Newcastle Walking Tours

Newcastle Walking Tours

Some very clever and lovely Novocastrians have created a series of fabulous, self-guided walks around the city.

These have been prepared and written by David Hampton, one of the splendid people who make Newcastle Museum amazing.

The audio of the walks has been recorded by a couple of very well-known Novocastrians – me and Garth Russell!

The full set of walks is available on Visit Newcastle.

Meanwhile, let me take you on a couple of walks – the Shoreline Walk and the Newcastle Architecture Walk.

 

 

Newcastle Shoreline Walk

Newcastle Shoreline Walk

Free printed maps are available at the Newcastle Museum or the Visitor Information Centre located at the Maritime Centre both located in the Honeysuckle precinct.

 

Heavy Walk – 3hr / 3.2km

Explore Newcastle’s maritime and surf culture through a self-guided walking tour of the city.

With its spectacular harbour and coastline, the Pacific Ocean has always played an important part in Novocastrian’s work and leisure.

Explore the city through its relationship with the shoreline. Visit places that once formed a crucial part of Newcastle’s working harbour and maritime culture. Enjoy the city’s spectacular coastline and discover places that Novocastrians have been visiting for generations to swim, relax and play.

This walking tour begins on the Newcastle Foreshore, at the viewing spot for Destiny, a sculpture that commemorates Newcastle’s role as a commercial port. It concludes at the Newcastle Memorial Walk, a spectacular walk that offers 360 degree views of the city and its coastline.

Click here to download the map.

Click here to download the full brochure and map.

Introduction

Please click here to listen to the audio introduction of this tour.

1. Destiny

Julie Squires’ sculpture Destiny was commissioned in 1999 to commemorate 200 years of commercial shipping operations in the port of Newcastle.

Located on the former State Dockyard site at Dyke Point, Destiny was inspired by the traditional figure heads on the bows of sailing ships, believed to protect and guide ships. This contemporary form symbolises the spirit of the future: Destiny steps forward confidently yet protects and nurtures the past. She stands atop a globe and draws strength from the earth, and the strands of her hair represent the seven seas.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

2. Newcastle Mercantile Marine Memorial

This memorial is dedicated to the memory of all merchant mariners lost in times of war.

During World War II the sea was a crucial transport route, bringing resources into and taking completed products out of Newcastle. Japanese submarines operated along the East Coast of Australia during 1942 and 1943. They sank 18 vessels and attacked another 15, killing 277 merchant mariners and 223 medical personnel.

The crews of two ships with strong Newcastle connections are remembered here. The S.S. Iron Chieftain and the S.S. Iron Knight, both owned by BHP and crewed largely by local men, were both sunk with loss of life by enemy action. The Iron Knight was torpedoed by Japanese Submarine I-21, the same sub that shelled Newcastle in June 1942.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

3. Customs House

The Newcastle Customs House was designed in the Italianate Renaissance Revival Style by New South Wales Colonial Architect James Barnet in 1877. On top of the clock tower is a Time Ball.

Up until the Second World War the Time Ball would fall and Fort Scratchley would fire a gun at precisely 1pm. This practice was carried out in ports around the world during the 19th century to allow ships’ masters to adjust their navigation instruments.

The Time Ball has since been refurbished and still marks time daily above the Customs House. The Fort Scratchley Historic Society has refurbished a replica field gun that is fired daily at 1pm to keep this significant maritime tradition alive.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

4. Queens Wharf

In 1858, work began on the first major government structure along the Newcastle foreshore for berthing ships and loading coal. This became known as Queens Wharf. It was 1240ft long by 1861.

The exchange sidings of the Great Northern Railway ran parallel to the wharf, and coal from all over the region was transported in wooden hoppers to this point. A row of steam cranes would lift the bodies of the wagons out of their frames to be emptied into the holds of the waiting ships.

As expansive loading facilities opened around Carrington and Stockton, Queens Wharf ended its days as a loading point for wool and general cargo. It was demolished in the 1960s.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

5. Tugboats

After Queens Wharf was demolished four smaller berths were constructed along Wharf Road for Newcastle’s Tugs. The first tugboat to arrive in Newcastle was the Huntress in 1854. Underpowered and overpriced, ships refused to use her and she left Newcastle within a year. More powerful tugs soon arrived and fierce competition emerged between the rival boats for towing jobs and salvage opportunities.

Tugs of all shapes and sizes have called Newcastle home. One of the most famous was the Champion. Built in 1895 for local mining magnate John Brown, she was not only one of Australia’s most powerful tugs, but also its most luxurious. Lavishly decorated and fitted with a piano, she was often chartered to take her owner and his guests on deep sea fishing trips. She sank at anchor in the harbour in 1954 under suspicious circumstances.

The harbour’s modern fleets of tugs now dock further up river and carry on the long tradition of safely guiding ships into Newcastle Harbour.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

6. Boat Harbour – Newcastle Pilot Station

Newcastle is a very busy port, with 4600 shipping movements per year. The Port of Newcastle is a compulsory pilotage port, which means that a ship’s pilot, employed and certified by Newcastle Port Corporation, is transferred to all ships entering and exiting the harbour.

Pilots provide advice to the ships’ masters (captains) to assist vessels arriving and departing from the port. The marine pilot takes charge of the conduct of the navigation of the vessel while the master retains command of the vessel. About 80% of Marine Pilot transfers to and from ships are completed by helicopter, the remaining 20% being by pilot cutter vessels, which are often berthed here.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

7. The Lifeboat

For 136 years the Newcastle Lifeboat Service went to the aid of the crews and passengers of vessels in danger. The first lifeboat arrived in Newcastle in 1838. The NSW government did not finance a full time lifeboat service in any port and as a result, the crew of the Newcastle lifeboat was made up of volunteers from the harbour department, dredge service and customs service. The volunteer crew received little or no payment and were uninsured for their dangerous task.

During the service’s long history the lifeboats responded to hundreds of distress calls and saved thousands of lives. From the 1860s onwards, the boats were stored here at the pilot station. Newcastle’s last lifeboat, the Victoria II is now in the Newcastle Maritime Centre collection.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

Feature Story – The Wreck of the Adolphe

One of the lifeboat’s finest rescues took place on Friday 30th of September 1904.

The Adolphe, an elegant four masted French Sailing Ship had arrived from Antwerp at about 9am. She was met by two Newcastle Tugs – the Hero and the Victoria. The Tugs secured lines to the ship and began towing her towards the harbour entrance.

Conditions at the Harbour mouth were dangerous. A strong wind blew from the south and the seas broke heavily across the entrance. When it came round the southern breakwater, the Adolphe was struck by huge seas that caused the Victoria’s tow line to snap. The Hero struggled on alone but could not hold the ship up and another succession of big waves lifted her onto the remains of a ship previously wrecked attempting to enter the harbour.

The lifeboat put to sea. Battling the huge swells, and carefully navigating the remains of other ships wrecked in the same place years before, the lifeboat came alongside the Adolphe, secured two lines to the stricken ship and dropped anchor. One by one, the French crew came aboard the lifeboat, and once 47 people were on board the lifeboat set off for safety. The rescue took only half an hour.

The crew of the lifeboat were hailed as heroes and the Consul-General for France made a special visit to Newcastle to thank the crew and reward them with a purse of sovereigns. The Adolphe’s remains can still be seen on the Stockton Breakwater today.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

8. Grounded

On Friday, 8 June 2007 the coal ship Pasha Bulker ran aground in heavy seas on Nobbys Beach. Her enormous red hull interrupted the beach and the city skyline until she was successfully re-floated 25 days later, leaving nothing behind save a section of her rudder in the surf, which was later salvaged.

This sculpture was commissioned to commemorate that dramatic episode in Newcastle’s history. Created by renowned Sydney based sculptor John Petrie, Grounded is an abstract representation of the ship’s bow, reflecting both the shape and colour of the Pasha Bulker.

An original section of 22mm plate steel from the salvaged rudder of the ship is included at the base of the work.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

9. Newcastle Ocean Baths

Newcastle is firmly associated with shipping, industry and mining but it is also a place of spectacular natural beauty.

During the early 20th century a decline in the local mining industry forced Novocastrians to consider projects to diversify the local economy, attract tourists and capitalise on the city’s beautiful coastal landscape.

The Newcastle Ocean Baths was one such initiative.

The construction of the pool began in 1910 and the distinctive and architecturally significant Art Deco pavilion was built in 1922. The Baths provided the main swimming facility for clubs, school carnivals and the general public for decades. It continues to be a popular swimming spot today.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

Feature Story – The World Pool

Just next to Newcastle Ocean Baths is the Canoe Pool, the site of one of Newcastle’s most enduring urban legends.

In 1936 a wall was built on the southern end of the Ocean Baths to protect it from rough seas and sand. Within this space a circular pool boasting a pigmented cement map of the world was constructed. The continents of the world were raised 60 centimetres from the bottom, 20 centimetres being above the water line. Countries of the British Commonwealth were coloured red, with other nations in green.

Much about the Pools’ construction and final fate remains a mystery. Considering the Depression of the 1930s it may have been a project to stimulate employment. However, the designer of this unique creation remains unknown. The construction of a map in a public pool was certainly unique, and no similar pools are known to have existed in Australia.

It is generally believed that the World Pool, as it became known, was removed after being damaged beyond repair by a cyclone in the 1970s. However, rumours persist that remnants of the map are still uncovered after big swells.

What is known for certain is that many Novocastrians who grew up between the 1930s and the 1960s have fond childhood memories of playing in the pool and journeying ‘across the globe’ with their family and friends.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

10. Newcastle Beach – Surfest

Newcastle Beach hosted the first ever Surfest and for two decades was the competition’s home beach.

Surfest began in 1985 when Newcastle was still striving to cast off the city’s grime-ridden industrial image and showcase the unheralded beauty of Newcastle beaches and its fantastic surf breaks. Surfest was originally called the BHP Steel International and was the richest professional surfing event in the world at that time.

Surfest has become Australia’s largest surfing festival and part of the international world tour of surfing. It has made Newcastle and its surf culture famous not just nationally but internationally as well.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

11. King Edward Park

By 1860 the area of King Edward Park was clearly identified on maps as a ‘Reserve for Public Recreation’ but it was first proclaimed a recreation reserve in 1865.

During 1898 the park gained a Rotunda and many of the spectacular trees that now define the park were planted. During the Second World War a gun battery was established in the park and bomb shelters were erected. They were finally demolished in 1978. It continues to be a focal point for community recreation to this day, with picnics, wedding parties and gatherings taking place in this spectacular park by the sea.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

12. Newcastle Memorial Walk

Newcastle Memorial Walk was constructed to commemorate the Centenary of ANZAC and was completed in April 2015.

With its striking 360 degree views of the city and coast, the walk commemorates those who enlisted in World War I and features the family names of men and women from Newcastle and the Hunter Valley who served during the war. It also recognises the contribution that BHP Billiton made to the war effort in supplying steel rail, ship plate and munitions.

The Newcastle Memorial Walk provides a striking connection between the City’s CBD and the walk to Bathers Way, which continues south to Merewether Beach, home of the largest ocean baths in the Southern Hemisphere.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

Please click here to listen to the audio on Susan Gilmore.

 

Newcastle Architecture Walk

Newcastle Architecture Walk

Free printed maps are available at the Newcastle Museum or the Visitor Information Centre located at the Maritime Centre both located in the Honeysuckle precinct.

Easy Walk – 1hr 30mins / 2.2km

Explore Newcastle’s Architectural heritage through a self-guided walking tour of the city.

The architecture of Newcastle is defined by a rich diversity of styles that reflect the city’s prosperity and growth throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Explore buildings that have acted as cultural, political and economic icons for the people of Newcastle. Discover the works by architects not just of local, but national and international significance.

This walking tour begins at City Hall, which has been at the centre of Newcastle cultural and political life since it was completed in 1929. It ends at the Civic Theatre, Newcastle’s premier live theatre venue and one of the last great remaining examples of picture palace architecture in the state.

Click here to download the map.

Click here to download the full brochure and map.

Introduction

Please click here to listen to the audio introduction of this tour.

1. Newcastle City Hall

Newcastle City Hall has been at the centre of Newcastle’s cultural and political life since it was completed in 1929.

The first actions to establish a new town hall were recorded in 1888 but a final site and design for the hall was not agreed upon until 1925. Newcastle City Hall was designed by acclaimed architect Henry Eli White. The building contains a concert hall that seats 844 people, a dining room and servery, office spaces and the Council Chambers. The Hall is constructed of Sydney sandstone, adorned with Roman Doric and Ionic columns and dominated by its tower and four sided three metre diameter clock.

City Hall has performed a variety of roles in the decades since its construction. During the Second World War it was the nerve centre for the civilian response to an attack on the city and hosted free concerts to international and local troops seeking entertainment.

During the 1970s Newcastle City Council Offices were moved off site and replaced with conference spaces. The City Hall continues to host concerts, ceremonies and meetings of the elected Newcastle City Council today.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

2. Corm

Corm was presented by BHP Pty Ltd to Newcastle City Council to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the opening of City Hall in December 1979. The 1.5m tall bronze sculpture was inspired in both title and form by the fleshy stem found in plants. The sculpture was created by artist Marilyn McGrath who has described the work as an organic sculpture designed to provide a link between the constructed environment and nature.

McGrath was born in Sydney in 1939. She was training to be a registered nurse at the Royal Newcastle Hospital when she began attending evening classes in Sculpture and Drawing. McGrath went on to teach at the Newcastle Technical College Art School, and her work can be found in both public and private collections across Australia, including The Art Gallery of NSW.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

3. City Administration Centre

Known by many Novocastrians as The Roundhouse or The Champagne Cork, this building was constructed to accommodate the various departments of Newcastle City Council in 1977 as the City Hall could no longer accommodate the growing workforce. A roughly triangular parcel of land next to the City Hall was chosen to construct a purpose built administration centre.

With deep recessed windows to cut down on heat from the sun, the building’s precast concrete columns were finished to match the colour and texture of the City Hall stone work. The basement carpark spirals down from street level and had to be constructed like an underground dam, due to its proximity to the harbour. The water table beneath the building is very high and special construction techniques had to be used to prevent the water logged earth from collapsing into the excavation.

It continues to support the city as Newcastle City Council City Administration Centre.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

4. Newcastle Art Gallery

Newcastle Art Gallery was officially opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on Friday 11 March 1977. It was the culmination of decades of work to realise the belief that Newcastle, a city known for industry, could also be famous for having the best art gallery in the country.

Newcastle Art Gallery is a pioneer. It was the first purpose built regional art gallery in Australia. With its sharp geometric shapes and exposed concrete walls the gallery reflects the Brutalist aesthetic that flourished in the decades after the Second World War. The Gallery has collected over 6000 works since its inception, and is considered one of the most significant public collections in the country.

Today the gallery hosts a variety of exhibitions drawn both from its own collection and from other institutions via travelling exhibitions.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

5. Music, Literature and Art

Paul Beadle’s relief sculptures adorn the entrance to the Newcastle War Memorial Cultural Centre. His heavily stylised work is designed to fit into tight spaces. The two reliefs show aspects of music, literature and art. Beadle included a unique self-portrait carving a male bust in the top of the right entry. The works reflect the community’s desire to be a place of creativity and learning.

English born Beadle was the head of the Art School at Newcastle Technical College from 1951 until 1957. He taught and exhibited widely in Australia before migrating to New Zealand in 1961.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

6. Baptist Tabernacle

The Baptist Tabernacle was designed by one of Newcastle’s most prominent and popular architects of the late 19th and early 20th century, Frederick Menkens.

Constructed from 1889 to 1890, the buildings elaborate painted plaster neo-classical Corinthian façade was inspired by the Spurgeon Metropolitan Tabernacle in London.

It was threatened with compulsory demolition during the planning of the neighbouring Newcastle War Memorial Cultural Centre in the 1940s but both legal arrangements and the Tabernacle’s trustees prevented the building’s destruction.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

Feature Story – Menkens

Frederick B. Menkens was born in Germany in 1855. Few could claim to have had as diverse and striking an impact on the look and character of Newcastle as this creative and versatile architect.

His first trade was bricklaying but he went on to study Architecture at the Royal Polytechnicum at Hanover. He migrated to Australia in 1878. In 1881 he set up an architectural practice in Maitland for a year before moving to Newcastle. Here his practice flourished, and Menkens would go on to design over 100 buildings in the city and throughout
the Hunter.

Menkens developed a reputation amongst local builders as uncompromising and demanding. Having learnt bricklaying as a trade, it is said he would remove his hat and coat, snatch the trowel from a bricklayer and proceed to demonstrate the proper technique for laying bricks if what was being produced did not meet his standards. Menkens even spent time in prison due to his relationship with one builder, sued in the Supreme Court over a dispute with the contractor regarding the quality of their product.

Menkens died aged 55 from cirrhosis on 10 March 1910. His legacy can be seen across Newcastle in the buildings he designed.

His skills as an architect and his ability to adapt his style to meet the needs of his clients are well demonstrated here on Laman Street. Menkens not only designed the Baptist Tabernacle, but in the very same year designed the very different Gothic influenced St Andrews Presbyterian Church on the corner of Laman and Auckland Street.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

7. NESCA House

Newcastle City Council began to generate electricity for street lighting in 1890. Within two years it was increasing electrification and a district supply was established. By 1937, the Newcastle Electricity Supply Council Administration was providing over 87 million Kilowatt hours of power and had out grown its office space in City Hall.

The Council decided to construct an administration centre for the electricity department on the parcel of land next to the City Hall. Emil Sodersteen, the architect responsible for the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, was chosen to produce the design.

Sodersteen’s new building was designed to complement the City Hall, and was constructed from similar sandstone. Despite its consideration of the grand and traditional building next door, NESCA House demonstrates strong influence from Art Deco and European Modernist styling.

The building housed a demonstration theatre, showroom, administrative and business offices and staff accommodation. It opened in 1938 and performed a variety of roles until The University of Newcastle took over the site in 1995 and it became known as University House.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

8. The Workers Club

The Workers Club forms the legacy of one of the most prominent cultural, political and social hubs in Newcastle, as well as being the site of one of the city’s greatest tragedies.

The Newcastle Trades Hall Council Workers Club otherwise known as the ‘Red Inn’ and ‘The Newcastle Workers Club’ opened on this site on the 8th of October 1948, to prepare and teach skills for workers in preparation for the revolution.

During the 1950s and 60s the club played an important role in the local Labour movement, and acted as a platform for organising and staging community events.

By the 1980s it was a popular live music venue. On December 28th, 1989, the Workers Club was due to host a performance by popular band Crowed House, with thousands expected to attend. Hours before, however, at 10.27 am, the city was devastated by an earthquake. Parts of the Workers Club collapsed resulting in nine deaths.

The new Workers Club building was officially opened in 1992 by Prime Minister Paul Keating.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

Feature Story – The Earthquake

The Earthquake that struck Newcastle at 10.27am on Thursday, 28 December, 1989 was one of the most serious natural disasters in Australia’s history.

Registering 5.5 on the Richter scale, the earthquake claimed 13 lives in total. In addition to the nine people killed at the Newcastle Worker’s Club three people were killed in Beaumont Street, Hamilton and one person died of shock. A further 160 people were hospitalised. The death toll could have been far worse. At this time Newcastle’s CBD was a dominant commercial and retail hub. Thousands of people would normally flock to the CBD to take advantage of post-Christmas sales, but a public transport
strike meant that fewer people were in town than usual.

50,000 buildings were damaged and approximately 40,000 of these were homes. 300 buildings had to be demolished. 1,000 people lost their homes and the damage bill was estimated to be about four billion Australian dollars.

Novocastrians found that the earthquake altered not only the built environment but also their sense of community identity. The Earthquake, and the devastation it brought to Newcastle’s CBD became a catalyst for decay, change and rebirth that continues to influence the city today.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

9. Miss Porter’s House

‘Miss Porter’s House’, a distinctive Edwardian Terrace, was the lifelong home of Ella and Hazel Porter.

The Porter family built this house in 1910. The building and its contents are representative of the middle-class urban lifestyle of the early twentieth century. It retains Edwardian and 1940s period furnishings, unique stencilled ceilings and a collection of thousands of objects acquired by the sisters over the decades.

Before she passed away in the mid-1990s Hazel bequeathed the house and its contents to the National Trust of Australia (NSW) who now maintain the property and open its doors to the public.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

10. Bank Corner

The acutely angled intersection of Hunter and Hannel Streets was occupied by a bank for over 100 years. The previous building stood for 50 years before being replaced by the one before you in 1940.

Described in the press at the time of its opening as a simple modernised version of the Classical Traditional, the building also has Art Deco influences in the detail and decorative elements.

The building was a branch of the Bank of New South Wales.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

11. Art School and Trades Hall

This building was opened in 1896. Generations of Novocastrians enrolled here to learn trades and skills, as it hosted courses on everything from free hand drawing to steam engine maintenance.

The building was designed by W.E. Kemp, who also designed the Sydney Technical College in Ultimo. Federation Romanesque in style, the College’s frame is constructed from Red Cedar. The building is asymmetrical, with the right side being larger than the left.

The tradition of training on this site continues today. The TAFE Hunter Institute Newcastle Art School is a combination of the 1896 Art School building, the 1895 Trades Hall building and a 1997 extension that joins the two architectural highlights into one.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

12. Steggas Emporium

Built in 1886, this row of seven shops represents one of Frederick Menkens’ earliest designs in Newcastle.

The shops are typical of Victorian commercial street architecture of the period. Menkens added a touch of flair by putting a dramatic stress on one of the central bays by giving it a crowning triangular pediment surmounted by a raised parapet and broken segmental pediment. Unfortunately this feature has been removed, along with the original single story veranda.

Steggas, with seven separate businesses occupying the same building, was a forerunner of today’s department stores. The shopping habits of Novocastrians changed in the 1880s due to the introduction of efficient public transport networks, including the city’s tramways and the Great Northern Railway, which allowed people from outlying
areas to travel with ease into the city centre for shopping and recreation.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

13. Civic Theatre

Dominating Newcastle’s Civic Precinct is the Civic Theatre, built in 1929.

The theatre was designed by Henry Eli White, the same architect responsible for the City Hall. White was one of the most successful theatre architects in the country with Sydney’s Capitol and State Theatres also to his name.

Originally designed internally in a dramatic Spanish Baroque style for both cinema and live theatre, the building went through many modifications and operators. By the 1960s the Civic was in decline, due to competition from television, and its patronage fell by 63%. It closed in 1973 and Newcastle Council made the decision to transform the Civic into a dedicated live theatre venue. This decision saved one of the last great remaining examples of picture palace architecture in the state.

Today the theatre is Newcastle’s premier performance venue, hosting a diverse program of shows including dance, drama, comedy, cabaret, film and children’s shows.

Please click here to listen to the audio for this part of the tour.

Please click here to listen to audio on Civic Park.

Vale Tom Uren – the ‘conscience of Parliament’

Vale Tom Uren – the ‘conscience of Parliament’

'Gloves Off', Ralph Heimans, 2006.

‘Gloves Off’, Ralph Heimans, 2006.

Tom Uren lived an incredible life and I had the privilege of speaking with him in 2007 prior to his trip to Maitland to deliver the annual Harry Boyle Memorial Lecture for the National Trust.

Tom served during WWII and witnessed the bombing of Hiroshima. He was a prisoner-of-war on the Thai-Burma railway with Sir Weary Dunlop.

Coming from a very poor Newcastle family but raised in Balmain in Sydney, Tom’s greatest concerns as a leading Australian politician included environment, heritage and the ‘national estate’.

In this interview he speaks of his fondness for the Japanese in spite of his war experiences, his determination to protect Australia’s environment and heritage, and his affection for Gough Whitlam.

Tom Uren was 86 when we recorded this interview but sounded as enthusiastic about life as he ever did. Indeed he said, “I’m 86! That’s 86 springtimes!”

I hope you get time to have a listen, I greatly enjoyed speaking with him.

You can listen on Soundcloud:

or via YourListen:

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Rob Hirst – The Sun Becomes The Sea

Rob Hirst – The Sun Becomes The Sea

 Rob Hirst
Rob Hirst has a new solo album out – released under his own name instead of one of the innumerable musical units that he’s part of.
The Midnight Oil drummer and songwriter celebrates his new songs with an unexpected collaboration with his artist daughter, Gabriella Hirst.

Rob Hirst oozes ‘proud dad’ as he talks about the achievements of the offspring of some of his bandmates.

“We’ve all got very talented sons and daughters now, all very grown up, and my daughter Gabriella is now in Berlin after finishing her courses at COFA in Sydney and the National Art School. She did very well, got a travelling scholarship and went to Berlin.”

Gabriella Hirst’s art is, indeed, striking and beautiful. And perhaps unsurprisingly, her work seems to share her father’s social and environmental concerns.

“She was looking out over a wasteland where she was in north-west Berlin, went for a walk in the afternoon and asked one of the locals why it was so deserted. He told her that until recently there had been a poplar forest full of birds but that despite the protests of locals the little forest that had acted as a buffer between quite an industrial area and the local residences had been levelled to put in a department store or factory.”

“But he also told Ella that he’d gone for a walk on the day they cut the trees down and found 24 birds’ nests. He sent them to Ella and she painted them as part of her Berlin projects in watercolours on silk flags, which the man then attached to bamboo poles and put back where the forest once was as a symbolic gesture to remind people of what was lost. Being ephemeral artworks, she expected them to be souvenired, which they quickly were, but they fly now from the balconies of neighbouring apartments overlooking this area.”

Rob’s album, ‘The Sun Becomes The Sea’, features 24 of his daughter’s bird artworks in the hardcover booklet version of the album, which he had made to protect Gabriella’s artwork but there are a few of them online.

“I was just finishing a bunch of songs that I’d been doing over a couple of years down at Jim’s (Moginie) studio and I thought for the first time that I’d put it out under my own name rather than under the Ghostwriters or whatever. It’s just one of those lovely synchronicities where she was finishing her artwork at the same time and agreed that I could use these beautiful watercolour birds for the sleeve of the book and for the new website which finally links the Oils, the Backsliders, The Break, Angry Tradesmen, Hirst and Greene, Willies Bar and Grill, etc.”

Unusually, Rob made the decision to make all of the songs on the album available online for free.

“I just thought it would be a nice gesture and I had such fun making these songs.”

I point out that a similar ‘nice gesture’ recently backfired somewhat for U2.

“I would never be so presumptuous as to upload these 11 songs on people’s iTunes!” Rob laughs, “It’s available for those that seek it out and like it and there’s the option for people to go to a few of those old-fashioned record stores that still exist, and which we really want to support, and get the hardcover booklet with all of Gabriella’s birds and other information on it.”

The exhibition of Midnight Oil’s incredible place in the Australian music industry was a huge success at the Sydney exhibition hosted by the Manly Art Gallery and Museum and will be hosted by Newcastle Museum early 2015. How does Rob Hirst feel about his life’s work being treated as a museum piece?

“We had so many people come through and they were pleasantly surprised. I think they thought, ‘Oh Rob’s dug out a few old posters and stuck them on the wall with blu-tack’ or something. In fact, we spent about two years working on it; this is me, curator Ross Heathcote, Virginia Buckingham, Wendy Osmond who did the art direction on it.”

“We’ve got a special film which runs an hour and fifteen minutes made by Rob Hambling about the making of ’10 to 1′ with Nick Launay producing back in London all those years ago, and we’ve sourced all this film from 1984 of the band backstage in South Australia at Memorial Drive, and at Main Beach on the Gold Coast. There’s a lot of home movie footage, the Exxon banner from New York City, a full stage set-up of the band with the exact drums, guitars, amps, backdrop, lights and even the PA to be authentic from 1987 to 1989 which we toured on the back of the Diesel and Dust album.”

“There lots of little early recordings that have never been heard, a song we’ve never released before, and the pièce de résistance is a replication in a box which has sticky carpet, three screens when you walk in and a curtain you pull behind you. It has footage of the band playing at the Tanelorn Festival in 1981 and there’s two sets of headphones you can choose from – one is loud, the other is really loud – and you can stick to the carpet. There’s elbows that come out from the side of the box so that you can be elbowed in the ribs. What I was trying to do was replicate what it was like coming to see Midnight Oil back then at the Mawson Hotel, the 16 Footers or the Ambassador or whatever.”

I enquire as to whether the box also has the special scent that some of our more notorious venues had. Rob Hirst assures me it does.

“I’ve poured so much Tooheys New into that carpet, you’ve got no idea, and I’ve ground some lemon chicken and sweet and sour rat or whatever into it. Remember in NSW in those days the liquor laws stated that the pubs had to pretend to provide a meal if they were serving liquor late. No-one would ever touch those meals but they’d be knocked off the bar and into the carpet. So after three months in Manly it’s getting quite fruity in there!”

“It’s funny, one of the last surviving venues down here (Sydney), The Annandale, has just ripped up there carpet. The carpet was legendary. It was despicable. They could have scraped it for a new form of penicillin! But they shouldn’t have thrown it out. I’d have taken a square metre of it and put it in what became known as ‘Rob’s Folly’, but is now known as ‘The Royal Antler Room’ which is the Narrabeen pub that Midnight Oil first started playing all those years ago.”

“The curator, Ross Heathcote, named it ‘Rob’s Folly’ because he was bemused by the idea. He didn’t think I’d ever build it, but over six months with a couple of hard-working, underpaid friends we actually made it. It looks like a giant road case but it’s big enough for two or three people to cram in and get blasted by Midnight Oil at the Tanelorn Festival.”

Rob describes the opening of the Midnight Oil exhibition at the Manly gallery with great affection and it’s obvious that he still finds great joy in every tiny connection that his career has afforded him – from those with names to the ‘unknown’ members of road crews. Indeed for just a moment he sounds a bit misty when reminiscing about the night of the opening and the loyalty of the huge crowds who were not only Midnight Oil fans but turned out in droves to see the exhibition. I gently accuse him of getting mellow and soft in his dotage as he describes this ‘gathering of the tribes’. This quickly turns his thoughts to Newcastle.

“Newcastle will be the same. After all, Newcastle meant so much to the band. We went time and time again until we finally did a huge gig on Redhead Beach. We expected to find maybe a couple of thousand people, but there must have been 25,000 or 30,000 people on the beach. That kind of paid us back for all the hard work. We’d spoken to The Angels and (Cold) Chisel who’d just preceded us a little bit, and they said, ‘If you get places like Newcastle you’ll get the most loyal audiences on earth’, and that’s what happened. And of course a few years later was the earthquake benefit and we were lucky enough to be on that bill as well, and that gig goes down as one of the great shows we’ve ever played.”

Midnight Oil, of course, achieved success with not just a lot of hard work, but what Rob Hirst describes as an ‘anti-plan’.

“We’d heard all these terrible stories of bands that we’d loved that ended much too early, before their time, through no fault of their own. They were brilliant musicians, songwriters, performers, but through management or lousy agency deals or record company stuff-ups they hadn’t fulfilled their potential. So we looked at them and because Pete and I had done law – Pete finished law, I didn’t – but we knew our way around a contract a little bit. So when we signed with an independent label, even though we were being chased by the majors at the time – that made us too anxious, so we signed with an independent label which we called ‘Powderworks’ after the first song on the first album and gradually eased ourselves in.”

“I think that stood us in good stead because we were able to build this very loyal live crowd – initially in Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong and then interstate. But because we took it softly, softly, I don’t think we made the horrendous mistakes that some of the other great Australian bands had done.”

I point out the obvious that Midnight Oil weren’t trying to seduce an audience with songs of sex and drugs and rock & roll like every other band, but were insisting we have a look at contemporary Australian issues.

Again, Rob is amused, “Yeah, we were decidedly unsexy and we didn’t take anywhere near enough drugs although I was on ascorbic acid (vitamin C) for about 15 years.”

“Probably two of the most maligned rock managers of the time were Gary Morris who looked after us, and Chris Murphy who looked after INXS, although Gary also looked after INXS initially but then just us once he realised we were more than a handful.”

“Those managers were much feared and not very liked in the industry, but they were fiercely loyal to their bands and Gary not only was a real strong-arm, Rottweiler kind of manager which you need to protect a young band that has big ideas but no money in the bank, but he also threw all these crazy ideas at us all the time. One in every 100 of his crazy ideas was brilliant and we’d actually do it.”

“The best bands seemed to have been the most unlikely bunch of people – and I include their management in that – all thrown together and all providing different talents to an end that make the sum much stronger than the individual.”

“With Midnight Oil and Cold Chisel, for example, the songwriters weren’t the singer. In the case of Chisel it was Don Walker writing for Jimmy (Barnes), and with the Oils it was Jim (Moginie) and myself writing for Pete (Garrett). There were others in the band that were great performers – Pete was this extraordinarily charismatic singer, Jim was a whiz in the studio, Martin (Rotsey) was great with arrangements … and everyone kind of had their place.”

“Back in those days you actually sold albums, they weren’t all pirated or downloaded for free so we could quickly pay back that poor bank manager in Chatswood and get going and make our own career even thought we didn’t play Countdown and we didn’t play the industry game.”

They most certainly didn’t. And I suggest that to a then-young and female Australian music-goer, Midnight Oil could appear a bit intimidating. A bit cranky.

“We were a bloody-minded bunch of bastards back then and, yeah, we were cranky all the time. If you look at photos from that time we look really cranky. A lot of bands want to look cranky but we were actually cranky because we were tired and probably hungry and pissed off about something.”

Yes, I detect Rob Hirst pulling my leg a bit, but only a bit. He admits that if you were anywhere near the front of the stage during a Midnight Oil gig, or The Angels, or Rose Tattoo, Cold Chisel, whatever, you were a member of a fairly tough breed. I assure him I was happy at the back of the room but I suspect the safest place may have been behind the drum kit.

False rumours have just done the rounds that Robert Plant had knocked back $500-$800 million to reform Led Zeppelin. Big numbers. What would it take for Midnight Oil to perform together again?

“Robert Plant. I really admire the man, he keeps reinventing himself. It’s long not been about the money for people like that. But it’s one thing cruising around the pubs and just playing a medley of your greatest hits and a lot of bands fall for that trap. But I think Midnight Oil is among that bunch of bands that would be much too musically curious to have ever done that.”

“If we were ever to get back together, it would almost certainly be with new material and we’d have to feel we were contributing something rather than just some nostalgic act in sparkly jackets doing the clubs. Whether that will happen I have no idea.”

Rob Hirst’s new album, ‘The Sun Becomes The Sea’, is a beautiful personal work recorded in memory of his later mother, Robin, who ended her life a few years ago after decades of living with depression.

In a recent interview Rob pointed out that it’s important we talk about depression, that we acknowledge the importance of mental health in order to help people.

“It’s not just my mum, there are other members of the family who have suffered from it and it is as strong as any other inherited disease. And possibly more lethal because we don’t talk about it and don’t address it.”

Rob and his daughters sang ‘Someone Scared’ at his late mother’s funeral and he suggests that this song was the catalyst for the full album.

It’s a terrible thing to admit, but as a high school work experience kid I spent a week at Powderworks when Midnight Oil’s ‘Bird Noises’ EP was being pressed on to gooey black vinyl. I simply wanted to know how music worked.

I wish I hadn’t been such a good kid and had actually nicked one.

And frankly, I’d have pinched one of Gabriella Hirst’s beautiful silk birds from the poplar forest, too.

Breaking the poverty cycle with education

Breaking the poverty cycle with education

Nearly 640,000 Australian children live in a ‘jobless’ family. These children are, on average, up to three years behind their peers in reading and maths by the time they’re 15 years of age. But this doesn’t have to be the case.

HSC completion rates in lower socio-economic backgrounds are still much lower (58%) than for students from higher socio-economic backgrounds (77%).

Lisa O’Brien is the CEO of The Smith Family which runs programs purely directed toward supporting education from early childhood through tertiary study and says that with 1 in 10 children growing up in a house where there is no adult working, it puts enormous pressure on the financial resources in the home and the consequences are far-reaching.

“Today in Australia, 1 in 10 children are growing up in a house where there is no adult working. That puts enormous pressure on the financial resources in the home and there are far-reaching consequences of that.”

“We’re seeing young people growing up in households where there have been multiple generations of unemployment and financial disadvantage, and growing up in a home where there aren’t strong moral models around employment.”

“That’s not through any lack of desire on behalf of the parents it’s just that they haven’t been employed, so the things that are often taken for granted such as seeing someone get up in the morning and get dressed and go to work – kids don’t grow up with that kind of role model or example and so it tends to become a self-perpetuating cycle.”

“It’s partly because of the role-modelling, partly access to resources and also a sense of aspiration, that ‘I’m at school and I’m going to work hard so I can go on to university and get a job’; it’s just not the language in those households.”

“So we are seeing that these communities of long term disadvantage are growing around Australia. That puts a lot of pressure on young people who want to break out of that cycle.”

Over 20 years ago, The Smith Family changed its support model from one of welfare and charitable handouts, food parcels, etc, to one of supporting education.

“Our mission has always been to support kids and families with emergency help when in crisis, but it was recognised that we were just seeing the same families coming back through the door and we weren’t achieving sustainable change, that we weren’t making a difference in the long term to these kids and families. Research told us the key was education.”

“So we refocused all of our operations from passive assistance support to early intervention, focusing on supporting young people with their education. We start that support when they’re young and we will stay with the child all through the journey providing them support with the ultimate aim of them completing school and ideally going on to some further study, but definitely with the aim of transitioning into employment.”

“We recognised that there were others that could provide that sort of immediate emergency help and welfare support, but over time we realised by us giving additional financial support targeted to education that they were able to make a long-term change and they (the families) really valued that this money was quarantined to support their kids with education and wasn’t just getting subsumed in the needs of everyday existence.”

Anne Hampshire is the head of research for The Smith Family and she says even something most of us take for granted – internet access – can be a major problem for many Australian families.

“ABS data shows that lots of children are unable to access the internet at home. Research shows that 1 in 5 children aged between 5 and 14 had no internet access at home over a 12-month period and in some communities it was as high as 1 in 3 children.”

“Why that particularly matters, the major reason children use the internet at home is education-related activity. Yes, they might download movies and music, but the predominant reason they use it is for education, and assumptions are made that everybody has access to the internet.”

In our own region, the principal of Irrawang High School (Raymond Terrace) recently told 1233 that 25% of his students had no internet access at home and are earning about $200 per week less than the state average.

Anne says these figures reflect their own, “Around 40% of our families don’t have an email address.”

Newcastle mother, Lu*, says the support of The Smith Family’s Learning for Life program has taught her children more than the basics.

“When they were younger, they had a reading group where someone would phone them and have the kids read with them over the phone. We’ve learnt to budget and it makes a big difference knowing that the money is going to help our kids learn.”

“I’m not as smart as my children, I only went to Year 10 and then to TAFE, but I didn’t really have much of an education. My kids know that they need an education to get a job, to make a career, to get further in life, to have a good home and survive. They know it’s hard.”

“If we didn’t have this little bit of support, it would be another struggle. People say, ‘Oh, just put $10 aside’. Well, what $10!? I need $10 more! It’s a struggle.”

Lu now has a child at university, another doing his HSC and a little one yet to start school, but it was tough to hear Lu say that she’d actually told her kids not to be like her.

“I always say to them, ‘You don’t want to be uneducated like us and not be able to afford things. Look at us, we’re struggling every day, but with your education you’ll be able to do whatever you want and help others.”

Alex* is Lu’s son and this year completing his HSC. It speaks highly of Lu’s work with The Smith Family to support her children through education that Alex doesn’t consider himself to be ‘disadvantaged’.

“I think disadvantage is when someone doesn’t have access to the same resources as someone else. I don’t think I am too disadvantaged, I have a lot of positives in my life and I know there are plenty of others that don’t have the benefits that I do.”

How does Alex feel about being sponsored?

“It gives me education. There’s quite a range of social groups at school but most of my friends want to go to university. I want to study a social science degree, philosophy, theology, a few things because I like to learn and I’m fascinated these topics.”

Research by The Smith Family shows that completely Year 12 ‘increases a young person’s likelihood of continuing with further study, as well as entering the workforce.’

It also leads to higher annual earnings for individuals, greater community involvement and economic benefits for the country as a whole.

But not completing Year 12 can lead to:

Increased crime and poorer health outcomes among early school leavers
Nationally lower levels of productivity
Reduced quality of the labour force
Increased unemployment
Lower growth in income tax collections

Indeed, the Victorian Auditor-General’s Report, November 2012, said:

Education attainment is an important predictor of future employment, welfare and health prospects – and it improves [a person’s] ability to contribute socially and economically in the community.

Lisa O’Brien says that helping children obtain an education is good for all of us.

“There are some kids and families in Australia who are doing it really tough, but with the right support at the right time they can turn their lives around. That’s in everyone’s interest. If we have young people who are well-educated and focused on completing school and going on to employment, we’ll all prosper. It’s a great investment.”

(*names changed)