OLD rare pictures are time capsules, often showing a past we've long forgotten.
Frozen in time, these precious photographs starkly show how landscapes can change to conceal a way of life now long gone.
To illustrate this, there's an unusual selection of photographs of Newcastle and Inverell which came to light some time ago stored in a stock and station agency in Moree.
For Novocastrians, the main interest of these 19th century pictures is in those taken around the inner city and so, historically, they are of extraordinary value, unique even. Taken from the Glennie family albums, most capture Newcastle around the 1870s to the 1880s, and complement other collections taken around the same time.
The main photographs became public, but without fanfare, in January 2017 on the University of Newcastle's (UON) Hunter Living Histories website. Since then, the collection has been considerably added to, but mainly with small, profile shots of loved ones, probably meant to be worn in lockets around the neck or in fob watches.
Overall, more than 300 pictures (mostly small) are on show on the Hunter Living Histories website.
The focus today, however, is on 10 major rare pictures highlighted on the webpage. And it's hard to disagree with the university's archivist Gionni Di Gravio that these particular historic photographs are "astonishing".
Di Gravio said for two years Anne Glennie had been kind enough to scan photographs from three photographic albums belonging to the Glennie family from Moree. He said many of these images, particularly those shot in and around Newcastle, appear to have been taken by the renowned photographer Henry Beaufoy Merlin or another photographer called Slade.
Anne Glennie was unsure, however, who in the family the snaps originally belonged to as they could have been passed down from anyone.
Of special interest to me were three extremely rare photographs relating to the massive, elevated timber structures once used to load coal along the Newcastle waterfront. Incredibly, around 1870, they dominated the present Wharf Road foreshore for five city blocks from Market Street (think Queens Wharf) going west down past where Darby Street stops just short of Newcastle harbour.
In total, there were about nine of these tall, timber coal loaders, known as coal staiths (or staithes). Measuring up to about 29feet (nine metres) high, they were used to deliver small coal hoppers to the wharves where their contents would be tipped down into the cargo holds of waiting sailing ships or steam vessels.
And then there's a close-up of the spaghetti-like jumble of rail tracks in 1870 servicing these giant overhead structures. Over time though, coal loading gradually shifted to The Dyke area and then the harbour basin at Carrington until the present day when most of this export action occurs at Kooragang.
Then there's a rare photograph of Newcastle's southern breakwater under construction in October/December 1870. Taken from Horseshoe Beach with three men in the foreground, the picture probably shows the breakwall being extended past Nobbys with a small steam train and wagons loaded with rocks visible on the causeway.
And finally, there's a clear picture of Scott Street looking west with the original Great Northern Hotel in the foreground, a Hunter Street bank, a Newcastle cricket team, plus three invaluable (but damaged) pictures of the paddle wheeler City of Newcastle, which ran ashore in a rock crevice south of the Bogey Hole in dense fog back in 1878.
A lot of clever detective work by the UON into obtaining the background of the historic photographs then fell to one of the Hunter Living Histories' core volunteer researchers, the late Russell Rigby. A consulting geologist and mining historian, he was the HLH's longest serving volunteer (more than 16 years) until he passed away in September 2019.
University archivist Di Gravio said his expertise and knowledge was sorely missed.
"I didn't realise, for example, that there were two lots of coal loading platforms - both public and private - ages ago on the city waterfront. And look at the 1870 (Merlin) photo online we have of the big timber coal loader on the waterfront digitised by Anne Glennie. You can enlarge it by clicking on it to see the amazing detail involved and can even see, I believe, that one of the workers is probably Asian.
"Russell Rigby once gave an important lecture which I wish I'd recorded. He spoke of Newcastle Harbour being almost a living organism, although largely man-made. He described the (historic hydraulic) Carrington pump house as being the 'lungs' of this mechanical port. Russell was a quietly spoken, intelligent man, a great researcher, a guide and a mentor who was always generous with information. I miss his knowledge every day.
"He was deeply affected by the Gretley Mining Disaster and was also an expert on the old coal tunnels of Newcastle."
Henry Beaufoy Merlin (1830-1873) is the man most likely to have taken the once unknown, now re-discovered, great images of central Newcastle featuring prominently in the Glennie family photos.
The English-born Beaufoy Merlin was a travelling photographer shooting landscapes and city scenes using glass plate negative technology. He's best known for his priceless pictures of the goldfields at Hill End, NSW, taken almost 150 years ago. Most of his now prized photographs were later acquired by Sydney's Mitchell Library.
Merlin's biographer Richard Bradshaw once commented that the pioneering photographer had mastery of a difficult technology and a talent for composition: "His unique record of the people and buildings of Hill End and Gulgong in 1872 is of extraordinary value to historians."
And now, we also have Merlin to thank for some previously unknown and equally priceless pictures of a Newcastle in a bygone era.