George Priest was born in Newcastle in 1839, the son of Edward and Elizabeth Priest. Edward Priest was a blacksmith and former felon transported on the convict ship Ocean in 1816. He was sent to Newcastle for a colonial crime in 1817. His wife Elizabeth Flannigan joined him shortly afterwards.
Following are the reminiscences of George Priest published in the Newcastle Morning Herald in 1909 describing Newcastle in the 1840's and 50's when he was just a boy.......
'MR GEORGE PRIEST OF ISLINGTON, who is a native of Newcastle. and who was for many years in the Navigation Department, has a vivid recollection of the city as it was in the forties and fifties.
In the forties, the breakwater between Allan's Hill and Nobbys had not been completed, and the pointed top on the Nob had not been cut off.
When It was removed at a later date, to enable the lighthouse to be erected, a seam of coal about 18 or 20 inches thick, was found at the spot where the cutting was made, and that was left for the use of the lighthouse keeper. Before the top was cut off, Mr. Priest remembers having seen maize growing on the side of Nobbys.
From Allan's Hill towards the foot of Watt-street, there was a sandy beach; but much of that part was then covered with water. Later it was filled up with ballast and sand. Between Allan 's Hill and Watt-street, was a boat harbour and at the foot of the street was a small jetty known as the Queen's Wharf.
From the latter point the harbour swept in over the place where the railway station now stands, and up to the present site of the Castlemaine Brewery and Wood Bros., bonded store. The foreshore was along Scott-street, and down to the A.A. Company's shoots. When the work of filling in the section was commenced, a bank was formed in almost a straight line from the shoots to the Queen's Wharf. One of the chief reasons for undertaking the work was so that the railway might be brought into the City. Ballast was used to fill in the area, and also sand from the sandhills, behind the spot where Earp Bros. and Co's warehouse now stands. A small basin was left for use as a boat harbour, near Market-street wharf.
Out in the harbour, and opposite Market-street wharf, was a cask, painted red, erected on a pole, as a beacon. From that beacon to a point opposite the wharf at Watt-street, was a bar of sand, and the current ebbing on the Stockton side caused it to form into the shape of a rough horse shoe. Hence the name given to that part of the harbour. All that bar has long since been removed.
Mr. Priest can also remember the occasion upon which the first load of stone was tipped along what is now the Dyke. A small ketch, The Brothers belonging to Captain Campbell, was blown ashore there, and the stone on board had to be thrown out before she could be re-floated. The greater part of the present Basin was very shallow, with the sand showing in places at low water, and one had to swim only a short distance from the shore at Merewether street to get on to the sand. Mr. Priest has seen the reclamation of all the land between Allan's Hill and the A. A. Co's bridge, with the exception of the narrow strip at the foot of Watt-street, from which projected the Queen's Wharf, and he has caught fish in the waters of the harbour on the spot where the railway now runs.
The water came in close to the foot of Perkin-street, and Mr. Priest remembers a vessel, built it Stockton by Mr. Winship, a shipwright (not the Mr Winship connected with the A. A. Company) which had been running for some time, being wrecked on Big Ben, a rock outside of Nobbys. The late Mr. T. Adam got the vessel off, and brought her to the foot of Perkin-street, and put in a new keel and bottom.
Buildings at Newcastle in 1850's
About 1850, the pound was situate on a spot just behind where Messrs. Lasker Brothers' establishment is now, and there were not many buildings in Newcastle at that time. There were a few houses, brick structures, between Bolton and Watt streets, in the block now comprised within Hunter, King, Bolton and Watt streets, and some of those structures are still standing. The Courthouse was on the site of the present post-office building. That block then comprised Newcastle proper, and from where the police station now stands down to the corner of Watt and Scott streets was unoccupied.
On the opposite side on the present site of the Great Northern Hotel, were a few dilapidated buildings. A hotel was erected there afterwards, and was called the Steam Packet Hotel. It was conducted by a man named Harry Williams. It caught fire and one of his children was burnt to death.
Later he built a hotel at the corner of Hunter and Newcomen streets, and that was also called the Steam Packet.
There were no other buildings between there and Thorn-street. On the block formed by Hunter, Perkin, King, and Brown streets there was then no building. The place was a mudhole, and as the saying is, no one would own it. The next buildings to the westward were a few brick cottages, comprising a small terrace on the site of Breckenridge's timber yard. They were occupied by miners
Beyond those was Rodgers' foundry, in Church-street West, and from there no building was met with until one reached the tannery on the western side of the Technical College site. It was worked by a man named Perry, on the outskirts of settlement, near where the New South Wales Aerated Water Company's factory is, was a small building known as The Cottage, and it was from this building, that Cottage Bridge received its name. Wickham, Islington, and Tighe's Hill were then wild bush, and at Hamilton only a few bark humpies had been erected.
The blacks roamed unmolested (except by mischievous lads) on the land west of Darby-street, and those same lads dared not go beyond the A.A. Company's shoots after nightfall, fearing retaliation by the aborigines for the pranks played upon them during the day. Mr. Priest has seen as many as 60 or 70 blacks in Bolton and Watt streets at one time.
Hamilton and Islington
Out at Islington, one of the first houses to be built was Myrtle Cottage, facing Maitland-road, and which is still in good order. Mr. Priest recollects well the boring for coal at Hamilton, and the sinking of the first shaft at Cameron's Hill by the A.A. Company. Bark huts were erected by people living on the land at Hamilton, and it was a long time before any permanent structures were built, because the company refused to part with the land.
In 1850 there was no building on the hill at Newcastle, save the Cathedral and the Wesleyan Methodist Church. Even in Hunter-street houses were few and far between. Rouse's Hotel stood on the site of the establishment of Scott's, limited. The roadway was in a deplorable condition and Mr. Priest has seen 20 bullocks hitched to a waggon, and drawing a 40ft log, opposite the Ship Inn, where the Union Bank of Australia is to-day. The road was all sand, and nothing was done to improve it, while footways and water tables were unheard of. However, matters were altered for the better when the place was Incorporated in 1850.
The first Mayor, Mr. James Hannell, was a brother-in-law of Mr. Priest, and Mr. Priest's mother was the first woman to vote at a municipal election, but the latter event took place many years after the city was incorporated.
Mr. Priest's father wielded the first hammer in a blacksmith's shop in Newcastle, and as smiths were scarce in those days, the farmers used to ride down from the Williams River and bring their plough shares to be forged by him.
In the fifties, there were fully 60 small sailing vessels, known as the mosquito fleet, trading to Newcastle: In addition, there were the steamers and Shamrock, owned by the Australian Steam Navigation Company. The first screw-boat to come to the port was a wooden vessel called the City of Melbourne and she was followed by the Iron Prince and the William Miskin. The City of Melbourne went ashore where the northern breakwater now runs, but was got off again, and subsequently she was converted into a sailing vessel. Her steam power was very small.
Several of the sailing vessels then coming to the port were owned by Captain Campbell, but it was the 'Frisco fleet that imparted new life to the colonies. Australia was practically stagnant until then, but the coming of the fleet infused new life into commercial and industrial affairs, and from that date the coal trade of Newcastle began to grow rapidly. Coal was then loaded at the A.A. Company's shoots, and at the Market Wharf by means of a gin worked by a horse. Before that it was wheeled on board in barrows. This coal was brought in from Burwood in two-ton dray's, the railway line not having been constructed at that time.
When the railway to Maitland was built the terminus was in Hunter-street West, opposite the Post-office Hotel. It was not intended at first that it should come any further into the city, but passengers grumbled so much that the Government reclaimed the low ground along Scott-street, and completed the railway as far as Watt-street. Prior to the building of the railway, a coach ran between Newcastle and Maitland, but the Journey was a rough one, and some people preferred to ride on horseback, or, if they had no horse, to walk. Those who did make the Journey by coach were in doubt at the end of it as to whether they had ridden or had been dragged along.
Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW : 1876 - 1954) Mon 7 Jun 1909 Page 11
Notes and Links
1). Lasker Bros. merchants and tailors, were situated at 80 - 82 Hunter Street Newcastle