Showing posts with label Harry Frank Nesbitt. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Harry Frank Nesbitt. 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.