ORAL histories don’t get the credit they deserve. But often, family memories give us memorable insights into the past.
Take Stockton’s Eric Pitt, whose shark tales featured on this page last month. Today’s story is about some of his other memories.
The retired Stockton shipwright, now 89, says he’s seen a lot of changes to his seaside location over the years. Stockton is Newcastle’s first suburb, going back to the early penal settlement days.
We soon got talking about ships and Stockton, including the famous French barque Adolphe wrecked on the dreaded Oyster Bank (a sandbank really) at the entrance to Newcastle Harbour in late 1904.
On her maiden voyage, the trim windjammer was caught in bad weather and while being towed into port her tug’s towline broke. Waves swept the majestic ship onto the site of earlier jagged wrecks where the Adolphe was impaled forever.
The northern breakwater was extended out to meet her in 1906, and today her rusted bones remain as a reminder of the perils of once entering Newcastle Harbour.
The Adolphe’s bell went missing and somehow finally ended up in New Zealand. Some fine cabin chairs and her nameplate later ended up as prize relics in the Newcastle Maritime Centre.
Much of the rest of the decaying vessel was soon souvenired by the locals, or so it’s said.
“The Adolphe wreck was well before my time, of course. I wasn’t born until 1927,” Eric Pitt said. “But I’d heard things from my family and others. See that window at the back of the garage?” he said, pointing a timber louvre window nearby.
“That’s from the Adolphe. Half the doors in my old house were supposed to have been salvaged from that ship.”
Pitt said that from 1914 to 1918 impounded sailing ships in World War I were moored four deep along the Ballast Ground, the Hunter River channel side of Stockton instead of sailing to South America (with bulk coal cargoes), then on to Europe with cargoes of nitrates.
“Until World War I, lots of sailing ships used to visit the Port of Newcastle. They dumped rubble overboard and that’s how our ballast ground was formed.
“There were also a lot of stray dogs roaming around the streets in those days. But I was told that more than a few times Stockton ended up with no dogs at all.
“They’d been put into ship holds. For what purpose I can only guess. Maybe the cooking pot on long voyages,” he said.
“I do remember though the big, old timber power magazine ship once moored up Fullerton Cove way (until almost 1950). The site was remote because it held explosives for the mines.
“The few people allowed onboard always had their cigarettes and matches confiscated by the guard. No one was allowed to smoke. One time though, two men who worked there rowed ashore, got careless and had a smoke,” Pitt said.
“They were blown up! Condemned (blasting) powder was sometimes taken ashore to be buried for safety in covered wooden buckets.”
Pitt said his late father, James Robert Pitt, a WWI veteran who served at Pozieres, was once a member of the famous Rocket Brigade which complemented the Newcastle Lifeboat Service. Brigade members were equally regarded as guardians of the port for about 100 years.
Formed in 1866, the Rocket Brigade’s last operation involved rescuing crew from the giant collier Sygna during the 1974 cyclone.
Pitt said the heroic 19th century brigades always used to be called out in the worst of storms, often when ships threatened to break up in Newcastle Bight. Members used a rocket launcher to shoot a lifeline to ships stranded beyond the breakers.
Once the rope was attached, a ropeline seat called a breeches buoy pulled crews ashore. After hauling heavy equipment up long stretches of Stockton beach and firing off the rescue line, brigade members were then expected to wade into the boiling surf to save the crew being brought ashore.
“My father used to ride a horse up the beach to the rescues alongside a horse-driven cart carrying all the equipment on the sand. One rescue attempt was the SS White City (in 1928),” Pitt said.
“One of my oldest Stockton stories concerns the big ‘Thorn Tree’ once on the ballast ground. Newcastle City Council later pulled it out, but it was a rare African (acacia) tree.
“Anyway, it was umbrella shaped and each thorn was about three inches long. But once you got inside the bush, you could stand up in there, it was that high.
“In the 1930s the locals would roll a beer barrel inside. No one would know they were there. Meanwhile, authorities sometimes used to raid a two-up school further north in saltbush by Corroba Oval,” Pitt said.
“One police sergeant though used to like to have an (illegal) drink on Sunday inside the thorn tree until the gaming squad had to come and get him to conduct a betting raid. The two-up school finally closed anyway.”
Eric Pitt grew up to become a shipwright and worked on building multipurpose launches for the army, navy and air force in World War II.
He also built copra barges, pearling luggers, vehicular punts, trawlers, small passenger ferries, and special wooden launches used to pick up milk cans from dairy farmers on the Hunter and Williams rivers.
In mid-1960, he was part of a ship repair gang permanently stationed on the ageing State Dockyard floating dock. Originally from Walsh Island in 1930, it always leaked, but 1000 men relied on it for employment .
“There were six pumps going day and night to keep it afloat,” he said.
“The pumps were the size of elephant’s feet to keep the water coming in from really big rust holes.”
One day though, in the 1970s, the old dock accidentally sank. Everyone feared it would never be freed from the sucking mud of the harbour floor.
“I remember us having to go around in water up to our necks trying to put lids back on the open ballast tanks. But first we had to locate them and not fall down inside them. We had to poke broom handles down ahead of us to see where the tanks were,” Pitt said.
However, one of his fondest tales concerns his soldier father, James Pitt.
“When on leave in World War I, my father always went back to the same village in Scotland to recover,” Eric Pitt said.
“The family he was with then took a picture of him all dressed up smartly in his uniform and put it on the mantle piece. Later, a young woman visiting the house saw his photo, saying, ‘That’s the man I’m going to marry’. But she didn’t know who he was.
“After the war, my father came back to Australia, then wrote to her and she finally came out to Australia and they got married here. Can you beat that?”
Members used a rocket launcher to shoot a lifeline to ships stranded beyond the breakers.