On Wednesday 4 August, Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir AC CVO Governor of New South Wales attended a commemoration of the laying of a foundation stone naming Macquarie Pier by Lachlan Macquarie Governor of the Colony of New South Wales on 5 August 1818. The Pier is part of the Coal River Precinct and an outstanding convict heritage site having the potential for World Heritage Listing if the right processes are put in place. However, to meet this, the area needs to be firstly recognised on the National Heritage List.
What makes Whibaygamba Nobbys, Tahlbihn Macquarie Pier or even the original convict coal mine workings beneath Fort Scratchley outstanding is that they provide both tangible and intangible cultural context of Newcastle's unique Awabakal and European Heritage. This combination of Indigenous and immigrant settlements reflects the interaction between people, the diverse culture, beliefs and customs that came together to tell a special story that is reflected in the landscape. The foundations of Macquarie Pier have formed the popular surfing beach at Whibaygamba Nobbys, this is ‘living history’; we are witnesses to the everyday use of the convict Breakwater. Though the change to this landscape has been significantly altered it is just as relevant today as it was in the nineteenth century, providing a safe harbour entrance.
This week UNESCO announced 11 Australian convict sites to the World Heritage List including the Great North Road in NSW, Fremantle Prison in Western Australia and the Coal Mines Historic Site in Tasmania. The University Of Newcastle’s Coal River Working Party (CRWP) welcomes these listings but is conscious that Newcastle also has cultural heritage values that relate to Convictism in Australia. The CRWP submitted in 2009 the ‘Coal River (Mulubinba) Cultural Landscape’ National nomination to the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and Arts to have Coal River (currently on the State Heritage Register) considered for the elite National Heritage List. This is still under consideration. Newcastle has not been recognised as a convict place having National heritage values; in fact it has been overlooked for some time. In 1995 the Federal Government commissioned a “Study of World Heritage Values Convict Places”; Newcastle was not thoroughly investigated in this process, it was stated that “No other substantial remains of the convict period are known to survive.” Since this report there has been extensive research of the Coal River Precinct revealing convict coal mines under Fort Scratchley, believed to be the first working coal mines in the southern hemisphere. If these were acknowledged at a National level and with proper conservation strategies in place these mines could possibly be re-opened and interpreted, also offering valuable contribution to cultural tourism and education. Similarly, Macquarie Pier has been overlooked as a convict site; it is highly significant because it was built during the second wave of the penal settlement in Newcastle. Both of these convict works supported the early Colony of New South Wales, particularly the coal mines that provided the state with considerable returns. Newcastle has been the powerhouse of the economy and its cultural achievements should be recognised.
The Coal Mines Historic Site in Tasmania (recently placed on World Heritage List of convict sites) operated from 1833, however the convict coal mines in Newcastle were excavated as early as 1801 and mined extensively during the first decades of the 1800s. There is now an urgent need to review heritage values related to Australian convict sites so that places like the Coal River Precinct in Newcastle can be re-assessed alongside the mounting new evidence and research conducted since 1995. Newcastle’s cultural heritage is distinctly different to other convict sites in Australia, we need to embrace this and bring to life Governor Macquarie’s vision by celebrating all that is contributory to the cultural landscape of Newcastle’s Coal River. Early Colonial artworks are also part of the rich material culture that relates to Newcastle and the Macquarie period; these have been brought to life in an Exhibition Quest for Macquarie Pier examining historic surveyor plans, maps and artworks, on display from tomorrow until Sunday in the Barracks Rooms, Fort Scratchley.
Member University of Newcastle’s Coal River Working Party
Cultural Heritage Researcher