They are easy to miss at first glance, like a shadow, but on closer inspection the shape of two young women looking across the harbour Newcastle from Stockton foreshore in 1892 come into focus.
Who were these surreal looking women dressed in funereal black outfits that Scottish photographer Fred Hardie captured while visiting Newcastle? Do their descendants still live in the city today?
The backdrop to the image is a detailed panorama of Newcastle’s landscape at the turn of the twentieth century - Customs House, the Bond Store and a partially completed Christ Church Cathedral are prominent landmarks. Tall ships and row boats adorn the harbour.
It all adds up to one of 30 candid daily life glass-plate snapshots that Hardie took of the city and its people in 1892.
The celebrated photographer visited the city while on assignment with the Scottish photography company George Washington Wilson & Co. Unlike other photographers of the era, Hardie’s photos are spontaneous rather than carefully staged.
“It’s a fantastic unvarnished snapshot of Newcastle as a colonial town. It was very much like the wild west,” Hunter Living Histories chairman Gionni DiGravio said.
By the 1890s the transition from Newcastle as penal settlement to one of Australia’s most important urban centres was well underway.
Newcastle’s population had reached 50,000 and electricity, gas and sewage were rapidly being connected throughout the city and outlying areas.
Outlying townships such as Wallsend, Charlestown, Redhead and Lambton had been growing since the the 1850s and by the 1890s it was considered necessary to develop the first greater Newcastle plan.
Hardie’s images of dusty city streets reveal family and business names such the Clarendon Hotel and John Hunter, that remain commonplace.
Other buildings and businesses have long since vanished. Among them is the Royal Standard Hotel that stood at the intersection of Watt and Hunter Streets.
“I think it’s really important for Novocastrians to have a look at these things to see how far this city has come and what we have lost,” There are some beautiful buildings that we have lost and we have gained a few others. Maybe we can build some wonderful ones in times to come,” Mr DiGravio said.
Fred Hardie’s portrait of Australian life in the 1890s
Fred Hardie spent two years capturing the life and times of the towns and cites of Australia’s east coast between far north Queensland and Gawler north of Adelaide.
The images, commissioned by George Washington Wilson & Co., were meant to be sold back home as photographic albums of the early settlers at work and play.
Hardie created five sets of lantern slides with narrative text for the states of Queensland, NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. The NSW set consisted of 60 slides, including 15 from Newcastle.
It is not known how long Hardie spent in the city or what time of year the photos were taken in.
George Washington Wilson & Co. collapsed in 1908. The plates passed into the possession of Hardie and then to photographer Archibald J.B. Strachan. They were acquired by the University of Aberdeen in 1954.
The current University of Aberdeen archive contains 750 photographic plates that Hardie took while in Australia. More than 40 of the images are of Aboriginals.
Caroline Mackaness, who curated the Sydney at Federation exhibition in 2001 said the photographs were unique because of their near perfect quality.
“He prepared each glass plate before taking the photo. It was an extraordinary and dedicated effort,” she said.
“They are a frozen moment in time, in exactly the same clarity they were taken 100 years ago. He was obviously impressed by the country. He shows the gold diggers, BHP mine, the wool yards and captures and up-and-coming energetic country.”