OPINION: Story of a sandhill

The late Norm Barney wrote of Hunter Street’s trials and tribulations in this piece, first published in the Newcastle Herald 20 years ago. 

IN the beginning it was just a track; It began near the sandhills and a few hundred metres later petered out in the scrub. It was hilly and water lapped at its northern edge.

It was given a name, Wellington Street, probably after the famous Duke and his part in the victory against Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. The name did not last long, for in 1823 the surveyor Henry Dangar began his survey of Newcastle and the Hunter Valley. He dropped the name Wellington and it became Hunter Street.

The name was there but not much else. The track, for that's all it was, went only as far as today's Perkin Street. It was low, prone to flooding, surrounded by ti-tree scrub and made mostly of dirty black sand.

A few scattered houses, shops and hotels began to spring up along the track but even by the 1850s those residents who made their homes at the eastern end of the street, near Watt and Bolton streets, considered the Rouse Hotel to be "in the bush". The hotel stood on the site where the main entrance to the former David Jones building is today.

One early settler described it as a "straggly street in a straggling sort of town".

Another remembered it as an uneven, hilly street, which flooded after heavy rain.

Recalling the town in 1866, Mr Thomas Brown wrote that it was "surrounded by a tangled mass of brushwood" with "dilapidated fencing, wretched huts and lots of sand". The streets, including Hunter Street, were "unpaved, grass-grown and deserted".

Another pioneer settler recalled the street in the late 1850s as having a few shops that were "little more then lean-tos and humpies."

The area we know today as Scott Street was submerged at high tide. Those brave enough to build on the northern side of Hunter Street had to place their timber homes or shops on pillars or stilts to avoid being flooded.

Hunter Street was then much lower then it is today and many of the early shops were built high to avoid flooding. Customers had to climb as many as a dozen wooden steps to reach and enter a shop.

Climbing steps was not the only hazard faced by shoppers. The town and the street was once overrun by goats and at one time the local police were destroying up to 100 a week.

One of the early attempts to align the street in an organised way came in the 1850s. As the street was filled in, most of the shops "came down" to street level. But history records that one butcher shop near the corner of Hunter and Perkin streets got lower and lower as the street got higher and higher. In the end less then two metres of the shop front was showing above Hunter Street.

The butcher installed steps to allow his customers to descend to the shop and he displayed his meat at pavement level and employed a young boy to keep the bush flies away from the carcasses.

In the 1850s Mr Colin Christie, later to become mayor of Newcastle, worked in a boot and shoe shop opposite the site of David Jones. The timber shops were so small they were known around town as the "sardine boxes".

In 1857 Mr Christie recalled seeing a huge bed of sand outside the present post office. It may well have been Newcastle's first roundabout as it was used to "turn" bullock teams. In a paddock on the corner of Hunter and Bolton Streets - the site of the old State Bank - horses grazed and residents kept their carts and drays.

Reclaiming part of the harbour on the city side stabilised the area of Hunter Street down to Perkin Street. With the coming of the railway, businesses were on firmer ground.

Beyond Perkin Street there was little until Crown Street, and this was the boundary between the two areas.

For years the area we now call the West End was nothing more then a track. In the early 1850s the AA Company owned that section of track between Crown Street and what became known as Bank Corner. The company named it Blane Street, after one of the senior officials. It was to retain that name for almost 40 years before being re-named Hunter Street West.

The section of Hunter Street from the Bank Corner to Tudor Street was part of Charlton Street, which once went as far as the Islington bridge.

For many years Blane Street was "off limits" to many residents. To go west under the bridge was like crossing the border into a foreign country. But gradually the AA Company opened up its land and houses and shops began to appear along the street.

In the area between today's Crown and Darby streets there appeared a few shops - a timber yard, watchmaker, fruit shop, furniture shop and undertaker and, of course, the inevitable hotels. (In 1900 there were 26 hotels in Hunter Street; in 2013 there are five.) The land behind the shops was a paddock that attracted some of the early circuses (they also performed off Hunter Street, near today's King Street parking station and in the Market Street area).

A Mrs Nicholls, known locally as "Gentle Annie" was one of the early residents of Blane St and she lived near Crown Street. Gradually Blane Street opened up but it took many years to establish beyond Melville Street (now Union Street). A blacksmith occupied the site of what became the Newcastle Gas Company, and on the current Honeysuckle site there were about 100 houses. They later made way for the railway workshops and some were moved to Bullock Island (Carrington), Wickham and Stockton.

As the town evolved and progressed, so did Hunter Street. Transport was primitive, with horse-drawn buses bringing people to the town and the harbour. The coming of the railway made it easier for those who lived out of town and near a rail line to get to Hunter Street.

The introduction of steam trains in 1887 helped to attract even more people. The tram terminus was then at Perkin Street (Scott Street then ended at Market Street).

By this time horse-drawn transport had ruled for many years and Hunter Street was often crowded with horse-drawn buses, hansom cabs, carts, drays, carriages and sulkies.

Horse droppings became both a nuisance and a health hazard. The council employed men to clean up the streets every day but, while they could remove the evidence of the horses, the could not keep away the dirt, dust and flies that blew into shops and houses from the surrounding bush.

Speed was another problem. Drivers were often taken to court and fined for being in charge of a speeding horse or horses in Hunter Street.

In 1898 the council introduced a by-law prohibiting vehicular traffic, drawn by animals, to travel at more than walking pace between Watt and Brown streets on Saturdays and public holidays, up to 10.30am. It did little to stop accidents in the street.

While the original section of Hunter Street has been built up, part of Blane Street was still subject to flooding from high tides. In the middle of the last century a young man drowned near today's Technical College.

At the western end of Blane Street, near the Bank Corner, was Cottage Creek and on its eastern banks - near the Palais Royale - were two cemeteries, one for Catholics, the other for Presbyterians. It was also at the edge of the creek, in the very early days of the settlement, that the guard was posted to try and forestall escaping convicts.

Any improvements made to Hunter Street often meant an agreement between two or more councils. Part of the West End was in the Wickham municipality and this meant that both Newcastle and Wickham aldermen had to agree if money was to be spent in the western part of the street.

Over the years, aldermen on both councils met and talked interminably about how to improve the street. Funding was always the problem and there were always some aldermen who wanted to use the most up-to-date and expensive methods of paving or re-aligning the street.

Early photographs show it as dusty in dry weather and muddy in wet. There were always drainage problems and endless complaints of raw sewage entering the drains and eventually the harbour. The stench from some drains was said to be continuous and overwhelming.

Over the years the council discussed, and carried out, the sealing of parts of Hunter Street with wooden blocks, concrete and asphalt. This finally overcame the problem of mud and sand, which in wet weather saw one end of the street covered in black mud, the other in yellow-brown.

In the very early days of the settlement when names were given to the streets or tracks, Watt Street (originally George Street) was considered Newcastle's most important thoroughfare. Hunter Street began its western journey from Watt Street.

As Hunter Street grew in stature and length, the city fathers decided that the street should be extended to Pacific and then Telford streets. This meant that properties in Watt Street had to be purchased and demolished.

It took a special Act of Parliament and more then 20 years of lobbying and discussion before the way was clear to extend Hunter Street.

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