The Port of Newcastle is about 160 kilometers northeast of Sydney at the mouth of the Hunger River on Australia’s east coast. Born in 1801 as the Coal Harbour Penal Settlement, the Port of Newcastle grew up as an outlet for farm produce and coal. In 2006, over 140 thousand people called the Port of Newcastle home, and almost 500 thousand people lived in the urban area.
Before Europeans settled there, the Port of Newcastle was inhabited by the indigenous Awabakal and Worimi peoples. Lieutenant John Shortland was the first European to discover the area while searching for escaped convicts. He returned with news of coal and a natural deep water port. But Newcastle soon won a reputation for being a “hellhole” because the most dangerous convicts were sent there to dig in the coal mines.
At the beginning of the 19th Century, the Port of Newcastle was dominated by three groups: timber-cutters, coal hewers, and escaped convicts. The governor of New South Wales sought a better way to retrieve the abundant natural resources. A convict camp was established there in 1801 for coal mining and timber cutting. The first shipment of coal was sent to Sydney that year, but the settlement closed in less than a year.
The settlement of Coal River was established there in 1804 as a place for hard-to-discipline convicts. The town was soon renamed Newcastle after the coal port in England, and many of its namesake’s coal mining men immigrated to the Port of Newcastle.
Australia’s oldest public school was built in Newcastle in 1816, but it continued to be a penal settlement. In 1822, the settlement opened for farming. The last convicts were sent to Port Macquarie the following year. After that, settlers began to populate the territory. The Newcastle and Hunter River Steamship Company began to transport freight and passengers between Newcastle and Sydney.
The Port of Newcastle is the oldest seaport in Australia and the second largest in tonnage handled.
Coal mining became the Port of Newcastle’s major industry in the 1830s (the industry was gone by the early 1960s). Australia’s first railway was opened in 1831 to carry export coal to the Newcastle wharves. In the 1850s, an important copper smelter was established nearby, and a zinc smelter was built in the late 1880s.
In 1911, BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company, chose the Port of Newcastle for its steelworks. Opening in 1915, the steelworks was the major employer for the area for 80 years, employing 50 thousand people for many years. The Port of Newcastle had a small shipbuilding segment which has been in decline since the 1970s.
During World War II, the Port of Newcastle’s industries were important to Australia’s war effort, making it a Japanese target. In 1942, a Japanese submarine shelled the city, causing minimal damage to the dockyards and the steel works.
The Port of Newcastle is the economic center for the Hunter Valley and much of northwestern New South Wales. It is the world’s largest port for exports of coal, with more than 85 million tons of cargo moving through the port each year. In 2005-2006, 80 million tons of coal was exported through the Port of Newcastle, making it an unpopular place for environmentalists.
By the time the steelworks closed in 1999, Newcastle’s era of heavy industry was over. Remaining manufacturers have moved away from the city to cheaper land and better access to highways and rail.