'If you lived in the Lower Hunter it is almost certain Astley Pulver was in your street before you'

Mapping the past: History librarian Chloe O’Reilly with the disguised map drawer showing city streets in 1886. Picture: Mike Scanlon
Mapping the past: History librarian Chloe O’Reilly with the disguised map drawer showing city streets in 1886. Picture: Mike Scanlon

IT’S among the strangest tables you’ll ever see.

Big, white, and rectangular, it immediately catches the eye in the local history room, upstairs in Newcastle City Library, in Laman Street.

Covered with lines, names and odd shapes, it soon becomes obvious it’s a chart of inner city streets and 19th century buildings. Why, there’s even Blane Street, once the name for part of Hunter Street, Newcastle, more than 130 years ago.

The ingenious table, devised by library staff, is really a disguised map drawer covered with a map drawn in January 1886 by Mahlshedt & Gee, surveyors and draughtsmen.

And yet, it’s strangely familiar. So familiar I know where I’ve seen it before. This 1886 map was later copied and improved upon by a rather fascinating Newcastle surveyor and icon, the late Astley Pulver, memories of whom are sadly, fading fast.

Between 1975-79, as a hobby in retirement, surveyor and amateur historian Mr AP Pulver (as he seemed to like to describe himself) redrew surveyors’ maps of inner city Newcastle blocks as they were in 1886.   

This time, however, all the individual buildings depicted had the names of the people who once lived, or conducted business, there. As such, it remains an invaluable tool for history researchers today.

CURIOSITY

It was only one of the many interests of the busy and ever curious Astley Paston Pulver (1899-1988).

Besides documenting pre-1900 buildings for posterity, Pulver found himself at the bottom of a gaping hole on the corner of Church and Watt streets, Newcastle East, in 1978 trying to find more evidence of our convict era coalmining.

He’s somehow got into the large excavated square hole of what soon became the $10million fortress-like police headquarters beside the (then) courthouse.

Here, looking around the deep walls of the man-made crater he found the telltale signs of a coal seam only eight metres down and, above, the black socket of a wall tunnel firmly indicating to him evidence of convict coal mining before 1830.

But that’s not why he’s remembered today. Among his achievements was helping design Canberra. He was employed by the Federal Capital Commission from 1925 until 1930 when he was made redundant in the 1930s Great Depression.

He then returned to Newcastle and into private practice where he further made his mark.

Astley Pulver’s father, Worters Readett Pulver, was as an influential surveyor for the Australian Agricultural Company (or AACo) which first mined coal on its major Newcastle landholdings, then later sub-divided it for sale. His father was responsible for much of Hamilton’s Garden Suburb development. The pair soon went into business together.

Towards the end of his career Astley Pulver assumed almost legendary status.

Besides the initial surveys to help establish Canberra, the spry and chipper Newcastle city identity did much to establish the suburbs of Rankin Park, Belmont North and Woodberry.

Pulver’s death, aged 89 years, also ended a continuous link of 101 years involving father and son as registered surveyors in the Newcastle area, according to his 1988 obituary.

Surveying legend: The late Astley Pulver in 1985. Picture: Mark Stothard

Surveying legend: The late Astley Pulver in 1985. Picture: Mark Stothard

Pulver Street, Hamilton, was named after his father, although many people believed it was named after Astley Pulver.

Born at East Maitland, Pulver was around so long that as a youngster he remembered pastoralist Thomas Cook as “very tall and straight with a full beard”. The suburb of Cooks Hill is named after the man. The Pulver family lived in Laman Street opposite his house, Lucerna, which is now the site of the Newcastle Conservatorium auditorium.

Surveyor Phil Blackley, once an articled pupil of Astley Pulver, perhaps summarised his career best.

“If you lived in the Lower Hunter it is almost certain Astley Pulver was in your street before you,” he said. “Or if you live in Hamilton South, Bar Beach or Cooks Hill, his father certainly was. Astley was a leader in so many areas it is hard to document. He was active in field work until he retired in 1971, aged 72 years, and the Minister for Lands later congratulated him for being on the Board of Surveyors register for a remarkable 60 years.”

Pulver was also the foundation chairman of the Hunter-Manning group of the Institution of Engineers and a foundation member of the Royal Australian Planning Institute.

The firm of WR Pulver and Son founded by father and son in 1931 is today better known as Pulver, Cooper and Blackley (PCB), engineering consultants of East Maitland.

“Everyone called him ‘Mister’ as a term of respect, He was a gentleman surveyor of the old school who was also a pillar of the Anglican Church and a member of the Diocesan Synod,” Blackley told Weekender.    

“He was a high-profile citizen of Newcastle, but most of all he epitomised the professional surveyor in deed as in word, always insisting on wearing a suit and tie, for example, to show people ‘who’s in charge’.

“After work, when he lived in Newcastle, and even later living at Booragul, he’d struggle up Watt Street, have a drink at the United Services Club, then always dinner at the Newcastle Club.

“But he also loved the beauty of the Barrington Tops and tried to bring it to the attention of the public. He and friends built a hut up there and even created a ski run.

“Despite his age, he served in World War II, was promoted to Major, commanded search lights in Newcastle before being sent to Borneo. Harley Kloster was his 2IC, I recall.

“And all through WWII, Astley kept paying rent, including cleaning fees, on his survey office at the AMP chambers in Newcastle. When he returned though he walked through his office door and into cobwebs at which he joked, ‘They must have thought I was never coming back’.

“Just after the war when vehicles were scarce, Astley had a war surplus jeep in which he drove around town becoming a very familiar figure. People would say to you, ‘You’re with the Major are you?’

He was a gentleman surveyor of the old school ....

Surveyor Phil Blackley referring to Astley Pulver

“Much later, I remember a former partner in our practice being very frustrated at times with Astley because he wouldn’t charge some hard-up clients for our services. It was gratis.”

Blackley said Astley Pulver truly came from another era, as his father Worters had once engaged a phrenologist (a man studying skull shapes to determine intelligence) to advise him on the likely career paths for each of his three sons by inspecting their heads.

“The man advised the father that one son would be a lawyer, another [Astley] would be a surveyor like his dad and that the third man ‘could be suitable for commercial life’.”

Blackley said one story of the highly principled Astley Pulver always stayed with him, confirming the old surveyor’s commitment to his work and love of history.

“In his office were early maps of Hamilton. It was well known that if someone ever took them out of the office, even into the field for work, the offence meant instant dismissal. That’s how precious those old maps were to him,” Blackley said.