City of Newcastle Public Voice: Coal River Precinct

Coal River Precinct Newcastle’s Unique Historic and Recreational Locality. Presentation to the Newcastle City Council Public Voice Committee
15 September 2015.

Presenters: Mr Doug Lithgow. President of the Parks and Playgrounds Movement Inc., A Freeman of the City of Newcastle. Dr Ann Hardy, Historian and Coal River Working Party Administrative Officer and Deputy Chair. Mr Gionni Di Gravio University of Newcastle Archivist and Chair, Coal River Working Party.

Opening address by Doug Lithgow

My Lord Mayor and Councillors,

Nobbys Whibaygamba is the iconic symbol of Newcastle and the state registered Coal River Precinct is an Aboriginal-Convict and Colonial heritage landscape of Local, State and National significance and importance.

It is impossible to think of Newcastle without Nobbys Whibaygamba just as it is Impossible to think of Sydney without the image of the Sydney Harbour Bridge or the Sydney Opera House.

Yet this landscape is so much more!

The Precinct landscape is a physical expression of the Newcastle Story from the Aboriginal Dreamtime to the birth of the City of Newcastle and the beginnings of the Coal Mining industry and an achievement of a civil society and modern Newcastle.

The Aboriginal Dreaming site of extraordinary antiquity (Home of the giant kangaroo)
The Camp site of Lieutenant John Shortland September 1797
The Birth Site of the City of Newcastle 1801 and
The beginnings of the mining industry
The Convict building of Macquarie Pier started 1818 and creation of the Port of Newcastle
Site of a continuous maritime light on the NSW coast (Coal fired Beacon then Nobbys Light 1857)
The famous Newcastle Fort Scratchley 1882

The Convict Landscape is worthy of being recognised at the World Heritage Level

Why has Newcastle been written out of the Australian National Story?
What can be done to give Newcastle the National Heritage Status it deserves.

Our presentation this evening aims to outline
The work we have done
The contribution of the Council
And what we think should be done in the future

Doug Lithgow Freeman of the City of Newcastle
President of the Parks and Playgrounds Movement`
Founding member of University of Newcastle Coal River Working Party


The 6 minute HD Video silent presentation was prepared by Gionni Di Gravio, and was divided into three Acts.

Act 1. Our Record of Human Achievement

Illustrated the work over the past 50 years of the Parks and Playgrounds Movement Inc., University of Newcastle’s Coal River Working Party and business partners to research, document, conserve and promote the historical significance of the Coal River Precinct in Newcastle (Australia). This involved the detailed research work to locate and establish both documentary and physical evidence for the important sites within the historic place including:

Nobbys (Whibayganba)
Aboriginal Dreaming site, representing Aboriginal human habitation from at 7,000 to 50,000, the record of “Natives” on Lieutenant John Shortland’s 1797 eye sketch, and the 1854 gunpowder tunnels within, that sparked the first environmental action in Australia to save a natural landform. This was spearheaded by the Newcastle business community led by John Bingle and George Thorn.

Fort Scratchley (Tahlibin)
Most Novocastrians are familiar with the military history of the Fort, but not many are aware that its military history goes back to the 1820s, when it was known as Fort Thomson. Most people are also aware of the military tunnels used during WW2, but underneath the Fort lies the original convict coal mines, rediscovered in September 2005. These were the first successful mines in the southern hermisphere, and evidence of the first discoveries, first export and first profit of the Colony of New South Wales. Adjacent to the Fort is also the campsite of the original colonial settlement, identified from Barrallier’s 1801 Survey plan by Emeritus Professor John Fryer in 2008.

Macquarie Pier (Newcastle Breakwater)
To make the Port of Newcastle safer for the valuable coal, cedar, lime and salt exports, a masive program of public works was undertaken by Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1818. This structure and its foundation stone laid on 5 August 1818 lie in the area. A specially designed plaque was unveiled and installed by the Governor in 2010. It would be wonderful to expose the original structure, and enhance its signage and conservation and interpretation.

Convict Lumber Yard
Site of Australia’s first convict work site.


Act 2: The Quest for National Recognition

The presentation then presents all the documents and plans produced by the community from 1969 to present to establish an historic site. Proposals were prepared in 1969, 1989, 1997, 1999, 2001. In 2003 the Coal River Precinct was placed ojn the NSW State Heritage Register. In 2008 the Coal River Conservation and Tourism Management Plan (Pizzey Plan) was adopted. In 2009, we sought funding to have a new symphonic work commissioned for Newcastle, inspired by the light sculptures proposed in the Pizzey Plan. “A Slender Strand of Memories” by Colin Spiers  was debuted in Newcastle Town Hall in 2009.

Since there is no publically funded archaeological investigations in Australia, we also wrote to Tony Robinson’s Time Team in England to come to Newcastle and excavate the Coal River Precinct. They originally said ‘no’, but in 2011, a new show entitled ‘Tony Robinson’s Timewalks’ was announced and we worked with the producers to ensure that Newcastle’s great stories were brought to the international stage. Tony Robinson maintains that the Newcastle Timewalks show remains the one that topped the ratings of the series.  A Foundation Monument Proposal was prepared in 2009.

Four National Nominations for Newcastle were also prepared and sent to the Commonwealth and all rejected. We did not understand why, until the John Turner Memorial Lecture presentation by Dr (now Professor) Nancy Cushing. She presented the index page of a modern history of Australia, according to Libby Robin’s How a Continent Created a Nation (2007), Newcastle was no where to be found. Is this an acceptable situation for Australia’s second oldest city? Cushing also stated that this work was not alone, there were at least forty (40) histories she could have used instead, all of them did not mention Newcastle at all.

A report compiled on the “World Heritage Values Convict Places” by Michael Pearson in 1995, ignoring the 1818 Macquarie Pier, concluded that no extensive convict remains had survived in Newcastle, and, as a result Newcastle was written out of the history of Australia. Professor Erik Eklund and Dr David Roberts argued the case for Coal River Precinct in their 2012 paper “Australian Convict Sites and the Heritage of Adaptation: The Case of Newcastle’s Coal River Heritage Precinct“, Australian Historical Studies, 43:3, 363-380. To date, Newcastle’s Aboriginal and Colonial record of human achievements continues to remain unacknowledged  by the Commonwealth of Australia.


Act 3: What Needs to be Done?

The fact that Newcastle’s history of human achievement had been completely written out of the history of Australia, the presenters urged Newcastle Council to revise the Boyce Pizzey plan with emphasis on the conservation of the historic fabric of the Coal River Precinct.

The Coal River Precinct, (SHR 1674) is listed on the NSW State Heritage Register, however,  as mentioned at our presentation, we believe the precinct has National heritage values. There are many opportunities that can come for acknowledging our cultural heritage at a national level, for example it can contribute to the cultural revitalisation of Newcastle by interpreting and promoting the city’s unique cultural and historic past, with this comes further tourism and economic opportunities.

We would like the City of Newcastle to take a leading role in progressing National Heritage Listing of the Coal River Precinct. As mentioned several National Nominations have already been considered by the Commonwealth, these have been submitted over many years (2007- 2105) by the University of Newcastle’s Coal River Working Party to the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. There is an abundance of historical evidence supporting Newcastle as a significant heritage place, it has a rich Aboriginal and European history, the evidence of these histories is visible in the cultural landscape of the Coal River Precinct- that is in Nobbys (Whibayganba) with the wonderful Dreamtime stories, the convict era structures such as Macquarie Pier, and our military heritage that is represented at Fort Scratchley. National Heritage Listing would be a fantastic opportunity for the people of Newcastle to further acknowledge their cultural heritage, celebrate the city’s past achievements and enjoy and share with others the places and stories. Listing would also enhance and support proper conservation and interpretation of the area.  Further information about the National Heritage List is here

We would also like to see a review of the “Coal River Precinct:Conservation & Cultural Tourism Management Plan” completed by Pizzey in 2008, although the plan offers some exciting strategies there may be other cultural tourism and interpretative strategies available, particularly in regard to new technology, lighting and visual communication devices.  Finally, because of the heritage significance of the Coal River Precinct it is important that there is an up to date Conservation Management Plan that guides professional conservation management of this significant historic precinct.

Therefore we request that the City of Newcastle convene a working party of relevant stakeholders to look at these three areas, summarised as follows:-

National Heritage Listing – begin process to have Coal River Precinct Coal River (Mulubinba) and Newcastle Government Domain considered for the National Heritage List.

Cultural Tourism Strategies – Review the “Coal River Precinct:Conservation & Cultural Tourism Management Plan” (Pizzey plan) and explore further cultural tourism and interpretation strategies and concepts that integrate a number of historic sites within Coal River.

Conservation Management Plan – Review current Conservation Management Plan’s of the precinct to ensure they are current and that they adequately address the cultural heritage within the Coal River precinct.

National heritage Listing by the Commonwealth Government could enhance the cultural heritage of the fort and the Coal River Precinct, as well as improve its tourist status and attract increased funding opportunities and further study by scholars and researchers.

We ended the presentation with the wonderful creative work of final year architecture student Andrew Cavill, who prepared a plan for an Coal River Interpretive Centre (our very own Sydney Opera House style building) and Charles Martin’s beautiful 3D Virtual Newcastle work, which is part of the 3D Virtual Hunter project.

We sincerely thank the councillors for the opportunity to address the committee and share with them our views and suggestions for an exciting future for our history.

Mr Doug Lithgow, Dr Ann Hardy & Mr Gionni Di Gravio
16th September 2015.

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