Tribute to Dr John Turner Newcastle Historian (1933-1998)


17/10/1933 – 10/7/1998

(Originally published in Phanfare, Magazine of the Professional Historians Association NSW Inc, August 1998)

John Turner holding a copy of Newcastle Engraving 1874 with Anissa Lockwood of Waratah West Public School, in 1980. [Thanks to Kristen Bobrowski for the extra information relating this UON photograph.

The death of John Turner on 10 July 1998 deprived the Newcastle community of the man who, more than anyone else, raised our awareness of the city’s rich history. Many academics work hard, often unsuccessfully, to bring history out of the ivory tower, but to John it came naturally, earning him the respect and affection of people from all walks of life.

John was born in Hay and trained as a teacher at Sydney University, graduating in 1956. Further study led to an MA from Sydney in 1966, and a PhD from Newcastle in 1978. After teaching at Liverpool, Woy Woy and Gosford, John accepted an offer from Sydney University to become part of its adult education programme. Teachers were needed for BHP’s staff development scheme so John, with his wife, Jacqueline and young family, moved to Newcastle. Lecturing in Newcastle University’s Open Foundation Course followed, then an appointment to the Department of History where he became an Associate Professor.

A naturally generous person, John delighted in sharing his encyclopaedic knowledge, which was always related in his unique fashion – informative, understandable and full of wit and humour. Equally at home with community groups as he was in the academic world, John was something of an institution in Newcastle – the public face of history for over thirty years. The ABC’s John Clarke, who hosted John’s weekly radio programmes, spoke of “a natural broadcaster who made history accessible”. Roma Kane, who co-ordinated many of John’s adult education activities, saw him as a “colleague, mentor, teacher, friend and hero, who shared his sense of humour and his deep love of our city and its history with anyone who cared”.

Radio, television, public speaking, study tours, bus trips, adult education classes and the written word were all part of John’s communication package. However, he drew the line at computers, which he regarded with a strange mix of wonder and contempt. When I struggled with software problems, he would raise his eyebrows, produce a wry grin, and smugly declare, “My pencil would never do that!”.

Next to history, one of John’s greatest loves was for animals. It was fitting, therefore, that he and his dog, a King Charles spaniel named “Muffy”, together discovered the remains of Newcastle’s convict lumberyard – one lifting a leg to draw attention to an exposed brick, the other identifying it as part of the remains of a highly significant archaeological site.

Retirement in 1993 allowed John to expand his developing consultancy, and to add to his already impressive publication list, which amounted to thirty books on the history of Newcastle, with a further four in the pipeline – ironically, for BHP, his first employers in Newcastle. His Pictorial History of Newcastle, which sold 2,000 copies within two weeks of publication in 1996 and is now into its third reprint, is an indication of the high standard and popularity of John’s work. But he was most proud of his 1997 book on the convict artist, Joseph Lycett, a study that involved years of painstaking research in Australia and overseas.

Through his scholarship, professionalism and enthusiasm, John Turner has enriched many lives, and will be an inspiration and guide to future historians. A most remarkable legacy.

Rosemary Melville

Newcastle 200 Years of History A Special Tribute to Dr John Turner. 1997

“Newcastle 200 Years of History A Special Tribute to Dr John Turner” was produced for Prime Television Newcastle in 1997, and broadcasted three weeks after his death on the 10 July 1998 in August 1998.


00:0009:51 Newcastle’s convict past and work of Joseph Lycett.
09:5213:56 Newcastle Morning Herald & Miner’s Advocate founder James Fletcher
13:5718:18 Australian poet Henry Lawson, connections to Newcastle and Wickham School of Arts.
18:1827:39 Newcastle’s rail history and shipping history.
27:3931:51 Newcastle’s coal baron John Brown.
31:5136:24 Architect Frederick Menkens.
36:2444:29 Beginnings of the BHP Steelworks and David Baker.


Presenter: Brett Lavaring
Research: John Turner
Camera: Carey Harris, Ryan Jenkins
Offline Editing: Phil Stroud Watts
Online Editing: Kym Smithies, Nigel Griffiths
Graphics: Leanne Moffitt
Audio Post Production: Joe Palmer
Segment Producers: Greg Boswell, Graham Monnox, Dominic O’Brien
Executive Producer: Brad Jones
Narrator(s) (uncredited): Garth Russell?
Thanks to the Newcastle Herald and Newcastle Regional Public Library.
This has been a presentation of Prime Local News 1997.

Digitised by Gionni Di Gravio 2004, compiled in 2017.

For the Dr John Turner Slide Collection (UONCC Flickr:

Dr John Turner in Living Histories @ UON

Gionni Di Gravio
2 November 2018

3 thoughts on “Tribute to Dr John Turner Newcastle Historian (1933-1998)

  1. Had my Backhoe on the Stock aid site with Uncle John a TRUE Gentleman a Brilliant INSPIRATION and a TRUE NOVOCASTRIAN

  2. Thankyou so much for posting this. I’ve benefited much from reading John Turner’s historical works and it was nice to see and hear him speak in this video. His closing words in this documentary about Newcastle’s capacity for coping with change, especially economic change, is as relevant today as when he spoke them 20 years ago.

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