Free Settler or Felon
Convict and Colonial History

Reminiscences of Benjamin Joseph Oliver

Newcastle 1870's

Benjamin Joseph Oliver, one-time tinsmith, homeopath and bandmaster, of Everton-street, Hamilton was born in February, 1868. He recalled the days of his youth in an interview published in the Newcastle Morning Herald in 1953........

The Breakwater

The breakwater was far from completed and the last of the town's convicts, housed where Watt-street Hospital is to-day, were engaged on its construction. Begun in 1813, the break water and its northern twin took almost a century to build and Mr. Oliver remembers when it was so low that for some of the way it was possible to walk to the island only at low tide, over rocks. At high tide, he said, corner-cutting boats could still sail in and out of the harbour between the island and the mainland. People collected big fat oysters on the rocks the breakwater eventually covered and Mr. Oliver went over the rocks to walk in the two tunnels that were dug through Nobbys in the days when it was intended to blow up the island.

His father, Benjamin Joseph Bell Oliver, who was a shipbuilder, used to take him and his brothers and sisters walking to the break water every week after Sunday School. Father would have two chews of tobacco in his pocket and he'd tip them out when he got where the convicts were, Mr. Oliver said. We'd say, What are you doing, dad? and he'd say, You get away over there. If I get caught doing this, I'll be put in gaol. The convicts knew he'd be coming. They used to watch for him. We used to see them tipping the rocks into place. Most of the stuff they built it with came from a quarry behind Waratah. It was brought in by rail, but they used to have three-wheeled carts taking the smaller rocks out. The carts had two wheels at the back and one in front. A bloke called Perry had one of them. He delivered a lot of the rock. Some of it was so heavy, you'd wonder how they could ever carry it.


Newcastle had been a free settlement since 1823, but the gaol of its penal days had been retained and Mr. Oliver believes that half-way through the 1870's there were still about 140 convicts in the town. Their number dwindled gradually, apparently as their sentences finished or they were moved away. On Sundays, you'd see the soldiers taking them up to Christ Church in groups to say their prayers, he said. The soldiers in their beautiful uniforms - they were Tommies, sent out from England in red coats and white pants - and the convicts in their rough old clothes with the arrows. Christ Church wasn't a cathedral then. It was only a small stone church that held about 50. You could climb down through the graveyard to Hunter-street without any trouble. The soldiers would bring the convicts down from church to get on with the breakwater. They had to work every day. Sometimes we saw one in chains, but they were in chains when they were taken to church or work. They just walked along with the guards beside them.

Mr. Oliver lived in Perkin street and, perhaps because he was young or because the town really ended, in those days, at Watt street, the breakwater seemed to him a long way out of Newcastle. To get there meant crossing the sandhills that covered most of the East End, or walking around the beach front in the shadow of the gaunt old penitentiary on Gaol Hill. It was not entirely a fascinating area.

Zaara Street

In the sandy paddocks stretching from the Pacific Park region to the outskirts of the gaol were the municipal cesspits. Here, on the edge of the beach, before the town was sewered, night carts emptied their pans There was a lagoon where the Zara-street power station stands, Mr. Oliver said. We wagged it from school one day and were running across where the cesspits were to get to it. But we forgot to tell one of the fellers where the open pits were. We told him after he was dug out. Dinkum, he went into one. We had to take him down to the beach and wash him, clothes and all.

The Victoria Theatre

Mr. Oliver was born to a two-story weatherboard house opposite the Victoria Theatre. The Vic. was not there then, and the town's great showplace was a barn-like wooden theatre in Watt-street. Its pubby neighbourhood became so rough and so many larrikins congregated there that the more respectable townsfolk were happy when the time came to transfer their patronage to Perkin street. Not that Perkin-street was much better. Mr. Oliver remembers it as a road of mud and drunken sailors. A creek ran along it to the harbour, passing under a wooden bridge, about 10ft. wide, where Hunter-street went across, and a viaduct for the railway line. Tides swept in as far as the theatre entrance.

The Theatre was a different structure from that of to-day. It was about 30ft. high. Mr. Oliver said. It was pretty place. You had to walk up steps to get into the pit, which then sloped down in tiers. There were lemonade stalls on the sides. Maggie Oliver and all those grand players used to go there. I remember the first play I ever saw there. There was a wharf scene and it was Just like the Newcastle water front. A girl was stabbed and we saw her going up to heaven with the dagger stuck in her back and blood running down.

Hunter Street

Hunter-street was so low in this as in other parts of the town that men could stand in its gutters with their knees at footpath level. The street was later built up with earth removed from the hill, as roads were made there, but when Mr. Oliver was a child, planks served as bridges across the gutters for people to get to its shops. Scott-street did not exist. In its place was a grassy culvert, which fell away steeply behind the Hunter-street shops. John's Silk Store was the site of Cuthbertson's Monumental Works and on the corner known as John's was a pump on a 4ft. stand where men could water their horses and any stock that happened to come to town.

Bullock Teams in Hunter Street

Bullock teams were frequent visitors. Sometimes comprising 32 bullocks, they mooched the full length of the street with their loads of timber. Heading for Breckenridge s timber yards, which were at the foot of the hill near the King and Darby Streets intersection, they had to go right up the street to the start of town to turn around.

Mr. Oliver used to play around the pump-stand, waiting to climb up and operate the handle when anyone said: Here, sonny, I'll give you a brummy if you'll hop up and pump enough water for my horse. With his eyes on the lolly maker's shop, just over the Hunter-street bridge, young Oliver, like other boys who hovered at the pump, would empty the trough as soon as each horse departed, in the hope that the next one along would mean another penny.

This was a prank for Saturdays and holidays, for every school day after he turned five, Mr. Oliver was sent packing up the hill to attend the new Public School in Tyrrell street. The hill was then an untidy brown and green mass. Goat tracks wound around it and its climbing streets were still unformed, rutted and grassy. There were humble, wooden cottages here and there, two or three churches, and a growing number of two and three storey brick, stone and wooden terraces. On the south-eastern corner of King and Perkin Streets there was a flourmill where wheat was ground in stone crushers. When the hill streets were being made, boys used to toboggan on grass from the top of Perkin-street to Church-street, then continue their way via one of the brick and stone culverts that ran down every hillside street from the Obelisk to the harbour.

Hot Coffee

Although Hunter-street, with a pub on every corner and one in the middle, often seemed full of frightening drunken seamen, it offered the lads endless diversion. One of their more popular pastimes was to trail along in the wake of the Town Crier. We called him Hot Coffee, but I don't know how he got the name, Mr. Oliver said. He had a wooden leg. The council paid him to go around reading the news. He used to start at the top of Hunter-street and go down as far as the A. A. Company bridge. He used to ring a bell at each corner and when a crowd gathered, he'd begin: To all those who are interested . . . Then he would read what ever news there was. I don't think he had a set time for going around. That was the idea of the bell; to let you know he was there. He didn't appear every day, because sometimes there was no news to be read. Apart from his job as crier. Hot Coffee acted as caretaker of the yard where the council kept its carts.

Municipal Baths

The yards were in Newcomen-street, on the plot where the municipal baths-cold in summer, hot in winter, were built. The baths later gave way to a billiards saloon and more recently to The Arcade. Hot Coffee had a shanty built up on a stand in the yard. said Mr. Oliver. He had to climb a ladder onto the stand to go to bed. We used to give him a terrible time when we were kids. Some of the kids used to pull the ladder away and he'd be up there yelling his head off till somebody put back the ladder to let him down.


Reminiscences of Albert Hudson and Robert Fleming of Newcastle in 1850s

Reminiscences of Owen Ahern - Newcastle 1860s

Reminiscences of Colin Christie

Reminiscences of Hugh Gilmour - Newcastle 1870s and 1880s