Owen Ahern was the son of William and Charlotte Ahern, long-time Newcastle residents. William Ahern was a member of the Newcastle Customs and of the Life Boat crew for much of his career. In an article published in the Newcastle Morning Herald, Owen Ahern reminisces about the Newcastle of his boyhood.....
A NATIVE'S IMPRESSIONS
Owen Ahern, after a long and honourable career in the service of the State, is now living in retirement in Hamilton N.S.W. where, with his rich store of reminiscenses of the early Hunter, entertains and instructs those of his fellow citizens who have found the attractions of Newcastle and district sufficient to induce them to make their home here.
Born on July 4 1860, in a cottage that once stood on the site occupied in 1931 by the business premises of Messrs. Lang, Wood and Co., Mr Ahern has lived here ever since.
His father, a native of England, had come out to Australia at the age of 12 years, and eventually joining the Public Service, remained with the customs Department at Newcastle for 40 years.
On the occasion of the memorable wreck of the steamer Cawarra, he (William Ahern) was the coxswain of the lifeboat that made a brave effort to rescue some of the unfortunate people who perished in that disaster at the entrance to Port Hunter on July 12, 1866. The Cawarra, a steamer of about 500 or 600 tons had come to the entrance during the height of the storm that was raging. She was struck by a terrific sea on the port quarter, the effect of which was to slew her head towards Nobbys. As she rose from the trough of the seas, which swept right over her, she was seen to be a doomed ship. First her funnel was swept overboard, and in broad daylight the vessel was sent to her doom, drowning upwards of 60 persons, many of whose bodies were recovered and buried in the cemetery above King Street. Mr. Ahern's father died at the age of 94.
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THE EARLY HOTELS
When I first knew Newcastle, said Owen Ahern, "it was not much of a city to write home about. You could start from Watt-street, the centre of the city proper; and from the Old Naval Brigade Hotel, kept by a Mr. Sills, you could go down 10 yards and come to the Albion Hotel, kept by a man named Scott. Another 100 yards you came to the Caledonian Hotel, kept by Henry Williams. It is now the Orient.
On the opposite side of the street, where the surgery of the late Dr. John Harris used to be, Peggy McGarvey kept a public-house. The buildings of Huddart Parker, Ltd., occupy the site at present; and on the Bank Corner of that period the Watt and Hunter Streets corner - there was an hotel kept by Mr Croft. (The Commercial Inn)
On the eastern side of Watt-street from Hunter street, Mr. W. F. Sparke kept a butcher's shop, and there was a row of small houses, down to the Great Northern, the original hotel having been erected in 1861. Coming down on the opposite side there was a small public house, kept by Mrs. Cloudy. It was called the Metropolitan and is to day the George; further along being Millthorpe's Hotel, now the Terminus.
Moving down Hunter street, there was the Prince of Wales Hotel, kept by Mr. Kirkaldy, at the corner of the main street and Bolton street; and on the oposite side was the Ship Inn, kept by Mr. Matthew Lister; then there was the Steam Packet, and another on the corner of Newcomen-street and Hunter-street, called the Freemason's Hotel.
OLD FIRE STATION
Mr. Ahern described the apearance of the other portion of the town, as it was 70 years ago, showing how many of the landmarks had quite disappeared, to be replaced by large and modern buildings devoted to banking and commerce, and giving Newcastle so fine an appearance along its main highway. He spoke of the first fire station, which was in charge of Mr William Webb, and was located in Newcomen-street. The equipment was a manual pump and engine, whose water supply was drawn from the boat harbour. There was a level crossing to the wharf.
Where Steggas' business premises are, there was a vacant piece of ground, and it was on this that Mr. Ahern, as a boy, used to go to the circus.
There was a pie and coffee shop, kept by a Mrs. Wise, where Lane and Trewartha's shop stands. Where Mac's boot store is, there was a saw mill, the property of Captain Wetherall; and Moyes and Donald had an engineering foundary in Brown Street, where they used to build railway trucks. Mr. David Miller had a shop where the rooms of Blackall and Hunt are, and called it the Clydeside Store.
Where the business premises of Green Bros., stand, William Arnott, the founder of the firm so well known throughout the North, had a bakehouse. There were only a few little low buildings where Scott's and Winns' stand today, the names of others which occurred to memory being those of Jingle, Higginbotham, Peter Fleming, and Cuthbertson.
Hunter-street was in those days made of black, sandy soil; and the chief town water supply was drawn from a well near the Court house. There was another pump in Newcomen street, where the Old Baths used to be.
"Can you picture Hunter Street then?" asked the narrator. "Kerosene lamp here and there along the road, and the small shops and buildlings. Think of the change!. Lighted so well that you can now see a pin on the concrete road; business premises all brightly lighted and packed close together; and the electric trams and motor cars".
FIRST TRAM TERMINUS
Mr. Ahern explained that the first train terminus was at Perkin Street. The Railway Department pulled the line over and filled in the old boat harbour. What is now known as Scott street was not of sufficient width for two persons to walk abreast.
Many of the names of those who carried on businesses of one kind or another in the western area of the city were recalled by Mr. Ahern, among them being mentioned those of Jordan, Kirkaldy, Minchin, Halliday, Brent, and Burke. These were still remembered by the older residents.
BRIDGE ACROSS HUNTER STREET
The first bridge that was built across Hunter street was of wood. This was afterwards replaced by a steel structure by the A.A. Co., the material being brought from England. The bridge was removed 10 yers ago.
The first theatre that Mr. Ahern remembered was the old Victoria, in Market street, where the Shortland Hotel is now. Another was the Theatre Royal in Watt street, near the Albion Hotel, now dismantled. The improvement of the harbour, the erection of the harves and coal loading appliances, and the transfer of the operations to Carrington, the expansion of the district and the growth of many fine suburbs were spoken of by Mr. Ahern who has watched all phases of this transformation.
He joined the railway service in 1880 and was stationed in one signal box (Brown Street) for 25 years. When I first entered the service, he said, we used to take passengers to the races at Wallsend in cattle waggons. Compare that with the splendid accommodation provided today!"
He recalled some of the early Commissioners with evident feelings of esteem, mentioning the names of Mr. Goodeham, Mr. Eddy, Mr. Fehon, Mr. Kirkaldy, Mr. Oliver and Mr. Johnson, all of whom had rendered great service to the community as had the men who, in season and out, sought to make Newcastle's claims to recognition better known and to assist in building up a great city.