A number of waterways enter Port Stephens, on the coast of New South Wales above Newcastle. One of these is the Myall River, which winds its way in from the north, flowing today between the suburbs of Tea Gardens and Hawks Nest.
A 1936 article in the Sydney Morning Herald notes three suggested explanations for the name Tea Gardens: (i) fishermen made tea there in their billies on the foreshores; (ii) wicker baskets of tea were brought ashore from a ship that foundered on the ocean beach; and (iii) Lady Parry, wife of Sir Edward Parry, who was associated with the Australian Agricultural Company, suggested that it would be a good place for the company to grow tea. None of these explanations sounds very adequate, though a connection with the Australian Agricultural Company sounds not impossible as they were influential in the area.
The article contrasts the unprepossessing appearance of Tea Gardens, on the north of the harbour, with Nelson Bay on the southern shores, ‘with its mathematically arranged camping sections fringing the bay, its park and pleasant outlook.’ Tea Gardens has a ‘picturesquely untidy’ riverbank against a background of swamp lands and ‘uninviting scrub’. And yet (says the author) Tea Gardens has its own ‘unassuming attractiveness.’ It is significant for its role in timber, trading and fishing. In particular, it serves as a transit point for timber from upstream, the logs then being shipped from wharves or transferred by barge to a sawmill on the Hawk’s Nest side, in a locality known as ‘Windy-wappa’ (a corruption of an aboriginal word).
Among notable pioneers in the area were the Engel family. There was hardly any non-aboriginal there in the 1870s. In 1888 the Engel brothers took up grazing land further upriver, but the venture was unsuccessful owing to the tendency of the area to flood. They then began to supply provisions to people in the area and across to Nelson Bay. This service was still going in the 1930s. For example, the following advertisement appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1932: ‘Tea Gardens, Port Stephens, business centre, G. A. Engel and Sons, Universal Providers, Supply Bread, Meat, Mail, and Papers to all parts.’
One of the islands in the Myall River is Slip Island, so called because of a slipway built there by Henry Engel, who leased the island in 1913 for boat-building. The name Slip Island is used in the 1936 article. Later it was replaced by the name Witts Island. A local historian, the late Rex Hill, agitated to have the old name restored in recognition of its earlier usage and connection with the Engel boat-building enterprise. He did not live to see his proposal come to fruition, but in 2007 the name was officially changed from Witts Island to Slip Island.
An enormous amount of red cedar and other timber was felled and shipped off to various places. According to the 1936 article, the sawmill, built during the Great War, had been in continuous operation since that time, and puts out 1,000 super feet of timber an hour, for total annual purchases of 3 million super feet of logs. In its boom period ‘it produced more timber than any other mill on the North Coast.’ It is difficult to imagine the effect of this on the landscape and ecology of the area.
Despite all this activity, the writer finds specially attractive the scene at daybreak, before the birdlife is frightened away by human encroachment on its domain:
If, at sunrise, you chance to stroll along Tea Gardens’ extensive “promenade,” you will see a heterogeneous group of waterfowl stationed in the shallows between the mangroves of Slip Island and the mainland—black and white shags, drying their wings in the wind; fragile, motionless snow-white cranes, stealthily eyeing the flow about their stick-like legs; and dignified old pelicans, the last to take flight at your approach.
W. Gilmour, ‘Port Stephens. Story of the Tea Gardens’, Sydney Morning Herald 18/4/1936, p. 13. Universal Providers: Sydney Morning Herald 17/12/1932, p. 5. Rex Hill, Slip Island, Tea Gardens, NSW, Rex Hill, 2006. Name change: New South Wales Government Gazette 72, 1 June 2007, pp. 3114, 3115; cf. the Geographical Names Board entry for Slip Island.