WHO remembers when ‘Hollywood’ was in its prime and in our midst?
Few people now would as it existed a long, long, time ago, not in Los Angeles, but in bush just south of the present Jesmond roundabout.
But soon, this historic site, or at least what’s left of it, will be no more.
‘Hollywood’ was an ironic title, because it wasn’t a real suburb, but a major shanty town on literally “the wrong side of the tracks”, or in this case, an old tramway once running out to Wallsend.
Poorer Novocastrians affected by the Great Depression lived in a cluster of tin shacks there. Homeless families moved there after being evicted from Nobbys Camp by the Department of Defence in the 1930s.
The humble homes with dirt floors were made of bags, half sections of old water tanks, corrugated iron, flattened kerosene tins and timber scraps. The dwellings were built on the southern side of an 1887 tramway route and stretched about 600metres into the bush from today’s giant traffic roundabout at Jesmond.
Water for the settlement came from a single tap in Jesmond Park. The unemployed residents lived illegally in their rough, makeshift, two-roomed homes for years. One for nine years. They grew vegetables and successfully raised families there.
But now, all that is to change with what’s left of ‘Hollywood’ being right in the middle of $280million motorway plan to finally link Bennetts Green with Sandgate.
It will mean this rare, relatively untouched bush site from the Depression era will be totally obliterated by the fifth and final stage of the Newcastle Inner City Bypass.
This involves building a 3.4 kilometre, four-lane dual highway between the intersection of McCaffrey Drive and Lookout Road, New Lambton Heights, to connect with Newcastle Road, Jesmond, then with the already completed university bypass out to Sandgate. The new highway will pass through undulating bush behind John Hunter Hospital, then swing north towards Jesmond roundabout.
The old Hollywood is directly in the centre of the far northern section of the construction corridor. Past fears of subsidence and unauthorised mining south of Jesmond Park had halted any residential development there.
From the 1930s right up to the 1960s, Hollywood - also known as Doggyville – survived as a reminder how hard times had been, especially pre-World War II.
Today, there’s only rusting corrugated iron sheets amid tall grass.
An aerial picture of the land from 1954, indicates about 43 structures visible at Hollywood, giving weight to the view that about 80 people, not 80 families, lived there at the height of the shanty town’s popularity.
Newcastle historical blogger Lachlan Wetherall in one of his past online pieces as part of a regular series entitled, ‘A bit of this, a bit of that’, uncovered quite a bit of detail about life in Hollywood. Wetherall wrote that the camp “persisted long after the Great Depression had ended and was “tolerated, ignored or despised” until its complete demolition perhaps around 1959-1960.
Wetherall told Weekender recently the “buzz of discovery” constantly spurred him on in his research into aspects of past life and events in and around Newcastle and suburbs. One of his early discoveries into Hollywood was that, contrary to popular belief, the shanty village was actually in Lambton, not Jesmond, according to boundary maps.
“Of course, there’s not a great deal to see there now because much of it is overgrown, even in the past year. There’s rubble amidst the tall grass and you might find bits of china and rusty nails,” Wetherall said.
When the grass was a bit lower last year, he was able to photograph rusty fragments of corrugated iron, the main reminder of what were once humble bush dwellings.
Construction on the bypass to Jesmond was hoped to start later this year. Last month though, Wallsend MP Sonia Hornery said she had been told construction was unlikely to begin for another three to four years. But before it does, road authorities will conduct a ‘salvage’ archaeological study on site.
“What is interesting to me is that the proposed new highway is familiar to anyone who looks at an old road map,” Wetherall said.
“In the past, there was a plan to extend Marshall Street (at Garden Suburb) northwards. That’s because under that plan, Marshall St basically continued in a straight line – in a north/south direction – to Jesmond.
“It’s curious. What’s going to happen now is a variation of that plan, but ignoring much of the old route. By going off McCaffery Drive instead, it will join up with the last bit of the previous straight line to Jesmond,” he said.
“Visiting the old site of Hollywood today you see all sorts of odd things. There’s uneven ground where there must have been lots of ‘rat holes’, or very shallow mine workings. You can even still see some surface coal which would have been dug out by the residents of ‘Hollywood’ for cooking or warmth.”
Wetherall said there was even what seemed to be a primitive drift mine entry, but there was also a danger of more forgotten, amateur Depression-era mine workings. Anyone wandering off regular trails should exercise extreme caution.
And the Hollywood site is not without its colourful background stories.
While older local people today have happy memories of Hollywood, it did have its unsavoury side. A man, reputed to be a former boxing champ turned loan shark, called John Maher was murdered there in July 1951. He was shot and his body thrown down a disused mine shaft. Two other people were also reported to have been murdered locally, but no one was ever charged.
A doctor making house calls to the squatter families was also once bashed by a drunk. After that he brought a ‘minder’ for protection during visits.
Wetherall is also extremely disappointed a key part of the former Wallsend- Plattsburg tramway track (1887-1949) which forms the northern boundary of the old “Hollywood’ site will in future be blocked and permanently lost by the new highway route.
The old tramway, an elevated earthen bank, is now a shared pedestrian/cycleway path through Jesmond Park from Howe Street, Lambton.
About 200metres of former tramway land will be excavated and filled. A site environmental impact statement (EIS) says the impact is “unavoidable considering the environmental and engineering constraints”. firstname.lastname@example.org