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Newcastle, just two hours north of Sydney, is a city emerging from a post-industrial slumber. With a thriving university, strong arts community and glistening beaches, the city is an increasingly popular choice for those escaping the hustle and bustle of Sydney.
Industry has shaped the city and its surrounds since the first years of the British settlement. At the mouth of the Hunter River, Newcastle has been a major coal port for more than 200 years and was, until the late 1990s, a steel production centre for BHP, its steelworks dominating the harbour.
Between 1804 and 1822, thousands of men and some women convicts were sent to Newcastle as punishment for transgressions in Sydney and elsewhere. The men laboured underground in the coal mines, cut trees in remote timber camps or dug up shells and burnt them for lime to feed Governor Macquarie’s building boom in Sydney. Newcastle gained a reputation as a dreaded place of excessive punishment, hard labour, isolated conditions and roaming bands of Aboriginal warriors on the lookout for escaping convicts.
At the same time, there’s no denying that the area’s beautiful natural setting made its penal establishment seem somewhat bucolic. The camp was bounded on the north by a large harbour dotted with islands, and mountains could be seen in the far distance to the west. Cleared areas of grassland on the hills around the settlement — named Sheep Pasture Hill and later Shepherds Hill by the British — were the product of thousands of years of work by local Aboriginal people. To the east, the sea rolled onto sandy beaches and rugged sandstone cliffs shot through with seams of black coal. It was a landscape captured in early paintings by John Lewin, Ferdinand Bauer and other colonial artists.