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  • Transport Part 1

    HUNTER TRANSPORT Part 1 - (First 50 years)


    The word transport arrived to NSW in the distant past.

    The fact that it arrived, legally that is, is of minor importance. What is important is why it did.

    It arrived in a most inhuman way. When England decided to rid herself of people it became convenient to banish them to the antipodes.

    The process needed a name. The lawmakers of the time decided on a word that became synonymous with punishment,” transportation”.

    Transportation, constituted a cruel imposition on the unlucky subjects’ physique, as one first had to survive the rigours of the voyage. Those who did were qualified to begin the rest of their sentence as convicts in what was to become a colony of the British Empire. The rest is history.

    First Step

    The vastness of the land must have posed an awesome burden on the new arrivals, both the banished and the enforcers. Apart for shipping the variety of transport modes was limited to animal traction. Not that humans were exempt from this duty.

    For at least the first 50 years the colony relied on the most primitive and arduous forms of transport. That an attempt was made to initiate industry and some form of export apart from subsisting is remarkable. The fact that it succeeded proves that ambition wasn’t the only quality of the colonials.

    The discovery of coal at Hunter River provided the impetus that fuelled the imagination of Governor King. His perseverance resulted in the establishment of an industrial development that transformed the transport system in the Colony. It also created the most consistent wealth-producing region in the country. It confirmed Lieutenant Shortland’s predictions: ” In a little while this river will be a great acquisition to the settlement.”

    The transport revolution was spurred by the need to move goods and people.

    Shipping was adequate for coastal and export trade. But the colonists had their sights on the vast expanses of the inland, the rivers offered limited assistance that sufficed for a brief period.

     “By the mid-century mark the Hunter Region had developed an effective transport system, given the current state of technology. Shipping was by far the most important part of the industry and until about 1830 sailing vessels carried virtually all of the Hunter’s imports and exports as well as the great majority of the people who entered or left the region. Thereafter paddle steamers took over the passenger trade and carried most of the general cargo but sailing vessels continued the transportation of coal, timber wool, grain and the other bulky produce of the area.” (J Turner - Transport in the Hunter)

    The part land transport played during this time was subordinate to coastal and River-trade, but one must give it some credit for making the settlement of the vast interior possible. The role of the draymen and coach operators was vital. They took their trade beyond the boundaries of navigation and eventually west of the Dividing Range.

    Without them development would have been limited to the coast and river valleys. By 1850, however, railways were being contemplated and their introduction heralded a partnership that was to see the integration of land and marine transport systems. A new horizon was opening to the stream of new land settlers.

    The railway first appeared in the Hunter Valley in the humble form of horse draw tramway, but by the mid-1850’s the locomotive had steamed in. Both the AA Company and J Mitchell’s Burwood Estate had railways connecting their mines to the port. Rivalry between the two companies necessitated an act of the NSW Legislative Council that allowed simultaneous operations.

    The Hunter River Railway Company was established on September 30 1853 with the aim of linking Maitland and Newcastle by private railway. By the middle of 1855 the first section was nearly completed, the second contract let to William Wright. But there was ‘a growing awareness that the railways requirements of the rapidly developing Australian colonies could not be left to private enterprise because of the scale of expenditure…” (J Gunn - Along parallel lines)

    On 30 March 1857 Governor Sir William Denison boarded the train at Honeysuckle Point and arrived fifty minutes later at East Maitland after having stopped along the line to inspect the tracks’ engineering features.

    “As R. G. Preston, the Historian of the Great Northern Railway has shown, the statistics for its first year of operation are impressive. There were only four locomotives, twenty-one cars and thirty-six wagons but 29,449 passengers and 1590 tons of goods were carried in 1857. Moreover income exceeded expenditure by 2,976 pounds, the enterprise was off to a good start.” (J Turner - Transport in the Hunter).

    Despite its flying start railways were still many years behind steamships but this was the beginning. 


    A meeting of Newcastle businessmen in June 1875 formed the Newcastle Steamship Company, with the idea of furthering their interests. This move was a reflection of an established dislike for the Maitland – Morpeth commercial group, probably because of their priorities in dredging the river channels rather than the Port of Newcastle.

    The Company’s ship KEMBLA covered the sixty miles between Sydney and Newcastle in four and a half hours on her maiden voyage, a very competitive achievement as documented by Terry Cullen.

    Confronted by such opposition other companies slashed freight and passenger fares, with one company abandoning its route to Morpeth. It seemed bizarre that customers who used the service for four decades should lose it because of the rivalry between shipping companies.

    These tactics did not stop the success of the Newcastle Company and a profit of 30% was announced at its first annual meeting, and in 1879, was able to buy from Australian Steam Navigation Company its Hunter River trade and the entire fleet engaged in it. The Newcastle Directory and Almanac for the year 1880 stated with a proud announcement by Alexander Brown: “ The above Company having purchased the entire fleet of the ASN Coy, in the Hunter River trade, are now in the position to afford the greatest possible facilities to Shippers and Passengers between Morpeth, Newcastle and Sydney.”

    However change was in the air, the days of the paddle steamers were coming to an end with the advent of the propeller driven ships. Technology was advancing on several fronts, with the coastal railway system advancing toward Sydney.

    Push of Progress

    The Great Northern Railway had always been perceived as competition for the shipping trade plying between Morpeth and Newcastle. Trains took about an hour to complete the trip from Newcastle in any weather, compared with about three hours by steamer. As a result shipping lost many of their customers to trains. But trains had to yield back their advantage to ships when passengers or goods were bound for Sydney or other ports.

    During the 1880s, a period of unprecedented prosperity in the Australian colonies, the steamship trade remained in the hands of established companies, but the golden age of steamers was waning fast, the coastal railway system advanced and developed.

    Significant for the Hunter Valley was the Hawkesbury Railway Bridge Project.  “ Commenced in 1883 and complete except for the Hawkesbury Railway Bridge in 1887, this line linked the Great Northern Railway, which had been a separate railway system for thirty years, to Sydney and the rest of NSW. This had significant effects on many aspects of life in the Hunter Valley, especially on its shipping services.” (J Turner - Transport in the Hunter)

    Before completion of the bridge a ferry service connected the two sections of the line to Sydney. The bridge was opened in 1889 and what was the last impediment to cargo travel fell away, and so did shipping trade between the capital of NSW and Newcastle. The railway became a powerful rival of the shipping companies, forcing them to amalgamate. On 1 January 1892 a new company was formed, the Newcastle and Hunter River Steamship Coy, which nominated Newcastle as its terminus. 

    However, the company’s operations continued including the Morpeth service but in 1931, on the eve of the centenary of the first steamship service to the Hunter River port, the company withdrew its operations and its fleet.

    A Binary System

    While the railways were engaged in the struggle of survival with the shipping companies in the Hunter, other developments were taking place. The most significant development in the coal industry included development of colliery railways. A new dimension of shipping transport was emerging on a parallel line, the coastal shipping trade. Both developed as a consequence of and dependent on transport history.

    The Great Northern Railway (GNR) became the bridge from the mines of the Hunter Valley to the port of Newcastle. Shipping lines became the highways connecting Newcastle to the other ports of the Australian mainland and other export destinations. A system that has survived to this day.

    “The late 19th century also witnessed an expansion of colliery rail systems in the Lake Macquarie area. Railway lines served collieries in the western Lake Macquarie areas and to the north in the West Wallsend area. In the east the Redhead Coal Company opened its railway in the early 1890s. This line, later to serve the Belmont area, was destined to be the last 19th century colliery railway linking the last 19th century colliery in the Hunter Valley; its operations spanned a century. Its rich and varied history is traced in detail in two Ed Tonks publications, Adamstown via Fernleigh and Lambton by the Sea(J. Turner - Transport in the Hunter).

    Hunter Transport - Part 2 >>

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