Hunter History: Jack’s final legacy

Dedicated historian: Jack Delaney's projects added a significant amount of knowledge to the history of Newcastle and the Hunter.

Dedicated historian: Jack Delaney's projects added a significant amount of knowledge to the history of Newcastle and the Hunter.

EVEN from beyond the grave, Jack Delaney is still making his presence felt.

Right up to the end back in June 2010 at age 91 years, Cessnock historian John W. (Jack) Delaney was trying to preserve the stories of Hunter Valley folk wherever he met them.

His hobby resulted in an estimated 33 works, chronicling much regional history that might have otherwise been missed.

For example, researching the early days of the Northern coalfields, Delaney reported that in the late 1930s and early 1940s there were 38 collieries using the private South Maitland Railways to transport coal. 

He had not long retired in 1979 when he said he’d audio-taped 40 conversations with older folk. His aim was to build up an accurate picture of life on the Coalfields from pioneer days.

“I’m not saying it will be quick work,” Delaney laughed at the time.” But I hope someone will (eventually) publish it.”

By December 1982, the tenacious amateur historian had recorded about 150 interviews in his spare time, dealing in subjects ranging from mining disasters, to early settlers and the fluctuating fortunes of the local wine industry.

Despite this, Delaney’s mammoth project during the 1970s and 1980s was generally overlooked as he tackled other significant historic projects.

Some people even thought his invaluable audio-tape collection might be lost, but it wasn’t. The tapes were being held by the Coalfields Heritage Group, at Kurri Kurri. Then, about a year ago, CHG permtted a team from Newcastle University’s Cultural Collections to digitise the tapes to make them available to the world.

The official launch of the project, called Voices of the Hunter was held last week at the university’s Auchmuty Library.

The audio project is regarded as unique, at least in the Hunter Valley, because of its sheer size and the fact that it was undertaken not by a group, but by an individual.

His way: Jack Delaney with a plaque near Wickham station that celebrated the role of early convicts in setling Newcastle.

His way: Jack Delaney with a plaque near Wickham station that celebrated the role of early convicts in setling Newcastle.

About 100 Hunter Valley oral histories, especially from the Coalfields, have been uploaded by the university onto its Sound Cloud.

Those interviewed by the late Jack Delaney when no one else seemed to care about local history include mineworkers, vignerons, bookmakers, jockeys, teachers, grocers, butchers, footballers, taxi drivers, undertakers, barbers, builders, photographers and dressmakers.

The interviews provide an insight into an earlier, long-suffering generation of men and women who lived through two world wars and hardships of the 1930s Great Depression. On tape, the interviewees remembered events back to the year 1900.

A good example of this Hunter lost voices project might be mineworker Herbert Blissett who remembered going to work in the mines as a 13-year-old and toiling five days a week from 6am to 5.30pm and from 6am to noon each Saturday. 

Then in his spare time Blissett had to uproot tree stumps to clear his “selection” of land. He also worked in a steam-powered timber mill where the light all came from kerosene lamps and the only drinking water initially came “out of the swamp”.

And while officially 500 hours of tape came under scrutiny, the real figure could be closer to 800 hours!

The extraordinary project, surely one of the largest of its type ever undertaken in Australia, was tackled by at least 15 people, many volunteers, assisted by a generous $70,000 grant from another partner in the scheme, Coal & Allied Operations Pty Ltd.

CHG custodian Brian J.Andrews told Weekender some audio tapes had been rescued “just in time” as after 40 years they were physically disintegrating.

UoN Special Collections librarian Lyn Keily said making Voices of the Hunter become a reality for the community’s benefit had been the largest project she’d ever been involved with.

Besides converting the old audio tapes to the more easily accessible MP3 format, photographs had been added for greater interest and a summary written up for each tape.

“We believe these tapes belong to the community and should be more accessible to the public. We want people to be excited about their past,” Keily said.

As Jack Delaney recorded many of the interviews of long ago over tables in home kitchens, there are sometimes strange accompanying sounds. The team transcribing the fragile tapes often heard distant voices and odd “eeeks” which might indicate tape disintegration. In the end, this possibility was ruled out in favour of someone simply walking around with squeaking shoes!

And what do we know personally about this eminent local historian Jack Delaney?

 Newcastle historian Vera Deacon remembered the historian fondly as “having a touch of the Irish blarney” which might account for his success in getting so many people to open up and tell their life stories to him.

Born in Lithgow, his parents brought him to Cessnock in 1923, the same day as the infamous Bellbird mine disaster which he later wrote about in detail.

Delaney grew up, married and worked on the South Maitland Railways until he retired as controller of traffic operations in 1979 at age 60 years. And that’s when his passion for the region’s history really started. Delaney though never enforced copyright on his work to ensure it was freely available.

Over more than 20 years, Delaney compiled a massive history of the area’s 68 collieries from 1861 which the Newcastle Museum made into a compact disc distributed free to schools in 1998. The work represented an authorative, hand-written manuscript of 17 volumes and 3000 pages.

This was followed up in 2004 by another epic work, the book, Newcastle: Its First Twenty Years. This involved two years of intensive research in the State Archives to finally reveal the names of the first 34 Irish patriot convicts sent to Coal River (Newcastle) to pioneer a settlement in 1804.

Then, claiming a lack of co-operation from the Honeysuckle Development Corporation and Newcastle council to commemorate these convicts, he and others funded an illegal plaque (pictured) cheekily placed outside Wickham railway station in March 2004. Delaney and others also planted a token Honeysuckle tree to remember Newcastle’s 200th birthday.

Award after award acknowledged Delaney’s prodigious research. However, Voices of the Hunter may be his greatest legacy.