Saturday, 20 June 2015

Last days of the Newcastle trams

Hamilton has a lively history as a transport hub. I am reminded of this when I drive past Hamilton Station, ever since the heavy rail line was truncated there on Boxing Day, 2014. Especially in peak hour, buses jostle for space along a cramped section of the Islington end of Beaumont Street, often queuing back into Fern Street. As the waiting buses belch fumes, passengers hurry from trains to their connecting buses for the city.

A kilometre or so south, in the relative calm of Denison Street, buses rest in the Hamilton Depot between shifts, or lumber noisily out the gate to be on their way. My young grandsons have loved watching the drivers arrive for work with lunch in their backpacks. The drivers always have time for friendly waves.

The Hamilton Depot, also known as the Gordon Avenue Depot, was once the home of Newcastle’s trams. I came to appreciate something of the role trams played in Newcastle’s transport history through Noel Reed.[1] Noel, now an octogenarian, was ‘on the spot’ to photograph the last years of the Newcastle trams, from 1947 to 1950.

Trams and buses share the Hamilton Depot, 11 June 1950
Trams are marked with farewell messages
Photograph by Noel Reed

Newcastle’s first trams were operated by steam. Their introduction in 1897 followed the success of Sydney services and community agitation for something better than horse drawn buses.

Steam trams served Newcastle well for over 35 years, until the rather antiquated and inefficient system was electrified.

The first electric tram to operate in Newcastle was Car 274, crossing Hunter Street at 6.40 am on 4 December 1923. The main city terminus had a panoramic view of Newcastle Beach, situated as it was on a headland at Parnell Place.

Noel Reed’s fascination with Newcastle’s electric trams began when visiting his Welsh-born great grandmother Mary Griffiths at New Lambton in the late 1930s. Her small weatherboard house was just a block away from the Wallsend tramline. The Sydney lad loved watching the trams pass, and sometimes placed penny coins on the lines to have them squashed by the wheels.

Years later, in December 1947 – having completed his final year of high school – Noel visited Newcastle on a tram tour with the Australian Railway Historical Society and the Australian Electric Traction Association. Already a keen photographer, and the youngest in the group, he documented the tour.

Noel was to come to Newcastle on several more occasions in 1949 and 1950. He rode his 125cc Lambretta motor scooter on the notorious Pacific Highway from his home in Northbridge, Sydney. These were the last years of the Newcastle trams. The adventurous, tram-loving engineering student recorded their passing.

Noel Reed (front) and his friend Bob Young – no helmets
Photograph courtesy of  Noel Reed

As the population expanded into the suburbs, and buses proved more flexible and efficient, a decision was made to close the Newcastle tramways. This was done in stages, beginning in September 1948 with the Mayfield line.

Closure of the long Wallsend line was unusual for a number of reasons. On the last full day of regular service, Saturday 5 November 1949, a crisis occurred when a truck broke down in Robert Street, Wallsend. Noel happened to be on the tram from Newcastle to Wallsend, and delayed by the mishap. He jumped off and captured shots of one of the blocked trams towing the truck off the tramlines.

A tram’s journey is brought to a halt in Robert Street, Wallsend
Photograph by Noel Reed

The tram is enlisted to tow the truck off the line
Photograph by Noel Reed

An all night service was still provided. Car 316 was intended to be the last service from Wallsend to Newcastle. It left Newcastle just after 1.30 am on Sunday 6 November, 1949 for Wallsend. There, it would stand until it was time to return at dawn (5.03 am) for Newcastle.

‘A small group of enthusiastic passengers remained with the tram until dawn on Sunday morning,’ says Noel. He was among them.

It was like a funeral wake.

The return journey back to Newcastle was in the early morning light.

Crew, passengers and tram enthusiasts prepare to farewell Car 316 on its last journey from the Wallsend terminus to Newcastle, 6 November 1949
Photograph by Noel Reed

However, Car 316 would not be the last Wallsend tram, after all. Car 317 had met the Sydney bound Glen Innes mail train at Broadmeadow before departing at 5.25 am, and was overtaken by Car 316 at the New Lambton crossover. [2] So Car 317 was the very last tram off the Wallsend line.

On 10 June 1950, the last day the Waratah line operated, Noel snapped maintenance ganger Tom Stoddart oiling the points where the Waratah tram line became a single track at Broadmeadow and Boreas Roads, Hamilton North. Noel wondered at the futility of oiling the points when the line was about to close. He answered his own question.

‘I guess he was just doing his job.’

Conscientious to the end - maintenance ganger Tom Stoddart (1892-1964) attends to the points on the last day of the Waratah tramline.
His identity was confirmed by Margaret Stoddart on Lost Newcastle Facebook
Photograph by Noel Reed

Can we imagine what it would be like to see trams today, wending their way sedately through our suburbs?

A photograph by Noel Reed of Car 285 at the Belford and Dixon Street, Hamilton stop 
on 15 May 1950 is super imposed by Craig Smith on his present day image.
Noel’s 125cc Lambretta motor scooter is dwarfed by today’s much larger fig trees

Another photograph by Noel Reed of Car 147 passing Sunnyside Tavern, Broadmeadow Road on 10 June 1950 is super imposed by Craig Smith on his present day image

Newcastle’s 63 year relationship with trams ended early on Sunday 11June, 1950, a long weekend.

Final send-off for Car 147 at Telford Street, Newcastle after returning from Waratah 
and before heading to Hamilton Depot, 11 June 1950
Photograph by Noel Reed

Car 147, the last tram on the Waratah line, had left Telford Street in the city at 12.36 am filled to capacity. It was followed by a procession of motorists blaring their horns. The tram’s departure from Waratah was celebrated by firing a giant sky rocket, which managed to hit some overhead wires and release a shower of sparks. Car 147, carrying a few enthusiasts, reached Hamilton Depot at 2.05 am.

At Ivy Street, Hamilton disused LP Class trams rest in peace, March 1949
Photograph by Noel Reed


Thank you to Noel Reed, for generously sharing information and photographs, and to Craig Smith for creating ‘then and now’ composites.

An article ‘Recollections of a golden era of transport’ containing some of this information and written by Ruth Cotton was published in the Newcastle Post, Wednesday 11 March 2015.

You can read other blog posts that touch on Hamilton's transport evolution at 

[1] Noel Reed worked with the NSW Railways Signal & Communication Branch of the NSW Railways until the late 1980s.  His collection of thousands of photographs of trams taken in capital cities and regional centres across Australia includes hundreds taken during his visits to Newcastle. Noel Reed’s collection will be placed in the archives of the Australian Railway Historical Society.

[2] David Keenan, Ken McCarthy, Ross Willson, 1999, Tramways of Newcastle, Transit Press, Sutherland NSW, p. 111

Thursday, 4 June 2015

From ship's mate to Hamilton station master

When Harry (Henry) Frank Nesbitt was christened in 1858 at St Pancras Old Church, London, his godfather was Admiral Sir Charles Kelso, of the British Navy.

This association would shape his destiny – his career choice, where he would live, and who he would marry.

Harry’s father, Anthony, who worked as a Clerk in the British Museum, died when the boy was 12. His godfather (and Anthony’s good friend) took him into his care. Little is known about Harry’s mother, Mary Ann Nesbitt, but she may well have found it hard to cope after her husband’s death.

Spelling book, used by Harry Nesbitt when attending school in London, annotated ‘born London 1853, died Hamilton 5/7/18 (1918)’[1]

It was natural, then, that Harry would be encouraged to look to the sea for a career. He enlisted as a trainee officer in the British Royal Navy. Later he transferred to the Merchant Navy. Apprenticed to work on deep sea vessels, Harry sailed on ships such as ‘Ranee’, ‘Agnes Edgell’, ‘GG Anjee’, ‘Cowan’, and the ‘Casablanca’. On occasion, Harry was on board ships berthing at Newcastle Harbour, in Australia.

Fate took a hand. Through Captain John William Carpenter, who was living in Denison Street, Hamilton NSW, Harry was introduced to Katherine (Catherine) Moy, Carpenter’s sister-in-law. Harry and Katherine married in 1878, but she accepted him on condition that he left the sea, and found a land job.

A later photograph of Harry Frank and Katherine Nesbitt, 1916

While Harry had gained his 2nd Mate’s Certificate and later his Master’s Certificate, he left the Navy without ever taking command of a ship. His last on-water job was on the Newcastle tug boats. What would he do now?

Harry joined the government railway service, in Newcastle, starting ‘from the bottom’ as a porter in the goods shed at Newcastle Station. During his time there, a son Anthony (1898), and a daughter Mary Ann (1882) were born. Two more sons and a daughter died soon after birth. In all, the couple had 9 surviving children. [2]

When Harry was promoted to Teralba Station as Officer in Charge, the post office was on the platform, and Harry’s job involved operating that too.

Harry Nesbitt (sixth from left) and staff on Teralba Railway Station

Harry and Katharine lived in an unused railway carriage until the station master’s house was built.

Harry and Katherine Nesbitt with their 8 of their 9 children, in front of the heritage listed station master’s cottage at Teralba, n.d.
Their first born, Anthony, had gone to the WA goldfields

During their decade in Teralba, they were able to put down roots, and become involved in the community. Katharine embroidered altar cloths for St David’s Anglican Church and gave generously to miners when they were down on their luck.

Harry Nesbitt went on to serve as Station Master at Quirindi, Murrurundi, and Singleton until in 1909, he was transferred to Hamilton.

The neat Victorian buildings that we see today at Hamilton Station were not actually built until 1898. From the 1860s, the community had agitated, on and off, for a station at Hamilton, with two platforms, and proper access from both Hamilton and Islington. I wrote about some of this early history in my blog post on the Sydney Junction Hotel.

Railway Station Masters had considerable authority, being responsible for their staff, signal operation and the smooth running of the trains through their station.

Harry Nesbitt on Hamilton Station – the arrow identifies him

Harry Nesbitt would have been one of the earliest Station Masters at Hamilton, although not the first.

Dressed smartly for work on the NSW state railways – Harry Nesbitt (left) and railway staff at Hamilton Station

The Station Master was usually well respected in the community, and provided with a house near the station.

Hamilton Station Master’s Cottage, Hamilton NSW (n.d.)
The people in this photograph have previously not been identified. However, they are believed to be Harry Nesbitt, his wife Katherine, and one of their daughters
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, courtesy of Cultural Collections University of Newcastle, Australia

Harry Nesbitt became a member of the Protestant Alliance Friendly Society of Australasia, Perseverance Lodge No. 40, in Hamilton. This Friendly Society provided medical and financial support for members and their families when the breadwinner was unable to work.

A skilled woodworker, Harry built furniture such as desks and stools as well as model ships, and frames for oil paintings done by daughter Mary Ann. His pieces were expertly joined with perfectly formed dovetailed joints. The timber came from Hely Brothers, a large manufacturing business conveniently nearby in Hudson Street, Hamilton. 

He retired from the railways in 1916.

Harry Nesbitt, third from left, with crew of Locomotive  361, Teralba, NSW, 20 March 1895
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection, 
courtesy of Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

After Harry retired, the Nesbitt family lived at 39 Beaumont Street, in what was said to be ‘a beautiful house’.[3] Tucked behind a brick frontage that is now a Mexican restaurant, the weatherboard house is still there today.

The Nesbitt family home, 39 Beaumont Street, Hamilton

Frank and Katharine’s son and youngest child George (born 1894) had worked for a time in McIntyre's flour mill, another Hudson Street business.  George enlisted for service in what became the first World War.

Postcard from George Nesbitt to his father, postmarked France, February 24th, 1917
It is signed ‘With fondest love from your loving son, George’

George sustained a severe gunshot wound to his face. He was one of many who received extensive plastic surgery in England at what was then the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup,

In 1918, while George was undergoing treatment, Harry  Nesbitt died of bronchial pneumonia, aged 65. Two years of retirement would not have been enough for this keen fisherman and wood craftsman.

The grave of Harry Frank Nesbitt, 1853-1918

After Harry  died, Katharine moved to a house in Hudson Street, where she lived until her death in 1935.

A large and loyal staff served the NSW government railways in its hey-day. The bare facts of their employment have been preserved in NSW State Records, along with something of the history of NSW Rail.[4] Yet it is stories like this one, of a young ship’s mate who found himself on the other side of the world, fell in love and married, and had to find a new career that reveal the pain, the pride, and joy in the everyday lives of people just like us – people who became part of railway history.

Hamilton Station, 2015
The station has heritage significance at a state level, as part of the wider Hamilton and Woodville Junction railway precinct, formerly one of the most important
railway junctions in NSW [5]


My thanks to Brian Archer, great grandson of Harry Frank Nesbitt, for sharing information and photographs, thus providing a personal insight into the life of one of Hamilton’s earliest Station Masters. All photographs, unless otherwise attributed, are from Brian Archer’s family collection.

Read a related story, The Search for the Station Master's House,  here.

[1]  All photographs, unless otherwise attributed, are from the family collection of Brian Archer, great grandson of Harry Frank Nesbitt.
[2] Harry and Katharine’s surviving children were Anthony William, Mary Ann, Harry Frank, Margaret Culmer (Maggie), Edward J., Irene (Renee), Katherine, Edith, and George. Deceased children were Edward, Harry Frank (junior), and Flora.
[3] Personal communication from Brian Archer.