History | Search for lost Lake suburb

Just a memory: A rare picture of the former John Darling Colliery at Belmont that ceased production in 1987. Picture: Hilary R.Fallins
Just a memory: A rare picture of the former John Darling Colliery at Belmont that ceased production in 1987. Picture: Hilary R.Fallins

OUT Lake Macquarie way, you might think of it as the suburb that never existed.

But the ‘lost’ lake suburb of Wommara did briefly once exist. The only indicators now are ‘Wommara Avenue’ road signs directing motorists off the Pacific Highway at Belmont north.

Just inland, some 102 years ago, a huge, largely unsuccessful housing estate originally came into existence. It was later called Wommara, before becoming part of Belmont North.

Why it was so named is anyone’s guess. Wommara is an Aboriginal word meaning throwing spear stick, or something used to increase the distance a hunting spear could be hurled at prey.

Over past decades I became fixated on the origin of the name Wommara Avenue, having driven past the road signs so many times. It got me thinking if there was a story behind it, as well as questioning the origin of some other intriguing Lake Macquarie names, such as nearby Jewells, or nicknames, like Pommy Town, also close by.

According to Lake Macquarie Library, part of what was to become Wommara Avenue was first subdivided in 1916, but it did not take off.

The big bushland estate was auctioned in 1925 and Wommara Avenue was built in 1926, but it was still a semi-isolated location.

In World War II (1939-45) there was an extensive commando training camp around what is now the suburb of Jewells. This was apparently on a site bounded today by Kalaroo Road and Wommara Avenue.

The suburb of Jewells came into existence when it was occupied by people eager to take advantage on the new railway passing through Jewells to Belmont for coal mining in 1916.

So, how did Jewells get its name?  An island in the middle of the swamp was once used for native initiation ceremonies when it had the Aboriginal name of Ngorrion-ba (where the emu breeds).

Newcastle factory owner John Jewell later made the area famous by taking picnic parties searching for swamp wildfowl between 1870 and 1890. The route of the hunters through the marsh could easily be traced by the racket of men braying on hunting horns.  

Sign of the times: The Wommara Avenue road pointer.

Sign of the times: The Wommara Avenue road pointer.

For years, just off Wommara Avenue, was BHP’s famous John Darling Colliery, which ceased coal production in late 1987. The 26ha historic colliery site is now occupied by the Belmont Christian College with a truncated mine poppet head at the entrance.

One person who knew more than most about the colliery was the late Hilary Robert Fallins (1918-2008) who lived on the colliery site from 1925 until 1949. He also worked there from 1940 until 1974 when he became chief surveyor for BHP Collieries before retiring in 1978.

His father, John Fallins, was the mine’s first manager in 1925.

Hilary published Happenings Under Belmont in 1992. The book chronicled the life and times of Belmont’s John Darling Colliery and surrounding area.

In the book, Fallins told readers there was another Junction in Newcastle/Lake Macquarie beside The Junction (of rail lines) near Merewether.

He said if people were able to stand near the intersection of Wommara Avenue and Railway Crescent, Belmont North, then somehow drop 150 metres beneath the surface, they would be on an intersection of several main underground haulage roads known as the ‘Junction’.

He also knew more about the ‘unknown’ suburb of Wommara, once defined as the whole northern side of Wommara Avenue.

“Jewells (railway) station was part of the master plan by the New Redhead Estate and Coal Company Ltd, which by 1925 had subdivided a great tract of land adjacent to the John Darling Colliery,” Fallins wrote.

“Thus was born Wommara, now the southern area of the suburb called Belmont North.”

Within a few years of the original land sales, however, young gum trees began to spring up on the gravel roads with people (including his own father) fearing their own investment dreams might be dashed. 

“Indeed it took from 1925 until about 1950 to see much progress in the residential field. We children with our bicycles made much use of the deserted gravel roads and had wonderful times on the old raft made of empty oil drums on Jewells swamp . . . which was said to be bottomless.”

Hilary Fallins said that, at its peak, John Darling Colliery employed more than 700 miners and up to 70 horses worked underground during the 1930s

For several years, a colourful Pit Horse Derby was run at Broadmeadow. In May 1945, the Burwood mine entry, ‘Sailor – out of Pub by Six O’clock’ was the favourite. Naturally, no batteries, whips, or spurs were allowed by the jockeys.

Fallins also revealed a few secrets of the area, such as explosive magazines being built for safety into the sandhills, about 800metres from any mine surface buildings.

Nearer the beach, the sandhills rose in places to 21m (69ft) high, “making access through the bush from Belmont and Wommara rather tedious,” Fallins wrote.

“When rutile and zircon operations then began (in the 1960s) these beautiful outlines were reduced to their present height,” he said.

Over the 62-year life of the mine, excavated stone, clay bands and inferior coal from its two shafts were all tipped into the adjacent swampland.

“Much of the low-lying land around Belmont and Swansea was reclaimed for building and recreational purposes. To name just a few well-known landmarks we may list the Belmont Sportsmans’ Club complex and ovals, Gaytime Caravan Park, Swansea Caravan Park as well as many residential blocks, playing fields and railway sidings,” Fallins wrote.

Meanwhile, while the JD Colliery is long gone, much of the region’s second talking point still survives. It’s a piece of distinctive real estate. Called ‘Pommy Town’, it’s a cluster of World War II era Nissen huts; curved, corrugated iron demountables. Originally for the military, they were later used as cheap housing for postwar British migrant workers.

They’re a few streets east of the old Belmont road. A Lake council survey back in 2009 revealed 31 of the original 50 huts remained.

And sometimes Lake names can be a dead giveaway to what past activities were conducted there. Take Racecourse Road at Boolaroo, beside Cockle Creek.

Boolaroo Racecourse once existed here and back in June 1927 two of Australia’s most famous aviators nearly came to grief there.

Charles (later Sir) Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm in their Bristol tourer aircraft made a forced landing on the racecourse while attempting to break a record for a flight around Australia.

It was the sort of incident older residents never forgot.