Pages from Hunter Region in the Great War

SteveWilko

Newcastle and the Hunter go to war

The war will become one of the greatest on record, a cataclysm of horrors.

The onlooking world will . . . fail to see in the causes which have led to the

present situation a sufficient reason for plunging the great nations into the

horrors of warfare.

The Newcastle Morning Herald, August 3, 1914

In the years leading up to the outbreak of armed conflict in Europe, Newcastle and the Hunter Region

were undergoing a profound transformation. Since the turn of the century Newcastle had been sliding into

recession and many believed the best years of the city were behind it. The coalmines that had formed the

backbone of its prosperity for many years were being worked out or becoming uneconomic. The massive

reserves of high-quality coal outside the city area, in the Lower Hunter, were drawing huge numbers of

workers from Newcastle to the rising new mines. It wasn’t quite clear what was going to replace the lost

coalmines in Newcastle, with some backing tourism and others staking a claim on manufacturing industries.

In 1910 NSW elected its first Labor government under Premier J.S.T. McGowen, and a huge public

works program was begun. Newcastle, which had given the Government four seats and helped it to a narrow

majority, benefited from investment in such facilities as hospitals, abattoirs, tramways and a state dockyard,

complete with floating dock. Government plans for a remake of the city as an industrial powerhouse were

aided by the decision by BHP to build a steelworks, work on which began in January 1913.

It was clear there would be money to be made from rising domestic demand for steel, and the government

had planned a publicly owned steelworks to take advantage of the city’s port and nearby coal supplies.

But when the Broken Hill Proprietary Company expressed interest in setting up its own steelworks in

Newcastle, the government was happy to avoid the expenditure on its own account and threw its weight

instead behind the private company’s plan.

These local developments were taking place against a much bigger canvas of world events in which the

very young nation of Australia was a minor player.

Easter 1908: Members of Australian citizens’ military contingents gathered at Newcastle’s Fort Scratchley.

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