Coal River Precinct

The Coal River Precinct in Newcastle contains several historic sites, including  Fort Scratchley, Nobby’s Head, Macquarie Pier, Nobby’s Beach and the Soldier’s Baths.   The precinct is on the State heritage Register of NSW (‘Coal River Precinct’ Listing No. 1674).


Coal River Precinct has outstanding significance to the Nation because of the Natural, Indigenous and historic heritage values that it holds, it is a place of ‘living history”. The first and most important industrial centre in Australia and has outstanding heritage value because of the characteristics it shows, not known to exist elsewhere. The precinct has strong association with mining, maritime and military themes. The elements of this single environment represent modes of early construction, engineering and surveying techniques that were used in conjunction with an understanding of the natural earth formations, geology, ocean and river systems. The precinct includes the site of Australia’s first coal mine, Macquarie Pier a most remarkable feat of convict construction, the site of the first navigational aids for coastal shipping and Hunter River traffic, and the site of a series of fortifications designed to protect the growing settlement and its precious coal reserves. The precinct demonstrates characteristics of a place of convict labour and punishment in a location where extensive labour was needed to build the Macquarie Pier.

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Coal River Precinct has outstanding significance to the Nation for its role in the development of Australia’s first industry and economy (coal mining), a role that has been continuously creating wealth for the Nation spanning three centuries. Heritage significance of the precinct lies in evidence of a process of adaption and transformation over time. The landscape tells these stories in a dramatic fashion; through its changing landforms shaped by the demands of industry, through its archaeological remains intact and in situ, and through the continued and inescapable presence of a bustling working harbour. The shaping of the landscape through settlement, development and infrastructure; using natural resources, coal, the development of industry and communications, all of which continue to be represented there and important to Australia economically.

The Coal River Precinct exhibits historic qualities, it has coal mines that operated in 1801, it was the centre from where the Nation’s first profit was made, and there are physical reminders in the historic landscape that forged a future for coal mining operations that would later spread throughout the Hunter Region. Macquarie Pier has exceptional historic qualities, constructed using convict labour to ensure a safe harbour. The pier and operational Nobbys Lighthouse continue to be used to ensure safety of the Port of Newcastle.


The precinct continues to sustain industry and export and in 2017 is the largest coal port in the world. These resources are largely due to the legacy of skills and labour of transported convicts, committed for secondary punishment. The area is a “functional precinct, a living zone, a scene of business and recreation and dwelling, providing a remarkable fusion of heritage and the everyday….illustrates the vibrant interactions between natural and cultural forces communicating a sense of origin while tracing a long and complex history of economic and industrial transformation.” (Roberts & Eklund 2012) These ‘living’ qualities make the heritage values at this precinct unique because of the longevity and continuous use of the place, it is not a redundant relic, nor is it fully intact, but is an active and dynamic landscape because of its coastal environment. These qualities make the precinct distinctively unique.

The precinct has outstanding heritage value to the nation because of the special association with environmental activism. Australia’s first environmental action took place in 1853-1854 on behalf of a community to protect a natural landform (Nobbys Headland). Environmentalists, climate protestors and anti-coal campaigners continue to use the site and have a special association as it symbolises ‘coal’ and history of procurement of this resource.


It also has significance as a place where technical achievement occurred, with the transfer of knowledge of the first coal mining in the Southern Hemisphere and marks the use of the transfer of the ‘bord and pillar’ coal mining techniques from across the world to Australia. Coal operations at this place were solely Government owned and managed, representing the commitment of the colonial government.

The Coal River Precinct demonstrates outstanding cultural significance because the early Aboriginal and European association with Whibayganba or Nobbys Headland, a cultural and spiritual Aboriginal place that tells the Dreaming story of the giant kangaroo.

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Download the PDF here.

Coal River Timeline…

It is also a place of significant cultural achievements in early Australia, many artistic objects and works were created by colonial artists in Newcastle of Nobbys Headland and surrounds, by notable artists such as Joseph Lycett, James Wallis and Thomas Skottowe.

The Coal River Precinct is unique because it represents an early major public works project in Australia, (Macquarie Pier -Nobbys Breakwater) that not only provided a safe entrance into the Hunter River, but contributed to the Colony’s growing coal export trade. The convict breakwater is testament to the skill and technology used in the Colonial period, that has become the foundation of Nobbys Beach, now a popular surfing beach. This early Australian example of  public work (Macquarie Pier) constructed primarily using convict labour remains in use today for the purpose for which it was established.

The decision to run the Supercars event through a heritage conservation zone, and to build a race track through the Coal River Precinct is disgraceful. Our Council have bent over backwards to accommodate this private corporatisation of the peninsula. They have handed over all controls to Destination NSW (State Government) and Supercars. The radical changes to the peninsula required for the race will devalue and degrade the character of the precinct. It will be long lasting and irreversible. All for short term gain and private profit.

And what will the streets of the heritage precinct look like during the race?