The Life and Times of Macquarie Pier

View of the channel from the summit of Nobbys in 1818
Newcastle in 1818 by Edward Charles Close (Courtesy of the National Library of Australia)
Click for a larger image

The Life and Times of Macquarie Pier – Buried Testament to the “Father and Mother of Australia”

by Gionni Di Gravio
University Archivist and Chair, CRWP

On the afternoon of Tuesday 4th August 1818, an idea was born.

Captain James Wallis, the then Commandant of Newcastle, took Governor Lachlan Macquarie to the shoreline, located adjacent to the present day Fort Scratchley, and looking across to Nobbys, proposed the idea of creating a causway or land bridge across the channel to link Nobbys to the mainland.

After having examined the channel from both sides and taking soundings of the depths, the Governor agreed that the work was important and needed to proceed immediately. He wrote in his journal:

“Tuesday 4th. Augt. !

At 1. P.M. I went along with Capt. Wallis to look and examin[e] the Channel dividing Coal Island (Nobby) from the South Head of Newcastle Harbour, with the view of filling it up entirely by constructing a Strong Mound or Causway [sic] between the Island and the Main for the purpose of deepening the Main Channel or Entrance into the Harbour. — We landed on the Island and Sounded the Channel between it and South Head – which does not exceed 7 feet in depth at low water and only about a quarter of a mile in Breadth. — After examining both sides of the Channel, it was finally determined to commence forthwith filling it up by constructing [a] Strong Causeway of 30 feet Broad from South Head to Coal Island. After deciding on this important work, we went to visit the new Jail, the new Hospital, the new Guard-House, the Battery & Light House, and the several Work-Shops. — We did not return Home till after 5,O’Clock, soon after which we sat down to Dinner.” ( )

They returned the next day for a ritual to lay the foundation stone for the Newcastle breakwater. Captain Wallis decided to name it after the Governor, which pleased him very much. Macquarie recorded the event in his words:

Wednesday 5. Augt. !

At 4. P.M. accompanied by Capt. Wallis, Revd. Mr. Cowper, Major Antill, Lt. Macquarie, Ensn. Roberts and Mr. Meehan, I went to the Shore of the Channel dividing Coal Island from the South-Head, for the purpose of laying the Foundation and first Stone of the Causway [sic] or Pier to be constructed across from the Main to the Island; and the Stone being cut and ready, with an inscription, it was laid accordingly with all due Form in presence of the Artificers & Labourers to be employed in the construction of it; and Capt. Wallis having proposed that it should bear my name it was accordingly called after me “Macquarie Pier” – which the present year 1818 – was cut and inscribed on the Foundation Stone.

After the Foundation Stone had been laid, the Artificers and Labourers were served with an allowance of Spirits to drink success to the Undertaking – which they did with 3 hearty cheers. —

On my return Home I called at the Provision Store to inspect it, and found it in good order and well supplied with Provisions. I also called at the Watch on the Beach recently erected by Capt. Wallis – and was much pleased with the neatness and appropriate Situation of it. — We then returned Home to Dinner at 5,O’Clock, well pleased with my Day’s work! —“

Two days later, on on 7 August 1818, the surveyor James Meehan drew up the plans showing the lines of the intended pier. The original was recently located by our colleagues at New South Wales State Records in Sydney, and a beautiful new scan is displayed below.

Plan of Newcastle New South Wales August 7th 1818 By James Meehan Esq. Dep. S. Gen.
(Courtesy of the NSW State Records AO Map83)
Click for a larger image

The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser
26 December 1818

Government House, Parramatta,
Thursday, 24th December, 1818.

…In Addition to the foregoing useful and permanent Buildings, Captain Wallis has commenced and made great Progress in another most important Undertaking, namely, constructing a strong massy Stone Pier across the Channel dividing the main Land (on which the Town is situated) on the’South Side of the Harbour from Coal Island (or Nobby), for the Purpose of confining the Whole of the Water of Hunter’s River to the principal Channel by which Vessels enter the Harbour of Newcastle, and preventing that Channel from being blocked up, and consequently rendered dangerous, if not impracticable for Navigation. -This useful Work was commenced on early in August last, at the Time His EXCELLENCY was on his Visit of Inspection to Newcastle, and had himself an Opportunity of personally laying the Foundation-stone of the Pier.

On the 23 January 1820, an unidentified painter (conjectured to be Edward Charles Close) recorded this view of the works as they were being undertaken. The original painting is held with the State Library of New South Wales.

Nobby's Island and Pier 23 January 1820 (Anonymous artist) Courtesy of the Mitchell Library
Nobby’s Island and Pier 23 January 1820 (Anonymous artist).
Courtesy of the State Library of NSW.
Click for a larger image

Macquarie and his wife Elizabeth were like the JFK and Jackie O of the 1810s, a charismatic couple, that said “yes” to public infrastructure and what we now term “nation-building”. The expenditure of Government money on public works and improvements throughout the Colony were seen, by their enemies in the Colony and in London, as extravagant and unnecessary, for what was for mother England, a penal colony. Add to this Macquarie’s championing of ex-convicts or emancipists, and his policies came under greater scrutiny. In 1819, the government appointed John Bigge, to investigate, he agreed with the complainants which led to Macquarie’s resignation in 1821, recalled back to England in 1823, and was dead by 1824. And with his recall all work on Macquarie Pier came to an end at the beginning of 1823 along with all public works across the Colony.

In 1825 The Australian published a very moving piece on the malaise gripping Newcastle and the crumbling Macquarie Pier. Thanks to Ann Hardy, who found this title less article in TROVE by chance fortune. We have transcribed it in full as it is an incredible account of the state of the Pier at the time, that resonates through the centuries, as a symbol of our times.

The Australian
Thursday 30 June 1825, page 2, 3
National Library of Australia ( )
Located by Ann Hardy, transcribed by Gionni Di Gravio

Among other matters forming this week’s miscellany our attention has been directed to the rise, progress, decline and fall of Macquarie Pier at Newcastle. It is a remarkable feature in the management of affairs during the last few years, that almost every public work of utility has been relinquished. Buildings that ought long since to have been finished, and appropriated to the purposes for which they were commenced have been most unaccountably allowed to tumble into ruins. Amongst the number is this useful pier which has been the grave of thousands of pounds, and, as our account states, must be the grave of thousands more, before it can be put into that condition in which it was when the workmen were withdrawn. The advantages which a pier at Newcastle affords to vessels trading thither in allowing their easy approach to the shore, render its completion a matter of the first importance. Since Newcastle ceased to be a penal settlement, the number of wealthy inhabitants has increased to a remarkable extent;  and the trade between it and Port Jackson is already far from being inconsiderable. There is besides, no excuse for relinquishing the erecting of the Pier after it has been proceeded with so far as to afford the most indubitable proof of its usefulness, and after most difficult and expensive part of the job had been got over. It cannot be for the want of funds; for if we have money to support the prisoners of the Crown, we have surely money to complete a necessary improvement by their labour, for an important part of the Colony. After the Pier had been officially inspected, early in 1824, a Report of its state was forwarded to the proper quarter in the month of February, of that year stating among other things “that the surface of the pier was covered with numerous small stones, which had been used in its original construction to fill up the chasms left after the bedding of the side stones of the south-east face of the wall. These stones had been washed out from between the chasms by easterly gales, and then laid for the most part scattered on the surface of the pier. About thirty feet from the foundation stone, at the west end of the pier, the second course of side stones had, in many places, entirely gone, and the remainder was more or less shook. At the distance of about 350 feet, the third tier, or layer of stones, was very much shattered; and for a space of between 20 and 30 feet, the small stones and rubbish, placed to fill up the vacancies between the heavy stones had been entirely washed away, leaving an opening by which the surf passed up in an oblique direction through the second and upper tier of side stones, to the surface of the pier; and it was expected, that unless that defect was speedily remedied, a breach would be made, in the course of the then ensuing winter, quite across, by the surf which beats very heavily on it in south-east gales. The whole of the backing was found to be washed away, for nearly two-thirds of the length of the pier, and many of the upper stones had been removed from the extreme or unfinished end into the channel between Nobby’s island and the mainland. The most speedy means, it was stated, ought to be adopted to put it into a state of security, but which could not be accomplished by the prisoners then at Newcastle, without putting, a stop to all the other public works; for with the exception of the few mechanics in the Lumber-yard — of those employed at the mines— the boats’crews — and those in charge of Government flocks and herds were totally inadequate to such a laborious undertaking. A gang of not less than 50 strong able-bodied were recommended to be sent from Sydney, without delay, for the purpose of repairing the pier, and, after having performed that service, it was suggested that they might be assigned to the free settlers on Hunter’s river, who were in want of more than that number.”

Such was the substance of the Report submitted for the consideration of the Executive Authority. And such was the attention paid to it that not a stone has been hewn, nor a hod of mortar prepared for the Pier from the day of the date of that report to the present time. The Pier has been scattered by the winds and waves, and “Ducks and Drakes” thus made of the public monies.

The following additional facts will put the Reader in full possession of most particulars connected with the Pier as it has been, is, and perhaps, ever will be, save as to the changes which the hand of time alone many effect:-

“The pier was begun in August 1818, Captain Wallis being Commandant. There was not any artist appointed to superintend and direct its construction. The engineers at that time, and up to the time of the work ceasing, were subalterns of the 46th and 48th regiments, and, totally ignorant of their duty — the mechanics and workmen generally, were under the orders of an old sergeant of the 46th regt he was principal superintendent of public works, and died at Newcastle. The overseers under him were two stone masons, who, though good mechanics in their way, were totally unfit to carry such an important undertaking into effect. The work at the pier ceased entirely in the early part of the year 1823. The length of the pier, from the commencement to the unfinished end, is about 350 yards— it will require about 100 yards more to reach across to Nobby’s island, and to finish it. The breadth is about 42 feet — the depth of water at the unfinished end of the pier, at low water is ten feet. The work has arrived at the deepest part of the channel. At 100 yards further on, the water begins to shoal, and consequently the remainder of the pier might be finished with comparative ease. It will cost about £3,000 to put the pier in the state in which it was when the work ceased in 1823. The expenses incurred by Government in building the pier, are involved in complete obscurity, no amount having ever been kept of the expenditure [of them?] distinct from the stores expended at the [? ?] There used generally to be employed on the pier from its commencement, a gaol gang, amounting [to an] average to 140 men, and about 40 other mechanics and labourers. There were generally employed in drawing stone and rubbish, about 35 working [oxen]. The greater part of these oxen (supposed to be the finest and best, trained in the Colony) were sent to Rooty Hill last year. Many of the large stones at the unfinished end of the pier continue to be washed away by the surf which is caused by the south-east gales, and instead of lying in the channel between Nobby’s and the main land, as anticipated in February 1824, have been forced by the heave of the sea from the south-east, in towards the fair way for vessels coming up the harbour, after having rounded Nobby’s; and as there is not any sea from the westward, to [bear] them out again, it is to be feared that the fair-way into the harbour will eventually be blocked up for vessels of any burthen. Before the pier was in progress no vessel above 50 tons ventured up the harbour without a flood tide and a leading wind— now (even with the pier in its unfinished state) a vessel of 400 tons may, and has beat up against the wind, with the tide in her favour; and other vessels, to wit, the [Fame?] Thalia, Minerva, Cyprus and Amity arc constantly in the habit of beating up. But before the pier was commenced the old brig Elizabeth Henrietta was always obliged to anchor off Nobby’s, to wait for a leading wind, —-therefore if the harbor derive so much advantage from the pier in its present unfinished state — if the access to it be already so much facilitated, what would be the result if the pier were completed?

The Oyster-bank, which is the principal impediment to vessels beating up with a foul wind, and which is formed by the tide rushing through the passage between Nobby’s and the main, would soon be washed away by freshes from up the river. The middle ground also (a shoal opposite the town,  and very near the anchorage) would most probably, from the same causes, be removed, and a clear harbour would thereby be left to anchor any number of vessels, which is not now the case; for half a dozen like the Elizabeth Henrietta and Governor Phillip would occupy the space now fit for anchorage upon the present plan near the town. Mr. Busby it is said has estimated the expense of completing the pier at £17,000; but the expense ought not to be put in competition with the improvement and certain advantages to be expected to the port of Newcastle — at the same time it is to be observed, that if something be not soon done towards preventing the further progress of the stones into the harbour, which are daily washed away from the unfinished end of the pier, it would have been better, if the erection of it had never been commenced; for its ruins will, ere long, block up the harbour.”

Joseph Cross - A view of King's Town. (1828) (Photograph by Bruce Turnbull. Courtesy Newcastle Art Gallery
Joseph Cross – A view of King’s Town. (1828)
(Photograph by Bruce Turnbull. Courtesy Newcastle Art Gallery)

Click the image for a larger version. Inscribed: printed on image the numbers 1-10 over landscape features corresponding to the inscription in the plate margins, l.l. – l.r. “No.1 River Hunter. 2. Public Wharf. 3. Nobby Island 4. North end of Breakwater once intended to connect with the Island. 5. Hospital. 6. Gaol. 7. Police Magistrates Residence. 8. Sessions House. 9. High Land on the South of Port Stephens. 10. Fort, Signal Station & Light.”; lower c. “A large portion of the Town Lies to the left, between the Church & River. A VIEW OF KING’S TOWN. (late Newcastle.) London, Engraved & Published, August 1st. 1828 by J. Cross, 18 Holborn…opposite Furnivals Inn.”

The acquatint, hand coloured, etching of Joseph Cross’ A View of King’s Town (1828) formed the frontispiece to Henry Dangar’s Index and directory to map of the country bordering upon the River Hunter.. ( ) By this stage the Pier remained unfinished and destitute. The Australian again took the opportunity to take the authorities to task over the matter:

The Australian,

Friday 13 February 1829, page 2, 3
Sourced and Transcribed by Gionni Di Gravio

The pier projected, some, time back between Nobby’s island and the mainland adjoining the settlement of Newcastle, is now fast tumbling into decay. The foundation of this pier was partly laid, and rose upon, when Col. Morrisett was Commandant of Newcastle, at a very considerable expence ; and the pier, had it been continued across, from land to land, would have formed an excellent break water, and contributed vastly to the security of the port of Newcastle. All the expence and labour, however, which were then so profusely bestowed upon this work, might as well have been taken at once and thrown into the unfathomable ocean, for any benefit that it ever has been productive of.  Just as operations were beginning to assume an appearance of utility, the wisdom of our Authorities, for sooth, pronounced that they must be forthwith abandoned, and for what public purpose, either of necessity or utility, we are at a loss to divine. In the simple, though laborious proceeding of throwing,  say a bridge, across a river, who ever thought of stopping short in the middle ? Yet this has been the case with the projected — and abandoned, ere half-completed— break-water that was to connect Nobby’s ‘island with the main, and leave Newcastle, a secure port! Lashed incessantly by the roaring, convolving, engulphing surges of a turbulent ocean, which, with the almost irresistible strength of a whirlpool to preserve its level, are continually forcing an ingress and egress through the passage left open between the main and unfinished proportion of what was Intended to be a break-water, – this erection cannot, at all events, in its present state, hold long together. The attacks and encroachments of hoary ocean are every day more and more palpable.— Every day does the insatiable element carry away some portion or another of this fast decaying specimen of human strength and human weakness. In strong winds and stormy weather, such as we have had a few samples of lately, each morning dawns to shew the previous night’s havoc ; and sapped, weakened, crumbling away piecemeal, as it is, more and more rapidly, we, may shortly expect to find the white line of breakers, dashing over its ruins, the only reminiscence — all the fruits of that great expence and labour swallowed in the contrivance of a pier, which was to make Newcastle an eligible harbour for shipping – a work which, had it been persisted in, and not wisely dropped at the point whence it should, of all others, have been carried on, would have reflected no sort of discredit upon the administration of His Excellency Lieut. -General Darling. But so it is. – – – Lands and places can be given away in plenty ; – and even a GRANT in fee-simple, worth £ 15,000 at a venture, can be given away to one lucky individual and that individual not second to the Governor himself as regards ineligibility to hold lands within the Colony ; yet such a work as the above monument of decay, for instance, which, had it been properly completed, would have proved a work of public utility, must go to the ground, to save an outlay, small certainly when compared with the expences previously incurred, and the certain loss from leaving the work, so far carried on successfully, incomplete. When things such as those come to be discussed before Parliament, what sort of reception will they meet with? What sort they ought to meet with, we can guess readily enough.

If ever His Excellency Lieut. – General Darling, as Governor of, and Commander of the Forces, within this Colony and its Dependencies, mean to set out upon his “MAIDEN TOUR,” (and the season for this we must take the liberty to suggest to His Excellency, is fast slipping away) this station of Newcastle should not be beneath His Excellency’s notice; and thence crossing the projected new line of road from Wallis’ Plains to Wiseman’s (which, by the bye, as we have mentioned in another place, through short commons and scarcity of labouring instruments, is in a plight scarcely less miserable than the mouldering break-water off Nobby’s) His Excellency may have ocular demonstration that we do not stray beyond the Truth – and thence over the hills and far away!

Plan of the Town of Newcastle New South Wales shewing it’s present actual state with part of the adjoining Country, and the coal works of The Australian Agricultural Company from a Careful Survey in 1830 by Jno. Armstrong. (Courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, N.Z.)

Plan of the Town of Newcastle New South Wales shewing it’s present actual state with part of the adjoining Country,
and the coal works of The Australian Agricultural Company from a Careful Survey in 1830 by Jno. Armstrong.
(Courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, N.Z.)

In 1830 John Armstrong, Australian Agricultural Company surveyor, drew an astonishingly detailed plan of Newcastle marking every building and feature on the ground. He identified the starting points of the stonework on both sides of the Break water, noting on the ocean side of the Pier that “this side is partially wash’ down”.

It is not surprising that all this agitation from The Australian, sparked the people of Newcastle to rise up and also demand a completion to the Macquarie Pier, which had now become known as the Breakwater. We can look at this period as the beginnings of the Fix Our City of the 1830s.

The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser
Thursday 16 September 1830


“…We are also informed, that the settlers on the Hunter earnestly desire the completion of the Breakwater at Newcastle, which, a considerable time since, was commenced in a very judicious manner, but abandoned, for some reasons with which we are unacquainted, when nearly half finished. We do not pretend to know the causes which induced the government to discontinue this work : though it is not too much to assume, that, as it was a public work, it was influenced by principles of public expediency in the course which it ultimately thought proper to pursue. It is said, we are informed, by several scientific men, that the Breakwater, if finished, would have the effect of deepening the entrance of the channel and harbour of Newcastle, in such a manner as to make it perfectly safe in all weathers. All things, however, cannot be commenced, far less accomplished, at once ; and from what the government has already done, and is now doing, in the way of public works, we may reasonably rest satisfied that nothing will be overlooked which will add to public convenience, and which the Executive possesses the means of accomplishing, when opportunity serves.”

On the 11th October 1832  a Report of the Sub-Committee on the Breakwater at Newcastle had been received by the Legislative Committee, and it was resolved “That a sum not exceeding £.500 be appropriated towards defraying the expenses of completing the Breakwater at Newcastle”. (Sydney Herald, 15 October 1832 p.2) But time dragged on, waiting for the iron gangs to arrive from Sydney to do the work, leading the Sydney Herald to comment two years later that:

“Some iron-gangs are at work in Newcastle, repairing the pier or public wharf, (which has been much required) and a road leading to the stone-quarries ; after these are finished, the same party will be augmented, and the old breakwater will be proceeded with, so it is said. A few generations to come, will, perhaps, have the pleasure of witnessing the completion of this breakwater.” – Sydney Herald, 3rd April 1834 p.2)

On the 8th January 1833 the Colonial Secretary, at the direction of the Governor, wrote to Surveyor General, Sir Thomas Mitchell requesting that he:

“will examine what has been formerly done towards forming a Breakwater at Newcastle, and report your opinion, as to the best mode of proceeding.”
Colonial Secretary to The Surveyor General Outgoing Letters No. 33/31 8th January 1833

Mitchell suggested using the mortar cement that had been employed in forming the new docks on the Thames,

“This mortar was formed from powdered unburnt limestone and coarse sharp sand, the whole being pointed with Puzzolana earth or Roman Cement, by which such embankments become as solid as rock and fully resist the effect of water: But with the clayey stone in the Newcastle Breakwater, it will be necessary to face the work with a harder material, especially on the side towards the sea, which should have an inclination of about 30 degrees.”
Sir Thomas Mitchell – ‘Breakwater at Newcastle’ – pp 275-276

“Roman Cement” was developed in England between 1780-1796, and was actually nothing like any material used by the Romans. Puzzolano earth was  volcanic ash used by the Romans an additive to cement, to strengthen  concrete used on a large scale. Pozzolans may be natural ( eg volcanic ash) or artificial (ground up bricks, fly-ash). The Thames Docks were built between the years 1799 and 1815.

Sketch of the Proposed Breakwater at Newcastle by Sir Thomas Mitchell.
Courtesy of the NSW Parliamentary Library.

Mitchell goes on to propose using ship’s ballast to build up the Pier, as well as lining the walls to create a beach to protect its ocean side. It is unclear whether any of Mitchell’s advice was followed. His Report on Breakwater at Newcastle is included in his unfinished magnum opus entitled Report Upon The Progress Made in Roads and in the Construction of Public Works in New South Wales From 1827 to June 1855 by Colonel, Sir T.L. Mitchell Surveyor General. The original manuscript lies in the vault of the New South Wales Parliamentary Library. This was his final work, completed just before his death. We sincerely thank Deborah Brown, Manager, Reference & Information Resources for her exceptional service in providing relevant images to us relating to the Pier and its construction. Pages 274 to 281 contain Mitchell’s report on the ‘Breakwater at Newcastle’ consisting of three transcribed letters (Nos. 33/31, 33/137 and 33/116) with the Colonial Secretary Alexander McLeay and Mr Charles Hopwood.

To see the Breakwater at Newcastle report please click here:

To consult the full transcript : Breakwater at Newcastle (Transcription by Mr Russell Rigby) (220KB PDF File)

Please compare with Mitchell Library version:  Breakwater at Newcastle (PDF Courtesy of the Mitchell Library)

It appears that it was around 1835, twelve years after work was initially abandoned, that actual work had again started. The engineer in charge was Mr Simeon Dodd. From the description it could appear that they were trying to adopt Mitchell’s ideas, could they have been using cement? From the description in the following news report something was going wrong.

Newcastle Breakwater (Sydney Monitor 7th February 1835 p.2)
Newcastle Breakwater (Sydney Monitor 7th February 1835 p.2)

The Colonist
Thursday 18 June 1835, page 5

Hunter’s River, June 12, 1835

SIR, — Having had occasion to visit the town of Newcastle, on private business, within the last few days, I was sorry to find that the break-water gang at the settlement had been making very little progress of late in their important operations. A road has been constructed, at a very considerable expense, from the jetty at Newcastle to the commencement of the breakwater, chiefly, I presume, for the conveyance of stones and other materials for the construction of the mole. In the direction of the harbour this road is faced up with a strong wall of freestone; but towards the southward it is exposed to the action of the southerly winds that blow over the neck of land that stretches out towards Nobby’s Island, and is consequently ever and anon covered with loose sand that is forced up on the beach by the swell from the southward, and carried by the southerly gales across the neck towards the harbour. The chief employment of the gang has of late, I understand, been that of shovelling away the sand that accumulates upon the road, and of course obstructs the passage along it towards the breakwater. Now, with all deference to the superior judgement of the respectable Engineer, who superintended the works at Newcastle, I cannot help thinking that this method of preventing the accumulation of sand upon the road to the mole is somewhat similar to the one adopted by that intelligent animal Sir Bruin, when annoyed with a certain incumbrance with which he is sometimes wickedly clogged by the peasants of Siberia. I shall describe the operation I allude to for the information and amusement of your younger readers.

When a Siberian peasant has discovered the lair of a bear, and wishes to make himself master of the animal’s carcass, he fixes the end of a strong rope to a log of wood just sufficient for the bear to be able to carry, and forms a running noose upon the other end of the rope, which he suspends across the entrance of the bear’s cave. The animal, of course, when coming out into the open air, inserts his head, and perhaps his forelegs or arms, into the noose, which immediately fastens itself tightly round his body. He soon discovers the awkward incumbrance of the log, and endeavouring to tear it to pieces, and at another by trying to run away from it in every direction. At length the bear gets furious, and snatching up the log in his arms, carries it to the very summit of the highest eminence at hand, and throws it violently down. But being still attached to the log, the animal is instantly dragged down the hill or precipice, to his own great astonishment, doubtless, and probably gets some severe contusion by the fall. This renders him more furious than ever; he seizes the log again, carries it to the same place, and launches it away from him with greater violence than before, repeating the process till he is either killed, or falls an easy prey to the Siberian peasant.

Now although I should be sorry to compare any person in this district to Sir Bruin, I cannot help thinking that the process of removing the sand from the leeward side of the hill, where it is constantly accumulating, is somewhat similar to that of throwing the log down the hill, before cutting the rope by which it is made fast to Sir Bruin’s body. Let some effort be made on the beach to the southward, and on the southern side of the intervening high ground, to prevent the sand from being carried up by the wind. Let one or more rows of strong wattled fences, for instance, be formed along the beach and along the face of the hill to the southward, in a transverse direction to that of the wind; and then let the sandy soil be sown with the seeds of those grasses that affect such situations. A barrier of loose stones, heaped up along the beach to the southward at high water mark, would also be of some service, in preventing the accumulation of sand on the northern side of the hill, and the consequent filling up of the harbour; as the sand lodged among the stones in southerly gales might be afterwards washed back in more favourable weather into the sea. I am, Sir,

Your obedient servant,

The Sydney Monitor
Saturday 13 June 1835, page 2

Newcastle Breakwater.

“This noble work is at last in a fair way for being completed – a gang of one hundred and fifty men being actually employed upon it. The stone is intended to be conveyed on an inclined rail-road;  the necessary castings for which, are already on the spot. A large quantity of iron-work, for the cranes and other requisite machinery, are in a forward state, at Messrs. Castle and Dawson’s, George-street. The building at the head of the inclined plane, which is to contain the machinery, will be the comple est thing of the kind that has yet been erected in the Colony. Should the work proceed at the rate expected by the engineer, it will be completed in about three years. Nobby’s Island is to be reduced to a level with the Breakwater, and an extra gang will shortly be placed on it for that purpose. This, we cannot help thinking, is a pity; for a more picturesque appearance than Nobby presents from the deck of a vessel when entering Newcastle harbour, cannot be conceived. At any rate, we should imagine that the north end might be left for the erection of a light-house, for which it is peculiarly adapted.”

The newly appointed Chief Engineer of convict and civil works, Captain Barney, was not impressed with the work to date on, what the Sydney Gazette termed “that most miserable abortion the Newcastle Breakwater”, referring to it as “a decided failure”. (Sydney Gazette, 1st March 1836 p.3) He immediately took steps to get the project under control, preparing a report to the Legislative Council, who decided to provide the sum of £1,180 6s towards the work. (Sydney Monitor, 9 July 1836 p.2)

The Sydney Herald
Thursday 14 July 1836, page 2


Report on the state of the Breakwater at Newcastle, when taken over by Captian Barney, Commanding Royal Engineer, on the 9th June 1836.

Very little progress appears to have been made towards the completion of this important work for some time past, and the material being of bad description, the inner face of the work is in a rapid state of decomposition; a breach of considerable extent has been effected, and other parts exhibit such symptoms of failure (consequent upon defective section), as lead to the apprehension of serious injury, should a heavy sea set in from the southward.

I lost no time in giving directions for making the roadway to the breach accessible, and of obtaining material for the desired repair. This completed, I propose to strengthen the section to the extent of the existing work, and by the establishment of a party on Nobby’s Island, commence a junction of the line of breakwater from that extremity.

In reference to the completion of this work, some progress has been made in the preparation of a trackway, with necessary gear, by which labor will be much assisted; and I consider that the uninterrupted employ of two hundred prisoners, (with the aid of the machinery contemplated, and well supplied with other necessary working implements), should complete the Breakwater in five years, unless unforeseen circumstances occur, over which I can have no control.

The state of the implements handed over to my charge, is such, as to render a large estimated amount necessary for the supply, under this head of service for the current year; and it is essential that full provision be made to meet future demands, as well as to provide efficient superintendence.

I am hardly prepared to afford a positive opinion upon the sum required to complete the work; but as far as my judgement admits, I consider £3,000 will be sufficient.

Captain Royal Engineers.

From a family notice in the Colonist (27th October 1836 p.7) we learn that the superintendent of the Breakwater at this time is recorded as being a Mr. Lawson. It is in August 1837 that we learn of the first reported accidents of men working on the Breakwater. In The Australian (8th August 1837 p.3) “Two prisoners of the Crown, attached to tho iron-gang at Newcastle Stockade, employed blasting tho rock for the Breakwater, were dreadfully mangled on Wednesday last, by the explosion of a blast during the time they were occupied ramming the powder down; they now lie in the hospital, in a deplorable state”.

By 1846 the Breakwater had been completed. On the 12 June 1846 Mr Scott, the Clerk of Works was the first person to walk the length of the Breakwater to Nobby’s Island. This co-incided with the news that the Port of Newcastle had been made a free port:

Morning Chronicle
Saturday 13 June 1846, page 3

FREE PORT. – Our town was very gay yesterday, in consequence of receipt of the news that the port had been declared free. Flags were flying in all directions, guns firing, and every one looking pleased. Mr. Scott, the Clerk of the Works, also passed for the first time, along the breakwater to Nobby’s Island; and the town was illuminated at night.

The completion of the Breakwater had created a revitalised Town, as is evidenced in this report:

The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser
Saturday 19 December 1846

Hunter River District News.


“The Town. – The town of Newcastle at present affords a most lively spectacle to the casual arrival, being filled with persons who, taking advantage of the season, have resorted thither for the sake of sea bathing. In the morning, on the arrival of the steamer, the quay is thronged with onlookers, and in the evening, when the refreshing sea-breeze sets in, the breakwater connecting Nobby’s Island with the main is the resort of numbers seeking the beneficial influence of the fresh air. As a sign of the crowded state of the town, not a house is to be found unlet, and lodgings are hardly obtainable for love or money.”

But it wasn’t long before the cracks again appeared in the form of breaches.

The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser
Wednesday 4 October 1848

Original Correspondence
(Per favor of the Maitland Mercury)

“Fellow Citizens – This day the few men placed here by the government to make good, the breaches in the breakwater at this port have been removed to Sydney.

So surprised were we at their removal that we paid a visit to inspect the work done by those men;  but, alas! our surprise was twofold increased when we beheld some of the old breaches in same state they were before the arrival of the said workmen.

Men of Newcastle, are you aware of the position you stand in? Know you not, that should a passage be effected through the breakwater, your harbour will be ruined, and the trade of the Hunter completely stopped.

This is a matter that should call the attention of the Upper Districts. Should they be compelled to get tbeir supplies by land carriage from Sydney, it will be paying pretty dearly for their whistle.

Could not our county and borough members assist us in obtaining labour from the government, either free or bond, to enable a work of such importance to be completed.

Let a meeting be called, and a respectful address, numerously signed, be presented by our worthy representative, G. R. Nichols, Esq., to his excellency Sir Charles Fitz Roy, who is always ready to attend to the wants of the colonists.

Captain King, whose opinion on this matter would be much respected, ought to be solicited io use his influence also with his Excellency.

With a prospect of the finest coal seam ever discovered this side of the Line about to be worked by the A. A. Company, their interest must he somewhat damaged unless the work is speedily set about and completed.

There seems a deal of apathy about the good folk of this city. There was £200 granted for the making of our ballast wharf a few years ago : should it not be expended for the purpose it was granted ? Neither the
wharf or the money improve by such neglect.

A landlord is obliged to put a house in tenantable repair before he can claim rent for premises let. The government ought to make the ballast wharf before they inflict a wharfage rate, a rate under existing circumstances that appears so obnoxious.

I remain, you very obedient,

Newcastle, Sept. 30, 1848″

The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser
Wednesday 24 January 1849


THERE are one or two of the most important public works in the district which require the immediate attention of the government.

The breakwater at Newcastle is just now in that condition that “a stitch in time will save nine.” During the last southerly gales that prevailed a severe breach was made in the work about a hundred and fifty yards from Nobby’s. At the surface of the breakwater the break has gone right across ; and below about three-fourths of the stones have been washed down. About a hundred yards nearer the town another breach has been made, but not so severe as the former. The work has also snstained other damages of a minor description. The chief danger, however, is to be apprehended from the two breaches nearest Nobby’s. In that spot the breakwater is exposed to the action of the rollers during southerly gales ; and the violence with which the breakers roll in at these times is sufficiently attested by the immense stones-some of them, we should think, more than a ton weight-which have been lately dislodged from the upper part of the work. If strong southerly gales should set in before these damages are repaired, it is extremely probable that a clean breach will be made through the breakwater ; and we should not be surprised to hear of the whole of the work between the two breaches nearest Nobby’s being thrown down. The cost of effecting the repairs now necessary may be rather serious; but if the damages be not at once made good, that cost may in a few months be increased tenfold. After going to the expense of many thousands in constructing the breakwater, it is worth while to spend some hundreds in preventing it from being rendered in a great measure useless.”

Reports were again commissioned.

Council Paper. Newcastle Breakwater. Report from the Select Committee on the Newcastle Breakwater. (Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser, 25 August 1849.

Maitland Mercury. The Newcastle Breakwater. (Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser, 29 August 1849.

In 1852 Captain John Bull was appointed Superintendent of Works for the Newcastle Breakwater. By 1866 the decision was made to reconstruct the breakwater with stone quarried from Waratah and transported by rail.

The Nobby Rock Newcastle (Illustrated Sydney News 25 November 1871 p.189)
The Nobby Rock Newcastle (Illustrated Sydney News 25 November 1871 p.189)


Newcastle, whose trade is second only to that of Sydney, owes its commercial importance. if not its existence as a large shipping port, in no small measure to the works which have been completed there. There are at present two breakwaters in course of construction at Newcastle one about 2000 feet long, connecting the main land with Nobby Island, a high rook at the southern entrance to the port and the site of the light house, called the southern break water; the other, the. northern break water, extends from the North Head, in the direction of the River Hunter, out into the ocean. The southern break water was constructed in olden times by prison labor, the stone procured by blasting the rocks, on the beach within a short distance. The works were much damaged by the sea in consequence of the stone not being sufficiently hard to resist the action of the waves; the Government therefore, in the year 1866, commenced to repair the breakwater with stones of a much harder description, and weighing, on an average, not less than ten tons ; in order to procure this stone a new quarry was opened at Waratah, a few miles from Newcastle, from whence the stone is conveyed in trucks by railway and tipped from the end of the breakwater ; the inner side is afterwards hand packed. Up to the present date 350 yards of the breakwater ave been repaired, and it contains 90,000 tons of stone. It will probably be completed as far as the Nobby in the course of a year or so. The work has been tested by heavy gales, but as yet not a single stone has been displaced. A further extension of the breakwater to Big Ben (a reef of rocks some distance off the Nobby) is contemplated. This will be a work occupying some considerable time, owing to the depth of water between the Nobby and the reef, and to the heavy seas which will often prevent the work from being proceeded with.”

In 2010, during the celebrations of Macquarie period in Australia, Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir Governor of New South Wales AC CVO gave a wonderful speech at the Newcastle Art Gallery. She spoke about the arrival of Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie in a depressed Colony, brought us up as a nation through inspirational public works and beautiful works of art, exemplified in the Macquarie Chest, conceived and created here in Newcastle.

On the 4 August 2010 at 4pm the Fort Scratchley Historical Society invited Her excellency back to Newcastle to an event to unveil a commemorative bronze marker plaque at the start of Macquarie Pier (Newcastle Breakwater).

Close to this date (5th) and time back in 1818, Governor Lachlan Macquarie laid the foundation stone to Macquarie Pier in Newcastle. The University’s Coal River Working Party put together team to try to locate the original foundation stone.

This bronze marker, now laid in the pathway, adjacent to the buried location of the start of the stonework,  displays the intertwining histories of black and white Australia. We can’t have white without black, neither can we have black without white. Our histories are linked and blended just like a tapestry.

Macquarie Pier is a land bridge connecting Nobbys (Whibayganba) to Signal Hill/ Fort Scratchley (Tahlbihn). It was intended to make the harbour safer for shipping, and to protect the precious exports upon which the fledgling colony was earning its first return.

It is therefore a bridge connecting land, and people to the land, across time and we would like to see this moment (the dedication of the marker) as a beginning of a path, a turning point, a return, a hope. We hope it will make us all safer

Everyone that was there in 1818 was represented, the Governor Lachlan Macquarie (Her excellency), the surveyor James Meehan (Institution of Surveyors – Hunter Manning Group), Rev William Cowper (Dean of Newcastle The Very Reverend Dr James Rigney) among them. The only ones represented in 2010, but not there in 1818 were the University of Newcastle. How proud would the Macquaries have been to see this town now emerge to now have its own University.

Just like people walk the Sydney Harbour Bridge for reconciliation, so we hope the rededicated Macquarie Pier will be a ‘Walk with me’ to a new way of connecting people and places, a walk of reconciliation for those who answer to the spirit. ”

But the buried foundation stone remains something that is unfinished business. To this daym the National Trust of Australia look after the tomb of Lachlan Macquarie as the “Father of Australia”, because it was during Macquarie’s period that Australia became officially the name of our country. We cannot forget his wife Elizabeth, who was by his side and inspired just as much.

We therefore owe it to their memory, to uncover the lost and buried foundation stone, and respect the memory of the Father and Mother of Australia.


Gionni Di Gravio
University of Newcastle Archivist and Chair, Coal River Working Party

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