By Thomas Sharples.
(Edited by Dr Ann Hardy)
I am currently working on a commissioned project looking at the history of ‘Croudace House’, a building first erected in 1863 to house the Lambton mine manager, Thomas Croudace, and his family.
“The works appear well and effectually managed by Mr. Thomas Croudace, whose house is situated on the top of the hill, from whose summit views of Newcastle, Hexham Swamps, and many other neighbouring places can be obtained.” (From a letter from a visitor to the Lambton mines in 1863)
What I have found so far is varied and fascinating to say the least. Dr Barlow, who currently occupies a section of the building and is a heart surgeon and the patron of the study, has heard stories over the years relating to fascinating events or uses associated with the building. He is interested to have these tales displayed on his surgery walls in the form of exhibition installations, and I am currently researching and compiling a collection of the most interesting ones.
For example, one of Dr Barlow’s patients, originally from Belarus, discovered a news article detailing the 1888 visit of Grand Duke Mikhailovich of Russia to Newcastle. The royal examined the then operational Lambton mine firsthand, employing a pick on one of the seams, while subsequently enjoying champagne with Croudace at his home. This was despite the fact that Fort Scratchley had been recently constructed as a result of the fear of a Russian naval invasion. Making contact with the patient, and doing some independent research, it was discovered that this was indeed true, as the ship the Grand Duke, the ‘Rynda’, was using Lambton coal, and the Russian government was interested in ascertaining its quality and availability.
The house was bought by the Newcastle Royal Hospital in the 1920s, and had various medical uses in the intervening decades. During World War Two, an emergency hospital was erected on the house’s grounds, as the site was calculated to be out of naval shelling range, with this temporary structure made permanent after the war’s conclusion to become what was known as the Rankin Park ‘Chest’ Hospital. Croudace House was used during the war to house the nursing staff, but post-war was turned into a convalescence home for the subsequent tuberculosis patients, with a workshop constructed on the lower floor to keep them busy, healing the mind and body in what was considered a groundbreaking concept during the 1950s.
One story heard repeatedly was that during the 1960s and 1970s, the house had been used to accommodate ‘pregnant single girls’. This had developed due to the decrease in tuberculosis sufferers in the 1960s. Investigating further on the ‘Lost Newcastle’ Facebook page, several posts and threads were discovered relating to to this dark facet to the site’s history. One woman had posted that she had been an occupant in 1971, and after some inquires made by my supervisor Dr Ann Hardy, contact was made for an interview.
Contact was made via telephone, and while initially the interviewee said that she “really couldn’t remember anything”, and that the house was not in her recollection, after 30 minutes of questions about the context of her internment, memories came flooding back. She described how she was told by her parents that if she “didn’t tow the line she would become a ward of the state,” and that as long as she followed the strict rules of conduct, she was given access to the couches on the verandahs and dining hall of a building that matches Croudace House. The very emotional recollections were capped by the revelation that after her daughter was born, she, as with most of the single mothers, was blackmailed into giving up custody of her child. The threat was made that they were to stay a resident until the relevant papers were signed.
While the house was to become dilapidated in the 1980s, it was reborn in the 1990s as part of the private hospital that exists to this day. It was heritage listed in 2003, and its magnificent panoramic view of everything from the Hexham swamps to the sand dunes of Stockton have been maintained, with any further construction prohibited from obstructing this monument to Croudace. In fact, this aspect of the house was very deliberate, as it allowed the megalomaniacal mine manager to watch his workers come and go from the pit, monitoring their movements.
“Mr Croudace, a short, bearded man, sometimes referred to as ‘that little tyrant’, could watch from his vantage point operations at the colliery and railway he had built and managed.” (Royal Newcastle Hospital Bulletin, 1984)
“His [Croudace] reports and advice were not always welcome due to his forthright and forceful nature. Sometimes his outspoken opinions provoked a very vociferous response. The miners were so outraged at his statements.” . . . . “Relationships with other mine managers were not very cordial. There was jealousy and mistrust between them. Croudace considered that the other managers were not very talented men. Like Robert Morehead, Croudace looked on Messrs. J. and A. Brown as his competitors and arch emenies. G.R Hubbuck describes the feelings of some towards Croudace : “He, being confident and of small stature was variously described as that little tyrant and the little fellow over the hill.” . . . Although he tried to be fair to his workers and ensure their working conditions were safe, he would not allow them to dictate terms and conditions of employment to him. This made him unpopular with his employees. G.R. Hubbuck states “Croudace was always ready to punish miners who sent out small or dirty coal . . . ” Story of Lambton: A suburb of Newcastle’ by Myra Keay.
Robin Gollan in The Coalminers of NSW quotes from a letter written by James Winship [Manager A.A. Co. Mine] “in my opinion he is a composition of ignorance and impudence and the most barefaced little puppy I have ever seen on the shape of a colliery viewer”
Thus, what may appear as an unassuming heritage building contains many historical facets that dwell within its walls, like spirits. Before the end of the project, I suspect that many more stories will be discovered.