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Our Australian Cousins
Chapter XIX


The city of Newcastle, New South Wales—Buildings, wharves, cranes, &c.—Badly laid out—The Sand Drift—Subordination of great national works to petty local wants—Negligence of sanitary principles—Want of public spirit—Want of a proper water supply—The filth and squalor of a colonial town—How contagion spreads—The shipping—Pall of smoke—Port defences—The coal trade—Devices for keeping up the price of coal—Short history of the relations between the masters and miners—The Vend Scheme—Both sides—The miners—Their sports and general characteristics—Chinese gardeners—Miners' houses.

I have endeavoured to avoid making my rambling notes and jottings suggestive of the directory or guide-book, and as statistical information nowadays is so easily obtainable, I do not intend to run into figures, and state liow many inhabitants reside here or there, what are the imports and exports of this port or that, and add up the bills of mortality. All these can be found if the reader's tastes run that way, in the parliamentary blue books and local directories; no better epitome of the kind can be got than "The Industrial Progress of New South Wales," being a report of the Intercolonial Exhibition of 1870 at Sydney, printed by the government printer, Mr. Richards.

Newcastle, as every one knows, is the second city in New South Wales. It is situated at the mouth of the Hunter river, which drains one of the richest and most populous districts in the colony. It owes its importance to the magnificent deposits of coal which here lie scattered in vast layers all over the district.

The city proper is only about twenty years old, is built on a hill overlooking the mouth of the Hunter river, and owes its progress and present importance to the coal-mines that have been established in the neighbourhood. These give employment to nearly 8000 miners, principally Northumbrians and Welshmen, and for miles inland there are numerous populous villages clustering round the pits, and but for the eternal bush and the colonial aspect of the houses, most of them being mere huts of rough weather-boards, rudely roofed with stringy bark, one could almost fancy himself in the heart of a mining district at home. The bar at the mouth of the Hunter is dangerous, and disasters are frequent. There is a peculiar isolated rock, called " Nobbys," which stands up boldly at the end of the breakwater, and the lighthouse on this serves as a prominent mark to mariners sailing along the coast. The shipping is large, and immense quantities of coal are shipped to the various intercolonial ports, to China, Java, Singapore, and the East, to the South Pacific Islands, and to San Francisco, Valparaiso, and other American ports.

The town is dingy, dusty, and smoky. There are commodious wharves, and a perfect network of rails; huge shoots for the coal waggons; and magnificent hydraulic cranes, derricks and raised platforms rear their unsightly limbs in all directions near the harbour. It is a busy place, and everything wears a smutty grimy look, reminding the wanderer at every step of the great staple of the district, Old King Coal. On the north shore of the harbour are extensive copper smelting works, the lurid fires gleaming redly into the night. Numerous small craft bring down cargoes of railway sleepers and other timber, country produce,, and grains from the farms in the interior. A railway runs up to Tamworth, about 182 miles, through the fertile country stretching along both sides of the Hunter river. It is being extended, and will eventually run through the fertile New England district joining the Queensland railway, no doubt, as population and cultivation extend. There are many banks and public offices in the town; a large imposing custom-, house and numerous churches; none of them with great pretensions to architectural beauty. In fact the principal English church dignified with the imposing title of cathedral is a most unsightly, tumble-down structure, and would insult a Midlothian barn by comparison.

Like its great rival Sydney, the city of Newcastle has been badly laid out. There was not much .building-ground between the steep hill on which the houses cluster and the sea. Magnificent hydraulic cranes have now been erected, by which the utmost expedition in lading and discharging cargo can be attained. To the back of the city a most phenomenal plague has baffled all the engineering skill that has so far been brought to bear upon it. This consists of a sand drift, a sort of perpetually encroaching avalanche or moving earthquake of sand, which keeps on year after year eating its way onward, has swallowed houses, engulfed roads, borne down fences and barriers, and threatens to entomb the city on that side altogether-Formerly a dense scrub sufficed to interpose an impassable barrier, but with the reckless waste in timber-cutting so characteristic of the colonists, this invaluable scrub was long ago cut down to act as struts in the mines or firewood for the miners. Nothing yet attempted seems to have resulted practically, and the sand drift is becoming an evil of portentous magnitude. Planting trees would be, I think, the only sufficient remedy, and for this the Ailanthus would seem to be the best adapted, having been used for a similar purpose in Algeria and other places. The formation of great trenches filled with brush, scrub, and dead wood, might arrest the sand, as has been done at "Montrose and other places on the east coast of Scotland. On the dunes thus thrown up by the arrested sand, bent grass might be planted, and would perhaps succeed. In any other community such experiments would have been tried long ago; but here, government is expected to do everything, and when every petty parish in the land is clamouring for a share of the public plunder, great works such as this are left neglected. I might name a score of national works in one breath which are thus subordinated to petty local requirements: Drainage; water supply; irrigation; forest conservation; suburban railway extension; bridges; viaducts; metropolitan railway extension; tramways et hoc genus omne. All, all, neglected, gone at with occasional spasmodic jerks, spoken about, reported on, and then quietly shelved or pigeon-holed for another decade, till another temporary stimulus is perfunctorily applied. The railway system, the public works, the administration of the lands office, are in New South "Wales the symbols for everything imbecile and contemptible.

In nothing does the want of system and organized effort more remarkably display itself than in the almost total absence of all attention to sanitary science.

Mr. Burton Bradley, a well-known and respected colonist, has written, lectured, and worked, for years with indefatigable ardour and devotion in this cause, and he has a few enlightened and sympathetic fellow-workers, but practically the colony is behind a Hindoo village in this respect. In Newcastle, for instance, a crowded cemetery takes up the very heart of the city, and the exudations from it drain into nearly every well in the lower and more crowded portion of the town. A new cemetery has, it is true, been lately dedicated, but is likely to be for years unused, by reason of the pitiful bickerings of rival sects about the acres apportioned to the poor dead dust.

It is now (1879) nearly three years since Mr. Clarke, the celebrated hydraulic engineer, reported on the water supply of the Hunter River district towns. The report was highly approved of, money was to be devoted to carry out the scheme at once. A great show of activity and zealous effort was made, surveys were instituted, plans were drawn out. I believe even a skeleton staff of officials was appointed. What is the result ? Night after night some miserable jackdaw in the parliament, who has unearthed a bone, in the shape of a petty personal scandal, moves the adjournment of the House, that the dirty linen may be washed in public. Session after session is wasted, and great schemes of national weal, such as this of water supply, get' shelved, while hundreds of easily preventible deaths annually occur from bad water, defective drainage, neglect of sanitary laws. Nothing is done by the legislature, absolutely no progress is made. In November, 1877, 1 wrote as follows. I make no apology for reproducing this article here, for written with no intention of ever being put before an English audience, they may be accepted as honest outspoken criticisms, and give a good idea of the state of things against which they were written at the time. I am sorry to say that the signs of improvement seem tardy of approach. My article, written in 1877, applies with just as much force to the state of things now as it did then. Here it is :—

The laws of health, the origin of disease, the conditions of life, in connexion with drainage, proper ventilation, fresh water, pure air, and free room, have all been exhaustively studied, and written, and talked about, and acted on, until we have really very little more to learn in connexion with the science and practice of sanitation. It would seem, however, as if it had been altogether and utterly neglected in Newcastle. No provision whatever for a wise sanitation in our city seems to have been made. Although the town may .originally have been built at hap-hazard, streets started leading to nowhere, impassable and impossible thoroughfares projected, houses tumbled down at every angle to each other, and evidently built without the slightest regard to order, method, or design : there yet seems to be, as time goes on, and attention is directed to other matters, a most fatal apathy shown as regards sanitary measures for the proper conservation of the health of the town. Go into any back yard, almost in any quarter of the city, or look from the back windows of almost any street, and the eye roves over the most inconceivable jumble of nuisances and unlovely sights that could be anywhere imagined. 'The appearance of our filthy, squalid courts would disgrace the most tumbledown Irish collection of hovels, or the proverbially dirty purlieus of a Spanish or Mexican village. On every hand rise out-offices, placed cheek by jowl with water-tanks; and in close proximity to wells. The dry earth system never seems to have been heard of in Newcastle, and the most fearful odours and mephitic exhalations rise and fester in the close-confined, poisonous, reeking atmosphere, without the slightest attempt at check, removal, or restraint. Nay, more! This horrible State of things is accepted without a murmur, as quite a part of the situation, and to all- appearance irremediable. A sickly steamy smell pervades the air, and in the worst places, and near some .of the drains, the smell is deadly in its horribleness. How, in God's name, can children, nay, robust men and women, be expected to remain healthy, with such an atmosphere and such a state of things around them ? We are no; alarmists, we have no wish to indulge in sensational writing, but we do say that we are standing on the edge of a crater, on the brink of a terrible danger. At every breath we draw we are in danger of inhaling the ghastly germs of disease, and' strenuous efforts should be made to at least ameliorate this most forbidding and disgusting state of things. It would surely not be impossible to have the gutters of the principal streets flushed at least once or twice a week. The fire-engines could be utilized for that purpose, and water is plentiful at least in the harbour. Much can be done by individual efforts and personal cleanliness. The unsightly collections of litter in back yards should be removed. The dry earth system should be introduced, and insisted on, by owners of houses, and heads of families. It can be introduced at very little extra trouble and expense, and even the dust from our streets could be utilized, and form a valuable deodorizer and subsequent fertilizer. This again leads us to inquire where are the gardens that should surround our town with a belt of verdure and beauty? Is it owing once again to the vile monopoly in land, which we have so often written against and deplored. What is to hinder the swamps and flats around Burwood, the Glebe, Hamilton, Wickham and Bullock Island, from being cultivated? Were the land to be had at reasonably low rents, we doubt not kitchen gardening would give employment to hundreds of hardworking honest sons of toil. The town and shipping would absorb all that could be raised in the way of fruits and vegetables, and in place of unhealthy swamps, and unlovely mud flats,—the haunt of mosquitoes, agues, and fevers,—we would have smiling gardens and trim cottages nestling snugly each in its neatly cultivated patch. These would beautify the landscape, purify the atmosphere, enhance the value and attractiveness of the city, and support a large industrious population of happy, healthy, and prosperous citizens. Carbolic acid, chloride of lime, or other disinfectants, should be used in all out-offices and cess-pits at least twice a week, and as citizens we should not rest till our drainage is made worthy of the scientific age in which we live; our water supply be secured without further shuffling and delay, and a wise system of sanitation adopted and insisted on in our midst. Why, the state of our town is a standing menace, a defiance of nature, a scandal and reproach to our civilization. In the boasted second city of New South Wales there is not a latrine, a public urinal, a public bath, one decently paved street, one healthy drain, or (shall we add ?) one spark of honest regard for the grand truth, "cleanliness is next,to godliness."

At the present writing (July, 1879) the matter is seemingly no further advanced than it was three years ago.

All this does not overstate the case. Sanitary science is practically ignored in New South Wales. Sydney is just as great a sinner in this respect as Newcastle. The surplus from the shameful alienation of crown lands is frittered away in a thousand unproductive directions, and the death-rate yearly mounts up higher.

Newcastle, by its most ardent admirer, could not be called a beautiful town. But for the ever glorious sea, rolling, its billows on the sandy beach, there is in fact no animation in the landscape. The shipping, when the harbour is full, always suggests pleasant imaginings, the principal of which centre round the suggestion, that by means of their white sails and glistening hulls, one can be transported from the stench and dust and grime of this deadly dirty town. A dense pall of smoke ever hangs over the town and district, and even far out at sea the captain of your steamer will point to the' distant thick curtain of lowering smoke, and say, "There lies Newcastle."

There no doubt that with its mineral wealth and favoured position, it is destined to become one of the greatest shipping ports of the Pacific "coasts, and numerous costly and scientific appliances are at work, deepening and improving the harbour, developing the resources, and utilizing the wealth and productions of this flourishing district. In this respect there is no cause for complaint, but then these affect pockets, not lives. A very fine breakwater is being thrown out into the sea, and serious" attention has been drawn, despite the short-sighted obstructiveness of a few members of parliament, towards the efficient defence of this-most important naval station, in case of attack. Preparation is undoubtedly the best defence, and it is to be hoped the defence works, begun during the panic of the time when' the British fleet steamed up to Besika Bay, will not share the fate of the water supply scheme, and be put off till the Greek Kalends. It is highly probable, however, that such will be their fate.

Previous to 1874 there was a keen competition among the collieries for customers, the consequence being ruinous lowering of prices, reduced wages, and general depression. In that year an agreement was made between masters and men of certain collieries (known thenceforth as the Associated Collieries), by which this competition was, to a certain extent, restricted, the associated masters agreeing on a uniform fixed price. At the same time one of the, grandest arrangements' ever entered into between capital and labour was made, so say its authors. This was a sliding scale of wages, by which, as the price of coals rose, the wages of the miners rose pro rata, and this has, without doubt,' materially contributed ' to the prosperity of the district, and the development of the coal-mining industry. As the matter is of great interest to capitalists, both here and at home, I give the agreement in the Appendix.2 Last year, however, 1878, there were symptoms of a split, and much agitation arose in the district in consequence. It was said that while ostensibly sticking to the agreement, some of the associated collieries were resorting to the old trick of underselling the others. The quarrel waxed fierce and hot. It will not interest the general reader to recapitulate all the phases of the controversy that arose. Suffice it to say that the agreement, in its first integrity, had to be given up. A makeshift was hit upon in the shape of the Vend Scheme.

By this all the associated collieries had a certain amount of their total output of coal allotted to them, corresponding to the amount shipped during the year from the port, the number of hands employed, the capabilities of the pit, and so on. "When the allotted output had been reached, the mine had to stop work, and, in fact, in some cases this has been done. There are symptoms, however, that this cannot last long. One proprietor has looked on this as an attempt on the part of the men to fetter his right of free action to raise as much coal as he can, to sell as much as he can, and to whom he will. Other masters grumble at their allotment, and the whole scheme is but protection in its worst form, at the expense of the general public who are the purchasers. The Illawana mines in the south, and the mountain mines in the interior, are redoubling their efforts to acquire a share in the trade. Borings for coal are being prosecuted underneath and around Sydney, and signs are not wanting that the Newcastle coal monopoly is in danger of being broken up.

Whether this will be an unmixed blessing or not remains to be seen. The Vend scheme is rotten in principle. The mutual agreement and sliding-scale was infinitely better. Even that bore hard on the consumer, but he had to take what he could get, and be thankful he got coal at any price. Unrestricted competition will to- a certainty stimulate enterprise. Cheap coal will be hailed as a boon; it will help to foster and promote manufacturing works, and it may attract increased shipping and beget a much larger output of coal. We shall see.

The upholders of the monopoly and high-selling price of coal say that the trade is limited; that only a certain number of ships come out, or are attracted to the port; and that there is no scope for an increased export trade. This also has to be proved. Meanwhile housekeepers and shippers alike grumble, but the coal ring burrow away and enjoy the goods the gods provide, undisturbed alike by malediction or laudation.

The miners, it must be said, are not as a rule a thrifty race. When they have been earning good wages much more of their earnings might have found their way to the savings-bank than has been the case. Consequently, when hard times come they quickly feel the pinch. Gold-mining has been in a depressed state ever since the mania of 1872 ; and other employments are uncongenial to the sons of Pluto. When the harbour, therefore, is empty, and work slack at the pit, the miner has rather hard times of it.

They are paid 5s. per ton for cutting coal, and were they in regular work could make about a pound sterling per diem. They are not, however, in regular work, and probably average about 5/. to 6l. a fortnight. They are paid fortnightly on a Friday, and the Saturday is called spending day. On this day the town presents a busy sight. The streets are crowded with miners and their wives making purchases, and a tremendous amount of beer and other liquors is consumed. They are a peculiar people. They seem rough enough, but there is much kindly feeling and warm-heartedness beneath their homely casing. They are surrounded with few of the refinements and beauties of life. Theirs is a hard, perilous task to bring to the light the deep-buried treasures of the dark and silent pit.

They are intensely clannish and not over-delicate in expressing their opinions about either men or things. All have a darkish rim under the eyes. Many stoop and have rounded shoulders, and rheumatic and chest affections are pretty common. One Saturday I took a drive out to Wallsend, in which populous township there are perhaps congregated more miners than in any other of the numerous villages round the city. There was a football match being contested between the local club and the one from Newcastle. There were many very ludicrous incidents, and as the ground was sloppy and had several deep pools of water standing in the various hollows, the players were soon covered with mud from head to foot. During the game there was a contested point, over which a good deal of excited talk arose. The on-lookers were intensely partisan, and as the contest waxed hotter and ended in a struggle for possession of the ball, they could restrain themselves no longer. Imagining there was a fight going on, they burst all bounds, crowded on to the course, and began hustling the Newcastle men off the place. In vain their own players expostulated; in vain' the umpires shouted, commanded, pleaded, and protested. It was of no use, the miners were on their own dunghill, and were not to be baulked, and were only restored to good humour and prevailed on to leave the players alone, after half an hour's fierce wrangling and contention, during which the strangers had to submit to some rather rough handling.

But for the dense black tea-scrub bordering the race-course, one could have fancied himself in the heart of a mining village at home. At one end a number of youths were engaged in shinty, a sort of polo on foot. With their fur head-dresses, Scotch caps, and fustian habiliments, they reminded me of long-forgotten scenes on the village-common in Scotland.

Quoits seem to be the favourite amusement of the miners. Before every public-house a brawny youth or two. with arms bared to the elbow, may be seen poising the polished "discus," and with unerring aim hurling it straight for the iron pin that marks the goal. The old-fashioned game of fives, too, seems to command the suffrages of a goodly number of the young men. Cricket also has its votaries. Horse-racing is largely patronized, and the mysterious game of knurr and spell is advertised in the miner's favourite medium, the Newcastle Morning Herald and Advocate. It consists in a ball being let out of a trap, much in the same way as a pigeon at pigeon-shooting. The player tries to hit the ball as it bounds from the trap, and some benefit is supposed to accrue if he succeeds in making good his aim. No one in the town seems to have a clear idea of what the game really is, and to this day I have not been initiated into its mysteries.

The valley of the Hunter is admirably fitted for semi-tropical productions, and very fine fruits and crops are grown by the farmers. Several large vineries and tobacco gardens are to be met at intervals along the river, and good wine is made in the district. In -New England, farther to the north up by Armadale and Tenterfield, the grapes are magnificent in the season, and scarcely to be surpassed anywhere for either size, quantity, or flavour.

The coal-pits at Wallsend and those of the Australian Agricultural Company are about the largest in the district. They give employment to over 1000 men between them, and there are nearly 100 horses employed underground hauling trucks and strips. In many places where the workings have been abandoned and the tunnels have fallen in, the surface of the hill looks as if it had been rent and riven by some tremendous earthquake. Here as elsewhere the Chinamen have established small colonies. They are the market-gardeners and hawkers of the place. Their gardening is superb. They make the ground grow almost anything. Personally they are filthy, but their vegetables are swelling, succulent and sweet. One celestial with a very filthy skin told me he could make about 21, per diem with his cart and horse. There can be no question of the fact. I think that the white man could do just as well, and better, if to his energy and strength and intelligence he would add the plodding patience, the unflagging industry, and laudable thrift of his Mongolian rival. These children of the sun, too, are most tenacious of any hold they can get. They are an independent lot, and with wonderful pertinacity stick to their point till it is gained. Their usually placid temper, however, seems to be ruffled when the boys take to calling them Irishmen. What there is between Pat and John which calls forth such manifestations of temper and mutual dislike I know not, but a Chinaman here is mortally insulted when you call him Paddy and repudiates the connexion with bitter scorn.

Land here, too, as in the vicinity of all colonial towns has immensely increased in value, and has got into the hands of a few monopolists who stand terribly in the way of needed reforms. The miners are fierce democrats and out-and-out radicals. They are keen politicians, and shortly after my arrival in the colony they returned a representative of their own to parliament, and were taxing themselves to pay him a salary of 300?. per annum, which they guaranteed him. This arrangement, however admirable as it might be in theory, did not work well in practice. A paid delegate may be all very well if the general funds support him, but the weekly sixpence was found to be a burden, and soon became small by degrees and beautifully less, till it ceased altogether. The numbers of public-houses strike one with amazement. The houses of the miners are rude and miserable-looking in the extreme. The proprietors of the pits allow their workmen, I believe, to erect a "house, and live rent-free on their ground, so long as they continue connected with the pit. The hovels run up are wretched. The walls are rough, upright, undressed posts. The roof consists of ragged sheets of bark held in place by morticed beams, set astride the ridge pole and tied at the eaves. The chimney is a fearful and wonderful construction of earth, clay, battered tin, old iron piping and shingles. There are few cottage gardens, and yet the land is fertile and easily worked. The miner will not, or cannot, take the trouble to grow his own vegetables, and the Chinaman steps in and gets rich in supplying the welcome products of his trim garden to the very customers who ought to- be revelling in such delicacies, each from his own garden-plot.

The pits do not in general work full time, as shipping requirements are rather less than the output of the mines; but in addition to the mines there are several breweries, tanning and fell-mongering yards, potteries, smelting works, vineyards, and other industries, all of which give employment to large numbers of workmen. Then, again, the shipping provides for many more; so that altogether there is a very large working population, and the city and district are the very hotbed of radicalism and ultra-democratic notions. Let not the retired Anglo-Indian therefore settle near Newcastle.


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