Time and tide are changing Stockton

Stockton resident and former president of the suburb's historical society Irene Butterworth on the waterfront. Picture: Simone De Peak
Stockton resident and former president of the suburb's historical society Irene Butterworth on the waterfront. Picture: Simone De Peak

FROM her kitchen window, Irene Butterworth has a view of the world.

Pieces of the United States, South America, Africa; they’re only a couple of hundred metres from the back of Butterworth’s historic worker’s cottage in Stockton, along a stretch known as the Ballast Ground.

Around the same time as this little cottage was being built, the western shores of Stockton were growing.

In the 1800s and into the early years of the 20th century, sailing ships from around the globe would glide past Nobbys and up the Hunter River.

They would moor just off Stockton preparing to fill their holds with Hunter coal. But first they had to disgorge the ballast they had carried across the seas. And so parts of distant lands, including the rubble of buildings destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, were dumped along the shore, thickening the peninsula.      

“I wish I was alive then, it would have been beautiful,” says Irene Butterworth, who is the former long-serving president of the Stockton Historical Society.

“I don’t think a lot about the other parts of the world, I think about the sailing ships. They were berthed for a fair way along here. They were seven abreast some stages.”

Ships berthed along the Stockton shore in the early 1900s. Picture: Newcastle Region Library, Local History section

Ships berthed along the Stockton shore in the early 1900s. Picture: Newcastle Region Library, Local History section

In his memoir, The Cape Horn Breed, recalling his young years on sailing ships, Captain William H.S. Jones wrote about his impressions of Newcastle harbour in 1906, when he was on board a British vessel: “More than sixty sailing-ships were in the harbour when we arrived … The ships gave the impression of a forest of masts and spars and rigging, in a confused tangle against the skyline, as they were moored three abreast at all jetties on the Stockton side.”

While the world once berthed at Stockton, the enduring charm of this village for many who call it home is that it is a world unto itself.  

It may be a suburb of Newcastle, and it is so near to the CBD, being only a few minutes’ ferry ride away across the 700-metre stretch of water, but Stockton can feel so far away.

Novocastrians joke about travelling “overseas” to Stockton.

The joke flows both ways.

When I meet Irene Butterworth, she hands me a “passport” to certify that I have been “lawfully admitted to the Independent Territory of Stockton”.

“You’ll need that to get in next time,” she says.

Yet it’s that sense of distance, and of difference, that has shaped the character of Stockton.   

DISTINCT: It may be a suburb of Newcastle, and Stockton has a street with its name, but many locals see themselves as separate from the city.

DISTINCT: It may be a suburb of Newcastle, and Stockton has a street with its name, but many locals see themselves as separate from the city.

SOON after the British first stepped ashore on the Worimi people’s land on the northern side of the harbour, the peninsula sprouted names and stories that marked this place as different.

In the early days of the colony, it was known as Pirate Point.

In 1800, just three years after Lieutenant John Shortland had explored the mouth of the Hunter, a group of convicts were escaping north in a boat they had seized, when it was wrecked just off the peninsula.

More than two centuries on, “Pirate Point” is still attached to a nodule of land on the suburb’s edge, and a couple of local shops wear the name in their brand.

Water has helped craft and define Stockton. The community is pincered by water; on the eastern edge, the great rollers of the sea tumble onto Stockton Beach, and on the other side of the narrow peninsula, the Hunter River slides by.

Through the years, Stockton has been threatened and battered by the water that hugs it. Floods have whooshed down the river, and storms have smashed onto the beach, gnawing at the land and depositing ships on the sand or along the treacherous stretch near the harbour entrance that was known as the Oyster Bank.

But mostly the water has nurtured Stockton. It is a community of the river and the sea.

Jason Hart checking out the surf at Stockton Beach, with Nobbys in the background. Picture: Simone De Peak

Jason Hart checking out the surf at Stockton Beach, with Nobbys in the background. Picture: Simone De Peak

From the ferry to the string of little clubs - surf life saving, sailing, prawners’ - around the peninsula, everyone in Stockton has a relationship with the water. 

Until recent years, Stockton had a hydro-powered economy, with many of its residents holding down jobs connected to the water.

“It was a sea town then,” says Eric Pitt, who has lived in Stockton for all of his 90 years.

Eric Pitt’s mind still harbours an armada of vivid memories, when ships lined Stockton’s shores, and a boy who loved the water didn’t even have to leave the peninsula to find a job.

He takes me to the remains of a slipway wedged between the boat harbour and the red-brick headquarters of the Stockton Prawners’ Club along the river bank. I look at a couple of pieces of rubbish gently swaying in the shallows, but what Pitt sees here is the cradle of his long career as a shipwright.

Eric Pitt was 13 and was already in love with boats. He enjoyed sailing and belonged to the Port Hunter 16ft Sailing Skiff Club, which was - and still is - stationed downstream along this bank.

The sailing club, which has existed in one form or another for more than a century, occupied the former Mission to Seamen shed, which leant over the water. 

The Mission would try to entice visiting sailors to attend dances and other innocent ‘“social evenings” under its iron roof rather than be led into temptation in less virtuous establishments scattered around the harbour’s edge. 

As Captain Jones noted in his memoir, the Christian organisation even had its own launch, in which respectable young ladies “interested in mission work” could be transported from town to the waterfront shed.

Captain Jones recalled that “many friendships were made, some of them sentimental, but the young ladies of Newcastle were experienced in temporary affairs of the heart”.

Lifelong Stockton resident and retired shipwright Eric Pitt outside the Stockton Prawners' Club. Picture: Simone De Peak

Lifelong Stockton resident and retired shipwright Eric Pitt outside the Stockton Prawners' Club. Picture: Simone De Peak

By the time Eric Pitt was a youngster, the Mission had moved further up the peninsula, and the young sailing club member would learn the ropes on the river in dinghies and skiffs. 

Then came the offer to work for the Stockton Ferries company, just one of the maritime businesses and shipyards strewn along the Hunter River bank.

Initially, his job was counting the pennies from the fares. But when the company built a slipway to maintain its boats, Pitt became an apprentice shipwright.

“Stockton was half full of shipwrights,” recalls Pitt.

The Stockton ferries were frequently skittering across the water, transporting workers to and from the State dockyard and the steelworks, as well as taking passengers to Newcastle.

Once he had done his time with the ferry company, Pitt moved a few doors down to Slazengers’ shipyard, and he also worked for another firm, Beattie and Davis, before he took a job across the river at the dockyard.    

For Eric Pitt, his association with the maritime world wasn’t restricted to business hours. He has been a member of the Stockton Prawners’ Club for about 70 years.

Initially, he says, if the blokes wanted a drink on a Sunday, when grog was not officially served, they rolled a keg under a “thorn tree”, an African acacia that had sprouted among discharged ballast. The thorns and the thickness protected the members from prying eyes.

“Go round on the western side, so no one could see you, pick up the bush there, and go underneath it,” Pitt says. 

“You couldn’t see in there from the outside. You could have a secret drink alright. A secret drink or two.”

But the secret spread, the police got wind of the thorny meeting house, and so the watering hole was shifted to garages and sheds around the peninsula before the club colonised a former maintenance shed near the Beattie and Davis boatyard. Which was a blessing and curse for Eric Pitt, who would be working on trawlers and other fishing vessels.

“And here’s me trying to work away, and these blokes are running in and out, bringing beers and giving them to me,” Pitt laughs.

“Sometimes I was as pissed as a parrot. I told them, ‘Leave me alone, or you won’t get your boat fixed’.”

Eric Pitt with the "thong trees" outside the Stockton Prawners' Club. Picture: Simone De Peak

Eric Pitt with the "thong trees" outside the Stockton Prawners' Club. Picture: Simone De Peak

Pitt says there are few trawlers along Stockton’s shores these days. Many of the local prawners have either moved upriver or have left the industry. But the Prawners’ Club is still thriving in its updated headquarters, with about 200 members. 

Actually, the club has gone upmarket. Outside is the surreal sight of thongs nailed to tree trunks. The thong trees are apparently used by members and visitors who turn up barefoot. They can pick off some footwear to enter the club.

More than being a place to have a drink, the Prawners’ Club raises funds and helps locals doing it tough. That’s the Stockton way, Eric Pitt explains.

“They help anybody in Stockton who is in distress,” he says, adding the club has given him a mobility scooter on a long-term loan.

It’s just one reason why Eric Pitt proudly refers to himself as a “Stocktonian”.

“Newcastle’s on the other side of the river,” he declares. “It’s a different place altogether from Stockton.”

The bar at the Boatrowers Hotel, Stockton. Picture: Simone De Peak

The bar at the Boatrowers Hotel, Stockton. Picture: Simone De Peak

IF the Prawners’ Club is closed or off-limits, a Stocktonian need only cross the road to the Boatrowers Hotel. There they can find a drink, local history, and, more than likely, a few retired maritime workers.

There was a time when only the brave wore a tie into the Boatrowers’ main bar. It would be snipped and the trophy pinned in the corner, Eric Pitt recalls. Now, the corner holds old photos and warmly told stories.

The pub has been around since the 1880s. But among those around the bar when I pop in, the combined number of years of living and working in Stockton would stretch back further than that.

Among the patrons are Allan Linstrom, who was born into a Stockton fishing family in 1936, and 70-year-old Doug Conway. When asked how he identifies himself, Conway replies, “I come from Stockton.”

For a time, both of these men helped Stockton feel a little more connected to the rest of the world. They were crew members on the vehicular ferries that criss-crossed the river until 1972.

Further down the peninsula is Punt Road, where motor vehicles - and before them, horses and carts - would queue to roll onto the ferries. The punts were in service for almost a century.

“Really before the [Stockton] bridge, it was the only connection for vehicles between us and Newcastle, unless you went around to Raymond Terrace and Hexham,” says Conway.

Stocktonians and former vehicular ferry workers Allan Linstrom and Doug Conway in the Boatrowers Hotel. Picture: Simone De Peak

Stocktonians and former vehicular ferry workers Allan Linstrom and Doug Conway in the Boatrowers Hotel. Picture: Simone De Peak

To Irene Butterworth, the vehicular ferries didn’t just connect Stockton to Newcastle, they made it clear how isolated the peninsula community could feel.

“If someone needed an ambulance, it could be a long wait to get to hospital, either on the punt or via Hexham Bridge, so private hospitals sprang up here, especially for child birth,” says Butterworth, who was one of those local arrivals.

She was born in the private hospital of “Sister Brown” in Mitchell Street. So was Eric Pitt.  

When construction began on the bridge in the late 1960s, many locals looked forward to being connected to the wider world. And they expected the wider world to visit Stockton. 

That great concrete arch was like an economic rainbow to some.

As one newspaper report prophesied, “Stockton is awaiting the bridging of the Hunter River as the beginning of its emergence as an important tourist centre for the State … Residential development also is confidently expected”.

A 1962 Sunliner caravan at the Stockton Beach Holiday Park. Picture: Simone De Peak

A 1962 Sunliner caravan at the Stockton Beach Holiday Park. Picture: Simone De Peak

Irene Butterworth says after the bridge was opened in 1971, a few local shops disappeared from the Mitchell Street business strip. 

The past president of the Stockton Historical Society can point out the ghosts of businesses, conjuring up who and what used to be in the old buildings: “There were three bootmakers in Stockton, my Dad was one of them.”

Most in Stockton welcomed the bridge, even those who worked on the punts.

“I find the bridge very handy,” Doug Conway says. “It terminated my job, but it was a good thing for Stockton.”

As the Stocktonians forecast, new residents have been moving into the suburb.

Mitchell Street, Stockton. Picture: Simone De Peak

Mitchell Street, Stockton. Picture: Simone De Peak

In the Boatrowers Hotel bar, there are a few “blow ins”, who are good naturedly ribbed by the born-and-breds.

“I’ve been here only 20 years,” says John Watters.

“He’s got 40 years to go before he’s a local,” fires back Stephen “Steph” Rolston, who was born in Stockton in 1953.

Watters says he and his wife were drawn to Stockton by the prospect of living with water on both sides: “My wife calls this ‘the Miami of Newcastle’.”

And parts of Stockton are looking more like Miami by the day, especially along the beachfront residential strip nicknamed “Millionaires’ Row”.   

New, large homes are gradually replacing the older cottages along Stockton's beachfront. Picture: Simone De Peak

New, large homes are gradually replacing the older cottages along Stockton's beachfront. Picture: Simone De Peak

SITTING at a seaside picnic table, with the great sweep of Stockton Bight behind him and a couple of mansions across the road, Lucas Gresham states his credentials.

“I’m just a Stockton local,” he says. “I’m fifth generation. So I can see where we’ve come from, and where we’re heading.”

Born in 1979, Gresham took the skills he had honed on the local breaks and moved to the Gold Coast to pursue a future in surfing.

But when that didn’t pan out due to an injury, Gresham returned to Stockton and is now riding the swell of interest in property. He is a real estate agent with Dowling.   

Gresham rattles off statistics about Stockton - 1886 homes in the suburb, 10.3 per cent of them are public housing - and he can nail why people want to live here: “It’s flat, it’s surrounded by water, and it’s three minutes’ ferry ride to Newcastle.”

But even he is surprised by the rocketing property prices. 

Gresham cites one example, a beachfront home in Mitchell Street that he sold in August 2016 for $975,000. Two years on, and without anything done to the house, he has just sold it for $1.35 million.

With that sort of growth, he concedes it is getting harder for young Stocktonians to buy in the suburb of their parents, “and there’s some angry people about that”.

He says Sydneysiders account for only about 5 per cent of buyers. Many of those moving in are coming from the lower Hunter. There are also some “seriously influential” business people taking up residence, as they can build fine homes opposite the beach and close to the airport at Williamtown.

Some are concerned Stockton is becoming crowded. 

At the pub, Allan Linstrom remarks, “it’s getting to capacity actually”.

Lucas Gresham says height restrictions will prevent Stockton becoming packed, so he doubts what is happening along the Newcastle side with apartment developments will be replicated on the harbour’s northern shore.

“I’m all for higher density living, but I don’t want the creation of a suburb that loses its identity,” he says.

Stockton real estate agent Lucas Gresham. Picture: Simone De Peak

Stockton real estate agent Lucas Gresham. Picture: Simone De Peak

In the past, Gresham says, Stockton was held back as a lifestyle destination, because of “that stigma - ‘you can’t walk around here’”. The suburb’s reputation was particularly hit after the murder of schoolgirl Leigh Leigh in 1989 and the national media coverage the crime received.

What Gresham now sees as a big issue is the very thing that is helping attract big residential money to Stockton: the beach. Or more to the point, the disappearing beach.

Erosion has long been a problem literally eating away at Stockton. The archives hold pages of newspaper reports of the beach washing away, and infrastructure being damaged or disappearing.

As surely as the waves crash onto the shore, history is repeating. Locals have been appealing to Newcastle council and the state government for more resources, warning that facilities such as a child care centre and the surf club could be claimed by the sea.

As authorities search for long-term solutions, Stocktonians offer their own. 

Lucas Gresham reckons about 3 million tonnes of sand lie off Nobbys; 900,000 tonnes of that could be scooped up and put on Stockton Beach to bolster its future. But, he adds, a series of groynes would need to be built to prevent sand being washed away. 

Applying his perspective, Eric Pitt reckons the removal of vegetation from the dunes over the years contributed to the beach shrinking.

“You used to walk through about 100 yards of saltbush to get to the beach,” Pitt says. “Then you walked down the beach for 100 yards before you got to the water.”

Back at the Boatrowers Hotel, Stephen Rolston concedes, “I don’t know what they’re going to do to fix it, but they have to do something. If we didn’t have a seawall, Mitchell Street would be gone.”

George Holliday hoses the salty coating off his front lawn, while his dog, Diver, watches on from the veranda. Picture: Simone De Peak

George Holliday hoses the salty coating off his front lawn, while his dog, Diver, watches on from the veranda. Picture: Simone De Peak

George Holliday is on the frontline of the erosion issue. He lives just across from the beach, near the child care centre, at the north-eastern end of the suburb.

Walking his dog, Diver, along the beachfront, Holliday has observed the thousands of tonnes of sand that have been washed away, as the sea creeps ever closer.  

“To see the amount gone in a short amount of time, it’s alarming,” he says.  

As he observes what is happening to the beachfront, the 88-year-old does what he can to minimise the corrosive effects of the sea on his own property.  

Each morning, Holliday is out with the garden hose. When the westerlies are blowing, it is to wash off coal dust carried over from Kooragang. But mostly he is watering his lawn, to remove the salty coating.

“If I miss a day, it’s bad,” Holliday says.

But no matter what the wind blows in, he couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. 

When Holliday moved to Stockton about 15 years ago, he enthused to a neighbour, “Geez, it’s a beautiful spot”.

“Don’t tell anyone about it,” was the reply.

“I feel like that about Stockton now,” George Holliday muses. “But it’s going ahead now more than ever.”

Stockton resident and real estate agent Lucas Gresham in Mitchell Street. Picture: Simone De Peak

Stockton resident and real estate agent Lucas Gresham in Mitchell Street. Picture: Simone De Peak

LUCAS Gresham has put his money where his real estate agent’s mouth is.

He recently paid more than a million dollars for a beachfront house, which he is going to bulldoze to build a dream home for himself, his Stockton-born wife, Kayla, and their two small children.

He’s planning on going nowhere.

But Stockton, he says, is really going somewhere.

The commercial area, he predicts, will attract more boutique shops, more infrastructure will be built, and housing prices will keep climbing.

“I truly, truly believe the highest median price for housing in the whole of Newcastle by 2025 will be Stockton,” Gresham asserts.

Irene Butterworth walking past the place of her birth in Stockton, the property that was once Sister Brown's private hospital. Picture: Simone De Peak

Irene Butterworth walking past the place of her birth in Stockton, the property that was once Sister Brown's private hospital. Picture: Simone De Peak

AS she takes me on a walking tour of Stockton, the historical society’s Irene Butterworth outlines some of the physical changes to her suburb: the hotels and wharves that have disappeared; the site of the old coal mine, where 11 men lost their lives in a disaster in 1896 and who are memorialised with gateposts at Lynn Oval; the World War Two battery converted into makeshift housing by local families when the guns fell silent.

And she points out where we’re walking along the foreshore was water when she was a girl; the harbour deepening projects had meant Stockton’s southern shoreline had grown, as the spoil was deposited.

“It’s a lot nearer than it used to be,” she says, pointing over to Newcastle, “before all this was reclaimed.”

The influence of a changing Newcastle is affecting Stockton. Butterworth gestures to the full car park at the ferry terminal, and the clogged streets nearby.

A line of passengers waiting at Stockton's ferry terminal. Picture: Simone De Peak

A line of passengers waiting at Stockton's ferry terminal. Picture: Simone De Peak

With shrinking opportunities for parking over there, she explains, more and more commuters are leaving their cars here and catching the ferry across.

Yet by virtue of its position, Stockton retains the look and feel of a maritime community.

You can look down streets and lanes and see ships sliding by, and on the breakwater remains the rusting warning of the perils of the sea, with the wreck of the sailing ship Adolphe.   

So water remains part of Stockton’s world. 

But to Irene Butterworth, Stockton is very much part of the wider world.

“I’m a Novocastrian,” she says. “I don’t feel cut off or segregated.

“When people ask, ‘Where’s Stockton?’, I say, ‘It’s a suburb of Newcastle’.”

Stockton residents enjoying a chat in Mitchell Street. Picture: Simone De Peak

Stockton residents enjoying a chat in Mitchell Street. Picture: Simone De Peak

This story How Stockton is far away, yet ever closer first appeared on Newcastle Herald.

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