NEWCASTLE owes much to the Australian Agricultural Company (or AA Co). However, looking at a map (pictured) the other day brought home what it really meant. Without the actions of this pioneering British-based company almost 90 years ago, Newcastle's fate could have been vastly different.
That was in 1830, long before 1915 when BHP and Newcastle Steelworks, which most people attribute to the area's growth, came along. That's true, but three crucial ingredients for BHP's successful steel-making gamble - coal, a harbour and availability of labour - were built on foundations laid by the AA Company.
The AA Co switched from its original merino sheep flocks at swampy Port Stephens to reluctantly mine for coal in Newcastle soon after the penal settlement here ended.
The coal once dug by convicts for the colonial government was of inferior quality, so the company dug its first pit, the 'A' pit, just below Church Street, on The Hill, near Brown Street, producing better quality coal in late 1831.
The company's new NSW commissioner, arctic explorer Sir Edward Parry, had decided to enter the coal industry only in 1830. To do so, he obtained a grant of 2000 acres adjoining Newcastle township (to build wharves). The tiny town then ended at a waterfront stone wall at Brown Street extended.
Soon after, the company bought another 2000 acres. Over time, the AA Co would produce coal from 10 pits within its 2000 acres, plus at its Hebburn Colliery on the Coalfields, near Weston (from 1903).
The AA Co's reign as King Coal lasted about 90 years. The last operating mine was Darby Street's Sea Pit, which closed in 1916. As coal seams were worked out, it gradually subdivided the land until about 1960.
The company's original land grant was to eventually become the suburbs of Cooks Hill, Hamilton, Islington and The Junction.
The AA Co had been formed in 1824 in Britain with its rich investors securing a million acres of land in the colony of NSW for a million pounds. But in 1833, 600,000 acres of this land was exchanged for two valuable grazing properties west of the Liverpool Ranges.
Today, few traces remain in the Hunter of arguably the nation's oldest continuously operating company.
This first major injection of private capital into Australia then makes Stroud - once the company's inland base (from 1826) - Australia's oldest surviving 'company' town (until 1864).
Another Hunter reminder is the 'D' mine manager's cottage (1849-1920) concealed on a battleaxe block off Denison Street, Hamilton, at the western end.
But the rarest reminder to the company's past presence in Newcastle is historic Argyle House (formerly Fanny's Tavern), which was built in Victorian Georgian style on the waterfront in Wharf Road.
Erected circa 1860, the landmark, single-storey structure was recently advertised for sale. It was the company's engine room before its headquarters moved to Tamworth in 1969.
Surveying staff who subdivided the AA Co's suburban land after mining once worked out of this main office. Their work included what's now become Hamilton South's Garden Suburb heritage conservation area.
Related to the same project and a final reminder of the company today are its two stone pillars at Learmonth Park intended as elaborate suburb location markers.
Above the words 'Gordon Avenue 1914' carved in sandstone on both are possibly unique metal plaques. Here, the words 'Garden Suburb' are topped by a circle bearing the name 'Australian Agricultural Company 1824' and an unusual coat-of-arms (pictured) with a crown and leaves and a sheep in harness.
This 'hung sheep' is the traditional symbol for wool, derived from the Spanish Order of the Golden Fleece. The oak and eucalyptus leaves show the company's links between England and Australia, while the crown indicates the company was founded by Royal Charter. Of interest is that two more stone pillars were once proposed for the Glebe Road end of Gordon Avenue, but the idea lapsed, possibly because of cost.
So, the AA Co started farming sheep, then went into coal mining to kick-start early Newcastle after the convict era ... and later, of course, real estate development.
Oddly enough, for a company that began with merinos, the last time I looked, the AA Co was reported to be Australia's largest beef producer.
The other D-Day
WITH all the recent celebrations in France marking the 75th anniversary of the successful Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944, we tend to forget a similar, earlier, now generally unknown D-Day right here in the Pacific.
Operation Overlord, as the French D-Day landings were called in June 1944, was the beginning of the end of the Nazi occupation of Europe and War World II itself.
But the other D-Day landing was much closer to home when American and Australian forces attacked the Japanese-held fortress of Lae, in New Guinea, in September 1943.
Called Operation Postern, the successful invasion of Lae, bristling with defences, was in many ways the blueprint for Overlord, incorporating an amphibious landing together with an airborne assault after a number of key strategic diversions.
The Battle for Lae, with paratroop landings and the first operational use of large landing craft, represented the greatest combined assault on the enemy in the Pacific war.
Now, leading Australian military historian Phillip Bradley reveals the full extent of the operation in his latest book D-DAY New Guinea (Allen & Unwin $32.99). Comprehensive and compelling, the book reveals details of dangerous Australian commando raids as well as significant tensions between the Aussie and American high commands.
Bradley also writes that when our troops came ashore in late 1943 east of Lae, it was the first Australian amphibious landing on a hostile shore since Gallipoli in April 1915.
With careful planning, the paratroop drops were particularly successful. It was all the more pleasing as two earlier American drops in Europe - Operation Torch (North Africa November 1942) and Operation Husky (Sicily July 1943) - were complete failures.
For the Australian Army in WWII, the capture of Lae was its most complex operation against an implacable enemy. As the Japanese military said: "Burma is hell, but you never come back alive from New Guinea".