Showing posts with label Hamilton Railway Station. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hamilton Railway Station. Show all posts

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Search for the station master's house

Since I first discovered the trove of online digital images available through Newcastle’s cultural collections[1] I have been fascinated by the photograph of the Hamilton station master’s house. Damaged and discoloured with age, the cottage with three people standing in front had an other-worldly quality. I wondered where exactly it was – perhaps it still existed – and who those individuals were.

Two years later, when researching the story 'From ship's mate to Hamilton station master' I had a breakthrough.

Brian Archer, who had grown up in Hamilton, had contacted me after the publication of ‘Hidden Hamilton.’ His great grandfather was Harry Nesbitt, one of Hamilton’s earliest station masters (1909-1916). Brian had given me some excellent photographs of Harry and his family.

Harry had quite a characteristic appearance – tall, and lean, with a narrow head and thick head of hair, and a substantial moustache.

Gathering historic images for the blog post, I pulled up the Ralph Snowball image of the cottage, hoping to find a date. I immediately recognized the man in the photograph - Harry Nesbitt. Off it went to Brian, who was just as excited as I was, and agreed with me. He identified Harry, his wife Katherine, and one of their daughters.

Hamilton Station Master’s Cottage, Hamilton NSW (n.d.)
The people in this photograph had 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

Where was the house? Perhaps the Lost Newcastle Facebook community could help.

Two cottages closely associated with the railway station emerged in response to my posting.

The first was the Gatekeeper’s Cottage, next to the railway bridge which carries motor vehicles over the line at Maitland Road.

The Gatekeeper’s Cottage, 1984
Photograph by Rob McMahon

Rob McMahon knew the old cottage well – he’d grown up beside the railway line, living there with his family from 1962 to 1990. It had long ceased to be used by the gatekeeper, whose job would have been to open and close the gates on the level crossing that preceded the overpass, every time a train passed through.

Rob writes:

‘I have lived in Hamilton my whole life and at 53 have no desire to live anywhere else. I can’t tell you how much I loved growing up here. I lived on the railway line in a very old house that was called the Gatekeeper’s Cottage.

‘The house had a bomb shelter in the front yard and the steps leading down to it were covered in by my mother. There was also a well in the front yard that was filled in.’

Rob developed a love of trains that has never left him. As the steam train hauling oil tanks from Wickham struggled to negotiate a curve in the tracks close by, Rob would call out, ‘Hey mate, chuck us some coal!’ The fireman would direct shovels full of coal into the gutters, from whence the boys would collect it and take it home to mum to fuel the cooking stove.

He told me this on a bright September afternoon, as we walked to the eastern end of the parkland that now abuts the railway line to see both houses had once stood.

The Gatekeeper’s Cottage was demolished after the Newcastle earthquake, in 1990.

Hard up against the tracks - Rob McMahon on the site of the Gatekeeper’s Cottage, Hamilton, 2015
The site is now parkland adjacent to Hamilton Station

Next, the station master’s house.

A couple of members of the Lost Newcastle community located  the site some way east of the No 1 platform of Hamilton railway station. I thought that would place it within the same narrow strip of parkland that Rob and I were traversing, but on the Beaumont Street side of the Gatekeeper’s Cottage.

The probable site of the station master’s house is now grassed and scattered with planted trees, including a paper bark.

Site of the Station Master’s Cottage, Hamilton 2015
A giant elephant decorates the building that is 8 Donald Street, Hamilton

Who would guess that this innocuous parkland holds a secret – a piece of Hamilton’s railway history? Two houses, where railway men once lived ‘on the job’ with their families – but only as long as the job lasted. Two houses – where large families flourished, kids foraged for coal, and learned to love trains.

Unattributed photographs by Ruth Cotton.


Thank you to Rob McMahon and the Lost Newcastle community for help with this story.

[1] Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Newcastle; Newcastle Region Library; Newcastle Museum

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.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Sydney Junction Hotel - A Family Story

For six turbulent years a young English emigrant, son of a publican, pursued his small business dream as the licensee of the Sydney Junction Hotel, Hamilton. The magic of the coming of rail to Newcastle lit up his dream with the promise of prosperity.

It is a promise that could not be fulfilled.

Perhaps it is our independent nature, but Australians have had a love affair with small business since the earliest days of the colony. Today, almost half of all employment in Australia is provided by businesses employing less than 20 staff.[1]

This story begins in 1881 with the establishment of the Woods Family Hotel at 8-10 Beaumont Street, Hamilton. Charles Woods was the first licensee.

The hotel was close to one of Hamilton’s two railway lines – the Newcastle to Maitland line [2] opened in 1857 - but residents had only very limited access to it as there was no station. The other line, crossing Hamilton to the south, was a commercial one transporting coal from Hamilton pits to the AA Company’s staithes at Newcastle.

Hamilton must have a railway station

The case for a rail stop and platform at Hamilton mounted through the 1860s.

Goods and passengers carried by rail and destined for Hamilton would rattle straight past to Newcastle. From there, Hamilton passengers faced a three mile walk back; storekeepers’ supplies were transported by dray over roads reported to be almost impassable. Mail languished in Newcastle for two or three days before finding its way to Hamilton. Industries such as porcelain and glass were starting to flourish in Hamilton, and needed a local dispatch point.[3] By now, Hamilton’s population was around 1000.

It took 15 years from the opening of the line, but ultimately Hamilton got its railway platform.

On 19 June 1872, after three years of intense lobbying by local residents, a platform at Hamilton for the great Northern Line was opened. Public meetings had been held, petitions circulated and the Newcastle Chronicle provided vocal support.

What was the result? Two 120 foot platforms, with no railway buildings.

The platforms were provided –

‘...for the convenience of those foot passengers who had no objection to climb the fences on either side. A road six feet wide had been cut through the scrub on the Hamilton side by the municipal council....[4]

Lucky Hamilton residents! Hamilton station was not for the fainthearted – or for women with long dresses, mothers with prams, or injured miners with dodgy knees. To say nothing of the elderly or the disabled. Residents from the Tighes Hill end had no access road at all.

While having a scheduled train stop at Hamilton, and a platform, was a great step forward, the job was only half done. Public agitation about poor access and lack of shelter on the platforms, especially for women, continued.

A new name for changing times

It was in this environment in 1884 that Charles Henry Eyre became the licensee of the Woods Family Hotel. Access to train services was providing unprecedented opportunities for people to move around for employment, leisure and shopping, as well as for the movement of goods and produce. While no doubt the inadequate station facilities at Hamilton left a sour taste, astute business people would have realised that improvements must come in time.

Charles Henry Eyre (1851-1906)
Photograph from the collection of Lorraine Castle

In 1886, permission was given by the Newcastle Licensing Court to Mr G A Woods to change the name of Woods Family Hotel to the Sydney Junction Hotel. Mr Woods must have been an entrepreneur who could anticipate the benefits that would flow from the completion of the Sydney to Newcastle rail link.

Over the years 1886 to 1889, the challenges of the difficult terrain between Sydney and Gosford were progressively overcome. The last piece of the puzzle was the spectacular Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge, and the Sydney to Newcastle rail link was finished.

Original Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge, c1880
Photograph courtesy of Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle

It would now be possible for passengers from Maitland to change trains at Hamilton and travel to Gosford and Sydney. Hamilton became known as ‘the Sydney junction’. A hotel in such a prime spot on Beaumont Street, with the easily remembered name of the Sydney Junction Hotel, could not help but be successful. Train travel meant thirsty customers for the hotel bar, and overnight stays for weary business men and commercial travellers.

Surely now a better station would have to be built, as Hamilton became a rail transport hub for travellers between Maitland and Sydney?

The Eyre family and the Sydney Junction Hotel

These developments must have filled Charles Eyre and his wife Ann (Annie) with great hope for their future.

Charles and Annie emigrated from England to Australia in 1875, with their young family. By the time they took over the hotel license in 1884, Charles and Annie had six children - the youngest a year old, the eldest 14. Annie herself was just 31, and with no family in Australia, her daily life must have been enormously challenging. They lived in a house adjacent to the Sydney Junction Hotel.

Sydney Junction Hotel and residence on the right
Detail from Hamilton Railway Station, Hamilton, NSW, 12 April 1906
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection courtesy of Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

In 1885, their seventh child was born, a son Ernest.

In 1887, 3 years after taking over the license, and a year after the hotel name was changed, Cooper Taylor Eyre was born at the Sydney Junction Hotel. He was Charles’ and Annie’s eighth child.

Typhoid fever

Typhoid fever was endemic in Hamilton, and it is thought that the bacterium was probably carried by the majority of its population.

The bacterium thrives in crowded, insanitary conditions, and a vaccine would not be developed until 1895.Typhoid fever is a bacterial disease that is transmitted by ingesting food or water contaminated by the faeces of an infected person. At this time the connection had not been made between the disease and the careless disposal of human waste.

Hamilton Municipal Council reports from the 1880s show Council struggling to come to grips with what needed to be done. During an outbreak in 1885, for example, Council decided to purchase thirty shillings worth of disinfectant to disinfect the houses where fever had occurred. That would not have helped much – a wholesale overhaul of the sanitary and water systems was needed.

Charles Eyre had a cousin Henry who lived at nearby Woodville. It seems that Annie and Charles were nursing this cousin and his family through typhoid, around the time of Cooper’s birth. At the same time, one of their own sons had pneumonia. Henry and his baby son died of typhoid.

It must have seemed like a miracle, that pregnant Annie and her family escaped the scourge of typhoid, after being in such close proximity to their infected and suffering relatives.

However, Charles and Annie would not escape hardship. Emotionally, physically, and financially, they were struggling. In a heart wrenching decision, they resolved to find foster parents for their own baby Cooper. He was six weeks old.

William and Mary Harrison were a couple the Eyre family probably knew in England; they too had emigrated and now lived at West Wallsend with a stepson. At 6 weeks old, Cooper was passed over to the care of the Harrisons, where he became known as Cooper Harrison.

I learned of this story from Newcastle family history researcher Lorraine Castle. Her grandfather was Cooper Eyre. She is the great great grand daughter of Charles and Ann Eyre.

On 5 June 1888, the Newcastle and Morning Herald & Miners’ Advocate reported that at about 1 am, the previous morning, Charles (Henry) Eyre ‘broke a blood vessel’. Two doctors were called, and after their intervention, he was reported to have ‘somewhat improved’. [5] Was this a small stroke, perhaps stress induced?

In 1889, there were further stresses for Charles Eyre. He made four Court appearances charged with trading outside hotel hours, one in 1889 and three in March, 1890.

It may have been that these events were the last straw for Charles Eyre, struggling to keep his business afloat.

Community pressure for a proper railway station was once again mounting. In April 1890, the Newcastle Morning Herald reported that a written commitment had been made by the NSW government for a station at Hamilton. It would have a large platform, waiting rooms, booking office, refreshment rooms, officers’ rooms, a high level bridge and footbridge for the Beaumont Street crossing. [6]

Hamilton, at last, would a rail transport hub.

It was too late for Charles Eyre and his dreams of prosperity, buoyed by the coming of rail. He had given up the license for the Sydney Junction Hotel on 14 March 1890.

In the event, Charles opted for more secure employment, joining the railways as a labourer. Charles and Annie had three more children after Charles left the hotel as licensee, making a family of eleven. A labourer’s wage would have barely provided the necessities. In a tragic accident while changing the points at Hamilton Station, Charles’ right arm became caught and was ripped off.

Hamilton Railway Station, Hamilton, NSW, 12 April 1906
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection courtesy of Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

Charles Eyre died in 1906 at the age of 56, the year this photograph was taken.

Postscript for Cooper Eyre

Cooper returned to live with his birth mother in 1908 at the age of 21. His birth father Charles had died just two years before. I can imagine Annie’s delight in having her son restored to her – and can only hope their relationship flourished. Cooper worked as a labourer and was perhaps able to help Annie support the younger children.

Cooper enlisted in the AIF in 1915, fighting in France and Belgium. Wounded on two occasions, he was returned home, unfit for duty. He married Ethel Wind, and they had three children. Although his occupation was a Platelayer, he became a school maintenance man and gardener. Lorraine, his grand daughter, recalls her childish pride at ‘knowing’ Mr Eyre when he visited her school to repair something.

Cooper Taylor Eyre (1887 - 1967)
Photograph from the collection of Lorraine Castle

Cooper lived at Swan Street, Hamilton until 1950, when he retired and moved to Marks Point.

Long view of the Sydney Junction Hotel

In the 83 years between 1881 and 1964, the Sydney Junction Hotel had 19 licensees.[7] The average length of stay of a licensee works out at less than four and a half years. Charles Eyre held on for six years, and this compares well against the average.

It was not unusual for a miner to become a publican after a serious injury in the pits. Nor was it unusual for a wife to take over the license after the death of her husband. For example, we don't know the story behind the Atkinsons, but we do know from the records that Thomas Atkinson took up the Sydney Junction Hotel licence in 1905. Things must not have gone well, however, because Mary Atkinson became the licensee in 1907. She held this for only eighteen months, until August 1908.

The record for the longest licensee, at least up until 1964, must go to the Sidebottom family. Herbert Sidebottom was licensee from 1931 to his death in 1947. His widow Alice became the licensee and was still living at the hotel in 1964. Her son Albert Sidey (his surname had been changed) was Hotel Manager and barman.

The Sydney Junction Hotel has changed in appearance over its lifetime. Additions were made in 1921. In 1941 the hotel was demolished and rebuilt. There were rumours of a large fire in 1939, but this cannot be substantiated. A fire damaging an ageing weatherboard building would not have been uncommon.

Some of the building materials from the demolished Sydney Junction and other hotels went to the Builders Exchange, where they were recycled for other building uses.

The Newcastle Morning Herald reported [8] that the new structure was to be a two storey brick building, with ceilings of stamped steel. On the ground floor would be large entrance hall, dining room, kitchen, and saloon bar. A main staircase would lead upstairs to six double bedrooms and seven single – ‘all of generous proportions, well lighted and well ventilated’. Each room would have a basin, with hot and cold water. A large lounge would open onto balconies. Two bathroom blocks would cater for staff, customers and guests. The cellar under the public bar would be 68 feet by 30 feet.

Built by J Davies and Son Builders and Castleden and Sara, Architects, this is the building standing today.

Sydney Junction Hotel, Hamilton (1959)
Rebuilt c.1941
Photograph courtesy of Newcastle Region Library

Some people are ahead of their time. They can visualise the future, and act. However, circumstances beyond their control may mean things don't happen as quickly as expected. They catch the wave, but the wave falls flat and they are stranded. Others, just a little later, come in. They benefit from the groundwork laid by their predecessors, and catch the wave right in to the shore. Thus it was for Charles Henry Eyre and the coming of rail to Hamilton. He was a man ahead of his time.

Sydney Junction Hotel, Hamilton (2014)


Special thanks to Lorraine Castle, who undertook the research on the Eyre family and the Sydney Junction Hotel. Her research is continuing.

William Cooper Eyre
Long time Hamilton resident, grandson of Charles Henry Eyre, father of Lorraine Castle, died 2011 aged 92
Photograph from the collection of Lorraine Castle

If you can add to or clarify anything in this post, please contact me at

[1]  Australian Government Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research. “Key Statistics Australian Small Business”. Commonwealth of Australia. Canberra, 2011.
[2] This was the first section (Northern section) of the Main North Line (or the Great Northern Line), from Newcastle to Maitland, built in 1857. Later extensions were built through the Hunter, to Tamworth, Armidale and Wallangarra in Queensland.
[3] Peter Murray describes the case for a railway station at Hamilton in “From Borehole to Hamilton Jubilee 1848-1921”. Peter Murray, Newcastle 2006.
[4] Newcastle Morning Herald, 9/12/1921.
[5] Newcastle and Morning Herald & Miners’ Advocate, 5/6/1888.
[6] Newcastle Morning Herald, 3/4/1890, 17/4/1890.
[7] Documentation of licensees until 1964 has been undertaken by Lorraine Castle.
[8] Newcastle Herald, 1/2/1941