Sunday, 8 December 2013

A Mine Manager's Retreat - the AA Company House

Status is having a house on the crest of a hill, fireplaces in every room, and your own underground water tank  so you don’t have to queue to draw water with the wives of miners.

Status can also mean responsibility - lying awake, desperate for sleep, dreading the first light. Imagine that your boss, Superintendent of the AA Company, [1] has commissioned you to bring in ‘scab labour’ from Victoria and South Australia, and to destroy the coal miners union, once and for all.

John Barron Winship was the third senior AA Co. employee (the Viewer, or manager, of collieries) to live in the compact but elegantly proportioned 19th century residence on Cameron’s Hill. 1862 was a big year for industrial unrest and conflict in the mining settlements that were to become Hamilton. He would have had a multitude of sleepless nights.

AA Company house with lime wash over brick on exterior walls (2013)

Winship had had an early triumph, striking “good, clean” coal in 1861. His predecessor, Robert Whytte, had had a terrible time trying to prove a coal seam existed. Winship was the gambler sitting down at a poker machine just after the previous occupant has left, broke and in despair. At the first pull, the machine spews out everything it’s been holding onto. Robert Whytte had been dismissed in January, 1860. Winship got the payout.

Winship’s luck was not to hold. First, though, the house.

It’s called the AA Company house, in a battle-axe block behind 195 Denison Street, Hamilton. The gate is secured with a mighty lock.

Notice on the entry gate to the AA Company house

Owned by the Newcastle City Council since 1995, the most obvious anachronism at first sight is the gleaming silver 21st century Colorbond roof. A heritage viewing panel allows sight of the original timber shingles.

AA Company house showing original timber shingles

The condition of the house is described in the Council’s heritage assessment as
fair to poor, suffering dry rot, termite damage, rising damp and other problems due to age and long years of neglect. [2]  Although the house has been opened to the public on occasion in the past, its condition is now considered too delicate. Sarah Cameron, the Council’s Heritage Officer, opened it for Jenny Pritchard, fifth generation descendant of the previous owners, the Little family, and me.

For almost 140 years, the Little family, and their descendants were resident in/owners of this house  - from 1876 until it was purchased by Council in 1995. Jenny Pritchard grew up with her grandparents and parents in an adjacent house at 197 Denison Street, built in 1937 on land that had been subdivided from the original AA Company house block. Her great grandparents William and Alice Little  lived in the AA Company house, William having purchased it from the Company in 1914.

Walking through this old home with someone who had grown up running in and out of it as a child breathed  precious vitality into its desolate, silent spaces.

The large block, with its lawns, fruit trees, flower and vegetable gardens and chicken coop, was sub divided around 1920. Long since cleared of any trace of the self sufficient lifestyle of its early occupants, the much smaller yard is neatly maintained. Newcastle City Council has connected power to the house, stabilised and repaired the roof, had damaged windows reglazed and doors repaired. An archiving and cataloguing project has been completed, with 108 items identified of heritage interest, including furniture, linoleums, wallpapers and soft furnishings.

Jenny Pritchard, 5th generation descendant of the Little family (2013)
Jenny is in the yard of the AA Company house  where as a child, she climbed her favourite peach tree to watch the Broadmeadow races from her perch

On Entering...
As we walk in, I am captivated by the narrow, concrete floored verandah with a decorative timber valance.

The verandah ceiling is rustic, with exposed timber beams, battens and roof shingles.

Then I see the front door, with four glass panels etched with fleur-de-lys, and an impressive knocker. This was status!

A long narrow entrance hall extends before me, and I immediately begin to watch where I step. Sarah has switched on the lights, which is a great help.

In his poem ‘The Halflife of Coal’ written for the 2010 Exhibition Brought to Light [3]  multi award winning Australian poet Mark Tredinnick writes:

Down the hall time has passed violently at least once –
The earthquake of ’89 or subsidence has opened a seam
In the plaster wide enough to mine.

As I pick my way carefully through the rooms, I am struck by their spaciousness and high ceilings. I had imagined low doorways, and small oppressive rooms.
Every ceiling is different - lath and plaster, corrugated iron sheet with timber mouldings, pressed metal, and fibrous plaster board. Sitting and dining room ceilings are coffered, with sunken panels.

Not all have survived –
                                                      ......and here the ceiling slumps
Between its battens, out of its mind with missing the child, perhaps. [4]

There is a pantry, and the adjoining kitchen is huge, compared with my imagining…

In the kitchen
There’s a tap without a basin, and no one stopped the newspapers
Till late September ’65.[5]

Floors are timber board, with several layers of linoleum. Their patterns can be seen here. Newspapers used to be placed under new  lino, leaving a treasure trove of history to be discovered by future generations of renovators. Old newspapers are scattered in the kitchen but no treasures are to be found. Anything of historical value has been removed for storage in the Newcastle Museum. Some items been lost, custodians unaware of their heritage story.

Curtains and wallpaper are still there, in poor condition but intact.


Deterioration is everywhere.

                                    ...the house feels as empty

As a tomb. [6]

The large drawing room has been set up with a historical display but the posters are faded and out dated.

Fireplaces abound. In the parlour, bedrooms and dining room they have cast iron inserts, with surround and mantles of timber, and decorative hearths of ceramic tiles.

Jenny Pritchard in the drawing room (2013)

Outside again
The bathroom/laundry outhouse is a free standing timber building clad in sawn weatherboards. It is accessed from the kitchen.


Towards the end of World War II, when Jenny’s parents married, they moved to live with her mother’s parents, Dixon and Clarice Little at 197 Denison Street. When Jenny and her sister were born, there were three generations living in the same house.

Jenny’s father Donald McCourt used the outhouse next door as his den – a retreat from hectic family life in quite a small house. ‘The den had carpet, comfy chairs, a stereo and books,’ Jenny tells me.

The toilet is on the southern side of the house, oddly opposite to the bathroom, but sensibly near the bedrooms.

Back on the front verandah, I see the big lock hasn’t deterred everyone. Names have been scrawled in the dust on the four-pane double hung timber windows, which are deteriorating.

Along the veranda, the bricks have been painted and many layers can be seen here.

  In his poem, 'The Halflife of Coal', Mark Tredinnick wonders  -

 How many women have run their hands like rivers

Along these pitted bricks incarnadine, on their way
To the well out back?

An underground tank  providing the family with their private water supply is preserved in the back yard of the house next door. Water from the roof would have been directed into it from the roof. Peering carefully through the fence, we are surprised at how large it is.

A metal sun hood protects the attic from the strong northern sun.

Jenny's childhood playhouse  is now out of bounds because of the precarious stairs.

Era of the mine managers

Can a house go on a journey?

Why was it brought into existence? What befell it, over the years? Who loved it, and who abandoned it?

The original cottage was built in 1849/50 for the Overman of the AA Company’s mining works at Hamilton. The Company wanted a supervisor resident on the spot, not three miles away at their Newcastle operations. The downside was that the managers and their families were quite isolated, especially from their peers.

The first resident of the house was James Lindsay, from 1849 until at least 1854. As Overman (today the equivalent to a deputy), Lindsay was  employed to oversee the day to day operations of the collieries, including the newly opened D Pit.  The D Pit was between Denison and Veda Streets, more or less opposite St Peter’s Anglican Church. It became known as The Borehole.

The house was within easy sight of D Pit, fronting the track known as Pit Row, separated from the workers slab huts opposite by a high picket fence with double gates. We stood on the front veranda and imagined looking down at the motley collection of huts.

AA Company's Borehole No. 2 Pit, Hamilton
Courtesy Newcastle Region Library

In the 2010 Exhibition Brought to Light, Adelaide visual artist and photographer Darren Siwes restaged and enlivened this imagining through enacting a scene of neighbouring miners crowding against the separating fence, pushing against the mine manager’s privacy as a figure hurries inside the front door. Darren’s photographs are eerily haunting – look them up here.

Although originally just four rooms around a central corridor when it was built in 1849/50, the house was substantial and ornate enough to set it well above the average workers’ housing. Read more about miner’s living conditions  here.

Lindsay was a skilled mechanic who planned and supervised the re-laying of the tramway which led from the Borehole to the Company’s coal staithes at Newcastle. That project alone would have given him plenty of sleepless nights. In addition, he managed to keep the C Pit in Newcastle in production for two years longer than expected.

Lindsay Street, Hamilton is named for James Lindsay.

A sturdy wheelbarrow sits patiently beside the front door. Jenny Pritchard recalls her mother passing on her understanding that the wheelbarrow was an original, from C Pit. Perhaps it was a souvenir acquired by James Lindsay – if not from C Pit, then most likely from the nearby D Pit. I am glad to see it is still there. When I drive along Lindsay Street, that’s what I’ll think of – the lonely vigil of a wheelbarrow, on guard since perhaps 1850 – could it really be 165 years old?

Wheelbarrow thought to have been from C Pit - perhaps 165 years old

Robert Whyte was believed to have followed James Lindsay in the house, possibly living there from 1858. As Viewer, or Manager of the Company's collieries, Whyte was determined to modernise mining practices. His big challenge was to prove the existence of coal by drilling a new colliery at No 1 Pit, which was to be his showcase. The first shaft flooded; Whytte struggled with old engines, inadequate equipment and tools. The pressure on him was immense; especially since the top man, AA Company Governor Edward Hamilton was visiting for five weeks at the time.

In May 1858, Whyte tried a new location – No 2 Borehole. After heroic efforts, and fearing that the total collapse of the shaft was imminent, he cut his losses and suspended drilling.

Whyte’s apparent failure led to his dismissal early in1860. 

If Whyte had bad dreams, his successor, James Barron Winship, would have had nightmares.

Winship took up drilling at the No. 2 Borehole, and persisting single mindedly, struck a good seam of coal in 1861.

What followed had its roots in a change in the balance of power among coal proprietors, as the AA Company lost its monopoly; both the supply of coal and its price were a rollercoaster; and the coal miners unions were flexing their muscles in revolt against pay and conditions.

The zeal Winship had already displayed in drilling despite the risks was now transferred to destroying the unions on behalf of his employer. He became public enemy No. 1 in the settlement, and would truly have needed his retreat.

Too long and complex a story to tell here, it includes strikes (one of them lasting two months), women protesting and setting up barricades  (‘the feminine riots’), and the importing of ‘scab labour’ from interstate and overseas as strike breakers.

Angry and heart breaking scenes of miners and their families being evicted from their poor dwellings to make way for scab workers were common.

Anyone who sympathised with the unions was prosecuted.

Winship took his prosecution role very seriously. One story tells how he pursued two Adelaide men who had absconded from the mines “by locomotive, car and on foot,” until he captured them, arrested them with the help of local police, and had them brought back in chains.

Yet he was a contributing  civic citizen, being on the Hamilton School Board, and instrumental in getting an entirely new building and teachers residence in 1871.

Denison Street [8]used to be called Winship Street. I guess Winship was doing his bosses’ bidding, but he could hardly have been popular.

The first kitchen of the AA House was probably detached, and it is no surprise that a new kitchen was built in 1861, and possibly the back verandah. James Winship’s wife would have been the first to benefit from these welcome additions, especially the kitchen. With her husband at war with the workforce, she would have welcomed such consolations.

Winship resigned in 1876, and subsequently drowned.

Era of the Engineers

After Winship had resigned in 1876, the AA Company house was used to accommodate Company engineering staff. Thus began almost 140 years of association with the Little family. Over these years, a kind of campus for the extended family developed over the sub divisions of the original block.

Dixon Little was a highly respected engineer with a background in major water supply projects in England. He followed Winship’s occupancy of the AA House, with his wife Mary.

Dixon Little (n.d.)
From the personal collection of Jenny Pritchard

Mary Little (n.d.)
From the personal collection of Jenny Pritchard  

Dixon Little was to work for the AA Company for 16  years. He superintended underground engineering operations at the time of the tragic fall in H Pit, in which 11 workers died in 1889. On his retirement, he was presented with an Illuminated Address for his dedicated service to the AA Company, and  a purse of sovereigns as a token of the respect in which he was held.

Illuminated Address presented to Dixon Little by the AA Company
From the personal collection of Jenny Pritchard
Double click on the photo to enlarge and read it

Dixon Street, Hamilton, is named after Dixon Little.

Interestingly, William Little, Dixon’s son and Jenny Pritchard’s great grandfather, took over not only his father’s position as an engineer with the AA Company, but also the residence. Some renovations were made at this time.

William Little (n.d.)
From the personal collection of Jenny Pritchard

William and Alice Little were in residence when further additions of a dining room/pantry were made in 1899/1900, and a large sitting room created by opening up two existing rooms. At this time the house virtually doubled in size.

William Little purchased the house from the AA Company in 1914, as it became surplus to Company needs. Subsequently, the land was divided into three blocks, with new residences built for family members on either side of the original house.

In 1920 the interior of the AA House was redecorated, and the bathroom/laundry constructed. How had the families managed without these facilities up until 1920?

In 1933, William Little retired.

After William died in 1945, his wife Alice and son Charles continued to live in the AA House. Alice died in 1948 – Jenny was just 2 years old, but remembers her great grandmother playing with her on the front verandah of the house.

Alice Little (n.d.)
From the personal collection of Jenny Pritchard

Charles, William’s son, who had never married, was killed in 1963:

And the last life lived here stopped in 1963. Charles

Milligan (sic) is killed and the house stands unused: [9]

The AA House remained vacant for 30 years, owned by William Little’s granddaughter and Jenny’s mother, Mrs Naomi McCourt. No one knew quite what to do with the house, but the family cared for it as best they could.

The future of the AA House was to change radically when Newcastle resident and local historian David Campbell identified the heritage value of the house and convinced the Newcastle City Council of its significance. Then began a period of dialogue with Mrs McCourt, which finally saw the house saved and transferred to public ownership. That is another story.

In the meantime, Mrs McCourt cared for her aging father Dixon Allan Little, with whom she had shared a house her whole life.

Dixon A Little (n.d.)
From the personal collection of Jenny Pritchard

After Dixon A Little  died in 1992, aged 100, Naomi decided she wanted her own home at last. She had a new house built at the front of 195 Denison Street, the AA House becoming a battle axe block. Sadly, she was only to enjoy it for 5 years before having to move into a care facility. Naomi McCourt died in 2010.

Naomi McCourt (n.d.)
From the personal collection of Jenny Pritchard

What Next?

For Jenny Pritchard, the AA House was always part of her life, until she qualified as a teacher and left Newcastle.

Jenny Pritchard tells me:

‘As a grew older, I used to say – this house would be a good museum. But others were not aware of its importance until it was almost derelict and found by David Campbell.’

There is a Conservation Plan for the House, but Newcastle City Council is experiencing severe financial constraints right now. It is not likely much more will be done for the house, in the short term. The good news is that the House is not on the list of Council assets up for sale.

‘I felt quite sad at the state of deterioration inside,’ Jenny says. ‘I really do hope that restoration can continue.’

Perhaps if someone came along who was willing to bring life back to this unique house, with full regard to its heritage, Council might be willing to have a conversation. It is, after all, considered to be one of the oldest intact colliery structures in Australia.

Mark Tredinnick has the last word, for now -

The past is in here somewhere: for there’s no present without a past,
And here we are. To forget the past, it is said, is to plant cut flowers

In your garden, and plainly there’s no future in that.[10]

Update - sale and NSW state heritage listing

In August 2016, the AA Company house was put up for sale by the Newcastle City Council. Purchase by a qualified buyer was approved in May 2017, with a positive covenant to implement the Conservation Management Plan. A portion of the sale proceeds are to go to interpretative plaques highlighting the history of the AA Company in Hamilton.

In August, 2017 this house achieved a special honour for Hamilton: it is now listed in the NSW State Heritage Register. This listing recognises its heritage significance to Newcastle and to the people of NSW. 

Even though the AA house is no longer in public ownership, a private owner committed to its heritage, the proposed interpretive plaques and the recent NSW State Heritage listing secure its future as a tangible reminder of the mining origins of the suburb of Hamilton.


Sarah Cameron, Heritage Officer, Newcastle City Council.

Jenny Pritchard, 5th generation descendant of the Little family.

David Campbell, Heritage Consultant.

Brought to Light, 2010 Exhibition of the Newcastle Lock-Up Cultural Centre.

Mark Tredinnick, for his poems published as part of this Exhibition.

NSW Department of Environment and Heritage – Statement of Significance – AA House. This includes substantial references to David Campbell’s independent research, reproduced in the Conservation Management Plan, Suters Architects.

Peter Murray, From Borehole to Hamilton Jubilee, 1858 – 1921, Self published, 2006.

Unless attributed, all photographs by Ruth Cotton.

[1] The Australian Agricultural Company, owner of lands and coal mines in Newcastle and the Hunter.



[4] Mark Tredinnick, The Halflife of Coal, published in 2010 Exhibition of the Newcastle Lock-Up Cultural Centre.

[5] Mark Tredinnick, The Halflife of Coal, published in 2010 Exhibition of the Newcastle Lock-Up Cultural Centre

[6] Mark Tredinnick, The Halflife of Coal, published in 2010 Exhibition of the Newcastle Lock-Up Cultural Centre

[7] Mark Tredinnick, The Halflife of Coal, published in 2010 Exhibition of the Newcastle Lock-Up Cultural Centre

[8] Sir William Denison, after whom Denison Street was named, was Governor of NSW from 1855-1861.

[9] Mark Tredinnick, The Halflife of Coal, published in 2010 Exhibition of the Newcastle Lock-Up Cultural Centre

[10] Mark Tredinnick, The Halflife of Coal, published in 2010 Exhibition of the Newcastle Lock-Up Cultural Centre.




Collector of Lost Memories said...

Hi, We were allowed entry onto the site about two years ago to take photos and to take a look around. I had a voice recorder on taking down some information about the place as I was going and inadvertently we recorded a man's voice as I stood in the hallway actually taking a call on my mobile.I wonder whether this voice may be from one of the former owners of the property?
Renata Daniel - Newcastle Ghost Tours

Ruth Cotton said...

Renata - someone/something other than the walls talking??

avid history person said...

Thank you for the interesting article. James Lindsay was my great great grandfather. The year he went to live in the cottage was also the year he lost his wife and child in a fire in the out house. This happened on 2nd March 1849 because James had stored gunpowder in the laundry area.He was called an overseer in the inquest article so I presume he had moved into this cottage. He remarried in 1850.I would love to be able to visit this cottage some time.
Judy Brown

Ruth Cotton said...

avid history person thank you for your comment, glad you enjoyed the information. You may know the Newcastle City Council has decided to sell the house, with appropriate conservation protection. Here are a couple of links -
A more recent story on the AA house is at, in case you've not seen it. Ruth Cotton.