“The Gallipoli flag here is the only known one of its kind in existence in the world today. It’s just beside the foundation stone of the first church on this site, laid in 1817. This means that we’ll be celebrating our 200th Christmas mass later this month. Join us if you can,” the friendly counter staff voluntarily blurts out the interesting facts when I stop to ask for a brochure.
I had clapped eyes on the cathedral spires when I was drawing the curtains in my room upon checking in at the Novotel Newcastle Beach Hotel. I later discover that they belonged to the city’s renowned Christ Church Cathedral.
The cathedral, just a short drive away from the hotel, is located on a slight rise in the city’s eastern suburb aptly called The Hill. Using the lofty spires as a guide, I managed to reach my destination quite easily.
There’s ample parking space within the compound. On my way into the building, I notice the rather unique brick-lined pavement. Close scrutiny reveals that each bears the names of individual donors who had given generously during the cathedral’s recent fundraising exercise.
Before stepping indoors, I take in the magnificence of the cathedral. Interestingly, the first worshippers at this site back in 1812 had to make do with just a small slab hut with a chimney at one end and a bellcote at the other.
I enter the building and gasp in awe at the sight of the grand interior. With measured steps, I walk slowly along the aisle while admiring the numerous banners decorating the nave. After some time, I reach the original foundation stone which was placed a year after the slab hut was demolished in 1816. A decision was made to build a larger and more permanent building due to the marked increase in the congregation size.
Initially named Christ Church, this second building was upgraded to become a cathedral in 1847. This was around the same time when the Diocese of Newcastle was created and William Tyrell was appointed the first Bishop of Newcastle.
Construction of a new cathedral
By 1861, the first cathedral fell into disrepair. The people of Newcastle at that time described it as “a crumbling building”. As a result, “a cathedral building” committee was set up to oversee the demolition of the old building and the construction of a better replacement.
A competition to design the new cathedral held in 1868 was won by architects Terry and Speechley from Melbourne. Unfortunately, the duo had seriously underestimated the cost of their design and were forced to withdraw soon after.
This unexpected incident threw Canadian-born architect John Horbury Hunt into the limelight as his plans were adopted instead. Hunt’s design provided for a cruciform Victorian Gothic-style building with a central tower and spires over the central crossing. Even more significant was Hunt’s attempt to exemplify the arts and crafts principles where he preferred the use of brick rather than stone for both structural and decorative purposes.
Work started in 1883 and the older building was demolished a year after. The nave of the new cathedral was completed in 1902. At that time, it didn’t have the tower and spires that can be seen today. Those were only added after a severe storm in 1974 damaged a large part of the roof. A decision was then made to complete the building according to Hunt’s original design. The estimated cost at that time was A$700,000 (RM2.187 million).
The completed building was dedicated in May 1979 and its consecration ceremony was held on Nov 25 1983. Today, Christ Church Cathedral holds the record for many firsts in the state as well as Australia as a whole. It remains the largest place of worship designed by Hunt, the largest Anglican cathedral in New South Wales, and the largest provincial Anglican cathedral in Australia.
Inside the cathedral
Leaving the foundation stone, I move just a few steps to a side wall and find the relic of Gallipoli staring me in the face. I pause a moment to contemplate the irony of seeing something that represents the immense human sacrifice and sorrows of World War I in such peaceful surroundings.
Occupying the entire wall near the main altar, the glass-framed silk Union Jack is one of the cathedral’s most prized possessions. This authentic Gallipoli flag was presented to the cathedral on Easter Day 1916 by battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Granville J. Burnage after he returned home from war.
Inscribed nearby on a brass plaque are the words: “To the immortal memory of the 15 officers and 385 soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) 13th Battalion who gave their lives in Gallipoli. Their sacrifice is our heritage. Lest we forget.”
This historic flag traces the position of the battalion headquarters during the campaign. First in Liverpool, New South Wales, then on to Broadmeadows, Victoria before moving onboard the HMAS Ulysses. It then disembarked at Gaza, near Cairo, and finally reached Gallipoli where it remained from landing until evacuation. Even until today, this cathedral remains a place of pilgrimage for veterans, their families, friends and descendants from all around Australia.
Once inside, it’s impossible to miss the cathedral’s magnificent stained glass windows. Of the 72 outstanding works of art, the one that I like most is the famous Dies Domini (Day of the Lord) window which was designed and executed by the pre-Raphaelite artists, Sir Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, respectively. The vibrant colours from the windows are outstanding especially when the glass catches the sunlight coming in from the background.
Laid to rest
Venturing out into the sun, I make my way to the adjoining Cathedral Park Burial Ground, home to one of the earliest European cemeteries established in New South Wales, pre-dating even the two century old Christ Church Cathedral itself!
Known as the Christ Church burial ground during its earliest days, this place was the only dedicated burial site for Newcastle citizens. By the 1840s, three new burial sites were established in Newcastle West for Roman Catholics, Wesleyan Methodists and Presbyterians. A further two cemeteries were developed in Mayfield and Thomas Street. Today however, all five have long disappeared.
Walking amongst the tombstones and reading the inscriptions on them, it soon becomes apparent that this place is home to the remains of early Newcastle citizens. Interestingly, the tombs are augmented by an astonishing number of infants! Furthermore, the different styles employed in the creation of the many headstones give me a good idea about the changing burial customs prevalent in New South Wales during the 19th century.
Entries in the cathedral register of burials from July 1821 to 1900 contain 3,352 names including 1,282 children under 3. It’s interesting to note that burials for the 3-to-10-year-old group were relatively uncommon compared to the significantly higher death rate of those aged between 11 to 20. At the same time, adult deaths peaked in the 31-40 year group.
According to church records, the first registered burial here was for Richard Ling in July 1821 but scholars believe that this was far from the first interment on this site. Many suggest that burials of convict coal miners might have occurred on this site as early as 1802.
Further research at the Newcastle City Council revealed that the earliest known documented burial was that of Archibald Scott, a seaman on the Resource, which was a 22-gun floating battery. Scott was killed by a misfiring musket and his public burial conducted by Lieutenant Menzies in 1804 was held on what was to become the site for the first Christ Church.
A further public burial took place in 1816 after the colonial brig Elizabeth Henrietta capsized in Newcastle Harbour. That incident resulted in the drowning of the captain’s wife and a crew member, Patrick Fitzgerald. Both died when they were trapped below deck.
Severe congestion in the 1850s prompted the authorities to close the cathedral burial ground but burials were still held here as late as 1884. This exemption was given solely to families whose relatives wished to be laid to rest alongside existing graves.
Over the next century, the burial ground fell into a gradual decline and eventually became an abandoned mess. Cases of neglect and vandalism led the Newcastle City Council to resume ownership of the land in 1966 and turn the place into a rest park.
By then the council could only identify 258 graves. About 70 headstones were relocated to the eastern side of the grounds while fragments of broken headstones that were corroded beyond recognition were used to line the walkways of Blackbutt Nature Reserve in Shellharbour, New South Wales.
I spend the rest of my evening sitting by the seaside at Newcastle’s symbolic landmark called Nobbys. It was on the waters off this narrow headland that Captain James Cook aboard HMS Endeavour made his historic sail past in May 1770.
Today, Nobbys is a popular recreational area for the Newcastle residents. By late afternoon, the place is full of people. Some come here to walk their pets while others head out to greet the distant waves astride their surfboards. There are even a few treasure hunters scouring the water’s edge in search of buried treasure. Who knows, with a bit of luck they may unearth something related to Newcastle’s past. As the sun starts to dip below the horizon, I take some time to reflect upon the places I’d visited today. To me, these historical custodians serve as reminders of Newcastle’s rich heritage, forming an unbreakable bond with the past as the city progresses forward as one of Australia’s fastest growing in the 21st century.