Showing posts with label Hamilton flour mill. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hamilton flour mill. Show all posts

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.

Friday, 24 April 2015

When Hudson Street hummed

At the northern end of Hudson Street, Hamilton, amid residential houses, was a veritable hive of industry. But it was more than that – it was a community. Three large commercial enterprises were interlinked, bartering their goods and services in a friendly, mutually beneficial exchange.

The towering wheat silos of McIntyre’s flour mill were a Hamilton landmark for many decades. Between 1899 to 1989, the mill supplied flour to bakers in Newcastle and beyond, including overseas.

Hamilton Mill silos each holding 3000 tons of wheat, 1982
Photograph courtesy of the McIntyre family collection

Next door to the mill was a two story factory, Hely Brothers, manufacturer of tool handles, shovels, spades and wheel components. Hely Brothers had operated from 46-48 Hudson Street since 1922.

Letterhead from Hely Bros. Ltd stationary showing an artist’s impression of the Hamilton factory
Photograph courtesy of Michael Hely

Hely Brothers actually began operations in 1884, at Dora Creek. A large sawmill processed timber hauled by bullock teams from the Watagan Ranges.

Hely Brothers Mill at Dora Creek, NSW, 21 January 1910
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection, courtesy of Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

The company made wheelwright and coachbuilders’ woodware for domestic use and export. Employment was generated for forestry workers, mill workers and bullock team drivers.

Once in Hamilton, Hely’s water tank atop a high tower, and an incinerator smoke stack, also became landmarks.

Hely Brothers' elevated water tower and smoke stack are just visible to the right of the flour mill silos, leaning dangerously after the 1989 earthquake
Three attempts were necessary before the silos were successfully demolished
Photograph courtesy of the McIntyre family collection

Further along Hudson Street toward Beaumont Street, was William Cann’s bakery, one of the largest in Newcastle. Apprentice bakers like Jim Walker carted flour in 150 pound sacks from the mill store to the bakery, a couple of blocks down Hudson Street. That was the first part of the journey - Jim told me the flour was stored on the second floor.

‘They did it the hard way, then’, says Neville Chant, former Company Secretary and Director of Hely Brothers.

In later years, flour was sold to bakers in 45 kg bags - a more manageable size to transport
Photograph courtesy of the McIntyre family collection

Hely Brothers used special timber for their tool handles – hickory, imported from the USA, and Australian spotted gum. It was the next best thing to hickory for making tool handles as it possesses superior qualities for absorbing the force of impact.

Spotted gum (Corymbia maculata) is a resilient and durable timber
Photograph courtesy of Barry Tucker

A constant supply of offcuts was provided free by Hely Brothers to Cann’s to fuel their wood ovens.

‘It was good for us, and good for them’, Michael Hely, the last Managing Director of Hely Brothers, told me.

Opposite Cann’s was a vacant block where the wood was stacked to dry out. Apprentice bakers barrowed wood to the bakery door, ready for the first fires to be lit at 3.30 am. 

Ten horses were stabled in a paddock at the back of Cann’s, to draw the baker’s delivery carts.

W. C. Cann bakery cart, 1906 
Photograph courtesy of Michelle Paris 

At Christmas, the large ovens were pressed into use to bake Christmas hams for staff of suppliers and businesses that were part of Cann’s network. For a nominal charge, Cann’s bakers encased the hams in dough made from McIntyre’s flour. Each ham had a small metal tag with its owner’s name, supplied by Hely Brothers, so each cooked ham found its rightful owner.

Roast ham baked in bread dough

Cann’s Christmas fruit cakes were famous – Jim Walker told me they were kept to mature for 12 months. Could this be so?

An advertisement for slimming bread, Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate, 
Thursday October 9, 1952. Courtesy of Joanne Roper

Hely Brothers closed in 2000, not because of lack of demand for its products, but because handle class timber became impossible to source within an economic range. McIntyre’s flour mill changed hands twice in the 1980s, but the 1989 earthquake put an end to the mill’s 90 years of operation in Hamilton. While William Cann [1] died in 1919, aged 64, the bakery continued to serve the people of Newcastle until the 1960s, with bread ‘of exceptional quality, well baked, light flavoured: none but the best flour is used in the baking…the supplies are always fresh.’ (The Catholic Press, 28/8/1919).

William Cann, 1855–1919
Photograph courtesy of Michelle Paris 

These days, quieter businesses have taken over the northwestern end of Hudson Street. It’s almost sedate.

The Grainery Mill is one of the redevelopments on the site of McIntyre’s flour mill, 2014
Photograph by Matthew Ward

I found Jim Walker helping out at Sunbow Roofing, one of the businesses now on the old flour mill site. Jim had had odd jobs as a young boy, well before he became an apprentice baker – as a ‘lolly boy’ at Herbert’s Theatre, Islington spruiking Jaffas, Jubes, and Fantales; and selling papers on the running boards of the trams on the Mayfield line. His mother was the sole support of her three children.

Jim Walker, 2014

The last word goes to Jim, who wonders how anyone these days can complain about being bored. His advice:

‘If you’ve got nothing to do, pick up a broom. There’s always something to sweep up.’

That was the spirit of the workers of Hudson Street, when it hummed.

Workers at the Hamilton railway siding, rear of the McIntyre Flour Mill, Hamilton (n.d.) 
Photograph courtesy of the McIntyre family collection


In late 2017, a new creative arts space opened in Hamilton – Hudson Street Hum. At the former James Walker warehouse, 7 Hudson Street, just opposite Sydney Junction Hotel and handy to the railway station, it’s a social business enterprise set up by business partners Aleeta Cliff and Suzie Galwey.

Workshops in writing, drawing, making and more are run here, with profits going to fund social impact programs in Newcastle.

Aleeta says they were inspired by this Hidden Hamilton blog post on Hudson Street and chose to name their business accordingly. Pocket Design was commissioned to create a logo and strong brand for the new business, reflecting its energy and vibrancy. 

Pocket Design writes:

The Australian Spotted Gum (a major timber source used by Hely Brothers to make tool handles) was the perfect reference we needed to create a logo and mural which respects the history of the street and welcomes new beginnings.’

Expect creativity, collaboration and new ideas to flourish as Hudson Street Hum takes off. More at


Thanks to Michael Hely  for the photo of early company letterhead and information; to Neville Chant (former Hely Brothers Company Secretary and Director); Jim Walker (apprentice baker at Cann’s c. 1950s, and Mark Humphries, owner of Sunbow Roofing. Information from the earlier post on the Hamilton flour mill was provided by Marie McIntyre.

Bonser: the story of Hely Brothers Pty Ltd by Michael Hely, was published by Michael Hely in 2017.

Michael Hely and Neville Chant, 2015

Read more on the old Hamilton flour mill mill here.

[1]  In 1904, when Peter McIntosh retired from partnership with Charles McIntyre in the Hamilton flour mill, William Cann became a partner, along with JR Hall, a prominent Newcastle warehouseman.