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The Way We Worked
in Newcastle and the Hunter
©2016 Greg and Sylvia Ray
No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic
or mechanical, and including photocopying, recording or by information storage and retrieval systems,
without the written permission of the copyright owner.
Printed by NCP Printing, Steel River, Newcastle
Published by Greg and Sylvia Ray
Concept and design by Greg and Sylvia Ray
Front cover photo: A construction worker at Kurri Kurri’s Alcan aluminium smelter in 1968.
Title page vignette: A young worker at BHP’s Newcastle steelworks in 1962.
The Way We Worked
in Newcastle and the Hunter
By Greg and Sylvia Ray
The ever-changing face of work
For the first tens of thousands of years of human habitation in the valley of the river we now call the
Hunter, work meant the direct day-to-day business of extracting food, shelter and other requirements from
the natural environment.
But when the British Empire claimed the continent of Australia and put it to use for the exiling of
unwanted prisoners and political malcontents, convicts were soon put to work at the Coal River extracting
the fossil fuel that powered the industrial revolution, as well as cedar and lime to help build Sydney. A new
world of work, in which labour was a commodity to be traded or coerced, had arrived on Australian soil.
Newcastle began as a secondary prison-within-a-prison for the colony’s most troublesome convicts. When
the Hunter district’s isolation was broken by the discovery of overland routes from Sydney, farming moved
in and turned the region into Sydney’s food-bowl, with Maitland as its prosperous centre.
Next, large-scale private exploitation of the vast coal reserves beneath Newcastle created what many called
a “Coalopolis” and, over the decades to come, industries of many kinds were drawn to the mouth of the
Hunter River by the lure of cheap energy and abundant willing workers.
World wars came and went. Industries sprouted, blossomed and died.
In the 21st century Newcastle is a post-industrial city, and the Hunter might be described as a postagricultural
valley, with massive-scale open-cut coalmining – mostly for the export market – one of the most
visible players in the regional economy. But mining isn’t labour-intensive anymore, and the transnational
corporations that dominate the sector are constantly seeking ways to make it even more capital-intensive.
The really big employers, these days, are in the service sectors.
Manufacturing, a dominant sector in the Hunter in the second half of the 20th century, has suffered a
spectacular decline as “globalisation” – the movement of capital investment in industrial production to
countries with lower wages and environmental standards – has become the dominant force in economic and
political life. Anybody observing Newcastle in the years from 1980 to 2000 would have seen industry after
industry and factory after factory shutting down, displacing thousands of workers and rendering hard-won
skills obsolete or unmarketable.
This trend in the private sphere was accompanied in the public sector by increasing centralisation, typified
by the withdrawal of local jobs, services and decision-making autonomy back to the state capital. Trade
union power declined massively. The once influential Newcastle Trades Hall Council has declined in power
and the mining union that could once stop the valley wields far less clout than in past years.
From a personal perspective my experience may be typical. My paternal grandfather worked in various
jobs around Newcastle, including as a coalminer and as a foreman with the Hunter District Water Board.
My grandfather on my mother’s side worked at the BHP steelworks until he was injured at work and “let
go” to find alternative employment outside the city as a railway ganger. Both my grandmothers were fully
employed on “home duties” for most of their adult lives, though my maternal grandmother did some paid
cleaning work to supplement the family income.
My mother had some clerical jobs but marriage and childbirth intervened and, during much of her time as
a potential member of the labour force married mothers were not encouraged to seek paid work.
My father trained as a fitter and turner in the years when the metal trades were ubiquitous in Newcastle,
seizing the opportunity to switch to the drawing office and moving from Stewarts and Lloyds to the
Sulphide Corporation, which offered generous inducements for skilled employees and opportunities for his
advancement into senior plant engineering roles.
I recall being told while still at high school that I should prepare myself for a career in one of the big
secondary industries – the BHP steelworks was highly recommended – and although I didn’t follow that
advice I never suspected that the great steel plant’s days were so nearly numbered as time proved them to be.
But few jobs are safe from change. My 30-year career in journalism was notable for the knowledge I had
from my first day that newspaper circulation was declining. As time passed, massive changes were adopted
by media companies seeking to cut costs and maintain profits. Printers were laid off wholesale and computer
technology was embraced. Offshoring came. Formats changed. Content was trimmed. The onslaught of
competing technologies – culminating in the internet – was an irresistible tide.
What jobs or careers my three children may choose is unclear to me. Work is still changing.
This book, our seventh, is a celebration of work in the Hunter and its ever-evolving nature.
We hope it will prove entertaining and informative to some readers, and that it will be a source of pleasant
memories for those who spent some of their own working days in the industries and with the companies
illustrated and described.
As usual we have many people to thank for their help and kindness in assembling this collection of images
and anecdotes. Jorg Griep, whose father Horst took many photographs that appear in the book, was kind
enough to make available a substantial collection of prints and negatives.
Ron and Liz Morrison – our mentors in some ways – have also been exceptionally generous in permitting
us to use some of their marvellous images. Norman and Betty Mead also shared information and photos.
Ron Bell, a former colleague at The Newcastle Herald, provided still more negatives.
We must acknowledge the enduring legacy of the late Ken Magor, whose collections started us on our
publishing path in 2010, and of the families of the late Milton Merrilees and Arch Miller – both Herald
photographers – who have helped us repeatedly. The same is true of Daphne Barney, wife of my late former
Herald colleague Norm, whose unfailing support has been of immense value. Yvonne Austin, niece of the
late Douglass Baglin, has been very kind in letting us use some of her uncle’s wonderful work.
Thanks too, to Brian Andrews, for helping me with details of coal industry history.
Many other contributors deserve thanks, and some of their names will be found in the acknowledgement
column at the end of the book. To my regret I have mislaid the details of some helpers, and can only say that
I am sincerely sorry and will try to make up for my carelessness in any way I can.
As always I thank my wife Sylvia for her skill and patience in making these images as fit for printing and
publication as can be, and for helping me make the transition in this past year from paid employment to selfemployment.
Again, the changing nature of work . . .
We intend this book to be the first in a series following the same theme, and encourage people with
interesting pictures and stories about jobs and work in the Hunter to contact us at the email address in the
back of the volume.
BHP steelworks was the definitive face of work in Newcastle for many decades.
The way we worked, for thousands of years
The Hunter Region has been inhabited by human beings for tens of thousands of years, in which the most
recent two centuries is a mere blink of an eye. For residents of the Hunter, the lifestyles of our Aboriginal
forebears is of the greatest interest. These ancient people had a highly organised society based on a close
relationship with the land and sea that provided all their needs for generations beyond telling.
In such a society the concept of work could not help but differ greatly from the model imported by white
convicts and settlers. European colonists brought the seeds of industrial economics and the principles of
individual ownership of land and livestock – ideas that seemed alien and absurd to indigenous people whose
lives were organised around extended family, clan and tribal centres.
Sadly little is reliably known about the long-term occupants of the country now known as the Hunter
Valley. Many of their words survive in place names – albeit twisted and garbled to suit tongues accustomed
to different sounds. And some contemporaneous accounts of the earlier people exist in writing, offering
tantalising glimpses of a romantic and fascinating past where seemingly simple technologies had evolved to
exceptionally high standards and where the everyday skills applied to the challenges of living would amaze
and baffle most inhabitants of modern cities and towns.
Food, water, shelter, entertainment, defence, clothing and adornment, trade and transport are common
human wants, and the efforts involved in satisfying these wants are what we call “work”. In a superspecialised
society like the dominant 21st century industrial model, work shifts with changing fashions and
technologies and, most of all, with global flows of money that constantly seeks the lowest-priced inputs to
ensure the highest possible profits from the sale of goods and services. Skills acquired over a lifetime of
work can be rendered redundant almost overnight.
In hunter-gatherer societies, work skills refined by generations of trial and error could be acquired to a
greater or lesser extent by every member of the community and these skills were passed from hand to hand
and mouth to mouth over immeasurable periods of time.
When the United States Exploring Expedition visited NSW in 1839, its observers remarked that:
“The natives of New South Wales are a proud, high-tempered race: each man is independent of his
neighbour, owning no superior, and exacting no deference; they have not in their language any word
signifying a chief or superior, nor to command or serve. Each individual is the source of his own comforts,
and the artificer of his own household implements and weapons; and but for the love of companionship, he
might live with his family apart and isolated from the rest, without sacrificing any advantages whatever.”
Food was plentiful. Birds and animals filled the forests that grew around the rivers and swampy lowlands.
Fish, molluscs and crustaceans teemed in the ocean and inland waterways.
There was a big mutton bird colony on an island at the mouth of Lake Macquarie which was raided for
eggs and chicks once a year, but protected with stringent laws at other times.
Women fished with lines and nets and gathered such vegetable staples as bracken fern roots (which were
roasted and pounded), the young stalks of the gigantic lily (soaked and roasted), nuts from the burrawong (a
cycad, the nut of which had to be soaked for some time to remove toxins), wild plums and yam-like tubers
of various kinds.
The diary of Lieutenant William Sacheverall Coke, who was stationed at Newcastle in 1827, described the
abundance of seafood:
“We can catch here eight or nine large fish called snapper in an hour – numbers of salmon, mullet – and we
are obliged to kill four or five sharks there are so many here”. He wrote that the blacks swam to the seabed
and returned with lobsters four times larger than those in England.
Coke made sailing excursions to Ash Island, in the stream of the Hunter River, shooting wood pigeons that
weighed as much as kilogram. He reported seeing a herd of kangaroos, some black swans and thousands of
ducks. In the Myall River he saw hundreds of pelicans and “wild ducks that almost covered the water”.
At Port Stephens, women made fishing lines from the inner bark of young kurrajong trees. The bark was
stripped and soaked in water until the outer portion could be scraped off with a shell, leaving a tough, flaxlike
fibre. “The women twisted this fibre to the required length and thickness by rolling it on the front part of
the thigh with the hands”. William Scott, son of an employee of the Australian Agricultural Company at Port
Stephens, wrote that these lines were extraordinarily strong and capable of landing the heaviest fish. Hooks
were made from shell or bone.
Bark canoes, made from a single flawless sheet of stringybark, were used to criss-cross Port Stephens,
Lake Macquarie and other waterways in the region. These always had a characteristic clay mound, often in
the stern, where a small fire was kept burning while the canoes were in use. Christian missionary Lancelot
Threlkeld wrote that “it was a pleasing sight on a summer’s evening to see a number of the native canoes
on the glasslike surface of the lake, sending up their strait columns of smoke from the centre of the barques,
shewing an appearance of a fleet of small steamers at anchor in the stream. . . . The wild vines of the bush
formed their cables and a heavy stone was the substitute for an anchor,” he wrote.
The skill of the Aborigines with hunting spears was legendary. Early European settlers reported that the
spears were very accurate up to 100m. Scott wrote that “with a woomera to aid the case, they could hit a
mark at almost every throw up to a distance of 50 to 75 yards”. The power and accuracy of the spear was
enhanced by the use of a woomera, which acted as an extension of the thrower’s arm. Observers commented
on the amazing workmanship used in producing tools and weapons.
Two sketches by artist Alfred
Agate, who accompanied the US
Exploring Expedition to NSW
in 1839. At left is “Shingleman”
of Lake Macquarie. At right is
“Bamboo Cain” of Newcastle.
Threlkeld wrote that the spears, mostly just over 2m long, were often made in three parts, two being of
grass tree stem and one of hardwood.
“The ends of the grass tree are charred in the fire, fitted one into the other with the melted rosin infused,
the joint is tied with a filament of bark, and a lump of gum wrapped around the joint, having the appearance
of a ball of cobbler’s wax,” he wrote. “It is roasted over the fire and as it is softened by the heat, the gum is
put into shape by the wetted fingers of the artisan.”
The point was of fire-hardened hardwood, with perhaps some bone barbs. These spears were mainly
made on the coast and were very popular as a trading item with inland tribes, who swapped such goods as
decorated cloaks of kangaroo and possum skin and hand-spun ropes of possum-hide.
Despite the fact that they had few musical instruments (the didgeridoo was not used in NSW), the Hunter’s
Aborigines were a very musical people. They loved music and poetry and, as well as their acknowledged
and sometimes sacred classics, they had an ever-changing hit parade of new songs which were shared from
tribe to tribe as soon as they were written. People gifted in poetry, song and dance were widely acclaimed
and prized as star attractions at the highly social corroborees.
According to Threlkeld, there was an old man named Wullati who lived close to Moon Island, at the mouth
of Lake Macquarie, and was famous for many miles around as a great poet, singer and performer.
“He was very old, thin, small-headed and of a most cheerful disposition. Whenever he came to our tribe,
his company was much enjoyed, an evening feast was provided and the choicest titbits were set before the
toothless guest.” Wullati was a humorist and Threlkeld wrote that his stories and repartee would greatly
amuse the revellers until, after the feast, he sang and danced to the musical accompaniment of two sticks.
“The poets often make a song extempore, and if it happens to suit the humour of the tribe, its popularity is
stamped . . . and messengers would be despatched from tribe to tribe to teach the melody to others who in
turn convey the new song set to music, without variation, to the most distant tribes in NSW.”
The town and harbour of Newcastle, as depicted in an engraving in The Illustrated Sydney News of March 16,
1865. The accompanying article states that: “Twenty years ago Newcastle was an insignificant village, with
but a single coal mine – that of the AA Company which, enjoying a monopoly, was content with raising 25,000
tons during the year”. By 1865 that lone mine had been joined by Waratah, Wallsend, Lambton, Minmi and
others, with rail lines to the port where four steam cranes loaded hundreds of vessels with cargoes of coal.
An engraving of the Newcastle area, with St Johns Church, Cooks Hill, from The Illustrated Sydney News of
August 16, 1865. The paper described the coal deposits of the Newcastle area as “of almost unlimited extent”.
Chasing coal, from Newcastle to the valley
It is hard to imagine what the Hunter Valley, and the harbour at the mouth of its namesake river, might
have been like if it had not been for coal. The discovery of coal at the river north of the infant settlement of
Sydney in the latter years of the 18th century prompted almost immediate efforts to extract it, and it wasn’t
long before colonial governors started sending convicts north to work makeshift mines.
In time the convict-operated mines gave way to the commercial operations of the Australian Agricultural
Company, and soon that state-sponsored monopoly was forced to give way to numerous mining
entrepreneurs. As mines spread out from what became the city of Newcastle, the shape of future suburbs was
mapped, with houses, roads and rail and tram lines springing up to follow the coal and serve the miners.
Australia’s first export was coal from Newcastle and, over the decades as the mines shifted inland and
technology changed, the volumes of coal shipped through the port climbed to levels that the early pioneers
could never have imagined possible.
In the 21st century massive-scale open-cut mining has become the norm, and the industry has shifted
from the labour-intensive pattern of the past to an increasingly capital-intensive and export-oriented model.
Not long ago it was calculated that, if all the coal extracted from the Hunter in the 10 preceding years was
stacked in a column one metre square, the column would reach to the moon and back, with plenty left over.
While the days of the old underground pits, with their attendant armies of men and horses, are long gone,
the legacy remains all around. The district is extensively undermined at many levels, with shafts and tunnels
underlying the city and suburbs in a bewildering spider web that no maps can illustrate with complete
Mining has changed or erased watercourses, altered landforms, changed the shoreline of Lake Macquarie
and removed or altered forever some villages in the Hunter Valley.
While modern mining is often characterised as “quarrying”, the practices of the past gave birth to
many tasks and skills now rapidly being forgotten. Men now alive can recall with clarity the dangers and
challenges of working deep underground, with power supplied by horses and with no more than timber
props holding up the roofs and the threats from fire, gas and collapses an ever-present concern.
A delightfully atmospheric early morning portrait of a group of wheelers and pit horses at Pelaw Main colliery.
Mines and miners of the old days: Photograph above, by Ralph Snowball, shows Greta colliery in about 1902.
Below: another Snowball portrait of mining union delegates and officials at Lambton Colliery on May 27, 1897.
Ralph Snowball photograph of miners near the train used to carry workers at Burwood Colliery, circa 1898.
Below is another typical Snowball portrait of pit top workers, probably at West Wallsend colliery, circa 1900.
Horst Griep, above, worked in the Agfa factory in Germany before World War II and came to Australia after
the war. After a short time at Greta migrant camp he went to work at the BHP steelworks where his skills were
noted by management and put to good use. His photo below shows the works from across the river in 1960.
Above: BHP’s basic oxygen plant in 1962. The photograph below shows a worker in the rod mill in 1960.
Above: A view across Newcastle’s steelworks in 1959. Below: Construction of the basic oxygen plant in 1962.
A superb Horst Griep photograph showing construction of the No. 4 blast furnace at BHP Newcastle in 1963.
These fine press photographs of various parts of the BHP Newcastle steelworks were taken on January 20, 1949.
Plenty of room for boys and girls at Big Harry’s Place
“Big Harry’s Place”, as some liked to call the BHP steelworks, was a huge employer in Newcastle, training
generations of tradespeople in a variety of skills. A keen employer of migrants, BHP also discovered an
interest in employing women when the government put the brakes on overseas recruitment in the early
1970s. Some of the first women taken on during this period found themselves wearing their own casual
clothes to work, as the company-issue garments usually didn’t fit them. The mostly male members of the
big unions at the steelworks had a mixed reaction to the appearance of women in their workplace, with most
concerns centreing on the need for equality of pay. Some men frankly doubted the women could do the
work, a view that was quickly proven to be wrong.
Above: Bernice Matthews, a recorder at the automatic bundling machine at No 2 merchant mill, weighing
steel for dispatch. Below: Carol Berry, shear roller line operator at No 2 merchant mill, cutting bars to length.
Turton’s brickworks at East Maitland, from ground level (above) and from the air (below). Both circa 1930s.
Men at work at a Waratah brickworks (above) and a nut and bolt factory at Foundry Street, Wickham, in 1905.