Easel & CStudios @ Newcastle Railway Station

Updated: Mar 30, 2021

In the weeks since establishing Easel Art Space with CStudios as the Workshop and Emerging Artists place in the Newcastle Railway Station (110 Scott Street Newcastle NSW) it has slowly but consistently become apparent that the site is historically ‘on its own’. The Station and Newcastle East adjoining the Working Harbour (2021) are structures and area of global historical significance.

To a born Novacastrian (Mayfield West, 1943; Kotara, 1951; Newcastle Boys’ High School, Waratah, 1955 – 1961; University of New South Wales College, Tighes Hill (now TAFE), 1962- 1964; Newcastle University 1965) is to enjoy the memories of a simple time of childhood and adolescent exhilaration. Beaches, church, sport, farm life – the times were tidy, family life steady, the future obviously unlimited.

In broad ways, Newcastle life was parallel to Clive James’ life in Kogarah, reported in Unreliable Memoirs (1981). As the departure for other places, in particular to the United Kingdom, replicated: to Europe, based in the UK, and even farther afield. FJ Holden to Sydney, then a ship through Sydney Heads, and owing to the war situation, around the Cape then up to England: a world much bigger than Newcastle offered, comfortable though the ‘Steel City’ was. Freedom through departures.

However to return some 55 years later, to stand beside the Harbour watching spectacular tonnage come and go, to see character-filled Tugs at work, to see multiple recreation sails on the weekend – and above all to stand on the retained and refurbished Newcastle Station across the road from Customs House (1877) and the Great Northern Hotel (1938) – is to be forced to realise the global historic significance and continuing economic centrality of the entire area. Indeed pride of place and of community, even national accomplishment. In also and more immediately continuing to make tomorrow’s Newcastle and its character and culture.

The Industrial Revolution, by which as Christopher Allen notes (Weekend Australian/Review March 6-7 2021/ Review page 10) “mastery of the power of steam during the Industrial Revolution some 250 years ago revolutionised the modern world, both economically and socially; it was a fundamental part of the huge leap forward in technology that finally gave the West a decisive advantage over every other people in the world, leading to the expansion of European empires and ultimately the transfer of Western science to the whole of the world’s population.” Now in 2021 the next ‘revolution’ is upon us all, it is asserted, centred on electronic technology. Even then, Allen observes, “the reality remains that some 90 per cent of electricity is still produced (2021) by steam turbines…” (p 10). The direct drive shaft, from the industrial revolution to the ‘new’ revolution, is straight and true.

The point cannot be missed, each morning as we open the doors to Easel Art Space now within the reconditioned Newcastle Railway Station. As Birrell notes, “…When Adam Smith, the Scottish economist, published his famous book The Wealth of Nations, in 1777, he did not refer to steam power as a motive force. However by the time the first fleet left England for Botany Bay in 1787, with soldiers and convicts to form the first settlement in New South Wales, the industrial revolution was well underway in Great Britain. James Watt had patented his low pressure atmospheric steam engine with a surface condenser in 1769, and after years of work with the industrialist Matthew Boulton, during which he had developed the technology to produce the machine in quantity, was selling them to mines and mills. Henry Cort had recently patented a process for making wrought iron by puddling in a reverberatory furnace, a process which increased the supply of iron for the manufacture of steam engines…” (Development of Mining Technology in Australia 1801 – 1945. Birrell RW PhD Thesis 2005 Uni of Melb)

Newcastle East, Newcastle Harbour, Newcastle Station are at a unique intersection point of history, as also of community and economic development in Australia. Events in the United Kingdom ‘created’ Newcastle East and Newcastle Station edging the Harbour and its Sail-to-Steam-to-Diesel-to Heavy Fuel Oil history and daily life. To know that BHP built the Steel Works (1915 to 1997) in Newcastle owing to harbour and other crucial resources is just adjunct confirmation of the central value of Newcastle and its industrial, intellectual, commercial and social-wealth creating history.

Admiration of industry is caught in some Newcastle East’s street names: Newcomen (Thomas Newcomen, 1712); Watt (James Watt, 1775); Boulton (entrepreneur with Watt 1760 to 1775); Stephenson (George and Robert Stephenson 1825 railways); Perkins Jacob Perkins USA engineer 1849); Woolf/Wolfe (Arthur Woolf, 1803-1804, Cornish engineer). First lasting settlement from 1804, sourcing coal for Sydney but leading to Newcastle and the Hunter Valley becoming an economic, and cultural ‘powerhouse’ for the then Colony and now Australia, is commemorated in streets named for Alexander Brown (AA Company colliery manager) and for Governors of New South Wales. The Dangar Grid layout, commissioned by Lachlan Macquarie established the design. The industrial era celebrated by chosen names.

It is uplifting to walk one hundred metres from Parnell Place, Newcastle East, down to Fort Scratchley and that small western park, to recognise that with the arrival of the first permanent (1804) working party ultimately arrived also in Australia the industrial revolution with its infinite variety of benefits and difficulties.

With improvement in the technology providing electricity has come the alteration to much of the industrial infrastructure of Newcastle East and the Harbour; Zaara Street Power Station (1915 to 1978) has gone; the Convict Lumber Yard (1804 – 1823) is place of memorial plaques; the railways yards and Newcastle Station have been turned into various public recreation space; but it remains a triumphant fact that the industrial revolution in Australia, initially through the survival and associated residential ‘needs’ of Sydney after European settlement, came through Newcastle Heads.

Historically important also in the Southern Hemisphere, application of the Industrial Revolution and its consequent sciences arrived first in Australia, through Newcastle. In South America, the industrial developments derived from the Industrial Revolution are usually dated 1890 to 1970, represented essentially by the railways; in Africa 1874; in New Zealand in the 1870s; and in parallel in the Northern Hemisphere, to the United States between 1876 and 1900. Newcastle Railway Station was in operation just three (3) years after the first Australian purchased locomotive, now in the Powerhouse Museum Sydney was unloaded in 1855.

There is much more to focus attention on Newcastle East, then Newcastle and then Hunter Valley in their role in making today’s Australia. The first coal export from Australia was sent in 1799 to India. The wooden Railway Line – the first rail line in Australia, constructed of wood and operated through gravity – brought coal to the harbourside, probably from the time of Lieutenant Menzies. Over decades, the world sailed into Newcastle Harbour, the link between Newcastle and Sydney by steam trains such as the 1801 ‘Flyer” more instantly brought the two cities within reach – no matter the weather at sea.

To have brought Easel Art Space with CStudios to the Station is to focus the visual and plastic arts into an area of global historical and continuing economic significance, whilst drawing the artistic link carefully between that significance and the perpetual power of the arts.


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