Tag Archives: Nelson Bay

Nelson Bay or Nelson’s Bay?

Whatever may have been the original form of the name of this bay at Port Stephens, ‘Nelson’s Bay’ seems to have been usual in the late 1820s and 1830s.

In 1829 the Australian newspaper refers to Nelson’s Bay in reporting a near-disaster that overtook the New South Wales Attorney-General Alexander Baxter in the course of an attempted voyage from Newcastle to Sydney on the schooner Samuel. After departure from Newcastle, heavy squalls blew up at night, sails had to be taken in, and by 9 o’clock there were two feet of water in the hold. The pumps were inadequate, and passengers and all hands had to bale with buckets. The ship managed to limp into Port Stephens (spelled Port Stevens in the newspaper account) and came to rest in Nelson’s Bay, with 4 feet 7 inches of water in the hold. Some of the coal on board was taken off, the ship was reprovisioned and the pumps re-rigged, and finally the Samuel was able to make it safely to Sydney; but Mr. Baxter, who had helped with the baling, remained behind. ‘His exertions and fatigues … left him, by the latest accounts, in rather a feverish state.’

A shipboard adventure of quite another type was reported by the Sydney Gazette in 1835. Nine convicts, five of them assigned servants of William Charles Wentworth, escaped from Sydney on Wentworth’s ketch Alice, which had been lying in Vaucluse Bay, taking with them some provisions, wine and plate stolen from a house belonging to him at Vaucluse. One of the convicts was already among Wentworth’s men on the vessel, which was under the command of Hamilton Ross and the Mate John House. The boat sailed past Newcastle and entered Port Stephens, coming to anchor in Nelson’s Bay or Salamander Bay. It was dark by then. The next morning one of the convicts and House, who knew the harbour, were put ashore to get water. The convict came back with an aboriginal who wanted to sell some fish. House remained on shore, and Ross was allowed to go ashore as well after he refused to join the convicts. One of the convicts, Joseph Kay, gave Ross a written discharge and an order on Mr. Wentworth for his pay, which Kay signed as commander of the Alice. (According to evidence, he had a grudge against Mr. Wentworth for punishment dealt out some six weeks before, and was threatening to murder him, a threat Mr. Wentworth took seriously, especially as he discovered some poison hidden away.) Ross and House came across a camp of aborigines and persuaded one of them to guide them to Newcastle. Three days after seizure of the vessel the Revenue Cutter Prince George under Captain Roach went in pursuit. The ketch had been seen passing Newcastle and Roach, proceeding towards Port Stephens, saw a sail at sea and gave chase. The vessel put off a boat and ran into shore itself, the convicts escaping into the bush. The cutter put into a bay and some of the men walked round to the Alice and threw the provisions into the sea to deprive the convicts of them. Roach and six of his men tracked the pirates for four or five miles but then lost the trail. They returned to the Alice and dismasted her, then sailed on the cutter back to Port Stephens, where they alerted the Police Magistrate and joined a party of police in pursuit. Some aborigines were able to point out the location of the escapees, about fifty miles from Port Stephens. Meanwhile the cutter proceeded up the ‘Miaul River’, and the crew took the captured pirates on board for the return trip to Sydney.

Over the next few years we find a number of reports of land sales which refer to Nelson’s Bay. There is also the incident of the Daniel O’Connell, reported ‘high and dry on the beach at Nelson’s Bay’ in 1836. Finally in 1839 we encounter the Sophia Jane on a voyage from Moreton Bay to Sydney, anchoring in Nelson’s Bay for supplies.

Then in January 1840 comes news of another maritime incident and a change in terminology. On 23 December the cutter Water-Witch, putting out from Port Stephens, failed to cross the bar, went broadside to the breakers, and came to grief ‘on the rocks off Nelson Bay.’ Her cargo of maize and cedar was saved; but the possessive ‘s’ and its attendant apostrophe had gone.

Samuel: Australian 16/9/1829, p. 3. Alice: Sydney Herald 2/11/1835, p. 2. Daniel O’Connell: Australian 17/6/1836, p. 3. Sophia Jane: Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 23/5/1839, p. 2. Water-Witch: Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 4/1/1840, p. 2. ‘Baxter, Alexander Macduff (1798-1836?)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1, 1966, pp. 74-75, and online.

If, at sunrise, you chance to stroll

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.