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Early Convict Coalminers at Newcastle
1801  1802   1803


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"Be for hear is maney one that hav Benn hear for maney year and thay hav thar poor head shaved and sent up to the Coole river and thear Carrey Cooles from Day Light in the morning till Dark at Knight, and half starved, but i hear that is a Going to Be put By, and so it had need, for it is very crouell in ded." (1)


......So writes Margaret Catchpole of the miners of Coal River in January 1802. These were possibly Irish rebel convicts who had caused Governor King so much concern, however the records don't reveal their names.  Margaret Catchpole's information predicting the Coal River camp would be 'put by' was indeed correct for the fledgling settlement was soon to close.......

Just a few months previously after receiving favourable accounts of the Hunter (Coal) River, Governor King determined to establish a settlement at the river mouth with the intention of mining coal to contribute to financing the colony(2) and to separate worrying Irish political leaders from the main colony.(29) The expedition included Lieutenant-Colonel William Paterson, Lieutenant James Grant,  Ensign Barralier (surveyor) and miner John Platt. Paterson was instructed to choose a site for a mine and settlement(23)  In a letter to King in June, Paterson described the area he had named  Select here to read an excerpt from the Memoirs of Joseph Holt

By October 1802 four extra convicts were sent, making a total of sixteen men (4). Three of the men were miners and six were employed carrying the coal. They had no wheelbarrows and the tools were badly constructed, needing repairs already. Vessels loaded straight from the beach. Mason suggested to Governor King that a saving could be made if mining were to continue on an extensive scale, by having a path made with slabs from the pit to a wharf 'run out upon a bank of stones and sand'. Mason had noted that the coals were better in quality the further the men went underground and he had intentions of extending the mines further. He requested small candles of the type commonly used in coal mines, large scales to weigh the baskets and six box barrows that would hold two hundred weights each(5) (this is the equivalent of 100 kilograms each barrow).

In November Mason would report to the Governor that he had 3,820 baskets of coal at hand. He estimated this amounted to 190 tons (if the baskets held one hundred weight each). With three miners and three carriers he was raising about 9 tons a day from four different mines.  One mine was 34 yards under ground; one was 31 yards; one was 27 yards and one was 10 yards. He told Governor King that he could set nine more miners to work immediately and with one man to draw for each miner, could raise 190 tons per week. The strata of coal they were working on was 3 foot high, out of which there was one inch of clay and other rubbish, with 22 inches of neat coal; over this there was a strata of 18 inches of good coal. Mason writes of opening another mine further around in Fresh Water Bay. Hugh Meehan, master of the Anna Josepha had built sawpits in Fresh Water Bay in April(6) and  Mr. Palmer's sloop loaded nearby.  Here at Freshwater Bay, Mason tells King, 'where there was a strata of  three foot neat coal under the above two stratas, the coals were of superior quality'. Mason sent back to headquarters a cask of coal as example and envisioned that he could 'open mines to set twenty men to work in Fresh Water Bay; if there are not minors in the colony then many ruffens may be made good minors'.

Surgeon Mason regarded John Platt as a 'good working miner, but criticized his foresight -  'he cannot see much further into the ground than his pick cuts'. Mason needed a skilled surveyor to explore the hills and ascertain where to 'conduct mines to save labour and carrey of the water' to the best advantage. Despite these enthusiastic plans, Mason's stay at the River was short -  King refers to his 'improper behaviour' and Mason was removed at the end of the year leaving a guard of five privates at the river.(8)

Although official settlement was withdrawn, miners remained at the River. Coals were obtained by private vessels and small quantities for government use. Miner John Platt was employed by John Palmer and in May 1803 the Sydney Gazette reported enthusiastically that

A new mine has been found at Hunter’s River, which is likely to yield an abundance of the finest coal that has ever been witnessed. The discovery was made by J. Platt, a miner in the employ of J. Palmer Esq., and a quantity of coal was brought round by the ‘Edwin’.'(9)

Perhaps John Platt had followed Martin Mason's advice after all and examined more closely the land up from Freshwater Bay.  In 1805 Platt gave an account of mines then in operation -'The coal mines on the sea side Government House, Newcastle are 3 ˝ feet thick, solid coal, and resemble those of Bushy Park between Warrington and Prescot. The same mine is also in Lord Derby’s Park near Prescot called Nozeley Park. The coals are of the best quality and are used for furnaces, malt houses, being free of sulphur. Those (coals) at the harbour by the salt pan called New Discovery from it being like a Delfi in Weston near Prescot in Lancashire are of bad quality having as much dirt as coal and fit for burning bricks and fire engines (19)

By 1804, the possibility of establishing valuable commercial enterprise coupled with a desire to remove the worst of the Irish insurgents from Sydney district in the aftermath of the rebellion at Castle Hill, encouraged Governor King to re-settle Coal River. A young naval Lieutenant, twenty one year old Lieutenant Charles Menzies requested command of the settlement and Governor King thinking him equal to the undertaking eagerly accepted the offer.

Governor King and his family made a special excursion to Sydney harbour to farewell Lieutenant Menzies and his little fleet.(11) Over thirty Irish rebels from the Castle Hill uprising formed the convict work party. Find the names of the convicts here

Under Menzies' directions, the rebel convicts were put to hard labour and at first were kept under tight discipline and control. Security at the settlement was strict in an attempt to prevent desperate convicts absconding and to increase supplies of coal for the government.

Bryan Riley and ....Tierney who had been severely flogged in March took to the bush in a desperate bid for freedom -

(they had little chance of being out long as Menzies had already befriended the natives of the neighbourhood giving them jackets, caps, blankets and 4lbs of Tobacco each in May) (17)

In March 1805, twelve months after second settlement, thirty four year old  Charles Throsby took over command. His instructions from Governor King included the hours of work that were required of convicts - they were to haul coal from daylight (sunrise was approximately 6am)  till 8 a.m, from half-past 8 till noon, and from 2 p.m. to sunset which in March in Newcastle in 1805 was about 5.50p.m.(21) Huts were built or being built by this time as in 1805 Throsby makes mention of them in some of the many orders he issues.

The convicts were almost certainly hungry. Supplies to the settlement continued to be a problem for the remainder of the year; when fly moth destroyed wheat crops in the rest of the colony inhabitants at the River suffered rationed wheat portions too. To make matters worse grain supplied from Sutton, the storekeeper at Newcastle was full of dirt. Throsby permitted convicts to cultivate gardens near their huts,  however many of these may have been destroyed in December in the same 'hurricane' that caused such damage to the mine entrances, filling them with earth and other debris. 

Sufficient clothing was not sent from head quarters in winter and Throsby arranged that those he had personally observed most in need would receive slops first. Oil had also been in short supply for some time obliging Throsby to put everyone, including himself, on short rations.

Little wonder the prisoners tried to escape. Throsby was aware there were plots to abscond and he issued orders for all convicts (fifty five men and six women at the July 1805 muster) to be in their huts by 8pm each evening for muster. The proprietors of the private huts (where many convicts lodged as there were no convicts barracks as yet) were responsible for the conduct of all residing in their hut; They were liable to forfeit their hut to Government if they failed to report absentees(22)  Thomas Brady who was sent to Newcastle in 1804 was one of these hut owners.

These strict conditions did not deter those who were determined to be free. Thomas Desmond an Irish rebel(20)  - an 'inflexible and audacious fugitive' possibly sent with the first group in March '04 was one who continued to attempt escape. With great determination he was to try again and again for the next decade or more.

There were many hundreds of convicts who over the years toiled in exile at Newcastle. They were employed in cedar getting, making salt, burning lime, and general labouring work around the township, wharf and mines. At the coal mines skilled miners were employed underground, however others were required to wheel coal to the wharf or load it onto the ships.

Lieutenant Purcell was appointed Commandant in 1810. Select here to read about the settlement under the command of Lieutenant Purcell. Over the next few years conditions for the convict miners at Coal River, improved little. Illness and disease plagued the convicts. A building was in use as a hospital however it was inadequate and often unable to provide beds or bedding. Convict Surgeon Richard Horner was in charge until 1811 when William Evans was appointed.

Evans reported convict patients to be in great distress. Their rations were inadequate and they suffered dysentery in summer, bitter cold in winter and chest complaints all year round. Monotonous drudgery was broken only occasionally by special events such as Governor Macquarie's visit in 1812 or perhaps one of the many shipwrecks.  (Select Sea Graveyard to find a list of vessels to Newcastle in the early years.) And of course accidents were not uncommon.

In September
1825 it was reported that one of the most useful men in the mines was severely injured with little chance of recovery after a large mass of coals fell on him causing massive head injuries and fractured thigh bone.

Select HERE to read an interesting letter describing convict conditions in 1825

In 1830 the government handed over its Newcastle coal mines to the Australian Agricultural Company and coal mining became the most profitable arm of the company for the rest of the century. The A. A. Co First Mine was located above the Dudley Seam on the corner of the present Brown and Church Streets.(45)  Select here to find John Armstrong's Map of Newcastle showing the location of the mine.

By 1831 they were in full operation.  The mines were being worked by convicts until this time however the company found that convict labour was inefficient and insufficient and began to recruit miners from Britain as well.(40) Although it wasn't for some time that the miners would gather sufficient power to strike for improved conditions, in 1833 there was a glimmer of united hope at least when they jointly applied to Sir Edward Parry for adequate clothing, although his response could not have been what they hoped for.  Select here to find a list of A. Company Coal Miners in Newcastle 1830s - 1840

There was a labour shortage in the Company in the 1830's particularly when assignment was severely limited late in1838. Adequate supply of coal could not be maintained and the company was forced to commence an immigration program because of dislike by colonial labourers of underground work.(45)  The Commercial Journal reported in 1840 -

Great inconvenience and delay has of late been occasioned, by the Australian company not being able to supply coals in sufficient quantities for the numerous vessels now lying at Newcastle. The chief cause appears to arise from the feeble and worn out state of their assigned servants, occasioned by excessive labour and the small allowance of rations awarded them. These miserable creatures have every appearance of "Walking spectres" - such woe begone and wretched objects are scarcely to be met within the colony. An allowance of 3s per ton has been offered these men to perform extra work; but their strength will scarcely carry them through their regular work, setting aside over time labour. They can only be compared with an over worked horse, who, despite all whipping, is unable to job one step farther. We have numerous instances of men belonging to the Company, committing offences for the mere purpose of getting into ironed gangs, in preference to remaining in their service. We consider that if these men were governed by persons disposed to serve the Company instead of themselves, things would go on much better (44) 

Barralier's Map



A.A. Company Miners

Colonial Events 1802

First A.A. Mine

Collier's Point



Newcastle Through the Years
1791   1797   1801   1802   1804   1805   1807   1808   1809   1810   1811   1812   1813  1814   1815   1816   1818   1820   1821   1822   1823   1824   1825   1826   1827   1828   1829   1831   1833   1836   1837   1838   1841   1844   1855   1857

References:

(1) Letter to Mrs Cobbold from Sydney, 21 January 1802. p2. State Library of New South Wales.

(2) Historical Records of New South Wales. vol. IV. Hunter and King. 1800, 1801, 1802. Edited by F. M. Bladen. p. 205 - 206, Governor King to Sir Joseph Banks (Banks Papers)

(3) Rum Rebellion, Memoirs of Joseph Holt

(4) Historical Records of New South Wales. Vol IV. Hunter and King. 1800, 1801, 1802. Edited by F. M. Bladen. p620 - 621, Governor King to the Duke of Portland Sydney, New South Wales, 14th November 1801

(5) Historical Records of New South Wales. Vol. IV. Hunter and King. 1800, 1801, 1802. Edited by F. M. Bladen. p 597 - 598Mr. M. Mason to Governor King (King Papers)

(6) Historical Records of Australia, Series 1 Vol. III p772

(8) Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, vol. III, p.406. Governor King to the Duke of Portland (Despatch No. 6. per American schooner Caroline; acknowledged by Lord Hobart, 24th February 1803)Sydney New South Wales, 1st March 1802

(9) Sydney Gazette 8 May 1803.

(11) Sydney Gazette 25 March 1804

(12) Silver, Lynette Ramsay, The Battle Of Vinegar Hill. Australia's Irish Rebellion, 2002.

(17) Historical Records of Australia Series 1 vol. V, pp. 412 - 414Governor King to Earl Camden. Enclosure 5, Governor King to Lieutenant Menzies, Sydney May 24th 1804

(18) Historical Records of Australia Series 1 vol. V, pp. 416 - 417Governor King to Earl Camden. Enclosure 8, Governor King to Lieutenant Menzies, Sydney July 2nd 1804

(19) Sydney Gazette 5 May 1805 

(20) Irish Convicts to NSW

(21) Historical Records of New South Wales, Vol. V, King 1803, 1804, 1805. Edited by F. M. Bladen, Lansdowne Slattery & Company, Mona Vale, N.S.W.,1979. p. 571.Governor King to Major Johnston (King Papers), 15th March 1805.

(22) Historical Records of New South Wales, Vol. VI, King and Bligh 1806, 1807, 1808. Edited by F. M. Bladen, Lansdowne Slattery & Company, Mona Vale, N.S.W.,1979. pp. 836 - 841 Throsby's General Orders (King Papers) 3rd April, 1805 to 14th February 1806.

(23) Perry, T.M., Australia's First Frontier, Melbourne University Press, Victoria., 1963, p57.

(24) The Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux, Edited by Noel McLachlan, William Heinemann Ltd., London, 1964. pp 214

(25) Reel 6066, 4/1804 pp.66, 68

(26) Reel 6003, 4/3490A pp.173 - 29 March 1811

(27) Historical Records of New South Wales, vol. VII, p. 486

(29) D.F. Branagan, Geology and coal mining in the Hunter Valley 1791 - 1861, Newcastle History Monographs No. 6. Newcastle Public Library, 1972, p19.

(30) Historical Records of New South Wales. Vol IV. Hunter and King. 1800, 1801, 1802. Edited by F. M. Bladen. p. 414 - 415Lieutenant-Colonel Paterson to Governor King (King Papers) 25 June 1801

(31) Historical Records of Australia Series 1 vol. III, p. 172Lieutenant Grant's Journal at Hunter River {Extract} Remarks &c., on board his Majesty's armed surveying vessel, Lady Nelson in Hunter's River 1801(37) Sydney Gazette 31 December 1831

(40) Gollan, Robin, The Coalminers of New South Wales., A History of the Union 1860 - 1960., Melbourne University Press, 1963

(42) Dungog Chronicle, Early Days of Port Stephens - Extracts from Sir Edward Parry's Diary, Cambridge Press Pty. Limited,

(43) Bench of Magistrates, Newcastle & Hunter Region, 6th February 1838. Archives Office of New South Wales Reel 2722.

(44) Commercial Journal and Advertiser 22 August 1840

(45) Turner, J.W. Coal Mining in Newcastle 1801 - 1900, Newcastle Region Public Library, 1982.

(50) Uebel, Lesley, Port Jackson Convicts Anthology







 

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