EVERYONE likes a good little puzzle, don't they?
Such mysteries frequently involve the long arm of the law. But it's not often that something symbolising law and order itself in the Hunter Valley for more than 180 years ago disappears.
We're talking here about probably the last visible trace of Newcastle's original courthouse. And no, that's not the grand 1890 building at the ocean end of Church Street, city (next to police headquarters) now being turned into a Japanese university.
What I'm referring to is the old colonial courthouse (1839-1893). This once stood on the corner of Hunter and Bolton streets in inner Newcastle until around the year 1900.
It was then replaced by an impressive new Newcastle Post Office. Now sadly long vacant, this 1903 building is presently also being repurposed in a project costing millions of dollars.
Our city's original centre of justice stood in Hunter Street for about 50 years with its portico graced with four giant Doric pillars, possibly 15-feet tall.
The long-demolished building is only a distant memory now, but its facade was captured on camera for posterity, possibly in its last days. To make the scene more memorable, 10 penny farthing cyclists were even posed out front by a photographer to catch the eye.
And there the story might end with the building's demolition, except that someone with a eye to history believed a city should remember its past.
The old courthouse's sole surviving sandstone column, weighing many tons, was then moved. It went to a park in Parnell Place in Newcastle's East End where it was re-erected and where many are convinced it still stands today.
Or does it?
Weekender reader Debbie Strachan rang me recently with a query. "What's happened to the historic Parnell Place pillar? Even its plaque is missing," she said.
It turns out that Mrs Strachan and her husband have a keen interest in history. She said they helped stop the demolition of a heritage beach shelter made of bluestone at Newcastle South ages ago.
She said both the heavy sandstone column and commemorative plaque seemed to have been removed some time ago.
The couple once lived in the city's East End before moving to Hamilton.
"I used to take walks in the East End and take photographs," she said. "Then recently, revisiting the scene, I realised the courthouse pillar had just disappeared. Can you help?"
I was also none the wiser that the landmark sandstone column had vanished.
An inspection of the scene soon revealed the site where the former law and order icon was sited appeared to be almost the exact spot where the city's Jubilee (or coal) monument from 1909 was shifted to in July 2018.
Earlier, it had been missing from Parnell Place for a year while being refurbished. It's now relocated 70 metres south of its old location to inside the park itself. It had been moved to allow road widening for Supercars.
It was the third move for the coal memorial once located in the middle of Hunter Street in what is now Pacific Park. Ironically, it has had to be moved twice because of vehicles.
The preserved coal monument was moved to Parnell Place in 1923 when Newcastle's electric tram circuit came into operation.
Newcastle's iconic, "missing" old courthouse pillar faces an uncertain fate, although it is safe for now, inquiries revealed.
Although it does not appear on an inventory of a Newcastle East Heritage Conservation study dated January 2019, the "lost" column is well remembered by people like East End resident and heritage enthusiast Suzanne Martin.
"I took pictures of it once. The sandstone was in a very bad state," she said.
The indefatigable Martin then embarked on a mini campaign to keep the pillar permanently safe at an appropriate new site, but so far, without success.
"The column has been missing for years, but there's been no publicity about its absence. It's gone under the radar," Martin said. "Some locals even might not have noticed the pillar was gone, but I did. The (Newcastle council) heritage people took it away. I was later told it was because of weathering over many decades and it could never be put outside again."
"It's such a pity. So many changes, so much history is being lost. My records show the (dismantled) column went to the Newcastle Museum in 2016. But I fear because of scarce exhibition space there it will probably never be seen again. I hope I'm wrong."
Martin said before Newcastle Courthouse moved after more than 120 years from Church Street to new $90million premises to Hunter Street at Civic in 2016 she wrote to the NSW Attorney General.
"I then suggested room be made available in the new complex to display the column as it would symbolise an unbroken chain of law and order in the district since about 1840," she said. "But the reply I received seemed to indicate he wasn't interested, thank you very much.
"So, I wrote next to Newcastle University in May 2017 saying while Newcastle council had removed the column from the open air to prevent further deterioration, they might be interested instead in preserving the historic item.
"I asked the uni to consider erecting the pillar and plaque in its Law School , perhaps in the foyer of NUspace, where both local and international students and the general public might admire and learn of the involvement of Newcastle in law and order from the early days of a growing colony. But again, no luck."
Newcastle Museum director Julie Baird later said the bulky old column was in multiple crates in an air-conditioned, high security suburban storage area.
"It's one of those objects I always thought I was holding for someone else. The pieces of stone are monumental. Meantime, my job is to make it secure and safe which has been done."
Baird said an encouraging sign was that a large World War 1 memorial had finally found a new home at the Newcastle transport interchange thanks to GLOW, the Wickham resident group.
Later, a relieved Debbie Strachan suggested as Hamilton's Gregson Park was soon to be rejuvenated, perhaps the iconic courthouse monument might find a new home there.
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