History | A curious clan

PUB WITH NO BEER: John Hannell’s house at Hexham, built 1856, which had earlier been the landmark Wheat Sheaf Inn.
PUB WITH NO BEER: John Hannell’s house at Hexham, built 1856, which had earlier been the landmark Wheat Sheaf Inn.

LOCAL landmarks give places an identity, besides reminding us of the past.

So, when obvious historic reminders disappear, often soon do our memories.

The past becomes a different country as familiar sites are soon forgotten as frequently as prominent pioneering families.

One such landmark springing to mind is the former Wheat Sheaf (or Wheatsheaf) Inn on Maitland Road, at Hexham, once run by popular publican John Hannell (1815-1891).

Erected in 1856, the imposing, two-storey hotel was the second one locally to carry the same name. Both were run by jovial mine host, John Hannell.

Known as the Halfway House or ‘The House that Jack Built’, it became the changing post for coach horses on the Newcastle-Maitland journey in the colonial era.

John Hannell had moved from Newcastle to Hexham in 1843 to operate the original Wheat Sheaf Inn owned by the Sparke family in the 1830s. This was later destroyed by fire in 1853.

The colourful Hannell also kept very busy. In 1849 he even had a racecourse attached to his original hotel.

Two years earlier, he advertised having a “safe and commodious” punt for horses, carriages and drays between his hotel and the opposite shore.

These were the days long before any bridge existed in Hexham. 

The solid, rebuilt Wheat Sheaf Inn finally became Hannell’s  family home instead and was renamed Riverview, or Hannell House. It was demolished in 1960 and with it went many memories of those early Lower Hunter pioneers, the Hannell family.

After writing recently about how the hotel suffered in the mighty 1955 Maitland flood, I received an email offering more insights into the influential Hannell clan.  

“My name is Robert J. ‘Bob’ Suker and I am the great, great, great grandson of Hexham publican John Hannell. I was very happy to read your article ‘Life by the river’ in Saturday’s Weekender.

“John Hannell was quite the sportsman and, as publican of the Wheat Sheaf hotel, was a cunning fellow. During the period around 1850, there was a great shortage of copper coins in the country and he countered this by producing his own system of written IOUs for change,” Suker wrote.

“But, to the chagrin of all, these IOUs could ONLY be redeemed at the Wheat Sheaf hotel. A very smart operator, eh?

 “John, apart from his racetrack and being a river pilot of note, also sailed his boat ‘Bee’ to win his own sponsored race (said to be Newcastle’s first regatta) in April 1845.”

Suker said John was a son of Elizabeth Hannell and James Walton from a defacto relationship.

With his fellow Parramatta-born brothers, James and Jesse, he eventually followed his convict mother to Newcastle around the 1830s where they changed their name to Hannell, rather than use their birth names of Walton.

Suker said that they had wanted to sever ties with their father who was a maligned scourger, or whipper to punish convicts.

“Elizabeth had been re-sentenced, for her part in another crime, to ‘life’ and it happened to be in the convict outpost of Newcastle in 1820.

“The three boys became men, and later assumed positions of great respect in Newcastle. James Hannell (the eldest) became the first Mayor of  both Newcastle and Wickham, as well as an MP – the second for Newcastle, I believe,” Suker wrote.

“He was probably our first auctioneer, founder of the Newcastle Cricket Club, a prominent founding father of the Newcastle Jockey Club, founder of the Newcastle Regatta club as well as being a hotelier of note.

“James and his son, Clarence, were largely credited with fund-raising for Newcastle Hospital.

“Jessie, the youngest brother, was probably the hero of the family. He was, I believe, the first lighthouse keeper at Nobbys and took a major role in many boat rescues, in rough seas off Newcastle,” Suker said.

His most recognised rescue was of the sole survivor of the paddle-steamer Cawarra which sank on the port’s Oyster Bank in a heavy gale in July 1866, becoming Newcastle’s worse maritime disaster.

As a proud Bob Suker added: “Quite a family, eh”. However, he still cautions that certain repeated stories, particularly about James Hannell, may have been embellished by “artistic licence” over the past 141 years.

Perhaps he had in mind something Hannell biographer Dan O’Donnell came across among Newcastle Public Library’s treasures while researching his book about James Hannell called Currency Lad in 1993.

Although a town alderman and local member, Hannell’s other life experiences caused him to dispense a humanitarian kind of frontier justice.

For O’Donnell discovered a NSW Chief Justice had apparently remarked that Hannell was “a magistrate of exceptional ability”.

Besides recalling his mother’s own struggle for survival in early convict Newcastle, Hannell must have had vivid memories of his time working as a young police constable between 1833 and 1836 in rough, post-penal settlement Newcastle

Anyway, an undated library clipping from years after Hannell’s death reported on one reputed Solomon-like decision in a disputed ownership case.

Hannell was presiding on the bench when a hearing came up involving two woman who were both claiming ownership of the same ducks.

To settle the issue, magistrate Hannell ordered the disputed ducks (being held within the court precincts) released with the sergeant of police present being told to carefully watch where they went.

The ducks waddled straight out and home, much to the discomfort of one woman who was unlawfully claiming them, O’Donnell wrote.