A passion for freedom inflamed first coal find
The passion for freedom burned as hot as campfire flames for the first Europeans likely to have cooked over coal at Newcastle. The coalfire was lit in March 1791, when desperate convict escapees William and Mary Bryant, their young daughter, infant son and seven others had rowed for two days in a fishing boat after fleeing Sydney Cove.
The group would row more than 4800km north for 69 days, to eventually land at Timor.
A log kept by their fellow escapee James Martin described finding “several large pieces of Coal ... and searching about a little, we found a place where we picked up with an ax as good Coals as any in England — took some to the fire and they burned exceedingly well”.
By the time British researcher Charles Blount found Martin’s Memorandum in 1937 in the archive of 1800s English philosopher and prison reform campaigner Jeremy Bentham, official credit for finding coal at Newcastle had gone to Naval Lt John Shortland.
Shortland was pursuing another group of escapees, but as a report of a coal find north of Port Jackson had been made the year before, the reason Shortland was given credit for the discovery is unclear, even 120 years later.
Colonial Judge Advocate David Collins wrote in June 1796 of a party of fisherman who had visited “a bay near Port Stephens”, and had brought back samples of coal to Sydney.
Details of Shortland’s find are also scant, although his description after landing on September 9, 1797, of “a very fine river” which he named after Governor John Hunter, has been taken as the founding date for Newcastle.
Shortland was sent from Sydney in pursuit of more passionate escapees, who were making their second, and in one case third, bid for freedom.
Seven years earlier, on September 26, 1790, John Tarwood, Joseph Sutton or Suttle, George Lee, George Cannoway and John Watson, based at Parramatta, had “seized a small punt, and proceeded in it to the South Head, whence they seized and carried off a boat” from South Head signal house.
They were found at Port Stephens four years and 11 months later, on August 23, 1795, when bad weather forced Captain William Broughton, on the HMS Providence, past Sydney Cove.
Broughton reported that the absconders were “miserable, dirty, and smoke-dried men, having lived ... among the natives”, members of the Awabakal and Worimi aboriginal tribes who occupied the area.
Broughton returned the men to Port Jackson, where they explained Port Stephens aborigines, had “received them kindly, and offered them fish, opossums, and other kinds of food”. During their time at Port Stephens, the men made “many tours inland, and were well acquainted with the country for miles around” and “spoke in high terms of the pacific disposition and gentle manners of the natives.”
Sutton had previously attempted to escape as a stowaway on the vessel Neptune. Found hidden among firewood, a marine took him ashore, where he was “several flogged” on the orders of Governor Arthur Phillip, along with “a free man who had also attempted to escape from the colony as a stowaway”.
On September 5, 1797, a group of convicts seized the colonially built vessel Cumberland, described as the “largest and best” boat in the colony, then carrying supplies between the Hawkesbury and Sydney.
In a letter to England in January 1798, Hunter reported the Cumberland theft, and on a “List of Men Gone off in the Cumberland” discovered in 2009, he named Tarwood and Lee.
“Not having any fit vessels to pursue (them) on such an occasion, I dispatched two rowboats well armed,” Hunter reported. “One boat turned south and returned after a short time, but one commanded by John Shortland rowed north as far as Port Stephens.”
Although he did not catch up with the absconders, Shortland noted that on September 9, 1797, his party had slept near an aboriginal tribal camp on a river, which “I judge this river lays N. N. W true 63 or 65 miles from Port Jackson.” Shortland likely came in three places around the area that is now Stockton.
Hunter also noted Shortland’s report of a harbour and “a very considerable quantity of coal of a very good sort, and lying so near the water side as to be conveniently shipped; ... Some specimens of this coal were brought up in the boat.”
The next year ships began collecting coal from the Hunter banks, also known as Coal River, to sell in Sydney. In 1799 the first shipment of local coal, sent to Bengal, was likely Australia’s first export.
The first permanent coal mine in Australia opened at Newcastle in 1804.
Newcastle Coal Mining Company coal miners at ‘A’ Pit in Glebe, 1899, and (left) Naval Lt John Shortland.