Waratah's bronze Aussie worker | Mike Scanlon

Man of bronze: The new statue of a brick worker at the entrance to Waratah Village where a major brickworks stood until early 1970. Photo: Mike Scanlon

Man of bronze: The new statue of a brick worker at the entrance to Waratah Village where a major brickworks stood until early 1970. Photo: Mike Scanlon

THERE was a time when there was only one statue paying tribute to a Newcastle historical figure.

Turn back time: An historic picture of a group of brick workers where Waratah Village now stands.

Turn back time: An historic picture of a group of brick workers where Waratah Village now stands.

For 119 years the white marble statue of Hunter identity James Fletcher stood alone in Newcastle, the city which loved him.

It’s still there, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, defying wind and storm and pigeon poop in the aptly named Fletcher Park, off Watt Street, almost opposite the brutal, monolithic bulk of Newcastle police station.

Installed in 1897, the statue has the unusual distinction of being erected from public donations, such was the popularity of Fletcher (1834-1891).

The Scottish-born Fletcher, chairman of the first district miners’ union and a founder of the Newcastle Herald in 1876, went on to become a politician, then NSW minister for mines and later minister for public works.

Now, a second statue of an historical figure has been added to the Newcastle landscape – but it has no name.

It’s not the famous Les Darcy statue, of course. After all, that is the pride of Maitland, has a name and was unveiled long ago, in August 2000. 

No, this larger-than-life bronze statue was only recently installed beside Turton Road, at Waratah Village shopping centre entrance.

The work of returned Novocastrian sculptor Julie Squires, the striking bronze sculpture represents a 1860s brick worker (complete with trowel), his heavily veined arm resting on a pile of bricks.

The owner of Waratah Village commissioned Squires to create the statue, as much of the big site was once Waratah brickworks.

The last ‘bake’ of 400,000 bricks there was almost 47 years ago, in December 1969.

Until then, the seven kilns at the brickyards normally fired about 125,000 bricks each week and it employed about 16 workers, who then presumably went to Maitland brickyards.

 A key feature of the sprawling site, and a landmark in the suburb of Waratah itself, was a sooty chimney stack 145 ft (43.7 metres) tall which came crashing down in March 1970 to the cheers of nearby residents who had long campaigned for its removal.

Sculptor Squires said having worked in Newcastle in the past she was “very excited” to see her new work so publicly accessible and a new district landmark.

“I still work in Melbourne and have just come back from China, but Newcastle’s now again my home,” she said.

Her latest sculpture was also her first for 17 years in Newcastle and she said she’d be pleased to regularly see it on her late-night shopping jaunts to Waratah.

“Some of my previous works haven’t been as visible or accessible,” she said referring to the Port of Newcastle statue labelled Destiny, spot lit at night on Dyke Point, (the old State Dockyard site) and the giant Muster Point/BHP sculpture hidden behind trees on Industrial Drive, Mayfield.

Her latest sculpture is on the southern edge of Waratah Village, with its back to Turton Road at the car park entry there. Here, the statue seems to survey the former brickworks site, which now fits hundreds of vehicles in its huge car park.

Handcrafted in her East Mayfield studio, Squires’ bronze sculpture still lacks one thing, a plaque acknowledging its creator.

“When people ask me, I say, ‘it’s coming, and it is’,” she laughed.

“It was wonderful for me to see the statue finally installed. When it was being done, some passers-by wanted to tell me their personal stories of the site, but I wasn’t able to hear them because I was busy at the time,” Squires said.

“I know the shopping centre management has had a lot of feedback about the bricklayer.

“The comments have been incredibly positive every time.”

Squires said she was looking for someone who worked with their hands as a model for the 1860s figure in her studio.

She found him in Damien Bynon who happened to work in industrial ceramics, which made him perfect for the character of the 19th century bricklayer she created.

And while a sculptor plaque is absent, there is a signboard giving a potted history of the site of Waratah Village and why the brickmaker sculpture is so historically relevant today.

Labelled ‘Waratah brickworks’, the notice reveals storekeeper David Watson built a brickworks in 1886 on the site where Kmart is located.

Brickmaking in the late 1880s was a thriving industry.

The site’s tall smokestack was built in 1913 and, in 1925, the old steam boilers fuelling the plant were replaced by an electric turbine.

The brickworks changed hands several times and, by 1950,  was owned by a W.H.Hudson who further developed the site and increased production.

The Waratah brickworks then featured a substantial brick kiln 150ft (44metres) long and described as “one of the best in the district”.

At the time, this would have been no small praise, for competition among brickworks had been fierce for decades in Newcastle. Earlier, there were at least seven brickworks in the Merewether/Glebe/Burwood area alone.

From 1901 for at least 22 years, the former Watson brickworks were called the Federal Steam Bricks Works and the area grew from the original two acres to 11 ½ acres.

By the time of site demolition in early 1970 and the erection of the $2.5million Kmart store there, the former brickyards site had grown to 15 acres.

Since then, Waratah Centre Management has continued a policy of acquiring more nearby properties.

The historic site is now probably best known for its annual Christmas lights display and its 24-hour Kmart.

And back in July 2014, the retail village became the first on mainland Australia to use power generated by three, low-impact wind turbines, each 14metres high.

 But while the bricklayer statue is a new landmark at Waratah, many old-timers still vividly remember the original landmark (until 1970), the towering (43metres) brick smokestack estimated to weigh 450 tons.

It was the last item standing on site to topple.

Explosive charges shattered the base of the stack at 1.30pm on March 6, 1970, as thousands cheered the removal of the smoky nuisance.