HIDDEN in a mound on a Hunter riverbank at Hexham is an imposing, private burial vault.
Possibly unique, the imposing crypt was once described as a historical landmark in the old Oak Milk Bar’s history of Hexham. It still is, although today the barely visible tomb is behind a barbed wire fence and guarded by security cameras.
Easily missed by the casual visitor amid reeds and weeds, the vault is only slightly above the river flat. Despite this, the crypt has withstood much, including the devastating 1955 Hunter River flood. Just 20 metres from the Hunter River bank, it’s hidden from motorists on the busy New England Highway about 150 metres away.
Although called the Hannell family crypt, it’s really a monument to the memory of popular 19th century publican and sportsman John Hannell (1815-1891), who once operated a racecourse at Hexham.
Jack Hannell was the brother of Newcastle’s first mayor and the proprietor of one of Hexham’s two early hotels.
Work started on the solid brick crypt in January 1892, but John Hannell’s body didn’t occupy it until nine months later, when his coffin (with a split in the lid) was moved from Tarro Cemetery to the vault.
Nearby was Hannell’s famous former hotel site. It was just west of the now long demolished Peko-Wallsend coal loader, upstream of the present bridges.
John Hannell’s hotel on the road to Maitland is also no more, but it too was a landmark for more than a century. Dating from 1856, it was called the Wheat Sheaf (or Wheatsheaf) Inn, or the “house that Jack built”. After his death, the solid, two-storey, brick building instead became a proper family home, also called ‘Riverview’ and ‘Hannell House’.
John Hannell was extremely important to early Hexham’s development. He ran a punt service, was a river pilot and organised many sporting events, from horse races to regattas, to attract thirsty patrons to his pub.
With the busy coal trade and the once famous Oak Milk Bar now gone from Hexham, you’d think there’d be few reminders of the past left, especially the Hannell family connection. But on a bedroom wall in a suburban Newcastle home there’s a second link to the Hannells, besides the hidden crypt on the Hexham riverbank.
It’s a very rare painting of the old Wheat Sheaf Inn building in its prime, circa 1902, when it once stood besides Maitland Road, on the western outskirts of Hexham.
“A family relative gave it to me, so I framed it. I think it’s a charming reminder of old, bygone days and so important historically,” Patricia Robertson, a descendant of John Hannell, told Weekender.
The unusual watercolour shows a large, double-storey brick house, with return verandas, cast iron decorative lace and dormer windows on the top level.
Realignment of the Pacific Highway led to the building’s demolition in 1960.
“Publican John Hannell didn’t own the original Wheat Sheaf hotel. That was elsewhere. He leased that original hotel in 1842 (from the Sparke family), but fire destroyed it (in 1853). Hannell then had the second inn built in 1856,” Mrs Robertson, now 82, said.
“I can remember standing on the veranda of the old house and my mother was born there. My grandfather was the youngest son of Martin James Carroll and Jane Elizabeth Hannell.
“Jane and her daughters kept a large business ledger which was also used as a diary.
“I believe the three famous Hannell brothers, including John, were like founding fathers of Newcastle. They were pioneers, men of tenacity, go-ahead types. If nothing was happening, they’d make things happen,” she said.
The sons of ex-convicts, the better-known James Hannell (the eldest) became the first mayor of both Wickham and Newcastle as well as an MP. Jessie, the youngest brother, became the first lighthouse keeper at Nobbys and took a major role in sea rescues.
“After he died, the estate of John Hannell of Hexham, showed he also owned land at Mosquito Island, Carrington and Newcastle,” Mrs Robertson said.
“The total value of his worth in 1891 was estimated at more than 10,248 pounds (at least $1.4million today).
“That was a lot of money back then. Not bad for a self-made man from humble beginnings, was it?
“And from John’s original 186 acres (75ha) of Hexham land, some 13 acres (5.2ha) were resumed for the northern railway and about 10 acres (4ha) for roads.”
But behind every family success story, there are private tragedies. That’s why Patricia Robertson said the big Hannell house, the former pub, which once rang with the sound of music and gaiety from regular family concerts became the ‘house of sorrows’.
Her great grandmother, Jane Elizabeth Hannell, never got over the sudden loss of her sons, who died together in a rail accident in 1889. The two sons of Martin and Jane Carroll, aged only 19 and 20, were walking home to Hexham one night from their singing lessons at Tarro and decided to take a short cut across the railway line. Waiting for a train to pass in one direction, they failed to see a second train approaching on a blind track. Both were hit and died instantly.
“Their poor mother, Jane, never recovered from shock. She took to her bed in grief and was bedridden in later life. Her father, John, also died suddenly in 1891 after a brief illness and was buried initially at Tarro while planning to built a family vault besides the Hunter River.”
Mrs Robertson said her great grandfather, Martin Carroll, was also an intriguing and mysterious person. Her met his future wife, Jane, possibly while working as a liquor salesman visiting the inn, or at a musical soiree. A romance blossomed. He had a fine tenor voice and she was a good pianist. Because Martin, from Galway in Ireland, had no family in Australia, it seemed logical he and Jane should live at Hexham House, with her parents.
Intelligent but shy, Martin, however, kept a big secret. It seemed as if he wanted to keep all details of his departure from Ireland quiet and to never return home. Only in old age, in answer to his family’s pleas, did he begin to reveal a little.
“It was later discovered back in Ireland Martin had been in training for the Catholic priesthood because that’s what his family wanted, but he shot through to Australia, instead,” Mrs Robertson said.
Martin died in 1913 and was interred in the Hannell family vault. His wife Jane died in 1915 and was buried at Tarro Cemetery close to her two beloved sons.
Mrs Robertson said she hadn’t seen the old Hannell riverside crypt in years, but knew it had been vandalised and that bodies had been removed for reburial.