The Inauguration of Newcastle’s “Tree Spirit” – Are the Laman Street Trees a Memorial for the War Dead?

The above video “A True ANZAC Memorial” was posted on You Tube in November 2010 and recently entered into the Laman Street Trees debate with the description:

The current Newcastle City Council intends to cut down the Laman Street fig trees in order to construct a NEW ANZAC memorial.
The problem is, these trees, planted by returned serviceman from the Great War (as a symbol of hope and renewal) were what THEY choose themselves for us to remember them by.

The video states that the trees were planted in the 1930s and quotes the statements of the then “Lord Mayor” of Newcastle Alderman Parker. This has caused some confusion as the title of ‘Lord Mayor’ did not come in for Newcastle until after 1948, and some have suggested that the Mayor Parker was actually the Lord Mayor of Sydney.

What we can say is that, at the time, the title of Lord Mayor’ was only to be bestowed on Mayors of capital cities.  Due to the population growth of the Greater Newcastle area, its outstanding position as coal port and industrial powerhouse, and status as second oldest city,  the Newcastle City Council applied to have the title, and in October 1947 His Majesty approved the application. The Letters Patent conferring the title of Lord Mayor was sent to Council in October 1948 and from then on the official title was ‘The Right Worshipful The Lord Mayor of Newcastle’. (see Maiden, H.E. (1966). The History of Local Government in New South Wales. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.pp.246-247)

And while a more comprehensive search of the Council’s archives will need to be made when they re-open to the community, we have at least digitised the possible source of the words in the video. They appear to come from a Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate Editorial, Saturday, December 27 1930 p.6 entitled “Trees and the City”. This is the same article referred to in Greg Ray’s recent article on the subject. We reproduce it below along with a transcription.

The Editorial paraphrases the words of one of the first speeches of the new Mayor C.J. Parker, who was Mayor of the Borough Council of Newcastle between 1931-1932, as well as adding its own encouragement and words of wisdom to his endeavours.

Mayor C.J. Parker (NMH&MA 16 December 1930 p.8)

“The new Mayor of Newcastle (Ald C.J.Parker), who was last night elected to that office, is a native of this city, and has spent the whole of his life in Newcastle. He served through the war, and on his return entered the City Council, of which he has been a member for seven years. He is a brother of Ald. E.J. Parker, a former Mayor of Carrington and a municipal member of the Hunter District Water Supply and Sewerage Board. The Mayoress (Mrs Parker) is a daughter of the late Mr. George Campbell, a well known sporting identity of Newcastle, and granddaughter of the late Captain William Campbell, a well known shipping identity of Port Hunter” (NMH&MA 16 December 1930 p.6)

To accompany it are further articles just days before and after showing the progress of the Mayor’s street tree planting policy. These articles provide the evidence for Mayor Parker’s tree policy for the City, its poetry and unanimous support by his fellow aldermen, its connections with the Wattle Day League (and presumably its ANZAC connections). There is even a charming description of the fledgling trees that had just been planted “in a few months on the barren block of land facing the Town Hall.” What is most inspiring is the call for the inauguration of a  “Tree Spirit” within the citizens of Newcastle. What these articles show is that the steps taken towards the street plantings were well thought out and planned.

"Trees and the City" - Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate Saturday December 27, 1930 p.6 (Click for a larger image)

Trees and the City

In one of the first utterances after his election as mayor of Newcastle Ald. Parker made a welcome statement of his intention to use his energies for the beautification of the city. He spoke of the beaches, but the most interesting feature of his statement was his reference to trees. He had been impressed by what he had seen in Brisbane of what had been done in open spaces with trees, and he left the impression that he would endeavour to secure similar effect in Newcastle. If he does nothing else but inaugurate a new era of tree planting, he will leave a name that will be honoured and sung in the years to come. A memorial erected in stone in recognition of civic services cannot be compared with the memorial living in the hearts of each succeeding generation. And it is the latter kind of memorial that will be the Mayor’s reward in the event of his persisting with his present intention. But the Mayor needs to be told that the way is long and hard. Newcastle is without the tree sense possessed by other cities. With some notable exceptions her people are unmoved by the thought of avenues of stately and majestic trees singing songs of beauty as the breezes stir them, and when they are still delivering inexpressible messages to the souls of men and women. Sometimes trees have been planted and left either to die or to be ruined by vandals. A young tree in a park is an invitation to the rude destructive hands of boys and girls, and sometimes the parents witness the work of destruction unmoved. If spoken to, they remark with surprise that it is only a tree. In the case of ill-treatment of a dog or cat or some other animal they would be instantly stirred to action, but a tree does not cry out: it submits silently to destruction. Where there is no poetry in the soul, this view can be understood, but the city should have poetry in its soul, and it should deal with those who would either crush beauty or despoil it. With the younger generation there should be special efforts in the schools to promote a tree sense, and this should lead to the protection of trees already planted as well as to eager backing of such efforts as the Mayor of Newcastle contemplates.

But the Mayor’s difficulty will be not only with those who would destroy what should be regarded as a trust for posterity. It will be with those who believe that that which was good enough for the past is good enough for to-day. For there are many such people. Notwithstanding the improvements which have been effected in King Edward and other parks in recent years, these folk are impatient at the idea of spending money on beautification. Low rates and a drab city! That really expresses their outlook. But we are sure that the new MAYOR, who while an alderman oftentimes exhibited a vision that was refreshing, will not listen to this kind of opinion. Rather will he say that it is just as important to spend money on tree planting and other works of beautification as it is to spend it on streets and pavements. Let any unprejudiced person stand on the hill overlooking the city and say whether he is satisfied with all that he sees! He sees a good deal of beauty, but he also sees possibilities of more expansive beautification. In some directions he does not catch the sight of a tree. In some of the new suburbs avenues of trees are giving promise, but taking the city as a whole there are areas of unrelieved drabness. This brings us to an important point. Ald. Parker may do well with the work he is undertaking in Newcastle, but he is responsible for only a small area; similar work needs to be carried out by the other councils. Of course, the ideal would be a single authority directing this class of work. Through this ideal may one day be realised, every effort should be made to triumph over the difficulties of the present system of government. If the Mayor of Newcastle has the backing of his alderman, Newcastle will do its part, and it will be for the other councils to do theirs.

In considering his campaign, it is to be hoped the Mayor will see to it that the tree planting is conducted on true lines. In the work that already has been done, have the best kinds of trees been obtained? Could better effect have been secured by the use of more suitable trees? The questions have been raised by some people who have a knowledge of Newcastle and its special difficulties, and they should have serious consideration from Ald. Parker. One of the most delightful spots in Newcastle is Islington Park. There may be seen Moreton Bay figs in all their rugged grandeur – trees which, as someone has remarked, are so suggestive of age and tradition. This fig may be dirty and inconvenient in private gardens, but in a park they are of inestimable worth. There should be more Moreton Bay figs in Newcastle. Though they may not be suitable for some parts, particularly where their roots […] interferes with […….line illegible] ly used than at present. But there are other trees of which this may be said. For this reason the Mayor should investigate the suitability of Newcastle for various kinds of trees. He may find that what is being done at present is on sound lines. On the other hand, he may find that the best use is not being made of the opportunities available. Apart from parks and beaches, there should be a more lavish use of trees in private gardens. This is a matter that rests with the people, but with the development of a keener tree sense there should not be any difficulty about it. For this development the City Council and the other councils can do a great deal by example. Leadership is needed in such an important branch of town planning, and it will be regrettable if all councils do not aim to provide it.

"Better Newcastle Tree Planting Scheme Mayor Enthusiastic" (NMH&MA 24 Dec 1930 p.6)


Tree Planting Scheme
(NMH&MA 24 Dec 1930 p.6)


Beautification of Newcastle by an extensive scheme of tree planting is planned by Mayor (Ald. C.J. Parker), who conferred with aldermen and the City Engineer (Mr. J. Cummins) on the subject yesterday.

Ald. Parker cited Brisbane, Bathurst and Ballarat as examples of the splendid results which could be obtained by a studied programme of tree planting, and said that Newcastle was sadly lacking in that respect. He hoped to be able to submit to the council a suitable scheme.

“National Park is one the places I have in mind,” said the Mayor. “Then, if it is possible I would like to have an avenue of trees the entire length of Memorial Drive. Planting does not entail much expense, and, if the trees are a success, they represent an excellent investment from a municipal point of view.”

Ald. Parker said that there were difficulties in the way of planting the trees along the Memorial Drive, but he hoped that these could be overcome. There were many other parts of Newcastle which would benefit by tree planting. He was sanguine that, if he could submit a sound scheme to the council, it would be adopted.

The Mayor said that he was undeterred by the failure of spasmodic efforts which had been made from time to time. Provided the scheme was kept well to the fore, and the necessary driving force was maintained, he saw no reason why it should not reach fruition. He declared that other tree planting proposals had failed, not only because of insufficient perseverance, but because of the neglect to comply with certain natural factors which any considered scheme of tree planting demanded.

“Provided we plant the right trees in the proper positions, have them suitably trenched, and give them adequate attention during the early years of their growth, there are no insuperable obstacles,” he said. “I am very keen on the proposal, and will certainly do my utmost to carry it through. With the support and co-operation which I am getting from the aldermen, there seems nothing to stop me.”


City Beautiful Tree Planting Scheme Council's Endorsement - NMH&MA 6th January 1931 p.6 (Click for a larger image)

Tree Planting Scheme

NMH&MA 6th Jan 1931 p.6

Considerable enthusiasm was shown at the meeting of the City Council last night in the proposal of the Mayor (Ald. C.J. Parker) to formulate an extensive policy of tree planting and city beautification.

The Mayor said that since taking up office he had given the matter attention. “The publicity in the local Press to the proposal to be dealt with by the council,” he said, “has resulted in strong public support being accorded to the idea, and I am therefore fortified, if such a condition were necessary, in placing the proposal before the council, with recommendations for an early commencement on the preliminary work required.

“It is on all sides admitted that the city streets sadly lack the beauty and picturesque appearance which well ordered and suitably planted avenues of trees would afford. To obtain successful and effective results a great deal of information requires to be obtained respecting the suitability of certain types for different positions and aspects, ‘soil’ and climatic conditions. Plans would be required to be prepared of streets to be planted, showing nature of construction, and widths of both carriage and footways, overhead wiring and poles, existing trees, vehicle entrances, present or future possible business premises. All this is necessary before deciding where trees are to be planted, the type of trees, and spacing. Types of tree-guards are many and varied, and a great deal depends upon a wise selection in this respect. I have already set inquiries on foot, and hope shortly to have very valuable information on this aspect, including estimates of cost. I am pleased to state that the expert services of several citizens, such as engineers, architects, and town planners, have been proffered in an honorary advisory capacity to co-operate with the council, if desired.”


The Mayor then detailed his recommendations, which were as follow –

(1) That this proposal for the inauguration of an extensive street tree planting policy by the Council be adopted.

(2) That the Finance Committee be instructed to recommend the amount to be expended in the current year in that direction, and whether the amount should be provided from general fund revenue by provision for such work on that fund’s 1931 estimates, or to be raised by a loan item for such purposes, when the council is again borrowing, as it will be shortly, I believe, for other necessary works and services.

(3) That the tree-planting details be referred to the Works Committee to carry out.

(4) That the Mayor be empowered to co-operate the honorary services of certain local gentlemen to assist and advise such committee.

Ald. Kilgour commended the Mayor for instituting the matter. There had been, he said, a committee of ladies in this district which had been doing a little bit in this direction. They formed the Wattle Day League, which had been working for about eight years, and the trees they had planted were quite a credit to the city. The trees in Newcommen Street, too, were a credit to the city gardener (Mr. Coleman). They were beautiful to look at, and afforded shade. If the Mayor could prosecute this policy and carry it out in many of the other streets, it would be a credit to him and to the gardening staff. The presence or the absence of trees in a city made an impression on a visitor. There could not be too many trees.

Ald. Cornish also commended the mayor. During the past five years they had planted trees, he said, but somehow no care was taken of them after they were put in the ground. He suggested that the council get one of the staff of the Sydney Botanic Gardens to advise them, and that an Arbor Day be instituted to invoke the assistance and enthusiasm of the senior boys and girls in the schools. For some years vandalism had been going on, and most of the destruction of the trees was done by boys. He felt that to counteract this tendency they take steps to get the interest of the boys and girls, giving them trees to plant and look after.


Ald. Christie said that they council at different times had spent a considerable amount of money in planting trees, but had never looked after them. National Park in a few years would be beautiful, if properly provided with shade and ornamental trees, which would take 15 or 20 years years to grow. What had been done in Manly, where the trees were growing right on to the borders of the ocean, showed what was possible.

Ald. Gibson said that he was right behind the proposal, and would give it every support he could. He hoped the action of the Mayor would do good. They wanted to enter on this right away. But the trees would want attention. What had been done in a few months on the barren block of land facing the Town Hall showed what attention could do. The trees were already nearly 2 ft in height. They were beautiful. In six or 12 months’ time one would not know the place, with the trees being looked after. They had men in Newcastle who understood this business, who knew as much about it as any one in Sydney. He hoped they would get busy, and see that the policy of the Mayor was given effect.


Ald. Light said he felt that Newcastle had been lacking in this respect. He would cite Adelaide, with its flowering fruit trees. He had been in that city when the trees were in blossom. He hoped that whatever was done here, some attention would be given to the planting of trees similar to those that were a feature in Adelaide.

Ald. Shedden mentioned Brisbane as setting a good example. It was not only tree planting in the streets. As pointed out in the “Newcastle Morning Herald,” they wanted to create a tree sense. The best way to do that was to provide trees for private citizens to plant and attend.

Ald. O’Neill said that it was most refreshing to find the aldermen so united on this matter. it was a good augury. He agreed with what had been said, that a “tree spirit” should be inaugurated. Recently he had some friends here to see Newcastle, and in speaking of it they said Newcastle looked best at night time. Only a good friend of the city could say that. Nature had helped Newcastle considerably. He commended the work that the City Electrical Engineer had done, and expressed a wish that the City Engineer would now be given a chance.

Ald. Castleden and Ald Davis added their commendation of the action taken by the Mayor, who, observed in acknowledgement, that it was very pleasing to find his recommendations were received in such spirit. He looked upon the planting of trees as a good investment.

The recommendations were adopted.


"Tree Planting" - Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate 8th January 1931 p.8 (Click for a larger image)

Tree Planting
Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate
8th January 1931 p.8

The Mayor of Newcastle (Ald. Parker) is to be complimented upon his persistency with his scheme to inaugurate a programme of tree planting within the city. It is also satisfactory to read of the co-operation he has received from his brother aldermen, and the sympathetic interest of numbers of citizens. Ald. Parker is tackling the question on proper lines. He has made up his mind to secure expert advice as to the areas in which trees are to be planted, we well as the suitability of various kinds of trees. In the discussion at the meeting of the City Council on Monday night, some of the aldermen made important points. One point especially should be respected. It appears that in the past when trees were planted, proper care was not taken of them. There was evidently that spasmodic interest which is almost as bad as no interest at all. It is to be hoped this will not be so in the future. The council has strongly backed the Mayor’s worthy effort, and its interest should be as strong always as it is to-day. It is not enough for it to say that it will devote special attention to the city beautification during Ald. Parker’s term as mayor. Rather should it say that this work, which is so much needed in Newcastle, will continue to be in the forefront of its programme till the ideal of the city beautiful is at last realised.

Civic Centre, Newcastle, NSW, [circa 1940]

I hope this information provides some historical perspective to understand the minds of the people responsible for planting these Laman Street trees, and what they wished for the city. There is much to be inspired by here. Any one with further information is very welcome to either leave a comment, or contact us by email.

Gionni Di Gravio

8 thoughts on “The Inauguration of Newcastle’s “Tree Spirit” – Are the Laman Street Trees a Memorial for the War Dead?

  1. It sounds like the fore fathers of Newcastle were of a much higher calibre than the current crop of councilors and civic leaders. They had travelled and cited the examples of many different cities in Australia (I’d be surprised if any current councilors had ventured anywhere except Bali and the Gold Coast) and used learned language not profanities scrawled up on facebook.

    The beautification of Newcastle is still a work in progress and we can learn a lot from the example set by our elected representatives of years gone by.

  2. is this what was also commonly called “the Parker plan”? My father was in localGovt for 18 years in Lake Macquarie & often made mention of the Parker Plan. Could they be related?

  3. ps he was also part a memeber of the Northumberland County Council & i think it was called the Abedare County Council?

  4. Nowhere in the above newspaper articles (many thanks for your diligent research and posting them) is any mention of the Laman Street figs being an Anzac memorial planted by ex-servicemen. No doubt at the time of the figs’ planting (early 1930’s) there may have been “ex-servicemen” employed in doing so, but some people are drawing a long bow in saying that the Laman Street figs are a war memorial.
    Newcastle already has gazetted WW1 commemorative streets with Anzac Parade, Lemnos Parade and Memorial Drive.

    1. @ David H Dial OAM Could you further explore this period when you are next researching in town? It would be really interesting to see what connections exist with the Wattle Day League. Why do you think they would site a war Memorial along Laman Street? Ww would also be interested to know whether the Borough Council Minutes exist for this period and beyond.

  5. You can name a bush track the same (commemorative) but is of no consequence. More research should be done into the actual significance of the Laman St trees. Why is there a suggestion that a WW(Anzac) Memorial will be erected in place of the trees if they were of no significance? Could it be that after the WW’s our returned soldiers like Ald Parker just wanted to be surrounded by the beauty of trees and nature as trees symbolised hope,healing,life and renewal for themselves after the horrors of war. If this was the case then these trees are very significant memorials. Who gets to decide? What must the Aboriginal people think of us stupid white man, at least the Aboriginal people show respect for the past and know what trees and land is sacred, we have records kept and still haven’t got a clue? Or just twist the meaning and significance with legal mumbo jumbo to suit ourselves? I still question the motivation for removing the trees..Newcastle people deserve answers, not just the trees were sick. To deliberately tear something down because we can or it doesn’t suit us and then say it’s okay because we will replace it with a plague or memorial is wrong it takes away the whole meaning & significance, it means nothing if it done for wrong reason.

  6. @Kaz Yes we agree. Much more research needs to be conducted through the records of the Newcastle City Council during the period leading up to, and including the term of these Borough Councils during the 1930s onwards. I also agree with you that it does make sense that they placed the War Memorial and Cultural Centre in the 1950s along the same street where these trees are planted. We must also remember the words of Mayor Parker “A memorial erected in stone in recognition of civic services cannot be compared with the memorial living in the hearts of each succeeding generation.” We also have to investigate the connections with the Wattle Day League that inspired this particular Borough Council to begin the tree plantings. The Airmen’s Memorial established sometime during the 1950s/1960s? is also placed in the same area with a cathedral canopy of trees surrounding it. To the ancient Romans, sacred groves and their trees are the birth of religion, and so they appear to have been in their memorials for the dead. We have to be able to also read between the lines with these articles. Thanks for the comments.

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