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.
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 industrial 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.