Revisiting the Sea Pit in Cooks Hill | Mike Scanlon

PEOPLE are still sometimes surprised to discover Newcastle Harbour is the world’s largest coal export port.

But it’s not by accident. We’ve had lots of practice extracting ‘black diamonds’ from deep below the earth.

Hunter Valley coal mining goes back a long way, more than 200 years in fact, when convicts first hewed coal from beneath a hill above Nobbys Beach.

And for a long while, more than 70 years, our major mines weren’t way up the valley, but much closer to the port, with tunnels sometimes even under it.

That was called estuarine, or (Hunter River) delta mining, and some of the best remembered of these pits were around Wickham/Carrington and at Stockton.

It was a comparatively short-lived period of mining from 1878 to 1915, peaking in the 1890s and early 1900s. Stockton Colliery was said to be the deepest mine in the Newcastle district, with shafts down to 600ft (183m).

The very real threat of flooding, however, prompted a Royal Commission in 1886, which led to greater mine safety.

These mines existed because they were low-cost transport mines, with coal carted to the waiting sailing ships on their doorstep at harbour wharves.

But today’s story isn’t about these pits, but others, especially the famous, now virtually forgotten, Sea Pit, off Darby Street, Cooks Hill, run by the pioneering Australian Agricultural Company (or AACo).

Prompting the idea was my re-discovering of an interesting historic photo, date unknown but possibly around 1900 (pictured), of the famous and very successful Sea Pit parallel to and east of Darby Street.

The AACo had 10 city and suburban pits over the years, and the Sea Pit was probably the second famous after its first shaft, the ‘A’ Pit just below Church Street, The Hill, which also operated Australia’s first railway.

Formed with British capital in 1824, the AACo originally planned to  raise fine marino sheep at Port Stephens.

But in 1830 it entered the coal business in Newcastle with its ‘A’ Pit at a site above the present Tower Cinema.

As well, it had a NSW coal monopoly until 1847.

The company stake was 2000 acres (809ha) adjoining the infant township of Newcastle, a penal settlement only a short time before.

The move created growth within a stagnant, decaying township and saved it.

From its first mine on The Hill, the AACo went on to operate nine more pits, out west to present Hamilton (once Pit Town) and south to ‘H’ Pit, the company’s boundary, at Glebe Hill.

But while the AACo had a rapid expansion in the inner-city and suburbs, it doesn’t really indicate the extent to which it spurred other companies to hunt for coal.

The giant pastoral company’s grip on coal mining lasted about 90 years, but its monopoly was broken by other entrepreneurs, including an enterprising Lake Macquarie clergyman who gave us the name of Coal Point, near Toronto.

By 1901, there were a staggering 58 collieries at work, or being built, in the then Newcastle district, including Stockton, Minmi, Teralba, Dudley, Cardiff, Killingworth and West Wallsend.

While some pits might have been small operations, or ‘ratholes’, all owed their existence to the path pioneered by the AACo.

A late jewel in the crown of the AACo was the ‘New Winning’, or Sea Pit, which opened in 1887 in Darby Street.

It had come into existence as coal reserves at the AA Company’s Hamilton pits began to dwindle in the 1880s. The company began exploring the old coal workings of its ‘C’ Pit, up on The Hill, near Bingle Street.

At the new Sea Pit, underground miners worked a lease about four kilometres out to sea.

By 1900, the AACo – the oldest coal company in NSW – operated two collieries. The Sea Pit employed 548 men and boys with 90 miners also at its No.2 Hamilton pit, but they only worked there on pillar extraction.

The coal seams at the once famous ‘H’ Pit, near Glebe Hill, were already exhausted and the site abandoned in 1899.

We all know Cooks Hill today as a vibrant, cosmopolitan middle-class suburb, but it began as a working-class suburb with 10 hotels in and around Darby Street, or Lake Macquarie Road, as it was then known.

Police regarded it as a lawless place and hated going there to break up brawls, often between miners and foreign sailors.

Meanwhile, the street’s Bar Beach end was often blocked by drifting sand.

The huge Sea Pit site, on the corner of Darby and Parry streets, and also extending east, was famous for its tall brick chimney that dominated the Cooks Hill skyline.

The coal it produced was ideal for gas making for which there was a big demand.

Strangely enough, Newcastle’s most unusual banquet took place about 100 metres below the Sea Pit’s surface in March 1906.

That’s when then Governor-General Lord Northcote visited as a special guest. About 100 guests, including the mayor, parliamentarians and the Bishop of Newcastle, attended.

Here, deep underground, they found electric lighting installed, tables laid out and decorated. Food was then brought down for the speeches to begin.

The colliery also had a natural claim to fame, being renowned for the intricate fossil specimens unearthed far below.     

In 1890, the showpiece Sea Pit was predicted to operate for a century. At one stage, it employed 790 men underground and 160 surface workers, who operated machinery and worked the rail network with its fleets of small, wooden coal wagons.

Minor real estate subdivisions sprung up in the 1850s so workers could live close to their employment.

The AACo even built the nearby St Johns Anglican church, which was consecrated in 1860.

But it all could not last.

The mine closed in 1916, briefly leaving behind its chimney stack and a tailings dam (since drained) in Nesca Park.

Over the decades, almost all traces of mining vanished as more houses were built in the area. 

Then, in 1989, the Newcastle earthquake struck. Afterwards, the owner of a unit in Brooks Street, Cooks Hill, returned home to a mess and a nasty shock.

His unit had been built on part of the old mine site, specifically a deep, sealed air shaft.

Neighbours said trapped mine water had raced like a noisy express train up the shaft, to erupt and shatter its concrete cap.

Almost instantly, most contents of a lounge room were sucked down the shaft by the retreating water – almost including a bulky piano.

But that’s a story for another day.