Important Moments in Newcastle History

1820 Walter Preston (fl.1811-1820) Newcastle, Hunter’s River, New South Wales.

A History Survey (Sept-Oct 2018) co-ordinated by Brendan Josevski for UON Cultural Collections found that the following themes associated with Newcastle were mentioned frequently by participants in the survey.

  • General/Convict History
  • Convict Lumberyard
  • Royal Newcastle Hospital
  • Newcastle Earthquake
  • Newcastle Post Office
  • Star Hotel Riot

This post provides a general historical overview of these themes.

For more information on the survey click here:  Survey Report – Do You Think Newcastle’s History is Significant?.

We would also like to acknowledge Assoc. Prof. Roberts and Professor Erik Eklund for their study Australian Convict Sites and the Heritage of Adaptation: The Case of Newcastle’s Coal River Heritage Precinct, Australian Historical Studies, which this post draws heavily upon.

General/Convict History:

Newcastle was settled by Europeans and was mostly related with an industrial environment and place of exile. Commencing in 1801 the first excavations and extraction of coal took place in the area known as ‘Colliers Point’, at the base of ‘Signal Hill’, which today known as ‘Fort Scratchley’. This event sparked efforts likely to have been the first representation of commercial coal mining in the southern hemisphere, which marked Newcastle as the birthplace of Australia’s coal mining industry. Colonial authorities ordered permanent residency at the Newcastle settlement or ‘Coal river’ in 1804. Newcastle operated as a place of secondary punishment where extreme isolation and hard labour could be orientated around the extraction of precious resources such as coal, salt, cedar and lime (Roberts & Eklund, 2012).

Newcastle Landscape 1828

Newcastle become influential and a well-known example for the relationship between punishment and profit in the early history of NSW. Newcastle become a testing ground and model for a network for secondary settlements which developed and was central in the Colony as a location which instilled fear and terror, over time this left an authoritative and influential image on the most popular recollections of the convict period (Roberts & Eklund, 2012). The location of Newcastle meant that punishment and labour industry functioned as a logistical and administrative platform in the making and expanding of the British power and influence through the Hunter Valley. This process of administration resulted in the decline and diminishment for Newcastle’s usefulness as a location for banishment which resulted in the termination of its penal settlement in 1823 (Roberts & Eklund, 2012).

Over the many decades after Newcastle ceased as a penal settlement, Newcastle transitioned from being a convict settlement to become a free society. Newcastle developed into a more regular settled township of workers and free settlers. During this transition, convicts worked alongside emancipists and emigrants in service for the public, they also worked in agriculture and many smaller marketable and commercial operations and industries. This transformation of a convict settlement to a free and more contemporary society became a significant component in shaping historic and heritage values embodied in the Coal River (Roberts & Eklund, 2012).

Convict Lumberyard:

3D interpretation of Lumberyard 1
3D interpretation of lumberyard by Charles Martin, 2013

Historical archaeology constantly reminds us of where the fledgling settlement of Newcastle began. Early infrastructure had been leveled and overlaid by urban and industrial development, giving way to modern cities, the earliest evidence was not obliterated. In Newcastle, remnants and artefacts of the settlement and convict-era still exist. An example of this is ‘The Commandant’s Baths’ also commonly referred to as the ‘Bogey Hole’, constructed from a sandstone rock platform that had been cut and hacked into by convicts, this location serves and lives on as an iconic cultural landmark and a haunting reminder of the city’s part (Roberts & Eklund, 2012).

Bogey Hole, Newcastle, NSW, Australia, c.1900 this image was scanned from a photograph or slide taken by the late Dr John Turner (1933 – 1998)

In 1989, a noteworthy rediscovery of Newcastle’s convict settlement by University of Newcastle lecture and local historian, Dr John Turner (1933-1998) found a convict-era brick on vacant land located across from the former Newcastle railway station. The site at the time of the discovery was a vacant area of unsealed car park owned by the State Rail Authority and later identified and acknowledged as the former ‘lumberyard’, also known as the ‘coal yard’. The eastern side of the former convict lumberyard was used for storing and dispensing cedar and coal, it was also the site of ‘the common and coarser mechanical operations’, this comprised of the production and forging of tools and materials required for public work programs (Roberts & Eklund 2012).

3D interpretation of Lumberyard 2
3D interpretation of lumberyard by Charles Martin, 2013

Excavations in July 1987 uncovered the remains of a convict-built brick drain and an industrial kiln or forge, a rich result from a ten square-metre sample of the site. Subsequent excavations unearthed abundant artefacts, including evidence of pre-contact Aboriginal occupation, such that the site was deemed to provide ‘substantial evidence of the major themes which generated the development of Newcastle’ (Roberts & Eklund 2012, p. 368).

lumber yard scott street residence
Convict Lumber Yard Excavation – Scott Street – Stationmaster’s residence (Corinne Taylor, 1989) -courtesy to Newcastle Region Library

The location and the land had been unintentionally ‘saved’ from building development and high-rise a decade before the Newcastle City Council and State Government embraced the heritage and historical significance of the area. An interpretive park was opened in September 1999, at the time was acclaimed as ‘Australia’s first industrial site’ and Newcastle’s ‘newest and most unusual tourist attraction’ (Roberts & Eklund, 2012). During this time the symbolic significance of the lumberyard historic site was heightened due to the public anxiety relating to the closure of the BHP steelworks, which was a shocking event for many people. The closure also meant that Newcastle’s Industrial identity was changing, this caused a lot of community angst. The turmoil surrounding the closure of BHP prompted the conservation of the Lumberyard historic site, and preservation of a few structures at the BHP steelwork site, both these locations played an important role in the historical continuity associated with Newcastle as ‘The Birth Place of Australian Industry’. Today the lumberyard site is a local heritage icon, ‘Our Buried Treasure’, although one that is under-utilised as a tourist attraction (Roberts & Eklund, 2012).


Royal Newcastle Hospital:

The Royal Newcastle Hospital (RNH), as it was named up until the 2006, founded in 1817 and was a focal point in Newcastle.  Residents of Newcastle and the Hunter Valley, as well as crew from visiting ships used the hospital overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the Hunter River port. For over 190 years the RNH was the main hospital for the city of Newcastle. During the early penal settlement, the hospital was established by convicts for convicts and mainly used as a gaol for convicts. In a description from 1818 it was said to be ‘built in stone, with a veranda all round it, which was enclosed by a paling fence’. Over the passing decades, the hospital saw several structural changes such as additional buildings to the original building. Some buildings were demolished and the site was eventually transitioned into a health site, however, it wasn’t until 1865 that one of the first new purpose built buildings was erected that it was open for the public (Thorp, 1991).

Royal Newcastle Hospital – North Wing (left) and York Wing (right) [n.d.]
By the mid-20th Century the RNH gained and achieved national as well as international recognition for its innovative and progressive changes and achievements.  This was led by visionary medical superintendent Christian (Chris) McCaffery.  Such innovations like, “overarching emphasis on efficiency, appointment of salaried specialist staff, unit record system for medical records, a domiciliary care service and the emphasis on audit and quality studies” (Duggan & Hendry, 2005), these practices and processes were highly conflicting with the organised medicine and was hardly condoned by the health bureaucracy.

The hospital had a dominant influence on the East End of central Newcastle and port side communities and on the well-being of people throughout the Hunter Valley. Patients and staff at the hospital took advantage of scenic views of the Pacific ocean.  Early medicine thought that the sea breeze boosted an individuals’ mood and spirit, as well as help treat those with skin infections. It was thought that the salt air from the ocean assisted to kill infectious ‘bugs’, it may also have been a psychological effect of the room and the view, or a combination of both (The Lamp, 2006).

In December of 1989, Newcastle experienced an earthquake and many of the buildings were damaged and deemed unsafe. Concerns about public safety were also raised. This was particularly the case for the structures at the RNH, some were earmarked for demolition and were removed in 1990. The only safe and stable accommodation on the site was the Nickson Building. Terry Bellamy, secretary of the Nurses’ Association branch at the hospital stated the following when the building was ready to be demolished:

“It’s a great shame because the craftsmen who built it were master the builders. You can go up to the 7 floor and put a string line down and everything is perfectly straight.” (The Lamp, 2006)

The prospect of demolition raised many heritage concerns. Issues about the heritage significance of the site had come to the attention during the early 1980s, and many took pride in preserving the hospital’s history, various monographs were published (Throp, 1991). In 2007 the RNH finally closed its doors to the public and was demolished. ‘The Royal’ was transferred to the John Hunter Hospital and would be known as Australia’s oldest, largest and best-known hospital.

Earthquake damage to the North and York wings of the old Royal Newcastle Hospital, Australia – c.1990

Terry Bellamy, says “It’s been a great building to work in and we are sorry to be going”, while the site of the original location would be turned into luxury apartments and dining outlets. The RNH was farewelled with the launch of a fellowship, which its patrons hope will serve to keep the spirit and values of the hospital alive (The Lamp, 2006). The impact and long-lasting practice of The Royal’s reputation as a powerhouse of innovation, with outstanding medical teaching, clinical training and patient care was the heart of Newcastle and its history and the heritage that was involved with the beginning stages and second settlement gives an insight into the life and history of the region.

Newcastle Earthquake:

On the day of the 28th December 1989 Newcastle, NSW’s second largest city, experienced an earthquake that measured 5.6 on the Richter scale. This event was recorded as one Australia’s most serious and influential natural disasters. Although Newcastle had previously experienced other earthquakes in similar measurements (5.0 on the Richter scale), such as the earthquakes recorded in 1886 and 1925 these did minimal damage to buildings and the environment because of the low level of development (NBN File 3 Footage, 1989). Beth Chamberlain (?), who was 9 years old at the time remembers the earthquake of 1925,

the walls were moving and heard the rumbling underneath, then my mother and Aunt raced in to see if I was alright, and it was a very scary experience and I think that’s why its stayed in my mind for so long. ‘Cause I’ve mention many a time over the years to different people.” When asked about if that quake made significant damage she replied with “No there wasn’t any damage it would be like a very serve tremor I would say nothing like this one (Referring to 1989 earthquake)” (NBN File 3 Footage, 1989). 

The earthquake that occurred in 1989 had fatalities as well as a lot of structural damage.  At the time of the event a bus strike was happening which resulted in fewer people visiting the city on that particular day and particular time. The quake resulted in the death of 13 individuals and over 160 people were hospitalised, up to 50,000 buildings damaged and estimated about 80% of them were homes and over 300 buildings were also demolished of these 100 were homes. The most notable damage and demolishing was seen to be the Newcastle Workers Club, The Century Theatre, and King’s (City) Hall as well as shop front awning and balconies along Beaumont Street, Hamilton. The result of this natural disaster was estimated to be up to 4 billion dollars and effected up to 300,000 people and over 1000 people left homeless.

Earthquake – Rubble, roofing & helpers – Hamilton, Newcastle, NSW
Earthquake – Rubble & workmen – Hamilton, Newcastle, NSW
Earthquake damage – The Junction Motor Lodge – Newcastle, NSW


The Herald (2017) in recent years covered the event, stating “Incredibly, the earthquake had lasted just six seconds, but will be remembered forever.” It also held a poll on an article asking the public “Was December 28 1989 the most pivotal day in Newcastle’s history?” in which 88.89% stated yes and 11.11% replied no, although we don’t know the exact number of people that took the poll it gives slight indication of the people’s attitudes and thoughts about this historical natural disaster event that will be forever ingrained in the regions history. Now more than a quarter of a century has passed since the event, an entire generation have grown up know of the earthquake but not by the experience or memory of it but by the history (NBN, 2017).

Newcastle Post Office:

One of the first postal services in Australia was established in April 1809 and Isaac Nicolas a Sydney merchant was appointed as the Postmaster in the colony. Prior to his selection for the job, mail was distributed directly by a captain of a ship on which the mail arrived on, this system and process was neither secure nor was it consistently dependable. However, during the coming decades nearly 20 years later, post offices outside of Sydney were established and built for the outer areas of the settlement across New South Wales.  Such areas included Bathurst, Campbelltown, Parramatta, Liverpool, Newcastle, Penrith and Windsor (NSW SHR).

On the 1st March 1828, the first Newcastle post office was one of the seven postal offices located outside of Sydney. The original office was built and located at the ‘Sessions House’ on the corner of George Street (known today as Watt Street) and Church Street, Newcastle.  Mail was sent from Sydney on the 71 ton cutter from England the ‘Lord Liverpool’ and would be delivered once a week by the first postmaster at the time which was Duncan Forbes Mackay who was also the Superintendent of Convicts. In 1832 steam vessels (ships) were used to carry the mail from Sydney, which further extended and delivered to Maitland closer to the growing settlements in the Hunter Region.  The post office in the Maitland soon surpassed the Newcastle office in terms of postal business, and was described as ‘principal office of the area by 1844, making more than twice as much per year as Newcastle’ (NSW SHR).

In July 1851 it was reported that the postal office burnt down, however the building itself was saved. The post office was transferred to a government-owned cottage occupied by Major Russell. The cottage in which the post office was transferred was erected on Watt Street in 1818 as a Commissariat Store and considered an important and prime location in the town at the time. Because of a period of substantial economic and social growth and development, particularly of the coal industry in the later part of the 19th century, Newcastle was again changing. During the 1880’s the colonial government acknowledged the expansion of its second city by improving public buildings (NSW SHR).

Newcastle Post and Telegraph Office, Hunter and Watt Street, Newcastle, NSW, [n.d.]
By 1899 the Government decided to build a new post office building on the site of the former Court House on the corner of Bolton and Hunter Streets. In March 1900 the cost of the office building was estimated to be 19,229 (Pounds) and this included the post and telegraph within the building, which was to be designed by government architect Walter Vernon Over the next few years there were financial issues related to the buildings construction. Two of the contractors withdrew from the project. Progress was delayed due to a change of system for financial approval that had come with the transfer from State to Federal control after Federation. The total cost of the building was 33,500 (Pounds) (NSW SHR).


Newcastle Post Office, Hunter and Bolton Streets, Newcastle, NSW, 7 May 1904

The former Post Office built in 1903 on the corner of Bolton and Hunter Streets still stands to this day, however, in recent decades the building has been unoccupied because of there are many smaller post offices around the suburbs of Newcastle and at shopping centres. Changes in technology have also influenced the space required to house postal services. Post offices have undergone a series of changes to accommodate more retail requirements.  Many purpose built post offices from the late 1800s and first part of the 1900s have  not been maintained and preserved, often left in a bad state of decay. The former Newcastle Post Office was sold by the federal government in 2002 to Sydney developer, Sean Ngu for about $2m. Mr Ngu released plans for an upmarket bar. After this plan was rejected, the state government purchased the building in 2010 for a rumoured $5m.

In 2011, the state government rejected a claim on the site by the Awabakal Land Council, which appealed the ruling in the NSW Land & Environment Court. The Court ruled in the Awabakal Land councils favour in 2014 (NSW SHR). In 2017, the building remained unoccupied and disused, it was reported to have fallen into disrepair and in very poor condition. It was advertised for sale in late 2017, with 11 bidders reportedly vying for the property. One bidder, hotel magnate Jerry Schwartz, went public with a $3.33 million bid to turn it into a conference centre and bar if successful. Schwartz’ plans may begin in the New Year to create a function centre on the building’s first floor. The ground floor will feature wedding retail outlets such as dress shops, florists and photographers. There has also been some mention that the basement may be converted into an Aboriginal cultural area.

Star Hotel Riot:

Star Hotel 1925

On the day of Wednesday, September 19 1979, Newcastle would have its own historical event. It is an episode not forgotten and has been passed on to later generations, it was the night of the infamous ‘Star Hotel Riot’.  At this time news was projected across the world, the riot’s coverage traveled around the world and accounts have been found as far as Paris, France.  The Star Hotel is located on King Street opposite to what was formally known as the Newcastle Workers Club, now referred to Wests City. The Star hotel was built during the 1850’s and was a spot used as a commercial complex with showrooms (shops) located on the ground floor of the 1925 Wing. The 1925 building remains today and has somewhat the same outer structural appearance as it did during the early 1900s.

Star Riot 1979 – photograph courtesy of Ron Bell

The star was closed by the owners, Tooth and Co., and patrons were given one weeks’ notice the final day of operation set for Wednesday, September 19 1979. News of the closure inspired a campaign among the local community and patrons’ alike.  Their protest included printed flyers, petitions and t-shirts with ‘Save Our Star’.  The owners remained adamant that the hotel would close on the proposed date. The Star was an interesting place during its peak in the mid-1970s, it had three bars spread across the building. The first bar was at the Hunter Street side bar, and patrons were mainly the general public and travelling seaman. The second and middle rooms were used by members of the LGBT+ community, and an area where drag queens performed. The last section was the back bar located on the King Street side, it was in this area that bands performed free live music for the mostly younger patrons. Within a societal context these different subcultures would not usually mix in the everyday life or cross connect with each other, however when placed in the hotel and bar context barriers were broken down in both a physical and social sense, they were in a space where they could mingle.  It was a socio-cultural melting pot with each cultural group sharing the same space, respecting each other and existing peacefully.


Local Newcastle Band ‘The Heroes’ in the 1970s courtesy of The Herald

The night of the Star riot is hard to comprehend and fully explain because there is much ambiguity associated with the event. Everyone that attended has their own experience, recollection, opinions and thoughts of the event, as well as the number of attendees is also hard to pinpoint as numbers varied from person to person, numbers can range from “6-7000” (Ian Antonsen 2003, 6:29), “1000 odd people” (Barry Nancarrow 2003, 20:07), police estimate that around 4000 were in attendance. On the last night many patrons visited and attended the pub expecting to have a good time listening to the local band ‘The Heroes’ who played on the final night. It was around closing time at 10pm that authorities came into the pub to tell the band to stop playing, this occurred mid song, asking people to clear the area.

However, an account by Ron Sorensen (2003) a security officer at the hotel stated that: “problems arose earlier that night when the police tried to push them (patrons and members of the public) off the road, well before closing time, probably an hour” (36:10) this was a response to the large number of people who attended the closing night and were spilling onto nearby roads. It was at that point when police intervened to shut down the band that things started to escalate creating an uneasy and unfriendly environment. The crowd turning on authorities and the infamous riot erupted.

 Star riot 1979 footage courtesy of Barry Nancarrow

The attempt to close the hotel early seemed to trigger the patrons who included a younger audience to react in a manner that was unprecedented,  Don Graham the Star licensee stated that “The young people of Newcastle felt they were having something taken from them’’. Accounts from Barry Nancarrow (NBN cameraman), Ron Sorensen (security), Ian Antonsen (A patron), Frank Mackaway (Senior Constable of Police), Peter DeJong (The Heroes band member) all recount that the Star was somewhat like every other pub, in that it would have its occasional and normal bar fights but relatively a fine place where anyone could go to and have a good time. However, alcohol fuelled the hostile environment, creating the riot and numerous stories and images from those there on the night have been documented.  Stories and images recorded include, the venue’s environment and patrons, the violence of people being thrown about into police van, flipping cars, fires, throwing beer cans and glasses is forever immortalised with Newcastle’s local history. In 2019, the historical event will have its 40th anniversary.

Star Riot 1979 – photograph courtesy of Ron Bell


Brendan Josevski, Undergraduate, UON Bachelor of Social Science 


Archival revival: 1989 Newcastle earthquake

Chad Watson 2015, The Heroes of the Star Hotel riot rise again 35 years later

Duggan, J. & Hendry, P. (2005). Royal Newcastle Hospital: the passing of an icon. The Medical Journal of Australia, 183(11), 542-645 doi:

Lamp, The (2006) Royal Newcastle on the Move [online], Vol. 63, No. 4, 30:31. Availability: <;dn=211390466137444;res=IELAPA> ISSN: 0047-3936.

Newcastle Earthquake 1989 – NBN TV News Australia [file 3]

Newcastle earthquake: 28 years after tragedy strikes the city. Newcastle Herald

“Newcastle Post Office, New South Wales State Heritage Register (NSW SHR) Number H01442”. New South Wales State Heritage Register. Office of Environment and Heritage.

Roberts, D. & Eklund, E. (2012) Australian Convict Sites and the Heritage of Adaptation: The Case of Newcastle’s Coal River Heritage Precinct, Australian Historical Studies, 43:3, 363-380.

Star Hotel Riot (1979) – Interviews by Noel Davies – 2003


Images Courtesy UON Cultural Collections  UONCC Flickr site , Hunter Living Histories, Ron Bell and Living Histories @ UON






2 thoughts on “Important Moments in Newcastle History

Leave a Reply