Bid to protect historic reserve gains traction

The news (NH 2/9/17) that the Newcastle Recreation Reserve had been referred to the minister for inclusion on the NSW Heritage list must surely have been welcomed by all Novocastrians.

It represents years of conscientious application by Newcastle groups. But sadly, Andrew Fletcher of the Hunter Property Council (NH 2/9/17) is probably not alone when he expressed doubt about the inclusion of the King Edward Headland Reserve, known as the old bowling club site. He casts this as derelict with little, if any, heritage value. It has recently been cleaned up by DPI-Lands and people have visited it, especially during the whales’ migration. Those people would have appreciated it as a marvellous, irreplaceable public asset.

But Mr Fletcher’s comments show what a good job our government agencies did in grooming that site for private, commercial development. For years it was the sad, bankrupt and vandalised shell of the bowling club. Then, after its partial demolition, it was said that the public needed to be protected from hidden dangers by its exclusion with wire fencing. After a decade of neglect, one of the most spectacular headlands on the NSW coast – that had been dedicated under s.87 of the Crown lands Act for the purpose of public recreation (meaning “accessible to the public as of right and not for the use of private profit or commercial development”) – came to be regarded by the public as a contemptuous eyesore that begged the private sector for development.

What of its heritage value? For Aborigines, it is Yi ran na li, (the place of falling rocks) and a place to hold up infants in presentation to ancestors past; a history extending over thousands of years. As for modern Australia, if one was looking for a site to celebrate the birthplace of King Coal and the contribution of the coal industry, you would look no further than the headland reserve. It is the site of the first coal shaft in Australia that tapped the great seams and produced the first commercial export of any kind from these shores. It was known as The Old Shaft, and now the site overlooks the greatest coal exporting port in the world.

The only account of the miserable lives of convicts who worked the seams from that shaft is described in the historically significant book, Ralf Rashleigh thought to be by (convict) James Tucker. The hand-carting of coal to the wharf passed Government House and carved out our first main street, now known as Watt Street. It is no accident that it, and other streets that border the headland, are named after those made famous by the industrial development of the steam engine (Watt, Newcomen and Bolton), which would not only facilitate the mining of huge quantities of coal for export but create a massive demand. In those times the industrial revolution, fuelled by coal, was in full flight and the old coal shaft, or what later became the headland reserve, was the start of Australia’s leading role as an exporter of great natural wealth.

The Newcastle Recreation Reserve includes the King Edward Headland Reserve (Old Bowlo) that is bounded on all sides by King Edward Park, Fletcher Park, the Obelisk and Arcadia Park. This land was originally the Government Domain, just like the Sydney Botanic Gardens, and was dedicated to the people in perpetuity in 1863.  Its NSW Heritage listing will help secure this breathtaking public land for the benefit of future high-rise generations and perhaps ensure that any changes will complement the park, not pockets, and ensure free public access for all times.

Kim Ostinga for The Friends of King Edward Park