Lieutenant John Shortland RN discovered the river on September 9, 1797. But the first to come were the escaped convicts. They made their way up along the coast after leaving Port Jackson. Governor Hunter had sent Shortland to recapture the convicts, when he sighted the little island described by Captain Cook. Shortland named the island Hacking Island, We call it Nobby's today and it is no longer an island, being connected to the mainland by a man-made seawall.
Shortland's pursuit of the convicts took second place when he found coal not far from where his party made camp. They named the landing site Braithwaites Head; today we call it Fort Scratchley. It is the starting point of the seawall, called Macquarie’s Pier that connects Nobby's to the mainland.
Fort Scratchley is the southern headland at the mouth of the river, the northern side being a sandy peninsula stretching northward for over 40 km to Port Stephens. Shortland surveyed all prominent points in the area and named them. Having found evidence of surface deposits of coal he aptly named the river Coal River. Today this river is called the Hunter River after Governor Hunter. It gives name to the valley that cradles its bed from the sea to the Dividing Range.
Shortland must have had a sixth sense when be named the river Coal River as coal deposits extend all along the river valley from the port to the Liverpool Range and beyond. He also made a prophetic statement, he wrote:
"In a little while this river will be a great acquisition to the settlement"
In 1801 Lt Col. William Paterson led a party to survey of the river and its resources. The first surveyor was ensign Francis Louis Barallier RN. Paterson's party which also comprised Lt. John Grant RN and a miner, John Platt, found coal of such quality that 24 tons of it was loaded on the schooner Francis and hurriedly sent to Sydney, as instructed by Governor King. When Paterson returned to Sydney aboard HM brig LADY NELSON he left behind Platt and other miners to work the coal. The men were furnished with a hut, boat, seine, tools, arms and ammunition.
They were the first miners to work coal in the colony.
Governor King believed that coal could be turned to advantage in financing the cost of running the colony. He sent Corporal Wixtead with five soldiers and some convicts to form a settlement, a new outpost of the empire.
The Hunter's first coal export attempts were directed to markets in other colonies, and the United Kingdom. In the year 1801 the brig ANNA JOSEPHA, 120 tons, the first vessel of any size to enter the Hunter River loaded 150 tons of coal for Sydney. This cargo was sold to a Capt. Tennent of the Earl Cornwallis who was sailing for Bengal.
This was the first coal export.
Commenting on the sale Governor King wrote: "This is the first return ever made from NSW." The sale resulted in the exchange of much-needed goods and produce from India. The sale of coal to India and Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) had "bad success" as Governor King wrote, because of problems between ship’s masters and Corporal Wixtead, who was not conducting an efficient operation. A disgusted Governor King closed the Hunter river settlement in 1802. But Governor King had strong beliefs. Two years elapsed before his theory could be tested again.
In 1804 the convict uprising at Vinegar Hill in the Sydney area caused the British government to advise Governor King that the Coal River settlement was "An eligible place for the most turbulent and refractory characters to be kept at the coal works". Lieutenant Charles Menzies, Royal Marines of HMS Calcutta offered his services. With a sergeant, nine privates of the NSW Corps, a Marine private and a small group of prisoners, Menzies arrived to establish the settlement in the LADY NELSON in 1804. One of the first things he did was to change the name of the settlement to King's Town, after the Governor. Evidently Menzies was unaware of the order issued on 24 March 1804 that "the settlement at Coal Harbour and Hunter River be distinguished by the name of NEWCASTLE".
Whilst the future of Newcastle as a settlement seemed to be assured, the main obstacle to survival as a port was the difficult entrance to the mouth of the river. The entrance to the harbour was very narrow, a reef on the south side, with a breaking surf and waves pounding a long beach on the northern shore, ships were assured of a "turbulent passage" over the bar, unless favourable weather conditions existed. For many years the prospect of a dangerous bar haunted shipmasters, the many shipwrecks at the entrance to the harbour are testimony to this danger.
As demand for coal increased and ships committed to deliver cargo dared the bar, the casualties increased. It was always a matter of concern for the port's reputation. The toll in ships, and lives was too high. In 1818 Governor Macquarie announced construction of a rock wall or pier to connect Nobby’s Island to the South Head. This was not completed until 1846.
Newspaper reports were often critical of Newcastle. In 1839 a correspondent wrote: "The completion of the breakwater and the danger at the harbour entrance will be lessened by cutting down the top of Nobby's". Obviously this is the reason for Nobby's flat top.
In 1831 the Australian Agricultural Company was granted 2000 acres of land, adjacent to the riverside settlement, and a monopoly on all coal mining at Newcastle, using convict labour. Their first mine, the ‘A’ pit was located on the side of ‘the hill’, near the intersection of Brown and Church Streets.
"A neat thriving town" wrote the Hunter River Gazette on December 11, 1841. "The AA Company mines are at considerable elevation, from which a railroad runs to a commodious wharf which greatly facilitates the loading of vessels with this indispensable material".
This railway line is the first in Australia.
To help mine the coal the company was allowed 126 convicts, this number rose to 227 by 1837. In 1838 the company imported 40 Welsh and 100 Irish miners. Three years later when the number of free miners rose to 300, the convicts were withdrawn. Coal production increased from 4000 tons in 1830, to 34,000 tons in 1842.
In the winter of 1841 coal sold in Sydney for 45/- (shillings) a ton when the company received permission to sell coal on its own behalf in Sydney, prices tumbled to 28/- a ton, then fell to 14/- with fire wood scarce there was no alternate fuel for a population that doubled in the four years between 1836 and 1840. By then the stage was set for a rapid growth in coal exports from Newcastle. In 1844 the AA company loaded 300-ton vessels in about three hours. The shortcomings of the port were now beginning to become evident. Some vessels could not take full cargoes because of lack of water at the entrance to the coal channel. The bar of the channel carried only 12ft of water at low tide.
"Had there been no coal found in NSW, almost every source of wealth in Australia could have been stunted", wrote author-traveller Anthony Trollope in 1876.
Newcastle was called upon to supply the new colonies. Although expensive, Newcastle coal was still cheaper than coal in England. In 1855 alone, the Australian Steam Navigation Company and the Hunter River New Steam Navigation Company between them consumed 13,428 tons of coal valued at 8728 pounds. Shipping had become the main link between the colonies, with steamers gradually replacing sailing ships; coal had become the lifeblood of navigation and the future of trade and industry.
Domestic consumption, steam power and gas-making all depended on a steady supply of good quality coal.
Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association