Free Settler or Felon
Convict and Colonial History

Watt Street Newcastle

Historical Associations

The following article Watt-street and Its Historical Associations by Wilfred J. Goold, published in 1932, mentions many of the land marks and old-time residents of Newcastle..............

Copy of a painting by Ferdinand Bauer who visited Newcastle in 1801

Copy of a painting by Ferdinand Bauer. Newcastle as it was in 1804. Historical Records NSW p.368

Watt-street is the historic street of the City of Newcastle. and it teems with memories of bygone days. It has heard the clank of chains as the convict gangs toiled up its steep hill, and the rattle of the drums as the military guard turned out from the barracks. Sailors from all parts of the globe have congregated here. Many an old sea chanty has the old street heard, and many a rough and tumble brawl has it seen. Many notabilities in Australian history, from Governor Lachlan Macquarie down, have climbed the steep rise to old Government House, and enjoyed the wonderful view that presents itself.

But the view, like the old street, has considerably changed with the passing years. When
Lachlan Macquarie stood on top of the hill he saw stretching out across the harbour, Pirate's Point (now Stockton), covered as far as the eye could see with a dense forest, with, perhaps a thin column of smoke arising here and there, denoting a black's camp. At the entrance to the harbour towered Nobbys, like some old feudal castle guarding the passage. It was then some 203 feet high, and separated from the main land by a narrow neck of water, through which some of the more venturesome of the little vessels used to take a short cut into the harbour. Looking down the hill Macquarie could see his little convict settlement , with its white-washed convict huts, a few more substantially built official buildings, and the little stone wharf where the Governor's ship was moored.

But what a different view is presented today. We are overlooking a modern city with its smoke and haze. Nobbys is still there, but greatly diminished in size and altered in appearance. Stockton faces us now with a network of streets and modern residences - the North Shore of Newcastle, and looming in the distance are the great Steel Works, Government Dockyard, &c.

The story of Watt-street is, to a great extent, the history of Newcastle, for it was the principal thoroughfare in the township for many years, and therein were situated the homes of the principal officials. Government offices, and, in later years the leading hotels, theatres, and stores.

Convicts and Coal

Its origin was with the first convict settlement , when Dr. Martin Mason the first Commandant, set his convicts to work securing coal from a small shaft sunk near the site of the bowling club's green "on the hill."

The coal was procured by the primitive methods of a hand windlass, baskets, and barrows, and stacked in heaps prior to being carried down to the coal yards at the foot of the hill, in readiness to be placed aboard the
Francis , and other little vessels that used to make periodical visits to the Coal River. It was the track formed by these weary coal-carriers, conveying their heavy loads by basket, barrow, and convict cart, that eventually became the first street in Kingstown (the original title of our city, bestowed by Lieut. Menzies in honour of Governor King ).

A few years later the Commandant's residence, or Government House, was erected near where the Lower Reserve is to-day. It is depicted as a brick cottage of some four or five rooms, with a large flagstaff nearby, from which the Union Jack is bravely flying. The building was added to in later years, and was the official residence of the Chief Officer until burned down in 1823.

The grounds of the present Mental Hospital in 1804 contained a few small cottages, the residences of the Government officials. This land was originally portion of a grant to the Church of England, and when the old parsonage was erected in 1820 the
Rev. G. A. Middleton (the first chaplain) had some of the land under cultivation for his market garden. In 1840, the Ordinance Department of the Imperial Government came to an arrangement with the Church authorities whereby they secured the land for the purpose of erecting new barracks for the military detachment stationed in Newcastle. These were completed in 1840, and contained some eight rooms, each 30 x 24, and four rooms 18 x 10, besides warehouses, stores.

On October 25, 1849, a small detachment from the
11th Regiment , under the command of Lieut. Parker, marched in and occupied the building for the first time. It is perhaps interesting to note that the present cricket pitch in the hospital grounds was the scene of some of the early cricket matches played in the district. It was then known as the Barrack Square. The expenditure of some £20,000 to erect these buildings seems to have been a colossal waste of money, for a few years after they were completed the military garrison was withdrawn from Newcastle. Tenders were called for the renting of the barracks, but these proving unsatisfactory they were handled over to the New South Wales Government, who utilised portion of them as a barracks for a small number of mounted police.

In 1867, it was decided to establish a female reformatory here and some 86 young women and girls were sent up from Sydney and settled in the barracks under the control of Captain and Mrs. Clarke. The residents nearby were soon petitioning the Government to remove the reformatory for the inmates proved quite uncontrollable, and riots were of frequent occurrence. The barracks were in 1871 converted into a mental hospital, as they are to-day.

First Military Barracks

The first military barracks were situated near the corner of Watt and Church Streets. Portion of the old convict-built barrack wall is still standing. In front of this building in 1821 was erected the first courthouse (or "Sessions House"). It was a large wooden structure, and was used for courthouse, custom-house, and post-office. The first sessions held in the district took place in this old building.

The allotment of land this building occupied was eventually secured by the Presbyterian Church, and on April 21, 1847, tenders were called by
John Howden , blacksmith, of Newcastle, for the erection of a stone kirk. 46ft by 37ft, anti 21ft high. The foundation stone was laid on November 11, 1847, by Captain Ewan McPherson (the last Military Commandant in Newcastle, and who was later killed in the Maori War). The church was opened for public worship in 1850, and on the completion of the courthouse at the corner Hunter and Bolton Streets, the old wooden building known as the Sessions House was handed over to the Presbyterians as a manse for the Rev. James Nimmo .

On the opposite corner of Watt and Church Streets was the residence of Major James Reid (late of the 56th Regiment). It was built in 1824 and is still standing. In the early days it was considered the finest residence in the district. Major Reid (or "Long Reid," as he was called) was a prominent citizen of old Newcastle. where he owned considerable property, and also a large estate at
Rosebrook, near West Maitland .

Just below Reid's home was the Commissariat Depot and residence of
Major William Russell (of the 20th Regiment). This building was erected by Captain Wallis in 1818 , and some 10 years later (March 8, 1828), it was opened as a post-office, with Mr. D. F. Mackay as the postmaster. Later still, the Newcastle City Council held its meetings in this old building while the Council Chambers were being built in front. Portion of the old building is still standing, and it is probably the oldest building in Newcastle. Rumour has it that some of the beams used in its construction previously did duty as a gallows.

Early Schools

Almost adjoining were some of the early schools - the Rev. Robert Welland's Hunter River Academy (which was both a boarding and day school), and Mr. George Darby's Newcastle Academy. Mr. Darby's advertisement stated that he was "a retired officer, and formerly a student at Sandhurst, and capable of training youths for that examination." Mr. Darby had previously been a surveyor for the A.A. Company , and Darby street is named after him.

On the site of Dalgety's, at the corner of King-street, was the first Newcastle Mechanics' Institute. It was founded on June 2, 1835, and at first used a sail loft in King-street for a reading-room. It made such progress that on May 14, 1841, the foundation-stone of the institute was laid by the President,
Rev. C. P. N. Wilton , M.A. (the Chaplain of Christ Church). It was a two-story brick and wood building, the ground floor being utilised for two or three small shops and dwellings. and the institute occupying the whole of the second floor. Dr. George Brooks was the Vice-president, Mr. Alexander Flood Secretary, and Mr. Simon Kemp Treasurer.

Soon after the building was completed, its name was changed to the School of Arts, and it was in existence until the exciting days of the discovery of gold, when most of its members were heading for the Ophir goldfields. It was compelled to close down. The medical profession was always well represented in Watt-street in the early days.
Dr. George Brooks , one of the early medical officers in the convict days, resided here. Another famous medico, Dr. Richard Ryther Bowker , had one of the best houses in the street, and one of his assistants ( Dr. Cosby William Morgan ) a few years later took up his residence at the corner of Watt and King Streets.

From the corner of King-street down to the waterfront, there were several famous old inns -
McGreavy's , the Albion, the Caledonia, the California, the Victoria, the Commercial, the Ship Inn , &c.

McGreavy's Inn was on the site of the late Dr. John Harris' surgery, and was established in the twenties, and kept for many years by James and
Margaret (Peggy) McGreavy . It was a noted sailor's port of call, and many a merry night was held there in the days of the old windjammers.

It was a daughter of the McGreavy's who married
John Nixon Brunker , and went to reside in a little cottage near the present site of Howard Smith's shipping offices. Here on April 27, 1832, a son was born to the young couple. He was destined to become a Minister of the Crown, and one of the leading statesmen of the colony (the Hon. James Brunker ).

On the opposite side of the street to McGreavy's was
Morris Magney's Inn , licensed on March 15, 1851, at a time when the colony had the gold fever, and many of the settlers were leaving Newcastle for San Francisco. Hence the name given to the new house "California." This title a few years later was changed to the Albion, and under this name it was known for many years.

Just below the Albion and on the same side of the street was the Caledonia (now the Orient). This was one of the old inns of Newcastle, having been built by
Major Reid in 1824, and opened by John Huxham . He was followed by Peter Campbell, Alexander Flood, and many other well-known identities of early Newcastle .

Early Coaches

Both the California and the Caledonia were coaching inns in the 'fifties. The mail coaches for Maitland used to leave from them daily. One coach left the California at 7 a.m., arriving at Gorrick's Fitzroy Hotel in Maitland, at 10 a.m., three hours before the departure of the up-country mail. An opposition coach used to leave the Caledonia at 3 p.m. for Yeoman's Northumberland Hotel in West Maitland.

Victoria Inn was kept by James Croft in the early 'forties. It was here that in 1847 a grand ball was given in honour of the visit to Newcastle of the Governor of the Colony (Sir Charles Fitzroy). It was the headquarters of the first Oddfellows' Lodge founded in Newcastle in 1842, the Loyal Union Lodge, No. 3371, I.O.O.F.M.U. James Farquaharson followed Croft as the licensee of this old inn, and during his regime it became well-known as Farquaharson's Inn. In its later days it did duty for some years as a boarding-house.

Commercial Inn was situated on the corner of Watt-street and Maitland road (now Hunter-street). It was taken over in 1851 by Joseph Croft, and three years later he erected the first theatre in Newcastle, adjoining the hotel. It was originally named the Princess Theatre, and was opened in 1851. Prior to that date all entertainments, etc., had been held in the old Courthouse, or in the Stockade. It was constantly in use by visiting theatrical companies until 1859, when it was destroyed by fire. The Theatre Royal was then established on the opposite side of Watt-street, in premises previously occupied by Broughton and Downey as ship chandlers and store keepers. Many of the theatrical stars of bygone days have appeared on the stage of these old theatres - J. L. Hall, J. P. West, W. Andrews, J. L. Byers, Charles Matthews, C. H. Burford, James Carden, Edmund Holloway, W. G. Carey, Julia Merton, Alice Dunning Lingard, Maggie Oliver, Rosa Cooper, Madam Duray, Professor Bushell, Professor Anderson, and many others.

On the opposite corner of Hunter-street stood the old post-office: and on the site of the Bank of New South Wales was the residence of
Captain John Bingle , the father of commerce in Newcastle. It was a cottage standing well back from the road with two large date palms growing in front. Here the captain who was the first President of the Chamber of Commerce died in 1882 at the great age of 86. The original Ship Inn was situated on practically the same site as the present Great Northern Hotel, and was the first hotel opened in Newcastle. This was in 1823, when James McClymont , a young Scotchman, began business here. On his death in 1820, the licence was transferred to James Hillier, who was followed by Tom Pawsey.

At the foot of Watt-street, was "the wharf," where the small vessels plying to Newcastle used to load and discharge their cargoes. At first it was a stone structure erected by
Lieut. Menzies in 1804 , 180 feet long and 13 feet wide. It was superseded in 1828 by a wooden wharf or pier, erected by Alexander Busby. This did duty until the 'fifties, when the land was reclaimed. In the early days of the settlement the old street was named High-street, but more frequently known as Main street. In 1823 it was given the title of Watt-street. This was at a time when the British community were all excited over the wonderful inventions made in the use of steam. Thus we have those pioneer engineers, James Watt, Matthew Boulton, Thomas Newcomen, and Robert Stephenson all honoured by having their names attached to streets, in the little settlement far away in Australia.

Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate 30 Jan 1932, Newcastle of the Past