WHO hasn't heard of Merewether? Not Merewether the popular beachside suburb, but Merewether the man.
Edward Christopher Merewether was one of Newcastle's pioneers, but he deserves to be much better known. And Whitebridge man, Father Brian Roach, is just the person to tell the tale after 10 years spent reading 19,000 of Merewether's personal letters.
During his research, Roach discovered how this shrewd man made his family immensely wealthy, reinvigorated his employer's fortunes and even had a river in New Guinea named after him.
For E.C. Merewether (1820-1893), prominent businessman, former public servant and philanthropist, was the man who once controlled Newcastle's destiny and growth. Over 14 years, E.C. Merewether was general superintendent of the mighty Australian Agricultural Company (A.A.Co) exploiting the district's huge coal deposits.
Besides being a "cricket tragic", E.C. Merewether gave a lot of A.A. Company land away for various uses, including as sporting venues. For example, he helped create Newcastle Racecourse at Broadmeadow.
"But a lot of the company land was boggy and useless anyway. Often the real wealth was in the coal mined from beneath it," writer and retired Anglican priest the Rev. Dr Brian Roach told Weekender recently.
Roach was awarded a PhD from the University of Newcastle in 2019 and has now produced a manuscript entitled Merewether the Man, the Suburb and is looking for a book publisher.
"During my research I discovered an abysmal ignorance of the man, even though he has a suburb named after him," Roach said.
"This despite the fact that he was the most influential man in Newcastle between October 1860 and December 1875 . . . he controlled Newcastle.
"His contribution to city development and his patronage of sport, religion and education is, I believe, unparalleled."
As general superintendent of the A.A.Company, Merewether supervised 2000 acres of much of inner-Newcastle (from Brown Street going west) and suburbs out to Waratah and south to Glebe Road to mine coal.
Thanks to the "dowry" of his wife Augusta (nee Mitchell), he became administrator of an inherited 950-acre Burwood Estate (the future suburb of Merewether). This sat over other massive coal deposits, which he leased to mining companies to collect royalties.
"I think the rate was 1/- (a shilling a ton). He then watched the money roll in. He became rich," Roach said.
During Merewether's leadership of A.A.Co the 'Vend' system was arranged to stabilise coal prices and to bring greater prosperity to all mining companies and employees. He also expanded sheep herds on the Liverpool Plains of north-western NSW, on its 'Warrah' station.
"By his policies, his company went from being almost bankrupt in 1861 to, in 1875, the most profitable it had even been," Roach said.
Roach learned that crucial A.A.Co Newcastle records had miraculously survived - but in the Noel Butlin Archive in Canberra. Roach said Professor Butlin had been in Newcastle decades ago and passed by the old A.A. Co harbour headquarters (about to become Fanny's). He saved all of its records from a rubbish skip.
Most of the book material, however, came from Sydney's famous Mitchell Library, which ironically had been founded by Merewether's brother-in-law David.
Merewether retired at the end of 1875 and lived at 'The Ridge', a house he'd built in 1861 on the family's Burwood Estate. By 1879, however, with Merewether's sons needing a higher education, he moved to Sydney's Bondi, but spent each summer at 'Dennarque', his Mount Wilson home. Here, he helped improve local Blue Mountains roads, especially those to his property.
Long after the family's Hunter departure, The Ridge became Hillcrest Maternity Home between 1924 and 1977. The historic house was then saved from demolition and restored. Another Merewether local legacy is a nearby colliery dam, now drained and below the house. It's better known today as Gibbs Brothers Oval.
Although E.C. Merewether had left Newcastle, he visited often and, in 1889, opened St Augustine's Anglican church, which he had built in Llewellyn Street, Merewether. In the same church, more than a century later, Father Roach met E.C. Merewether's great-grandson. John Merewether was sitting in the front pew. The meeting launched Roach's research.
"But while E.C. Merewether is credited with building the church, I'd say it wasn't his idea. I believe his wife Augusta Maria probably wanted a memorial to her parents, Dr James and Maria Mitchell," Brian Roach said.
"After reading the family letters, I think his wife had a major say in major business deals of her husband. It seems to have been a co-operative relationship.
"Merewether himself was religious and generous. With a driving interest in education he was responsible for schools for the miners' children and the Burwood (later Hamilton) Mechanics Institute to educate adults.
"He'd originally gone to Oxford in England with the idea of being ordained as a minister for holy orders. However, I believe a relative tipped him off in 1838 to come to Australia because of the incredible opportunities.
"He then arrived in Sydney in 1841. He was only 21 years old. He must have had good connections as he was appointed Aide-de-Camp to colonial Governor Sir George Gipps. A military man was usually appointed to this post," Roach said.
"Merewether in 1847 was then appointed Commissioner for Crown Lands, and then sat as a judge. A condition of some of his work was that he had to be a single man. That's why when he married he was aged 40 years and she was 25.
"I think her father, the very wealthy businessman and parliamentarian Dr James Mitchell had a say in it. He didn't want her to marry someone who would squander money.
"Months after marrying, Merewether was offered the position as A.A.Co superintendent. He then engineered the laying of rail lines to Newcastle wharves, the erection of waterfront staiths (platforms) for easier coal loading and harbour deepening."
Roach said Merewether emerged from his scrutiny as a hard-working Victorian gentleman of unquestioned integrity and insight.
"I could find no dirt on him, although I tried so I could have a balanced biography."
But Merewether's life was not without drama. He'd have stand-up arguments over policy with his 'Warrah' station manager, a Scot called Craik. Despite this, everything was OK until Merewether shot him in the head.
"But I'm sure it was an accident," Roach said. "They were quail shooting up at Gloucester. Craik moved. Merewether was very upset. I wouldn't be surprised if he paid for his medical treatment."
IN THE NEWS:
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content:
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.