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Newcastle History, Australia

Newcastle History is pretty arresting. The home-turf of Awabakal and Worimi Aboriginals, Newcastle was discovered by Lieutenant John Shortland in 1797. (Of course, Captain James Cook had already charted the rocky islet of Nobby’s Head on the map during his initial Pacific exploratory voyage). Interestingly, Newcastle missed the honor of being the second-site of European settlement (after Sydney, which was settled in 1788) when the first convict camp set up here in 1801 had to be abandoned. (Hobart, founded in 1803, is the second oldest Australian city).

Newcastle History – As a Penal Settlement

Newcastle was re-settled in 1804 as a penal colony for notorious criminals; since the area had coal in abundance, it was named after England’s famous coal-port, Newcastle.

The colony did not see much of a progress in the initial ten years – it simply remained a place where the convicts were employed to dig coal, which was then exported to far-off lands.

The arrival of Commanding Officer Captain James Wallis proved a boon for the settlement. He gave the settlement some sort of infrastructure – laying out plans for the streets, for a church, school and penitentiary, even ordering their construction. Construction of the breakwater that joined Nobbys Head to the mainland was also started under him.

Newcastle ceased to be a penal colony after 1822 and in 1823 it became a free town when the military rule was lifted following the departure of the convicts.

Newcastle History – As a 19th Century City

With free-settlers setting up houses in Newcastle and its vicinity, the township started expanding. The Australian Agriculture Company was given control of coal mining by the government in 1826 and coal mining gathered momentum in the 1830s after the company brought skilled Irish and Welsh miners. The establishment of Australia’s first steamship company, Hunter River Steam Navigation Company (in 1839) further hastened the pace of development and Newcastle was proclaimed a city in 1847.

In the following decades of the 19th century, Newcastle city saw some major construction works like the construction of a new light-house at Nobby’s Headland, of the Customs House and Fort Scratchley.

Newcastle History – The 20th Century

The first quarter of the 20th century saw a big change in the history of Newcastle – it transformed from a coal-based economy to a steel-based economy following the setting up of a production-facility by BHP steelworks in 1915.

Following the unification of adjoining 11 independent council areas, the City of Greater Newcastle was created in 1938.

Heavy industries (manufacturing warfare items/supplies) developed in Newcastle during the Second World War years and it became one of the prime targets in Australia. On 8 June 1942, Newcastle was shelled by the Japanese submarine I-21. Fort Scratchley returned fire to be the only Australian fort to aim an enemy ship.

The 20th century saw a few (if not frequent) royal visits to Australia and Newcastle was no exception. Queen Elizabeth II herself has been in the Newcastle region twice – first time immediately after she became the monarch in 1954 and again in 1988, when Australia celebrated its bicentenary.

The 1989 Earthquake, however, has been the most talked about happening in the history of Newcastle. The Newcastle area had been struck by earthquakes on earlier occasions as well, but this was the most severe, the most devastating (measuring 5.6 on the Richter scale). Tremors were felt till the ACT – while Canberra experienced slight tremors, the intensity of tremors was moderate in places like Bathurst, Sydney felt strong tremors.

BHP Steelworks closed their Newcastle facility after 84 long years in 1999, drawing the curtains on an important chapter in Newcastle History.

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