A sense of industrial place--the literature of Newcastle, New South Wales, 1797-1997.

Julian Croft (1999)

In 1997 the city of Newcastle, 100 kilometers to the North of Sydney, celebrated its bicentennial. After Sydney itself, and Parramatta (now a suburb of Sydney), it is the third oldest city in Australia. Its name is indicative. Originally the settlement was called Coal River, or Hunter's River after the current Governor, but once mining started, almost immediately, it was fated to be named after its mining namesake in North-Eastern England. A seam of coal had been found at the mouth of a large river by Lieutenant Shortland in 1797, and the Governor had ordered convicts to be camped there and the coal to be mined. It was, and very successfully, not only for the colony itself, but for export to India and China. In not having grown from an older pre-industrial town, Newcastle, New South Wales, is arguably one of the oldest purely industrial sites in the world.

In this essay I would like to consider the sense of place in the literature written in and about Newcastle. I do so because I think it is atypical of the usual construction of Australian place. Those more common constructions are of the "wide-brown-land," pastoralism, Aboriginal Australia, and the anomie of the suburbs of the twentieth century. Industrial landscapes, and the communities that arose around those heavy industries, are not what most people think of when they imagine Australia. And I would suggest that most would think that industrial landscapes and sense of place in Pittsburgh, Birmingham, and Stuttgart would be much the same. There are, however, interesting differences in the Australian experience, and they can be seen in the 170 years of published writing in English which has taken place in Newcastle.

The earliest literary representations of life at the settlement at the mouth of the Hunter date from the 1830s when mining coal using convict labor had become well developed. In symbology, style, and attitude these first poems by Frank MacNamara ("Frank the Poet") contain the same radical, apocalyptic vision that Blake, in particular, articulated at the end of the eighteenth century. Repression, physical and spiritual slavery, the bankrupt ideology of the Enlightenment and Empire, leap off the pages of MacNamara's "A Convict's Tour to Hell." But it is not only the sadistic oppression of the state in the shape of Commandant Morisset that constitutes this Hell; it is also the dreadful slavery of industrial work: dirty, exhausting, degrading and dangerous. Of course, MacNamara and his "mates" are not only workers, but convicts, and as such are closer to slaves than workers. Here in the first decades of the nineteenth century as the late eighteenth century's industrial revolution transformed into political revolution, we see many of the images of mid-century propaganda against working conditions in Britain.


Many thanks to Julian Croft for permission to add this introductory section of his analysis of the special nature of the literature that has reflected the industrial landscape of Newcastle, the oldest industrial town in Australia. The essay was published in Antipodes, v.13, no.1, 1999 June, p.15(6)