This work is conducted in memory and respectfully honours the First Australian People, the Aboriginal People of this land.
Warning to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People: This post contains images and references to people who are deceased.
The NBN Television News Reel
After sixty years, historic film has emerged of Aboriginal people living in iron shacks and tents on the Shortland site, now occupied by the University of Newcastle.
The minute long silent black and white film was recently digitised by the University’s GLAMx audio visual team, and appears on a reel of stories recorded by a NBN News team between 29 April 1963 and 9 May 1963. Click the above YouTube video to view the footage which begins at approximately 38 minutes and 58 seconds in. (It should begin at that spot)
What Does The Film Appear To Show?
It is understood that the film was possibly reporting on the removal of these people and their dwellings from the Shortland site, to enable the eventual move of the University of Newcastle and Newcastle Teacher’s College to the Shortland site.
Where Was The Film Shot?
Two locations have emerged as possible contenders on the Shortland site, the first is a location about a quarter of a mile from the Shortland Research Labs, the other in the vicinity of Koba Creek at the Waratah West end. Read below the accounts of people who visited the locations of the dwellings, but it appears that the people who appear in the NBN film were probably those at the Waratah West side of the Shortland site.
Scenes from the News Reel
A screenshot of each scene from the digitised 16mm film reel on YouTube is below.
To accompany each screenshot is a 2400dpi scan from the original 16mm film frame by GLAMx AV Volunteer Mark Rigby. We’ve kept both to compare the difference in quality and clarity.
(Ed. – It would be wonderful to be one day able to digitise the entire reel to 2400K resolution, but until that time, it is crucially important to protect and preserve the original media for as long as possible until that day comes.)
Dwelling, Shortland Site circa May 1963 (2400dpi scan of original 16mm NBN Television Film Courtesy Mark Rigby UON GLAMx Lab)
The Move to Shortland
The move of the University of Newcastle (then still a University College) and Newcastle Teacher’s College from Tighes Hill to the Shortland site had been announced, and sparked the curiosity of the Newcastle University College students to visit the site in July 1962.
They published their story in the 29th August 1962 edition of Opus Magazine.
Meeting the “first Inhabitants of the future University site”
According to OPUS writer “Ann”, (i.e., Ann Macrae) the boys deserted them, leaving the girls to fend for themselves with the goannas and snakes. But, their ‘galant action’ led the girls to “obtain the scoop interview with the first inhabitants of the future University site”:
“Constructed” upon a slight rise within a quarter of a mile of the Shortland Research Labs., their settlement arranged in circular formation, consisting of slapped up tin shanties and tents of dubious shape and nature.
A baby cried in an old pram. From somewhere voices were raised, arguing it seemed. From somewhere else came the sound of raucous laughter. We saw no-one.
The rain became more than a slight drizzle and we moved in the direction of the creek.
Then we saw them – a white man and an aboriginal woman, coming toward us with an empty tin. We smiled, they smiled. The man said he was going to collect rain water. We smiled, they smiled, and both parties proceeded on their separate ways. That is all.
The Students Return to Photograph and Authenticate the Story
When the students asked the locals who these people were; Typical responses were:
“I’ve lived in Shortland all my life and I haven’t seen an aborigine yet”….
“People on the Uni site!
“Don’t be stupid, I’ve never seen anyone, and I live next to it.”
So, they returned with cameras to authenticate their story reflecting:
“Pausing in retrospect, I wonder what will happen to the bellbirds, wildflowers, and natural beauty once the piledriver sets to work. Perhaps we should act first, and start a society for the prevention of cruelty to the Shortland Site (SPCSS).”
The OPUS Story: “Mud Mush and Mosquitoes”
The Shortland site visit in July 1962 by the Newcastle University College students adventures traipsing across the muddy mosquito infested bush land was published in the 29th August 1962 edition of Opus Magazine.
Read the full edition of OPUS Magazine here:
Paul Danks’ 2005 Recollections
Mr Paul Danks is the former student who took the photographs. On the 21 September 2005 he recounted the story. See video below (will start at relevant position of film)
The Path Taken by the NUC Students
He said that one of the students’ aunties lived in Vale Street, Birmingham Gardens. They jumped the aunties’ fence, entering the site (probably at where the UON’s Architecture buildings stand today), then came down the hill, came to a stream, which they swung across on a vine, that runs along behind where the Auchmuty Library now stands.
After walking around, they then made their way back up the hill, probably to re-enter Vale street, and then encountered the circular group of dwellings somewhere on the way up there.
According to Ann McCrae’s article, the Newcastle University College girls (she and one unnamed other) were the only witnesses to meeting the people living on the Shortland site on the first visit.
They later returned with a camera to photograph the place to prove and authenticate what they saw.
So, Paul would be relating the events of the second trip to the Shortland campus, as he was the one with the camera.
Steven Ward’s Observations
Steven Ward, whose family lived near the Shortland site, believes the NBN3 footage was filmed near the Koba Creek in the gully on Rankin Drive, (now University Drive) Waratah West.
He says (Emails to GDG, 8 March 2023): People lived in the area bounded by Allowah Street/Landa Place/ Acacia Avenue (formerly Morehead Street) Waratah West which includes:
“the scrub/3 creeks/Thomas Percy Oval, in my youth there we often played in the shacks that were almost adjacent to my parents house in 9 Landa Place and some close to the creek, which has a name Boatman Creek.”
“Further to our last conversation I have taken screenshots of the areas I have identified where I believe the aboriginal camp was on the university side of Rankin drive. Stephen Parr’s property at #42.
“The second screenshot is where I believe the camp known as the ‘Tram Cars” was situated as the Tramline was adjacent to Rankin Drive (now University Drive)
Logic will tell an educated individual that it is important to camp near a fresh water supply which was the case here at the confluence of Boatman Creek and Koba Creek, if you follow these water courses back towards Waratah West (Platts Estate) you will see where and why the Aboriginal camps were there (because of the fresh water) and if you follow these creeks towards Sandgate Road Shortland you are entering the Ironbark Creek salt water tidal area which is brackish.”
“Third photo is where most of the shacks were, remembering the oval was built 1966 using chitter as fill from Gretley Colliery, so you have to imagine the area being Tea Tree scrub with plenty of huge Gum trees, I do not know what the earthworks are at the top of pic, but there was at least six shacks in that area.”
“There is only one location [where] the remains of a dwelling still exists being a sandstone block floor of a shack at the bottom end of Landa Place behind Thomas Percy Oval, there was a man living in this shack when my family moved there 1961.”
“Insanitary Shack At Shortland”
Published: 28th August 1963 page 10
Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners’ Advocate
We thank University’s GLAMx audio visual team for digitising the footage and Steven Ward and Paul Danks for their help in identifying the locations of the Aboriginal camps and dwellings.
The beauty of higher resolution digitisation of the film reel undertaken by Mark Rigby, volunteer with the GLAMx audio visual team, has also enabled us to see details we could not originally see. For example, the mother of the little boy playing with his toy pistol in the doorway is now recognisable. We couldn’t see her before. Also the mystery object in the distance is a wash tub for clothes, with two scooters in the foreground. Facial features can also now be decerned with better clarity. Thanks Mark.
What happened to these people?
We would like to know what happened to these people. The little boys would now be in their 60s, and still be around, we hope.
If anyone has further information relating to them, and what subsequently happened following their removal from the land, we would be very interested in continuing to shed light on the story.
Gionni Di Gravio OAM
University Archivist & Chair, Hunter Living Histories
5 thoughts on “Historic Film Emerges of Aboriginal People and Dwellings on Shortland Site, 1963”
When my daughter was very young, I took her brothers to school across Boatman creek at the end of Landa crescent. The area then was the emptying point for the reservoir above in North lambton and was full of car bodies and rubbish. I asked the local alderman at the time if he could make it safe, as I had fallen with the stroller into the creek area. He had earthworks completed and a small concrete bridge installed. We called it the bridge across the river Qui. I have lived on 33 Rankin drive for 54 years. The camps were mostly gone by the time I moved in and our house would be at least 60 years old. 31 UNI drive was one of the first houses to be built on the then dead end Rankin drive. Opposite our land was beautiful bushland now the college precinct. The area along the creek on the Uni side was used by NCC as a chemical waste dump and all the water holes were filled and any left were filled with gambusi fish to rid the area of Mosquitos by the NCC. The NCC then dug out a channel for the water from the reservoir to get away eventually to the wetland area.
In ‘Bushland Campus’ (1994) there is a reference to “squatters” on the site, but no specific mention of Aboriginal people. The entry states: ” Over the years the site had apparently been exploited for pit props and mine timbers and a significant number of the dominant Spotted Gum still show the effect of early coppicing. During the Depression of the 1930s, subsistence farming was carried out in small clearings in this and adjacent areas where squatters eked out a living. This persisted even after World War 11 and a number of such squatters remained in 1964 when construction on the site commenced. A small army camp occupied part of the site during the war years while a location within the Engineering complex was the venue for a major two-up school which was only moved off the site following representations to the local police” (1994:25). There is a section in Bushland Campus, ‘The Koori Past’, that acknowledges prior occupation of the site by the Pambalong (Bombalong) people and offers the indigenous names of key features of the landscape.
Could you please contact about the above story
Well I enjoyed reading all of this! Great history, though I wasn’t born till Oct 62. I do remember a lady that lived opposite the leagues club. We all called her Aunty, she was a lovely old lady. Not sure if she was one of the elders of the priest family of waratah west.
Email received from Roland Bannister 20/5/2023:
This posting resonates with me, big time.
The 1963 NBN Television News Reel; Mark Rigby’s scans; and the video of Paul Danks’ 2005 talk tell stories of people of people living in iron shacks and tents on the Shortland site of the University of Newcastle in a time and place that were part of my childhood. I was born just a few days before Hitler launched World War II and I grew up in our family home in Vera Street, Waratah – not far from the Uni – with my parents and three of my eventual four siblings.
In those days the University land was beautifully forested, and I regarded it as my sometimes playground. The Uni site was to the west of what is now University Drive. It was owned by Broken Hill Propriety Ltd, and my father – a B.H.P. steelworks labourer – paid agistment fees to the company to run a couple of horses there. Horse riding in Waratah was a part of my childhood. At other times Dad tethered his animals on the then vacant western third of the block bounded by Vera, Queen, and King Streets. And on this site Dad amused us kids by staging foot races against his tin-hare dog – a young greyhound with a crook leg.
Later, as a carpenter’s apprentice (1955-1960) with Lambton builder L. A. Edden, I worked on a group of Housing Commission homes or near Leonora Parade, in a very specific area we knew as Platt’s Estate. I still sometimes relive the sadness I felt as a young person at the knowledge that our building project encroached on the camps nearby, forcing the people out.
Earlier melancholy memories of the austere times of the late 1940s and early 1950s include the plight of a few poverty-stricken kids from the camps who – like me – attended Waratah Boys’ Primary School; the suffering of an Aboriginal girl in the face of merciless tormenting by white kids; a man who hawked animal manure from his horse-drawn cart and whom street level comedians scorned and nicknamed ‘Shit’. Even as a kid I understood that this man was doing his level best to make a living, and I knew that he lived in the Platt’s Estate camp. I knew too that many men in the area worked at very low skilled jobs, only a slight cut above manure selling. I suspect that the tormented Aboriginal girl lived in a makeshift dwelling beside the pipeline near the intersection of Boatman’s Creek (Koba Creek?) and University Drive. Steven’s Ward’s recollection of a tramcar camp rings true. I knew the family names of the Aboriginal girl and the manure hawker but will not list them here out of respect. Like Gionni Di Gravio, I’d love to know what happened to these people when civilisation destroyed their homes.
I have vivid recollections of the illegal ‘major two-up school’ mentioned by Glen Albrecht as on one or two occasions a few friends and I bravely scattered the logs that bordered the carefully tended ring – when nobody else was present, of course – logs on which the punters apparently sat. I dreaded the prospect of being caught.
Like Albrecht I recall no specific identification of the camps as exclusively Aboriginal: some residents were Aboriginal, but others were probably not. All were poor.
The Platt’s Estate camp that I recall was probably on the now Thomas Percy Oval, just as described by Steven Ward. This confirms that its location was east of the old Wallsend rail line, and east of University Drive, while the people in the NBN story had their shacks to the west. I was unaware of these Western settlements.
I stress that these are recollections which I hope will add information and impart a flavour of the times. A research project in need of a researcher, I reckon.
The video of Paul Danks’ 2005 talk makes other connections for me. Like Paul – and Mim Woodland – I revelled in the beauty of the wonderful bushland paradise. As primary school kids we were forbidden to venture south of Boatman’s Creek, in case we got lost in the bush. As a high school boy, we graduated to walking to Shortland and once or twice we followed the pipeline as far as Black Hill. Paul reminds us that the Uni site was famous for mosquitoes in the forties and fifties, a notoriety it retains.
My father used to climb down the Vera Street embankment, traverse the railway lines to fill sugar bags with abattoir manure, and then carry them back up the embankment to our home vegetable garden. On other occasions he collected coal that spilt from passing trains to burn in our sitting room fire. There were occasions when the train staff accidently dropped a few shovelfuls just where Dad could easily collect them.
I eventually morphed from a carpenter into a learned music academic at Charles Sturt Uni from its beginning as Riverina College of Advanced Education in 1972. In my 32 years there I worked occasionally with the redoubtable Colin Anderson whom Paul remembers as a fine actor and producer of drama. Colin left Newcastle in about 1973 as a much-loved local boy, and over 30 years became a much-loved citizen of Wagga Wagga, eventually retiring from CSU with the rank of Associate Professor. For several years in the early 1970s Colin produced reviews at RCAE. I was able to predict the punch lines of his sketches because I’d already seen them at Tighe’s Hill’s TAFE theatre, just as Paul Danks recalls.