History & Heritage

Newcastle East is a heritage conservation zone...not a race zone!

People and Places of the East End

James Fletcher (1834-1891)

James Fletcher 1834-1891.jpg.opt237x320o0,0s237x320.jpg

James Fletcher was born at Dalkeith, East Lothian, Scotland, in 1834. As a boy he had worked in the Scottish coal mines. In 1852, at the age of eighteen, he headed for the Australian goldfields seeking his fortune. Gold had been discovered in NSW in 1851 and by 1852 the gold rush was well under way. James Fletcher was one of 370,000 immigrants to Australia during that year when gold fever hit the Colony.

Within two years he had abandoned the goldfields and moved to Newcastle taking up employment as a miner in the Burwood Tunnels. On arrival in Newcastle he lodged at the home of James Birrell, underground manager of the Australian Agricultural Company’s colliery.

In 1854, he married James Birrell’s daughter, Isabella.1That year he was employed as a pitman in Newcastle’s Borehole Colliery, also owned by the A. A. Company. At a meeting of miners he ‘stood on a box and advocated the formation of a union’. 2 He was just twenty years of age. The Borehole Miners’ Lodge was formed from that meeting; it was the beginning of Trade Unionism for the coal industry in Newcastle.

The Miners’ Union began in 1861 with James Fletcher as President. Shortly after, there was a general strike when the mining proprietors reduced the hewing rate by 20 per cent. During the strike several of the miners prospected for coal in Plattsburgh. They struck a coal seam and formed the first co-operative colliery, the NSW Co-operative Coal Company, appointing James Fletcher as Manager.3

In 1874 he was voted first Lord Mayor of Wallsend. In 1876, he became proprietor of the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, now known as the Newcastle Herald. Under his management the newspaper averaged a readership of 8,000 per day in 1879.4 In 1880, he entered State politics as the Member for Newcastle. He was N.S.W. Minister for Mines in 1886 and Minister for Public Works in 1889. He remained a Member of Parliament until his death in 1891.

James Fletcher died suddenly in Melbourne on 19th March 1891, at the age of fifty-seven. He was a Freemason; a member of Lodge Harmony in Newcastle, and Lodge St James No. 45 at Wallsend, where he had reached the degree of Past Master. He was buried with full Masonic honours and his funeral was the largest Newcastle had ever seen, over 25,000 mourners and spectators lined the streets of Plattsburgh and Wallsend. He was interred with his three children who had predeceased him, in Old Wallsend Cemetery which was known at the time as Wallsend Cemetery. It was located between Newcastle Road and Thomas Street, Wallsend, but was reclaimed as a public rest park in 1953. Today, James Fletcher’s remains are still in their original resting place, and the headstone, along with many others was turned to rubble to be used for road base.

Mr. John Penman, a personal friend of James Fletcher, conducted the memorial service at the Primitive Methodist Church at Plattsburg. He praised James Fletcher as one ‘whose charity knows no limit, and whose generosity to the widow and fatherless was unbounded’. 5 Much of James Fletcher’s motivation and commitment to social justice may have stemmed from the influence of Primitive Methodism which promoted commitment to social welfare and education reform, and had fostered the Trade Union Movement in England and Wales during the 19th Century.6

In 1897 a monument was erected in Fletcher Park, Newcastle, in his honour. It represents James Fletcher standing ready to address a meeting. James Fletcher was known as the “miners’ friend” and the “miners’ advocate” because of his gift for arbitration and negotiation between managers and miners.

James Fletcher Monument.jpg


‘Labour Leader’, Newcastle Morning Herald, 5 September 1947.

Lowndes, J. G., “James Fletcher, The Miner’s Advocate”, Newcastle History Monographs No. 10. 1982. Print.

‘Story of James Fletcher, his is the only statue Newcastle has raised’, Newcastle Sun, 6 July 1961. Print.

‘The Late Mr James Fletcher M.P., Family Life’, Newcastle Morning Herald, 21 March 1891.

Wells, Kathryn. “The Australian Gold Rush.” Australian Government. 2007. Web. 5 Apr. 2013 <http://australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/austn-gold-rush>

End notes

  • ‘The Late Mr James Fletcher M.P., Family Life’, Newcastle Morning Herald, 21 March 1891.
  • ‘Labour Leader’, Newcastle Morning Herald, 5 September 1947.
  • ‘Story of James Fletcher, his is the only statue Newcastle has raised’, Newcastle Sun, 6 July 1961, no pagination.
  • G. Lowndes, ‘James Fletcher, The Miner’s Advocate’, Newcastle History Monographs No. 10. 1982, p. 9.
  • ‘Memorial Funeral service at Platsburg’, Newcastle Morning Herald, 24 March 1891, p. 7.
  1. G. Lowndes, ‘James Fletcher, The Miner’s Advocate’, Newcastle History Monographs No. 10. 1982, p. 9.



Joseph Lycett – Aborigines Resting by a Camp Fire near the Mouth of the Hunter River, Newcastle, NSW. (National Library of Australia)

The Awabakal clan of Muloobinba (Newcastle) mainly lived around Merewether and the city foreshore area and harbour entrance. The clan had good hunting and fishing facilities, and was reasonably close to the clans of Lake Macquarie and the Hunter River and others located in what we now deem to be old waterfront areas – Honeysuckle (site of corroborees), Wickham, Carrington and Port Waratah, popular for mud crabs and shellfish, as indicated by the large middens that have survived.

The name ‘Awabakal’ means people of the plain or flat surface, believed to refer to the surface of Lake Maquarie. From the observations of the Reverend Threlkeld, it is understood that the Awabakal Tribe lived around Lake Macquarie.

Aboriginal people believe there is no separation between the health of the land and the health of the people. They have long known that to care for the environment is to care for all the living things; that all life is part of the enormous network of relationships that were created by the Great Spirit ancestors of the Dreaming.

The Awabakal tribe consisted of four clans, all of which had an area within the tribal territory considered theirs to use in their search for food and to gather raw materials for technologies. The four clans were Pambalong (or Swamp District), Ash Island, Kurungbong and Lake Macquarie.

The clans came together on social and ceremonial occasions. On a daily basis they respected territorial boundaries.



Dreaming stories pass on important knowledge, cultural values and belief systems to later generations. Through song, dance, painting and storytelling which express the dreaming stories, Aborigines have maintained a link with the Dreaming from ancient times to today, creating a rich cultural heritage.

 They establish the rules governing relationships between the people, the land and all things for Aboriginal people.



The Awabakal people spoke of a volcanic eruption that occurred during the Dreaming, in the area now known as Redhead. An ancient volcanic plug is believed to exist in the Redhead area. The Awabakal name of this volcano is Kintiiyirapiin.

A long time ago a great darkness came over the land. The darkness came from a hole in a mountain and blocked out the sunlight. The people and animals were all very frightened.

Messengers were sent out to gather up the people to have a yarn about how they could bring back the sunlight. The elders decided that they needed to cover up the darkness that was all over the ground. The men, women and children collected rocks, sand, branches and bark which they laid on the ground to cover up the thick darkness.

After the darkness was covered many generations walked on the ground pressing the earth flames and darkness together, which created coal or nikin in Awabakal.

Now when coal is burnt the ancient earth fire spirit is released.



Painting by Saretta Fielding

Be aware that the story of the Kangaroo in Nobbys is quite a sensitive one. The Awabakal Dreaming website suggests that it should not be shared with women and children, but this version is a recommended text by BOSTES.

A very long time ago, when there were still giant sized animals around, all the various animals within the area would separate into two groups – one group being the females and the other the males.

They all lived together very peacefully and happily.

One day a large male kangaroo attacked a female wallaby.

This was against the law.

He was banished from the kangaroo group forever.

After a long chase by the wallabies the kangaroo reached Muloobinba, the place of the sea ferns, now called Newcastle.

As he entered the sea, he thought about how lucky he was to be able to slip away from the wallabies that chased him.

The wallabies thought that he had drowned.

But the kangaroo had swum to Nobbys Island and entered the tall rocky outcrop, making sure that he was out of sight of everyone.

He is still there to this day, but he won’t come out because he is never sure if it is safe for him from the angry wallabies.

Sometimes he gets upset and jumps around inside his prison. When his giant tail crashes against the earth, it makes the rocks fall and the ground tremble.

The Awabakal people believe this is what causes an earthquake.


The People Quiz answers…

  1. Name the writer and teacher who lived in Newcastle East (Carlton Building) during WW2? Dymphna Cusack. Her work includes “Come in Spinner” & “Pacific Paradise”- a successful anti A-Bomb play translated into several languages and performed around the world.
  2. Which Commandant began a building program in Newcastle between 1815 and 1818? Captain James Wallis (Commandant from 1816 to 1818).
  3. Which important colonial architect designed Customs House? James Barnett (Colonial architect for NSW. Work includes the GPO Sydney and Lands Department Building.)
  4. To which convict artist do we attribute much of our knowledge about early settlement of Newcastle and contact between aboriginal and European people? Joseph Lycett (convict and artist).
  5. Who ‘discovered’ Newcastle while returning to Sydney after searching for escaped convicts? Lieutenant John Shortland. His landing site was at the base of Signal Hill (Fort Scratchley) where he found coal.
  6. Name the magician/ventriloquist who lived in Scott Street and had a magic shop there. What was the name of his ventriloquist’s dummy? Rex Sinclair (Uncle Rex) and Horace starred on radio and stage.
  7. Who designed Longworth House/Airforce Club in Scott Street, a rare example of the Anglo Dutch style of architecture? Frederick Menkens (architect of national importance – works include: St Andrew’s Church, Baptist Tabernacle, David Cohen & Co warehouse, Earp Gillam warehouse, The Boltons).
  8. Who lived in Wynn House, Parnell Place and were members of a theatrical family associated with the Victoria Theatre? Del and Neville de Glorian – came from a long tradition of entertainment. Their grandfather William Wynn and his brother were trapeze artists. Later they became managers of the Victoria Theatre. Del and Neville’s father was a stage manager there.
  9. Which Lord Mayor was responsible for transforming railway yards into the Foreshore Park? Joy Cummings – the first Australian female Lord Mayor. Responsible for: saving Islington Park figs, Civic Park, extensions to Blackbutt, Wetlands, Glenrock and the Foreshore Park.
  10. The stairs down to the Foreshore Park are named after Jean Perret. What important role did she play in Newcastle East? Jean Perret was an activist and for many years was Secretary of Newcastle East Residents Group.


General Knowledge Quiz answers…

  1. Where was the Jubilee Monument (Coal Monument) first located?    Pacific Park
  2. What were the three main activities of convicts who were sent to Newcastle in 1804?    Cutting cedar, mining coal and burning shells to make lime.
  3. What does Muloobinba mean?    Place of the edible sea ferns.
  4. In what year did Lt. Shortland discover coal, fresh water and a good harbor at a site near the base of Fort Scratchley?    1797
  5. What is the aboriginal name for Nobbys?    Whibayganba
  6. Who did convicts build the Bogey Hole for?    Major Morisset
  7. What is the significance of the Convict Lumber Yard near Customs House?    It is Australia’s oldest industrial site
  8. What is the name of the paddle steamer, wrecked at the mouth of the harbour in 1866, claiming the lives of 60 people?    Cawarra
  9. What was the early name for the Fort Scratchley headland?    Signal Hill
  10. Which school is the oldest in Australia?    Newcastle East Public School. It was founded in 1816 for the children of soldiers and convicts. The first headmaster was a convict, Henry Wrensford. He could read and write, being convicted of forgery. Beginning in a slab hut near Bolton Street, the school moved several times in its history and now overlooks Newcastle from the hill.