Sutherland’ is carved at the ends where the two tunnels meet. We do not believe that the two tunnels meet. Another report says the name is that of  ‘Lieutenant Shortland’, the white colonial discoverer of the Coal River (Hunter River)’.

One of the University of Newcastle Coal River Working Party’s goals is to find those mysterious tunnels and that carved inscription which lies deep within Nobbys.

Ralph Snowball Glass Negative with eastern tunnel entrance
Ralph Snowball Glass Negative showing north eastern tunnel entrance

In the recently donated Ralph Snowball Glass negatives an early 1900s photograph which possibly shows the north eastern entrance to one tunnel. Thank you to the family of Norm Barney who donated this important photographic treasure to the University’s Cultural Collections (Archives).

Of this entrance Mr D. Williams (of Bondi) who entered it in 1945 reported:

I had little difficulty in entering the tunnel driven from the eastern face of Nobbys. After I “got my eyesight” I proceeded to the face, sounding the roof as I proceeded. On the face of the tunnel there had been inscribed “Lieut. Shortland,” the name of the discoverer of the Coal (Hunter) River. Each side of the tunnel face chamber was constructed. The end of the drive resembled the capital letter T. Ample space was provided to pack explosives and other materials.

Glass negative from Government Geologist showing south eastern tunnel entrance
Glass negative from Government Geologist showing south eastern tunnel entrance

A second glass negative was provided by David Barnes photographer with the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) to Russell Rigby. It was from this early image that Roslyn Kerr noticed that the second entrance was photographed at the extreme left hand side.

Of this southern entrance Mr D. Williams (of Bondi) who entered it in 1945 reported:

I had to dig myself into the drive, going into Nobbys from the south. It was almost blocked up at the entrance, but inside it was constructed and finished off just the same as was the other drive from the east.

Of both drives Mr Williams said:

I found that the drives were driven in the same bed of rock, above high-water mark – about 4 ½ ft. high and 5 ft. wide. The drives were damp, but there was no water on the floor of either. I saw no coal.

Mr Maurice (Maurie) Lynch
Mr Maurice (Maurie) Lynch (Photographed by Noel Davies 1994)

This evidence is corroborated with research carried out in the 1990s by Mr Noel Davies, historian and author of the book Convict Nobbys. In 1994 he interviewed Mr Maurice (Maurie) Lynch, an 85 year old former resident of the ‘Sandhills’ (Newcastle East) that played in the tunnels under Nobbys as a child. Mr Lynch, along with Mr Hec Scott had also been interviewed by Norm Barney for a story on the tunnels. Both explorers differed in their opinions as to what the tunnels were originally for, Scott believed they were constructed to house convicts during the construction of Macquarie Pier, while Lynch believed they were for the purposes of filling them with explosives. See the article here: The Secrets of Nobbys [Newcastle Herald, n.d. circa 1981?] We estimate that they visited the tunnels as young boys in 1921.

Mr Davies recorded in his 1994 meeting with Mr Lynch on the site details of the tunnels, and photographed him outside the former tunnel entrance. A scan of his report is below dated 16 February 1994:

Manuscript notes relating to Mr Lynch's reminiscences of the Nobbys Tunnels
Noel Davies' manuscript notes relating to Mr Lynch's reminiscences of the Nobbys Tunnels
Mr Maurice Lynch photographed by Mr Noel Davies outside one of the tunnel entrances
Mr Maurice Lynch photographed by Mr Noel Davies outside one of the tunnel entrances

Both entrances are just above high water level. From the detail in the photographs, especially the layers of rock strata, and the testimony of past visitors to the tunnels, it should not be too difficult to re-locate these tunnel entrances which nowadays are covered by rock fall debris vegetated with grass and bitou bush.

Roslyn Kerr's Photographic Superimposition showing the approximate entrance location

[Photographs above] Roslyn Kerr’s Tunnel 2 superimposed location

Gionni Di Gravio
Chair – University of Newcastle’s Coal River Working Party


3 thoughts on “Second blasting tunnel found in Nobbys headland

  1. Your facebook like module is busted, at least it is not on my
    end. Doesn’t seem to work no matter what I do. Desired to give you a like, but I can’t.

    Sorry. Awesome information though, really worth a bookmark.

  2. Great information Thank you
    The river flow from the Hunter River has always flowed towards Stockton bight you can see that by the brown water after heavy rain and that’s why becalmed sailing ships were pushed to the sand bank ( oyster bank there were no oysters on the bank )the oysters grew on the wrecked ships

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