Book tells foreshore history

ANOTHER TIME: A scene from the Fort Scratchley site shot by Ralph Snowball, from the University of Newcastle's cultural collection.
ANOTHER TIME: A scene from the Fort Scratchley site shot by Ralph Snowball, from the University of Newcastle's cultural collection.

IMAGINE Newcastle without Nobbys Head. 

This unthinkable scenario might have been if powers in Sydney had got their way in the early 1800s, according to local historian and former librarian Julie Keating. 

Ms Keating has published her fifth Newcastle history book: Newcastle’s Harbour Foreshore … the first hundred years.

The stories surrounding Nobbys are among the author’s favourites.  

In the early 1800s the only access to Newcastle was by sea.

Entry into the shallow harbour was made difficult due to the height and location of Nobbys Island, the book reports.  

The skeletons of shipwrecks washed to the foreshore were testament to the dangers.  

In 1832, a government committee recommended the “cutting down of Nobbys”. It suggested its rocky structure could be used as fill to extend the breakwall.

Colonel George Barney, of the Royal Engineers, was appointed to supervise the work. 

The Sydney-based Barney proposed driving four tunnels into the island. It would then be blown to smithereens using gunpowder. In fact, tunneling work actually commenced. 

At the time, The Newcastle Morning Herald reported, “It was never known how much gunpowder the foolish man intended to use but some two tons came from Sydney.” 

A public meeting was held.

“Novocastrians complained about that decision and in some newspapers that is regarded as being the first environmental protest movement in the country,” Ms Keating said. 

Later a select committee of the Legislative Council considered the matter and proposed a lighthouse be erected at Nobbys instead of blowing it up. 

There is one part of Nobbys’ history that came as quite a surprise to the author when researching the book. 

“I was amazed to find out they actually housed female convicts on Nobbys,” Ms Keating said. 

“They weren’t looked after properly, some of them went mad.” 

Nobbys was used as a factory for women.

One source quoted in the book said the “most brutal and outrageous scenes occurred, and it has been shown that some of the females in their desire to escape had attempted to reach the mainland fettered in irons.”

However, little more than a few scant details are known about these early Novocastrian women. 

Ms Keating said she was driven to produce the books to encourage people to become activists for the city’s history and buildings. 

The book is available through MacLeans, Hamilton, and Marketown Newsagency. The cost is $25.