Diaries describe what the Port was like more than a century ago

SAILING SHIP ERA: Newcastle Harbour c.1900 as viewed from Brown Street, The Hill, looking north towards Stockton.
SAILING SHIP ERA: Newcastle Harbour c.1900 as viewed from Brown Street, The Hill, looking north towards Stockton.

IMAGINE if we could time travel and be present when a woman, a sea captain’s wife, was describing her visit to the port of Newcastle 135 years ago.

Well, that’s never going to happen, or is it?

But luckily today, we have the next best thing. It’s a rare glimpse into our past courtesy of the seafaring diaries of a Victorian lady from England, Maud Berridge (1845-1907), the wife of Henry, a master mariner, who brought his three-masted clipper, Superb, into Newcastle Harbour in 1883.

Because of the time taken to load a cargo of coal in Newcastle, the curious Maud took time off to sightsee (including visiting Sydney) and also take a nine-hour trip by steamer up the winding Hunter River to the inland port of Morpeth, and then travel into Maitland to return to Newcastle by steam train.

Her husband’s iron ship was awaiting a coal cargo in Newcastle for almost two months, so Maud had plenty of time to go exploring. Their ship arrived on June 21, 1883, and left on August 13, 1883, bound for San Francisco.

“We arrived at Newcastle and judging from the appearance of the town from the water is not so ugly as has been represented to us,” she wrote in her diary.

“Built on the side of a hill, it has rather a picturesque appearance. Just at the entrance to the (Hunter) river, there is Signal Hill, (today’s Fort Scratchley) and beyond a lighthouse built on a high rock which stands by itself almost and to which the name ‘Nobby’s’ seems very appropriate,” she wrote.

The town from the water is not so ugly as has been represented to us.

Maud Berridge

“There are a great number of large ships and steamers lying at anchor and also alongside a pier waiting for the coal. There would be a very heavy sea breaking here in rough weather except for the breakwater, which has been built out of enormous stones, each weighing some 15 or 20 tons.”

Later that night, sitting on deck with her husband, she found the “air is delicious, water quite calm”. The lights of the town twinkling on the hillside looked very pretty and “a small steamer ferry (to Stockton) rushing up and down and across the river, gives some animation to the scene.”

A lasting early memory of their arrival in Newcastle Harbour was the sudden rush of shouting maritime businessmen.

“One of the most amusing things that happened on our arrival was to see the number of butchers that besieged the ship, soliciting orders. Of course, only one could be patronised, the rest went off in the sulks and grumbling as though they had been asked to come on board and present their various (business) cards,” Maud wrote.

“I paid my first visit on shore at Newcastle and found that certainly ‘distance lends enchantment’ in some cases. There is one long street running the length of the town, the railway and the wharves being on one side and short streets running up the steep hillside on the other,” Maud Berridge’s diary entry records for July 23, 1883.

“Some of them are decent, others are very dirty and rough; tumbledown wooden cottages and large stones thrown down the centre of the road.”

On climbing one of the better roads, the author found herself near Christ Church Cathedral overlooking the city.

“It is a very primitive building and now being pulled down for a new cathedral to be built as the site is a splendid one and commands a magnificent view of the mouth of the Hunter River . . . as well as a fine stretch of open sea.”

Bygone era: Sally Berridge's new book.

Bygone era: Sally Berridge's new book.

The raw insight into early Newcastle by Maud Berridge comes from a new book by Canberra-based author Dr Sally Berridge, who is the loving great-granddaughter of Maud and Henry Berridge.

Through the pages of The Epic Voyages of Maud Berridge, (Bloomsbury $24.99) we then discover Maud Berridge travelled the seas with her husband on at least five occasions (1869, 1880, 1882, 1883 and 1886). Most of the voyages were on the clipper Superb.  

The diaries give a woman’s perspective on life on a sailing ship and revealing details like they really all inhabited a floating zoo. After sailing from Newcastle, Maud reported a surprising menagerie on board. This included seven dogs, five goats, two cats, two kittens and dozens of Australian cockatoos and parrots “as well as the sheep, fowls and ducks for consumption on the voyage”.

Maud wrote diaries of her extensive travels when it was frequently very dangerous. One voyage alone took 14 months in an era sailing without GPS, no electricity or refrigeration, no computers and no radios. They had candles and wood for lights and cooking. Trumpets and flags were even used to send messages to passing ships

The most complete diary of her travels, however, and luckily for us, was of her 1883-1884 voyage. It provided the core material of the new book.

This diary was deposited with the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, London, in 1948, and so was preserved for posterity.

Besides recording her Newcastle experience, Maud also describes early Melbourne, Sydney and San Francisco and travels to see geysers in Sonoma Country.

And this is beside the adventures of their windship catching the Roaring Forties and battling enormous waves, storms and icebergs.

Of particular interest to Novocastrians are Maud Berridge’s visits to the now long gone orchards at ‘The Folly’, Waratah, with their massive annual fruit yield.      

Also of interest is Maud’s long and tortuous journey upriver to Morpeth via “a regular snake of a river”, wondering at the brilliant green of the lucerne fields, pretty Indian corn, pumpkin crops and with restless dingoes moving about.

“In going about the country in Australia, one misses the birds so much. An occasional magpie or laughing jackass was all we saw,” she remarks in her diary.

She also notes in her diary that Morpeth railway station (now long gone) “was the smallest and most primitive I have ever seen”.

Then, after the “prettily-laid out town” of Maitland she comments on the avenue of Morton Bay fig trees up to the East Maitland court house and the new jail being built beside it, passing by a warder with a fixed bayonet guarding a dozen prisoners busy on roadworks.

I was intrigued by the book about Maud Berridge, as it reminded me of a similar tale about the voyages of Gladys Mann, a woman with local links, who I wrote about two years ago.

Gladys Mann had also sailed around the globe in windjammers, but as young passenger for five years before she turned 20.

A Newcastle relative brought her to my attention in early 2016. Gladys Mann died in 1972 and her family are still preparing her manuscripts for publication, hopefully soon.

While both women shared the perils of sailing the often wild ocean long before satellite navigation and radar existed, young Gladys did not write of the 19th century Newcastle scene, which makes Maud Berridge’s memories so special to us today, more than a century later.