Newcastle’s Old Government Domain (1804)
Newcastle has been all but written out of the history of Australia and even NSW. According to Libby Robin’s How a Continent Created a Nation (2007), Nigeria has played a more important role in the creation of the Australian Nation. Is this an acceptable situation for Australia’s second oldest city?
In 2010 Newcastle will not feature in the official commemoration of 200 years since Macquarie was appointed Governor of NSW. Yet Newcastle still has the extraordinary opportunity to confirm its standing alongside Sydney and Hobart as one of the three pioneer settlements of Australia.
The key is the hidden treasure of the James Fletcher hospital on Watt Street. Dating back to 1804, this site is Newcastle’s original seat of Government. It combines the first government house and garden, military barracks and parade ground, and original convict coal workings along with a range of more recent asylum and hospital buildings.
Yet this invaluable site still has no official heritage protection. There has been concern that interests within the NSW Government would like to consolidate the site by moving the adjacent Police and Law Courts to Honeysuckle with the intention of sell off the whole block as prime real estate, as has already happened to the Royal Newcastle Hospital site.
Fortunately Hunter New England Health (HNEH) has publicly confirmed that it will continue to use the site for mental health services and that it will remain in public ownership.
The Coal River Working Party has supported the initiative of the Hunter Branch of the National Trust in lodging application for listing on the New South Wales State Heritage Register. We are presently in discussions with the Minister for the Hunter and the CEO of HNEH to achieve official support for that nomination and, in consequence, to ensure that any new works are in accordance with a conservation masterplan as already drafted in 2005.
The transfer of acute care patients from James Fletcher hospital should in time allow much better public access to the buildings and grounds. There is a lot of scope to tell the exciting history of the site from first centre of administration to asylum and hospital in imaginative ways that not only celebrate heritage but also lead into public education in mental health. The old barracks could be fitted out as a conference centre; the parade ground could again become a place of ceremonies, sport, entertainment and picnics; there is room for more than one coffee shop/cafe. Let people be welcome.
Our long-term goal is to integrate the Old Government Domain with the revitalisation of the city along the Watt Street access. It is consistent with the concern of the legal profession to maintain the legal precinct at the Top of Town.
Too often Newcastle has squandered opportunities because heritage and development have been seen as antagonistic. The reinvention of the James Fletcher site is a wonderful opportunity to combine heritage with renewal and vitality for the benefit of the whole city.
The Government Precinct Committee in conjunction with the Coal River Working Party seeks your support to protect Newcastle’s birthplace and ensure that this Government Domain remains in public hands with Heritage Listing and an imaginative Masterplan for its future use.
MR GIONNI DI GRAVIO
University Archivist and Chair – Coal River Working Party
Convenor – Newcastle Government Domain Committee
The Coal River Working Party (CRWP) was formed in 2003 to provide academic rigour and expertise to research and to promote the Coal River Heritage Precinct (NSW State Heritage Register No1674), which is arguably one of the most important historic sites in Australia.
The CRWP consists of representatives from the academic, general staff and students from the across the University, our business partners and many organisations and individuals in the wider community.
We have a strong concern for this Region’s heritage and actively work to research, document and celebrate its history, which is so important to the Australian national identity.
Our ultimate goal is to ensure that Newcastle’s historic places achieve world-class distinction and recognition. To do this its history has to be properly researched, documented and safeguarded for future generations so that people can continue to recognise and be inspired by this Region’s achievements.