DOWN most streets, there’s a hidden story.
Or perhaps, should I say, behind most street signs lurks a tale. It may be a forgotten story, but an interesting one.
Today’s tale is about the likely unknown background behind the naming of a familiar street running today through Georgetown, Waratah and Waratah West.
It all started with an email to Weekender about the history of Christo Road, Waratah which went like this: “Hi Mike, my name is Greg Archbold and I’m a regular reader of your local history column. In researching my family history, I came across information that may be of interest to you and the readers of your column.
“It relates to John Penrose Christoe, whom I believe Christo Road, in Waratah, is named after,” he wrote.
“I feel this may be of interest to your readers because it relates to Newcastle’s industrial heritage. He arrived in Newcastle about 1869 to establish a smelting works at New Lambton where I believe (the old) Goninans is now located. He also managed the (smelter) works at Burwood Beach, on the southern side of Merewether hill.”
So far, so good. A little sleuthing soon discovered there was once a now forgotten New Lambton Smelting Works still employing a large number of men in 1880-81.
A quick check of council records then confirmed the Waratah street was named after a J.M.Christoe, a “prominent resident in the area about 1870”.
“But that’s a mistake, that initial M, rather than a P, ” Greg Archbold later told me. “I believe it’s definitely the same J.P. Christoe. Names were also often shortened when being written down.”
More surprising is that Greg Archbold’s recent research into the past is not because he’s a relative.
“I’m not related to Christoe. I was instead researching my own relative Thomas Hussey, whose name is like the Australian cricketer, when I came across Christoe’s name. I believe they were associates. Hussey then died in 1874 after he fell from a horse.”
Pioneer industrialist Christoe later moved to Queensland where he died in Mackay in 1918 aged 88 years. Christoe had originally been a Welsh copper smelter and assayer born in 1830 in either Truro, Cornwell, or Swansea, in South Wales.
He arrived in the Kapunda copper mines in South Australia about 1850 where he married Dorothea Blood, the daughter of a local doctor in 1852.
They then returned to Wales where he gained further experience in the smelting of copper which was vital to make wire, to have the then telegraph system operating.
They then came back to Australia in July 1858. Here, John Christoe set up copper smelting works in NSW at Byng and Cadia in western NSW, before arriving in Newcastle about 1869.
Christoe had left inland NSW in 1866 to become a smelter manager in Queensland. Soon after, in late 1867, copper prices fell and the miners started to leave Cadia despite having producing 2000 tons of copper.
The mine was put up for auction in January 1868, and here’s where this background story gets a little more interesting. The old Cadia mine site is today 25 kilometres south of Orange, in western NSW. It’s a series of large underground and open-cut gold and copper mines in the Cadia Valley, operated by Newcrest Mining Ltd.
And on the company’s online historical timeline, Welsh smelterman John Penrose Christoe features strongly in the pioneering years of 1859-61. For it seems the secrets of smelting were very closely-guarded.
The Welsh had developed the tightly held expertise in smelting in England from the 1850s onwards. Meanwhile, the Cornish tried to circumvent the high costs charged by the Welsh and gain the almost magical knowledge for themselves.
And it appears Christoe may have left another NSW legacy behind. It’s the striking Cadia engine house and tall chimney that are now listed on the NSW State Heritage Register.
The unique Cornish-style engine house, built in 1865, is the only such engine house in NSW. Newcrest Mining restored both historic items in 1994.
But let’s turn now to Christoe’s role supervising the copper smelting works in the dunes of ‘Smelter’s Beac’, better known today as Burwood Beach, or Murdering Gully, in 1872.
Noted Hunter mining historian John Shoebridge knows better than most that there’s nothing left of the famous 19th century smelter on site today, except for some copper slag. Back in 2013, he conducted a tour of the site revealing Dr James Mitchell set up a smelter here in 1851-52. The site then reopened on a grand scale in 1868-69, but closed in 1873, probably producing about only 300 tons in its whole lifetime.
It was indeed a grand venture with eight buildings sprawled across the landscape behind Burwood Beach. Today, however, all have vanished.
Instead, in its place nearby amid the trees, is the Burwood Beach Wastewater (sewage) Treatment works. A lot of copper slag, however, may have helped build the only road today down to the isolated site, Shoebridge said.
Speaking of Newcastle street names, another relevant and topical name that comes to mind is humble Telford Street, in Newcastle’s historic East End.
It commemorates forgotten British engineer Thomas Telford (originally Telfer) known for improving road construction and bridge building. Well, that’s a massive understatement. Telford’s nickname was the Colossus of Roads.
This engineering genius (1757-1834) overcame early poverty to invent the modern road. A stonemason turned architect turned engineer also built 35 churches, plus harbours and canal docks. He also built the famous Menai Bridge, at Bangor, in North Wales. It was the first great suspension bridge of the modern age, back in 1826.
Astonishingly, almost everything he ever built remains in use today. In his 77 years he worked on 184 big projects, among them 93 large bridges and aqueducts, plus 17 canals and 37 docks/ harbours. He constructed more than 1200 miles (2040 km) of roads and 1076 bridges to open up the Highlands of Scotland, improved the navigation of four major English rivers and surveyed the route of three early British railways. Who’d have guessed it?
Finally, a fascinating, fitting tribute to this virtually forgotten revolutionary genius by author Julian Glover entitled Man of Iron (Bloomsbury $35) will be published in March.