The Convict Coal Mines of Newcastle (Coast Series 3 Filmshoot Backgrounder)

Arthur Love, with Coast presenter Neil Oliver out the front of the original entrance to the convict coal mines of Newcastle (Fort Drive) [Photo Credit: Russell Rigby]
Arthur Love, with Coast presenter Neil Oliver out the front of the original entrance to the convict coal mines of Newcastle, 14 April 2016 (Fort Drive) [Photo Credit: Russell Rigby]

When was coal first identified here?

And by who?

Australia’s first discoveries of coal were in 1791 (unoffically) and 1796 and 1797 (officially, by unnamed fishermen and Lieutenant John Shortland respectively), leading to the first export (1799) and first profit (1801) of a natural resource in this country.


Coal River (Mulubinba) and Government Domain possess the earliest workable coal mines in Southern Hemisphere and earliest discoveries of Coal in 1791 by escaping convicts. In 1791 a group of nine convicts and two small children escaped from the settlement at Sydney Cove. They successfully managed to avoid capture in a leaky boat before arriving in Timor, where they were arrested and re-imprisoned. Of the three accounts of the voyage known to exist, only one has ever come to light. It was the account attributed to James Martin, entitled ‘Memorandoms’. The writer(s) records the journey of the escapees up the coast to Swansea and later to what is possibly either Newcastle or (more likely) Port Stephens.

“I remained on the Island from January, 1788 unto March 1791. On the 28 day of March made my escape in Compy with 7 men more and me with one woman and two childn – in an open six oar boat having of provision on Bd one hundred wt of flower and one hundd wt of rice 14lb of pork and about eight galons of water – having a Copass Quardrant and Chart. After two days sail reach a little creek about 2 degrees to the northward of Port Jackson there found a quantity of fine burng coal. There remaind nights and one day and found a varse quantty of cabage tree which we cut down and procured the cabage. Then the natives came down to which we gave some cloathes and other articles and they went away very much satisfied. The apperanance of the land appears more better here than at Sidney Cove. Here we got avarse quantity of fish which of a great refreshment to us. After our stay of 2 nights and one day we proceeded our voyage to they northward, after 2 days sail we made a very fine harbour seeming to run up the country for many miles and quite commodious for the anchorage of shipping. Here we found aplenty of fresh water. Hawld our boat ashore to repair her bottom being very leaky the better to pay her bottom with some beeswax and rosin which we had a small quantity thereof – But on they same night was drove of by the natives – which meant to destroy us. We launched our boat and road off in the strame quite out of reach of them – that being Sunday. Monday we were of in ye stream we rowed lower down thinging to land some miles below. On Monday morng we attempted to land when we found a place convenient for to repair our boat we accordg we put some of our things – part being ashore. There came the natives in vase numbers with speers and sheilds etc. We formed in parts, one party of us made towards them the better by signes to posify them but they not taking the least notice. Accordingly we fired a musket thinking to afright them but they took not the least notice thereof. On perceving them rush more foreward we were forsed to take to our boat and to get out of their reach as fast as we could – and what to do we could not tell. But on consulting with wach other it was detirmined for to rowed up the harbour 9 or 10 miles till we made a little white Sandy Isld in the middle of the harbour – which landd upon and hawld up our boat and repair her bottom with what little materials we had. Whilst our stay of 2 days we had no interupon from the natives. Then we rowed of to the main[land] where we took in fresh water and a few cabage trees – and then put out to sea. The atives here is quiet naked of a copper colour-shock hair – have the cannoos made of bark. Then we proceedd the Northard, having a leadg breez from the S:W. But that night the wind changed and drove us quite out of sight of land – which we hawld our wind having a set of sails in the boat.” – Transcribed from pages 2-3 of: James Martin (fl.1786 – 1792) Memorandoms: Escape from Botany Bay, 1791 : being ‘Memorandoms’ / by James Martin ; introduction and notes by Victor Crittenden (Canberra : Mulini Press, c1991 ) Location: AUCH – RB/COLL  994.401092 MART-1 MEMO

According to the 1930 Royal Commission into the Coal Industry (p.50):
“The discovery of good quality coal dates from the earliest period of white settlement in Australia… During early exploration of the coastal belt outcrops of coal were found near Newcastle in 1796 and at Coal Cliff, near Wollongong in the following year. The importance of the discovery was not overlooked at the time, although there was no knowledge then of the immense extent of these coal beds, which have been by far the most productive of all that have been discovered in Australia and have exercised a powerful influence upon the development of New South Wales.”


Note 25, page 33 (Historical Records Australia Series 1 Volume 2 (HRA), Commentary p.708)

“Specimens of coal, however, had been discovered in the neighbourhood of Newcastle and brought to Sydney by some fishermen in June, 1796 (see note 50).

Note 50, page 118. (HRA, Series 1 Volume 2 Commentary p.713)

“A considerable quantity of coal was discovered and specimens were brought hither.
This coal was found by Lieutenant John Shortland , Jr., on the south bank of the Hunter River in September, 1798. The first discovery of coal near the modern city of Newcastle had been made in June, 1796, by some fishermen, who had been forced by bad weather to shelter in the estuary of the then unknown Hunter River.”


J. Shortland, Jun., To J. Shortland, Sen., HMS Reliance, Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, 10th September, 1798.

“My Dear Father, About a twelvemonth since I went on an expedition in the Governor’s whaleboat as far as Port Stephens, which lies 100 miles to the northward of this place. In my passage down I discovered a very fine coal river, which I named after Governor Hunter. The enclosed I send you, being an eye-sketch which I took the little time I was there. Vessels from 60 to 250 tons may load there with great ease, and completely landlocked. I dare say, in a little time, this river will be a great acquisition to this settlement. The short time I remained at this river we had rain, which prevented my doing so much as I otherwise should. J. Shortland”


Note 256, page 614. (HRA, Series 1 Volume 2, Commentary p.750)

The Coal River.
Lieutenant John Shortland, the younger, had discovered this river in September, 1797, and had named it the Hunter, by which name it is now known. The aboriginal name was Coquon. King repeatedly referred to it by the name of Coal River in his despatches, although he called it the Hunter River in his general orders. The name Coal Island was given to Nobby’s Head at Newcastle.

An Eye Sketch of Hunter's River 1797
An Eye Sketch of Hunter’s River 1797 (Click for larger size)

Extract of a Letter from Lieut. John Shortland of H.M.S. Reliance, to his Father…, 10 September 1798 (Series 23.38)

It was the presence of coal which initially attracted Europeans to the area in the early 1800s. The outlet of the Hunter River and the presence of coal were officially noted by Lieutenant John Shortland in 1797. Shortland’s journey north of Sydney in the Governor’s whaleboat in September 1797, his eye-sketch of the river he named after Governor Hunter, his optimistic impression of the area, and his return of coal samples to Sydney were historically important factors in the eventual expansion of the newly-established penal colony out of the Sydney Basin.

Shortland’s visit was not the first landing in the area by Europeans. William and Mary Bryant, along with six other escaped convicts and two children from Sydney, may have landed in the area in March 1791.There is  some debate whether they entered what was later known as the Hunter River, and most likely they landed at Glenrock Lagoon, five kilometres south of the Hunter River. The Bryants are well known to Australian history since they, remarkably, made it all the way to Timor, only to be found out by British officers from the recently – wrecked Pandora.
In Newcastle history, however, their claim to fame rests with their discovery and use of coal at Glenrock Lagoon. Another pre-1797 European contact came in June 1796. David Collins, Judge-Advocate for the fledgling colony, detailed a visit by a party of fisherman ‘from a bay near Port Stephens’. This party brought back samples of coal to Sydney. Unlike Shortland, a navy man with a subsequent heroic career, these unnamed fishermen of lowly status were difficult candidates to eulogize as European explorers, despite the impeccable European credentials of Collins as a source. Moreover, their visit to Coal River had been an occasion for violence between the visiting party and local Aborigines. Collins reported that the party ‘conducted themselves improperly on shore, two of them were severely wounded by the natives…’


GOVERNOR HUNTER TO THE DUKE OF PORTLAND Sydney, New South Wales  10 January 1798 (HRNSW p.347 and HRA, Series 1 Volume 2, p.118)
“A small river has been lately discovered by a boat I had occasion to send northward in pursuit of the deserters ; it is about River. sixty-five miles from this part ; on its south shore and near the water a considerable quantity of coal was discovered, and specimens were brought hither. As soon as the public service will admit of my absence from hence, I propose to go thither in a boat and examine this discovery myself, after which your Grace shall be more particularly informed.”
(HRA, Series 1 Volume 2, p.118) There was a considerable quantity of coal discovered to the southward of this harbour, and I directed it to be examined; specimens were accordingly brought, which I sent to Sir Joseph Banks by the last China ship. This coal is very good, but difficult to attain, being a strata or vein of an immense steep cliff, near the sea, extending eight or nine miles along the coast southward, nor, unless we can find some little harbour near, can we hope to derive any great advantage from it.


[Enclosure] The Duke of Portland to The Right Hon. Henry Dundas. Whitehall, 19th December 1798. (HRA, Series 1 Volume 2, p.242)
“Sir, It appears by the last information received from the Governor of our settlement at New South Wales that strata of coals have been discovered there in several places, and particularly a very fine stratum, eight miles in lenght and siz feet deep, in the neighbourhood of Botany Bay. This circumstance, and the heavy expense which, I understand, is incurred by the public in sending from hence to the Cape of Good Hope, have induced me to give directions to Gov. Hunter to dispatch the Buffalo and Porpoise, storeships, which will carry 600 ton of coal, the value of which at the Cape, if sent from hence, would, I understand, be about five or six thousand pounds, and they may be expected to arrive there with their first cargo about Christmas 1799.”


Governor Hunter to The Duke of Portland (Despatch No. 42, per H.M.S. Buffalo, via the Cape of Good Hope) Sydney, New South Wales, 4th July 1799. (HRA, Series 1 Volume 2,  p.369)
“It will not be possible in this season, my Lord, to attempt carrying into effect your Grace’s desire of sending coal to the Cape Good Hope, the Buffalo being under the necessity of receiving some repairs which, with our few hands, will require more time than cou’d be wish’d for enabling her to go this season to the Cape, and the Porpoise is not yet arriv’d.
I formerly mention’d to your Grace that the coal discover’d to coal at the southward was inaccessable, being upon an abrupt dead coast where there is no inlet to secure a boat in; but that discover’d to the northward may be got at. I have not yet had an opportunity of examining that place myself, therefore cannot say in what quantitys we may be able to procure it, and what may be the most safe and eligible way of providing a cargo for a ship; but the experiment shall be tried, my Lord, and I will endeavour myself to obtain the local knwoledge requisite for ascertaining to what extent your Grace’s desire can be carried into effect.”
‘Note 146, page 369. Also page 609’. (HRA, Series 1 Volume 2, Commentary p.732)
That discover’d to the northward may be got at.
The reference is to the coal discovered on the south bank of the Hunter River at the site of the modern city of Newcastle (see note 50 above).


It was from Coal River (Mulubinba) and Government Domain that there was the first export of Coal in 1799. Coal Cliff proved unworkable, yet Newcastle (Coal River) proved to be the site of the first export.:
“We have also some hopes that coal with which the country abounds will be of much Colonial advantage. A ship lately returned to Bengal loaded with coals, and it gave no small satisfaction to every person interested in the prosperity of the colony to see this first export of it; and I am hopeful from these advantages that New South Wales, however contemptible it may at present appear in the list of our colonies, may yet become an acquisition of value to the mother country. – 1799, September 8. ” ( Mr John Thomson to Captain Schanck, H.R.N.S.W., Vol. III, pp.716–718)
This report was published in ‘Macpherson’s Annals of Commerce‘ 1799 (p.487) [ Full title: Annals of Commerce, Manufactures, Fisheries, and Navigation, with Brief Notices of the Arts and Sciences Connected with Them. Containing the Commercial Transactions of the British Empire and Other Countries … with a Large Appendix … with a General Chronological Index … by David Macpherson. In Four Volumes. Vol. 1.(-4.)]:
The first record of the export of coal from Australia appears in ‘Macpherson’s Annals of Commerce’, under date 1799, in these words :— ‘About the end of this year a cargo of coals, said to be of an excellent quality, was shipped at Coal River, about 100 miles north of Port Jackson, New South Wales, for Bengal.’ – (Ref: Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser 18 September 1897  p.597)



WHEN the last accounts left New South Wales, the Governor Discover, of was going to send Lieut. John Shortland (first lieutenant of his Majesty’s ship Reliance) in the Colonial schooner, to survey the coast. Some months previous Lieutenant Shortland discovered a very fine river, which it is thought will prove of great advantage to the colony, as, from the survey he then had an opportunity of taking, he thinks vessels from 60 to 250 tons may load there, and be completely landlocked. The river lays N.N.E. about 63 or 65 miles from Port Jackson.

* Reprinted from the True Briton of 25th October, 1799. The river was named Hunter River, in honor of Governor Hunter, by Lieutenant Shortland, its discoverer. The native name of the river was “Coquon.” Shortland discovered the river in September, 1797, when in quest of convicts who had seized the Cumberland—the Government boat for trading to the Hawkesbury.—Ante, pp. 347, 481. As early as June, 1796, a party of fishermen reported the discovery of gold in the vicinity of Port Stephens.—Collins, vol. i, p. 484 ; vol. ii, p. 48. HRNSW p.727



Acting Governor King to The Duke of Portland. (HRA, Series 1 Volume 3,  pp. 4-15)
(Despatch No.3 per the brig Trimmer, via India; acknowledged by Lord Hobart, 30th January 1802. )
Sydney New South Wales 10th March 1801.

“I am sorry it is not in my power to speak more satisfactorily at present respecting the coals, of which so sanguine an expectation was formed by different accounts previous to my leaving England. The want of vessels belonging to Government has hitherto prevented my sending to the rivers,where there are great quantities lying on the surface, some of which has been brought round here in boats belonging to individuals; but from their being taken from the surface they have little or no bitumen in them, and are totally unfit for the forge. In my letter, No. 1,* [Marginal note.-28th Sept., 1800. (See note 6.)] by Governor Hunter, I had the honour of informing your Grace that I had employed the only miner there is in the colony, with eleven other convicts, in searching for coal in this neighbourhood, and with some hopes of success. The place he has fixed on is at the head of George’s River, which is navigable to Botany Bay. In that situation he has opened a shaft 24 feet deep, and has bored 50 feet, making in all a depth of 25 yards. In that space he has passed two very thin stratas of a very fine coal, and from the opinion he forms of the other stratas he is very confident of succeeding. If he should in the end fail here, I shall remove him and his men to the northward of the rivers, altho’ this neighbourhood on many accounts would be the most desirable to succeed in, as it is by no means safe to send a vessel without the harbour, so frequently have the convicts found means to take them away. In this place, I am sorry to inform your Grace, that fifteen desperate characters seized a Government vessel of 25 tons,+ laden with 500 bushels of wheat, on its returning from the Hawkesbury. They kept possession of the vessel, with an intention of proceeding to some Dutch settlement among the Molluccas; but from the want of ability to manage her they soon ran her on shore and bilged her, saving their lives with difficulty. They afterwards seized a small vessel, belonging to an individual, lying in the Coal River. On receiving information, I sent a party after them in boats who recaptured the vessel they had seized, and brought nine of the pirates in, two of whom have been executed and the other seven retransported for life. Those examples, and the miserable state of those that I pardoned, I hope will prevent any future attempts of that kind.” (pp.13-14)


1801, June-July 1801.


Francis Barrallier - Coal Harbour and Rivers ..1801 (Courtesy of National Archives of the UK)
Francis Barrallier – Coal Harbour and Rivers ..1801 (Courtesy of National Archives of the UK)

Ensign Francis Louis Barrallier. ‘Coal Harbour and Rivers, On the Coast of New South Wales, surveyed by Ensign Barrallier, In His Majesty’s Armed Surveying Vessel, “Lady Nelson”, Lieut. James Grant, Commander, in June and July, 1801. By Order of Governor King’. CO 700/ New South Wales 16/


Lieutenant Grant’s Journal at Hunter River Remarks, &c., on board His Majesty’s armed surveying vessel, Lady Nelson, in Hunter’s River, 1801.

“Tuesday, 16 June. 1801.-Wind W. to N.W. P.M.-moderate and cloudy weather ; employed occasionally. A.M.-rain with lightning; at daylight fair and cloudy. Colonel Paterson and I went on shore to examine the coals ; took the miner with us. At the place where he had been before at work on, we found a strata of coal 22 inches thick, and of good quality. As this was on an elevated situation, and not very easy of access, we found at the foot of the hill and on the reef at low water, plenty of excellent coals in beds of different thickness. Made the necessary arrangements for setting the people to work.” (HRA, Series 1 Volume 3, p.170)

1801, 3rd July (HRA, Series 1 Volume 3, p.257)

“The Governor judging it necessary for the public interest to declare the coals and timber which are to be procured at Hunter’s River, to be the exclusive property of the Crown, and having thought fit to establish a port at Freshwater Bay, that view, he strictly forbids any boat or vessel going there for coal, timber, or any other purpose, without obtaining a special license from the Governor’s Secretary, stating the purpose of such voyage (that license he is to produce to the person in command there)”

1801 Lieutenant Grant’s Journal at Hunter River Remarks, &c., on board His Majesty’s armed surveying vessel, Lady Nelson, in Hunter’s River, 1801.

“Saturday, July 4th, 1801.-Wind, S.S.W. I this day visited the coal miners, and found them hard at work. They had found a strata of coals nearly four feet in thickness and of excellent kind. It was entirely from side to side through the hill-that is to say, from the harbour side to the sea on the opposite side ; and on the low side which faces the harbour the miner informed me they were not above ten yards down. This consequently will yield a supply of coals for a great length of time. The miner informed me they were equal to any bcd of coals he had ever seen in England. I saw a lump of them. It was clear and transparent, free from earth and smut, and no doubt will answer for any use whatever.” (HRA, Series 1 Volume 3, p.172)

1801 Acting Governor King to The Duke of Portland (Per transprt Anne) Sydney New South Wales, 8th July 1801 (HRA, Series 1 Volume 3, pp.110-117)

(pp 116-117) “The Lady Nelson returned here the 15th May, and sailed from hence with another Colonial vesselt the 9th instant to examine and survey the Coal River, sixty miles to the northward of this place, from whence a prize vessel, purchased by an individual in this colony, has just returned with 150 tons of very fine coals and timber, which be has sold to the master of the Earl Cornwallis, going from hence to India, for £3 per ton. Being very anxious to ascertain how far that place can be depended on for a supply of that necessary article, and to ascertain its situation so far as to determine on the propriety of making a settlement there, I accepted Lieut.-Colonel Patterson’s offer of going in the Lady Nelson to assist Lieut. Grant in making such observations as might guide my conduct in undertaking an establishment at that place, the result of which I shall inform your Grace on the schooner’s return, as she is to be despatched with a load of coals as soon as possible after their arrival. Ever since I took the command, an experienced miner with eleven men have been employed boring in the most likely place to produce coals in this neighbourhood, as stated in my former despatches. He has got down ninety-six feet, but no coals, except very thin veins. As he is confident of coming to a bed of coal, it shall be continued until he gives it up, or until I receive Lieut.-Colonel Patterson and the other officers’ reports, who are gone to examine the Coal River. As the Lady Nelson will return here by the 1st August, I intend to despatch her and another Colonial vessel, in Sep-tember, to survey and examine Bass’s Strait, and the south-west coast, as fine weather may then be expected. I have, &c., Philip Gidley King”

1801 Acting Governor King to The Duke of Portland (Despatch marked “Separate,” per whaler Albion; acknowledged by Lord Hobart, 29th August, 1802.) Sydney, New South Wales, 21st August, 1801. (HRA, Series 1 Volume 3, p.167-169)

“…I have established a small post there,* consisting o a trusty non-commissioned officer and eight privates, with twelve prisoners to collect coals for such Government vessels as can go for them. Since the Lady Nelson went there, two Government vessels have brought 50 tons of coal which has been bartered with the master of the Cornwallis for articles for the public use. This being the first natural produce of the colony that has tended to any advantage, I have enclosed the Commissary’s statement of that exchange, being more a matter of curiosity than of consequence. At present several boats are employed getting coals for the Cornwallis, and a prize brig,t belonging to an individual, is now at the Coal Harbour lading with coals and timber for the Cape of Good Hope. By the inclosure your Grace will observe that I have made the coals and timber an article of revenue. How far it will be productive must depend on events. I have, &c., Philip Gidley King.” (Note: No Commissary’s statement of exchange had been located to date)

1801 Governor King to The Duke of Portland in a letter dated 21st August 1801 in speaking about the first export from Coal River says:
“I have established a small post there, consisting of a trusty non-commissioned officer and eight privates, with twelve prisoners to collect coals for such Government vessells as can go for them. Since the Lady Nelson went there, two Government vessells have brought 45 tons of coals which has been bartered with the master of the Cornwallis for articles for the public use. This being the first natural produce of the colony that has tended to any advantage, I have enclosed the Commissary’s statement of that exchange, being more a matter of curiosity than of consequence. At present several boats are employed getting coals for the Cornwallis, and a prize brig, belonging to an individual, is now at the Coal Harbour lading with coals and timber for the Cape of Good Hope. By the inclosure your Grace will observe that I have made the coals and timber an article of revenue. How far it will be productive must depend on events. – Governor King to The Duke of Portland, H.R.N.S.W., Vol. IV, p. 477.

Coal River was also the site of the first return (or profit) made in the fledgling colony of New South Wales, (2 pounds, 5 shillings) and was recorded by Governor King in a letter to Sir Joseph Banks in August 1801:

“The first cargo of coals brought from the Coal River in a Government vessel I exchanged with the master of the Cornwallis, who goes to Bengal from hence for iron, which he gave at 30 per cent. Profit for our coals at two pounds five shillings per chaldron. I believe this is the first return ever made from New South Wales.” (Governor King to Sir Joseph Banks (Banks Papers.), H.R.N.S.W., Vol.IV, p. 359)
‘Note 145, page 369.’ (HRA, Series 1 Volume 2, p.732)
Sending coal to the Cape of Good Hope.
The Duke of Portland’s instructions with regard to the exportation of coal were contained in his despatch, “dated 21st December, 1798 (see page 241). The first shipment of Newcastle coal exported was carried in the transport Earl Cornwallis, which sailed from Port Jackson on the 4th of October, 1801, bound for Bengal. This coal was valued at two pounds five shillings per chaldron, and at that rate Acting-Governor King exchanged it for iron with James Tennant, the master. The first cargo for the Cape of Good Hope consisted of one hundred tons, shipped on the brig Anna Josepha, which sailed from Port Jackson on the 26th of October, 1801.
Note 246, page 609. (HRA, Series 1 Volume 2, p.748)
A prize ship.
The brig Anna Josepha , of 170 tons , which had arrived in Port Jackson on the 14th of February , 1800, as a prize to the whaler Betsey . She was purchased by Messrs. Simeon Lord and H. Meehan, and sailed for the Cape of Good Hope on the 26th of October , 1801, with a cargo including 100 tons of coal.
An early attempt at settlement occurred around late April 1801 at Fresh Water Bay (present Stockton), by Hugh Meehan, to procure timber and coal.  Hot on the heels of the Survey Mission came Corporal Wixtead with eight privates and twelve prisoners to establish another settlement on 23 July 1801. This was apparently abandoned sometime around April/Early May 1802, however John Platt continued to work there in some capacity as it is reported in 1803 that he had discovered a new mine there.


In the Christian Observer, July, 1802, appeared the following paragraph :—
” Governor King had formed a small settlement at Hunter River for the purpose of working the coal, which is of the same nature with that of Newcastle.” HRNSW p.727


1804, July.

Public Records Office London. CO 201/32: A Plan of His Majesty’s Coal Mine at King’s Town New Castle District County of Northumberland New South Wales in its present Situation of working, July 1804.


Governor King to Lord Hobart (Despatch marked “Separate No 1,” per whaler Albion; acknowledged by Viscount Castlereagh, 13th July 1805.)

(HRA, Series 1 Volume 5, p.111) “Having so frequent a communication with the settlement at Newcastle, I have a pleasure in communicating the great exertions made there by Lieut. Menzies, and have no doubt of that neighbouring settlement continuing to encrease the great advantages this colony at present derives from them. I have the honor to send by the Albion a box containing some blocks of coal that have been got from the lowermost part of the pits they are now working; and to give your Lordship every idea of the works going on there, I enclose some plans received from Lieut. Menzies respecting their progress. A sufficiency of coals and cedar are received from thence to supply the blacksmiths’ and necessary carpenters’ works at these settlements for the use of the Crown as well as that of individuals; and to possess your Lordship of the early public advantages arising from thence, I have the honor to enclose Lieut. Menzies’ last letter to me, with the quarterly returns and statements consequent on my General Order.


And coal had been used by the Aboriginal people?
Aboriginal people in Newcastle did have a name for it, Nikkin, recorded by the Rev Threlkeld (1830s) in the word Nikkinba, as ‘place of coal’. But I am not sure of the source for the dreaming story below. It appears in the 1993 Aboriginal Hunter Supplement.


How Coal Was Made

(Ref: Aboriginal Hunter Supplement to the Newcastle Herald Tuesday, May 11 1993:4 Text by Greg Ray):

The Awabakal are believed to be the only Aboriginal Tribe to discuss coal in their legends. They appear to have been aware of its combustibility and are thought to have used lumps of it in their fires. According to the Rev Threlkeld, the name for the Lake Macquarie district was Nikkin-bah, or place of coal. Their legend describes what sounds like a volcanic eruption, centred on Redhead, where an ancient volcanic plug is known to exist. The name of the volcanic plug is Kintiirabin.

A very long time ago, when the earth and sea were different from today, a great darkness fell on the land. This darkness, which seemed to come from a hole in a mountain and block out the sun, was so deep and sudden that the people were very frightened. Even birds and insects fell silent. Messengers were sent in all directions, bringing all people together to decide how light could be brought back to the world. The wise men of the tribes decided that the only way to bring the world back to normality was to cover up the darkness that was scattered deeply on the ground. Men, women and children dug up rocks and sand and broke down foliage from trees and bushes to cover up the thick darkness. People from miles around came together to stop the darkness breaking through the surface of the earth. The people feared that the ever-burning fires deep in the ground would release the darkness again. After the darkness was covered over, generations passed in which people walked on the ground, pressing the darkness and the flames together under the earth to become nikkin, or coal. Now, whenever coal is burned, the spirit of the ancient earth fire is again released.


How were the Convict Coal Mines rediscovered in 2005?

The following two plans were crucial in the re-discovery in 2005 of the original entrances to the convict coal mines beneath present day Fort Scratchley. There are three ‘drives’ or entrances to mines marked on the Adams 1856 map. Two of these correspond to the transverse section by William Keene in 1854. Together our surveyors Monteath & Powys were able to locate the present locations.

In Search of the Convict Coal Mines (2005) By Dr Erik Eklund [PDF]

1854 William Keene, Examiner of Mines



1856 Adams




Coal River Working Party Poster No. 9 - Milestones - Monteath & Powys OverlayCoal River Working Party Poster No. 10 - Milestones - Historic Drill 26th September 2005

Gionni Di Gravio with Coast presenter Neil Oliver discussing the convict era coal mines of Newcastle 14 April 2016 [Photo Credit: Russell Rigby]
Gionni Di Gravio with Coast presenter Neil Oliver discussing the convict era coal mines of Newcastle 14 April 2016 [Photo Credit: Russell Rigby]

What is the significance of these mines to Newcastle and to Australia?

These mines represent the birthplace of the Australian economy, the the Hunter Region the engine room. The ‘river of black gold’ has enabled Australia to become a prosperous nation. But what of Newcastle?Newcastle is a Cinderella City of Australia, Cinderella to her show off stepsisters Sydney and Melbourne, who always crave the greater attention and the lavish extravagant spends, the fire works displays, the public infrastructure. Cinderella is kept on her hands and knees doing the hard work, with the minimum of resources to do it. What we have tried to do, if pick her up, off her hands and knees, brushed the coal dust from her cheeks and spruced her up, letting her know how appreciative we are, in the hope that one day she will meet her prince, or princess charming.

Gionni Di Gravio
15 April 2016

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