Thursday, November 20, 2008

New England Story - Stockton Beach

Normally New England Story series focuses on people. However, browsing the on-line edition of The Newcastle Herald I came across a story about University of Newcastle communication honours student Thomas Hancock who has set his sights on introducing a new generation of people to the history of Stockton Bight and in particular Tin City by means of a documentary.

Now I knew Stockton and Stockton Beach, but I had never heard of Tin City. So I decided that I shouldNewcastle to Port Stephens do this New England story on Stockton Beach.

The attached map from NRMA shows the long sweep of Stockton Beach. The beach starts at Stockton on the northern side of the break wall that protects the entrance to Newcastle.

Stockton itself lies on a narrow peninsula and is the only Newcastle suburb on the northern banks of the Hunter River. This was an area I knew quite well at one point because I used to take out a girl from Stockton, driving up from Canberra sometimes to stay there, crossing over the river by ferry.

The town was founded around the same time as Newcastle and at first was known as a nest of pirates. It then became an industrial180px-Stockton_Beach_-_southern_end and mining base. In 1896, in one of those accidents that marked the lower Hunter, the town was struck by tragedy when a gas leak at the local colliery killed 11 people. Today it has become a working-class dormitory marked by a relaxed life style and love of the sea and fishing. The photo shows the southern end of Stockton Beach near Stockton.

Sadly, the beach north of Stockton is also known as the location of the 1989 rape and murder of Newcastle High School student and nearby Fern Bay resident Leigh Leigh. The play, Blackrock (written by Australian playwright Nick Enright) and a subsequent movie of the same name starring Heath Ledger, were inspired by this event. In another New England connection that I did not know, Nick Enright wrote the original book of the Boy from Oz, the Peter Allen musical.

The play is a good one, although I have very mixed views about it because of its popularity with school drama classes. This means that I have had to sit through one version or other, both extracts and full productions, many times. It is a dark play, and I find it quite depressing.

From Stockton, the beach stretches for 32 km (20 mi) in a north-easterly 300px-Stockton_Beach_-_north_eastern_end direction to Anna Bay near Port Stephens. The photo shows the beach looking south near Anna Bay.

In some areas the beach is as much as one km (0.6 mi) wide and has sand dunes over 30 metres (98 feet) high.

I have not researched the geological history of the beach itself, although it is relatively recent in geological terms. Based on the history of the Macleay Valley further north, around 125,00 years ago the sea level was around 25 feet higher than it is now, so what is now Stockton Beach would have been underwater.

In the fourth ice age beginning around 100,000 years ago, the sea level began to fall. This moved the shore line out about six to ten miles, creating a large coastal plain that stretched along the current New England coastline.

Then the sea level began to rise again around 20,000 years ago, submerging the coastal plain. This rise continued until about 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, before slowing down. It seems likely that sand deposition created spits that then grew into the present dunes.

I do not know when the first Aborigines arrived in this area, although the Wikipedia article already cited suggests as much as 12,000 years ago. In this event, the original Aboriginal inhabitants would in fact have probably seen the evolution of the beach over multiple generations.

At the time the Europeans arrived, Stockton Beach fell into the territory of the Worimi people. The Worimi gathered pipis and whelks along the beach forming middens, shell deposits. The constant shifting of the beach because of wind means that some middens are concealed, while new ones are revealed.

I don't know about you, but to my mind wind driven sand is not pleasant. I imagine the Worrimi would have camped in the dunes back from the beach where there was some protection from the wind.

The power of the wind is not to be underestimated. If you look again at the map, you will see that the long stretch of the beach north of Stockton, a stretch also known as the Stockton Bight, is directly exposed to the winds and waves. Ship wrecks were common as ships tried to enter the port or were simply driven onto shore. The Pasha Bulka (photo) is only the most recent example. Ship Aground, Nobbys Beach, Newcastle

On 13 June 1928, for example, the North Coast Steam Navigation Company's Uralla was approaching Sydney Heads from Coffs Harbour when a gale forced it to run north. On 14 June the steamer ran aground down the beach from Anna Bay. There was no loss of life. After one failed attempt at refloating, the owners sold it for a thousand pounds. The new owners did refloat the vehicle, but it then drifted ashore and broke up. The remains can still be seen sometimes at low tide.

The collier White Bay suffered a worse fate during the same gale. Also driven ashore, all five crew lost their lives.

The most visible wreck is the MV Sygna, a 53,000 t (52,163 long tons) Norwegian Bulk carrier that ran aground during a major storm on 26 May 1974. Attempts to refloat the ship were unsuccessful. It broke its back and the stern now lies approximately 8.8 km (5.5 miles) from the southern end of the beach.

There is a direct connection between these wrecks and Tin City.

By the late 1800s shipwrecks on Stockton Beach were so common that two tin sheds were constructed on a part of the beach to hold provisions for ship-wrecked sailors. During the Depression a group of squatters constructed a series of tin shacks at the site, which is around 11 km (6.8 mi) south west of Anna Bay. Tin City Shack

The shacks were torn down during World war to make way for an Army camp, but then rebuilt. Eleven of the shacks known collectively as Tin City remain on 99 year squatter's leases, although no new shacks can be built nor can existing shacks be rebuilt if they are destroyed by the elements.

Tin City was used for several scenes in the 1979/80 Australian movie Mad Max.

Tin City remains a unique community that cannot be reached by road, although it has become a popular four wheel drive destiMaking history Thomas Hancock on setnation.

History and location attracted Thomas Hancock to make his film on Tin City. He stayed at Tin City for two days, interviewed residents, built his own sets (Herald photo)and used experimental techniques and dramatisation to create historical context.

"I just wanted to make an interesting film about an interesting place," he told the Newcastle Herald.

War is another element that has left its imprint on the Beach.

RAAF Base Williamtown., now also Newcastle's civil airport, lies just to the north of Stockton. Military jets are a constant presence. Remains of tank traps built during the Second War can be found, as sometimes can unexploded munitions since the Beach was used as a bombing range.

Vehicular access to the Beach is limited. There is no vehicular access at the southern end of the beach. Vehicle entry is via Lavis Lane in Williamtown or one of the two entrances in Anna bay. A permit needs to be purchased before entering the beach.

A number of operators run four wheel drive tours of the Beach, and this is one of the best ways of exploring the area. Details can be obtained from Port Stephens or Newcastle Tourism.


Anonymous said...

Not so much 'a girl from Stockton' as a 'Canberra girl who came from Stockton'. Unless, of course, there is even more of your deep past lurking, and you mean someone entirely different!

Jim Belshaw said...

Crikey, Judi. Correction accepted! How is Rep? I have monitored some of your activities to the degree that the web allows me to do so.

Anonymous said...

Rep is as well as can be expected for a 76 yo. Back on the boards this year after managing, play selecting & directing since last major role in 2001. MA(Hons)ANU to add to the collection. 41/2 years post melanoma (misspent youth on Stockton beach). PSW and I still, having just survived our 2nd maximus house reno. Owned by 2 tawny Abyssinian cats. Tim (no 1; son, not cat) and partner working in Blackwater;gorgeous, clever, precocious 21/2 y o daughter Aubrey, so we're grandparents! Toby (no 2)actor and musician,and fiancée actor; working in Melbourne. Dear old Mum still kicking (complete with marbles)@ 87!
Take care

Jim Belshaw said...

A grandmother! Now that makes me feel quite ancient. I am glad your mum is still okay. I was thinking of her in part as I wrote.

Now that I have your email, will email with news about us.

Anonymous said...

Tin city is a myth that only became so when Stockton beach was being discussed as a future national park. My family who have lived in the area prior to the depression have no knowledge of the collection of shacks that are now known as tin city. Even as a small child during the early 1970s I did not see anymore than a single shack at point along the beach, certainly nothing that could be considered a city.

No map prior to 1990 has shown any structures on the beach, shipwrecks being the obvious exceptions.

The earliest detailed map of the area is dated 1942 and was surveyed by the army with no buildings shown on the beach. No military record has yet been listed by national or state archives in connection with a military base on the beach.

No written reference has been found in connection to a depression camp on the beach and probably will never be produced as the location of tin city is the middle of nowhere with no means of access to food or piped water.

From what I know of depression towns they where near ready sources of building materials, water, shops, possible employment ( no bludging then) and land with the ability to grow fruit and vegetables (something you cannot do on the beach).

The only depression camp that became a military base was on Nobbys beach at Newcastle and this is recorded in newspapers and archives. There was a depression camp at the town of Nelson Bay though.

For those who wish to believe the myth of tin city please consider that history shows that the military apparently saw no shacks on a defended beach and accordingly made no record of such during its "fortifying" activities along the beach during WW2.

The earliest memories my family has of tin city date back to the 1970s which with the Sygna going aground on the beach and the first civilian 4WD vehicles coming onto the market could explain the birth of this collection of shacks.

With the talk of the beach becoming a national park the myth of tin city was first mentioned publicly and thanks to the internet and the lack of factual/researched material on behalf of the creators of web sites, fiction is now becoming fact. Media likes newspapers report on subjects based on little research and validate errors which become perceived fact and close the loop by supplying "facts" back to the internet to again go round the recycling loop that does not involve historians.

Just to stray, it is also "public knowledge" that Mad Max 3 was filmed on Stockton beach. Why then can you see pictures of the fake passenger jet (shown in the film) that was filmed buried in sand dunes at Botany Bay on the internet? Funny enough where are the sand dunes that buried the jet today? Sand mining operations consumed them just like the mining operations on Stockton beach are doing today that you not allowed to see.

The Stockton beach mine has only been allowed as part of the agreement between the traditional land owners and the state/local government prior to approving the national park. This was done so half a dozen or so indigenous people could be employed at the mine and park, if recall correctly.

The sand mine is run by the Port Stephens mayor who came out of retirement (previously being mayor) to be elected mayor again during negotiations for the national park.

There are a lot of things to be learned from history but some choose to believe in whatever manure that binds their nest that provides them with a home. (Some birds do use manure in nest construction so please do not take offence to the use of the word manure! Some do not though as there are no holes in their stories of where they live.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Anon. That was a very interesting comment, and deserves carriage in a full post. I do apologise for my delay in responding.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your time Mr. Belshaw, sorry for any spelling or grammatical errors but I am using an IPad. For anybody interested in facts please search "Mad Max beyond thunderdome filming locations" when searching the internet. Funny enough Jim Beluishi, the actor, was at Stockton beach in the mid 1990s during the filming of "Sahara" but this appears to have escaped the Tin City historians in their quest for historical worth. It was a very dumb movie though!

I have done a basic search of newspapers at the "Trove" website since my posting and no article (to date) since newspapers were first printed mentions any residents on Stockton beach during any shipwreck, social activity or military operation. National Archives has yet to produce any government record that supports any conflict or benefit to military operations on said beach. There was apparently an observer on the beach during WW2 other than this it was mainly used as a live firings range at different locations along its length.

My father believes that the movie "40 thousand horseman", filmed in the late 1940s or early 50s, (Chips Rafferty was one of the actors) was filmed on Stockton beach but it was filmed close to where Mad Max was filmed at Kurnell, Sydney. History does show though that the light brigade did indeed at one stage carry out military manoeuvres along Stockton beach.

There has not been a history of the beach written apart from that in connection to the shipwrecks that dot the beach. Even the Sygna wreck has had its story bent out of shape due to the lack of research. The remaining visible rear portion of the ship was not the result of nature but greedy unions who sabotaged the recovery of this "salvaged" portion of the ship. Yes this remaining section had been re floated and had to be re sunk due to the lack of tug to tow it away. Without a tug it would have become a shipping hazard if it broke free from its anchors.

This wreck is not the result of the power of nature but of the unions.

I do not know everything in life but I do hope people will challenge what they are told as the truth is a lot more interesting than fiction.

Thank you for the opportunity to post the above. Good luck for the future.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi again, Anon. Always glad to leave comments open for interesting contributions. I agree that we need to challenge.

I don't have the time at the moment to do my own follow-up, but will summarise the issues in my weekly round-up of comments across my blogs.