COOKS Hill is a suburb with secrets. This helps explain why it is one of Newcastle's most diverse and interesting places.
Inner-city Cooks Hill literally grew out of the ground, or beneath it really, as the suburb began life as a 19th-century coalmining township on sand flats known as the Wallaby Ground.
It was part of the historic Australian Agricultural Company's 2000-acre grant. The A.A.Company then developed Cooks Hill as we know it today.
Why, the names of its representatives dot the suburb, like Corlette, Dumaresq, Tooke and Bruce. Dawson Street was named after the A.A.Co's first agent in NSW.
Then there's Darby Street (originally Lake Macquarie Road before the 1860s) named after company surveyor George Darby who first laid out town allotments on the company estate.
And who would guess Parry Street was named after a famous polar explorer?
He was Sir William Edward Parry (1790-1855) who arrived in Sydney as the new commissioner of the A.A.Company in 1829.
It was Parry who decided to establish Newcastle coalmines, although the company's primary objective was to raise sheep to produce quality wool which was fetching high prices in London in 1830.
But why is the suburb, mostly flat as a billiard table, strangely called Cooks Hill? And what's the story behind the former "Hidden Treasure" hotel in Laman Street?
These answers and more are contained in a new book by local author Peter Murray. His hefty, 300-page tome is entitled Cook's Hill: Early Years.
As a future research tool for people wanting to know more about their suburb's background, Murray's self-published book should prove invaluable.
The personable and inquisitive Murray, author of 10 books, took about a year to compile his impressive potted history of Cooks Hill.
"I write quickly, but I also drew on stuff I'd had for ages. It's really a social history of the suburb. You do it for the love of the subject, nothing else," Murray said.
"I'd drunk in enough pubs and coffee shops there over the years to already know a bit about the area. On top of that, my mother and grandmother lived in Cooks Hill during the Great Depression [of the 1930s]," the retired teacher said.
"There's been so many changes there over the years, I thought someone should record the past. It's become gentrified now and a very desirable place to live, but the A.A.Co established it as a working class suburb in the early 1850s and nothing more."
Murray said while Cooks Hill owed its existence to the enterprising A.A.Co, Newcastle also benefited by its departure.
"It was very good at the end, creating subdivisions, forming roads and giving extra land at the southern end of Centennial Park, but profit was the motive," he said.
Murray said very costly reclamation of land around its famous Sea Pit Colliery, off Darby Street, was another case in point in 1920.
Earlier, as coal reserves at the A.A.Company's two Hamilton pits began to dwindle in the 1880s, it began to explore the old coal workings of C-Pit near Cooks Hill.
A new pit, known as the "New Winning", or Sea Pit, was opened, mining a lease "nearly 2½ miles [four kilometres] out to sea". At its peak, it employed up to 600 men and boys before closing in 1916.
By 1930, the Newcastle Herald had reported "large sand dunes, some 30 feet [nine metres] deep" being removed from hills at the lower end of Memorial Drive. Huge quantities of removed sand and earth were then dumped between Darby and Union (formerly Melville) streets, "converting what was once low-lying swamp into a first-class building area".
But while mining was once a big Cooks Hill employer, another was William Arnott's legendary two-storey "steam biscuit factory", now demolished, in Union Street diagonally opposite the present Aldi store.
From late 1877 to when the factory closed in 1942, it was "The College" - a finishing school employing up to 300 local men, boys and girls at its peak.
Its distinctive trademark was a colourful parrot said to have been drawn by William's daughter-in-law, Leslie Arnott, in the likeness of a Mexican parrot given to William Arnott by a sea captain in Newcastle.
Meanwhile, the name of Arnott's famous SAO biscuits may have evolved from William's son Arthur being a Salvation Army officer (or SAO).
Murray said one of the only surviving traces of Arnott's hugely successful Cooks Hill business today was the grand 1870 family home Leslieville at 63 Union Street. The big, old biscuit factory had been next door.
And the puzzle of the site of the original Cooks Hill is easily solved. It's where the ridge of Laman Street meets Auckland Street.
Today it's the site of the concert hall of the Newcastle Conservatorium of Music, but once it was the holiday home of Thomas Cook, of Turanville, near Scone. Called Lucerna in 1864, it was originally the retirement home of his parents.
Just to the east, almost beside St Andrew's Church, the Burwood railway from Merewether, once ran under Laman Street.
To the west, there was once a hotel from 1877 called The Hidden Treasure because a cache of almost 600 coins from an earlier unsolved robbery was uncovered there while sinking a backyard well.
Shut in 1909, the pub was among 13 Newcastle hotels ordered closed, possibly reflecting the strength of the temperance movement. Of these, five were in Cooks Hill. Today, four local pubs remain.
Murray reminds us though of surviving architectural hints of some ex-pubs. For example, the original Hibernian/Imperial Hotel building (now the Soho bar beside Bull Street) was the last hotel opened on Darby Street in the 19th century.
In the 1850s some hotels even sold household goods like tea and sugar, and foot races, also called "pedestrianism", was a popular sport of northern mining towns.
Author Murray is also able to shed light on some "mysteries", like did master English batsman Dr W.G. Grace ever play cricket in Cooks Hill? (Yes, in February 1892.)
And that Laman Street building with the mysterious initials of G.U.O.O.F. What's that about? The initials stand for Grand United Order of Oddfellows, a "safety net" mutual benefit society in an age of inadequate social welfare.
Author Murray concludes with the legacy of the departing A.A.Co in 1930 making Cooks Hill a much drier, healthier place for the majority of its citizens. Two large problems were gone; the Darby Street sand-drifts and the Melville (Union) Street swamp.
Much, much later former suburban battlers remembered a slower paced community once divided in two by the Burwood rail line, colourful characters such as the "cat woman" with her house over-run by moggies, the odd red-light house, or two, the smell of cabbage being cooked in rows of Laman Street terraces as bakeries and butcher shops co-existed with light industry like foundries, junkyards, a cordial factory and industrial glove makers.
All in all, Murray's factual and scholarly book, dense with photos, maps and period ads is a marvellous potpourri.
It's great to simply dip into for anyone curious about Cooks Hill's past.
If so, grab it when you see it. You won't be disappointed.
Murray's limited edition book, Cook's Hill: Early Years, is available from Newcastle Library's Local Studies section in Laman Street and at Hudson's news agency in the Hunter Street Mall ($50).