In 2009 Newcastle celebrated one hundred and fifty years of local government.
1859 – 2009 (that’s a sesqui-centenary)
On 7 June 1859, less than twenty years after limited self-government was granted to New South Wales and the transportation of convicts ended, Newcastle Borough Council was one of the first local councils created in the state.
The boundaries of the area covered what is now the city centre east of Auckland Street, and served a population of 2400. Only property owners were allowed to vote so when the first Council elections took place only a few hundred citizens participated. It wasn’t until 1927 that all residents were able to cast a vote in the local government elections held every three years, and voting was made compulsory in 1947. Women had been granted the right to vote in 1906 if they were property owners.
When Council first met there were no formed roads, no street lights, water, gas or electricity, no piped water or sewerage. The next decade saw road and drains and gas street lighting and plans for markets and municipal buildings developed. Communications to the town improved with the opening of a telegraph office, new post office and in 1889 a direct rail line to Sydney via the new Hawkesbury Bridge.
Bullock drays travelled to the surrounding mining villages such as Merewether, Lambton, Hamilton and Wallsend, the factories in Wickham and farms and orchards in Mayfield and Waratah. Each village petitioned for their own council in the 1870s and 1880s.
Over the following decades of the 19th century the town and the port grew and Council was given control over large acreages of open space as its boundaries expanded and it struggled to provide the basic amenities for a burgeoning population. By the turn of the twentieth century its number of residents passed that of Maitland.
Council first met in the old court house (now the site of the old Post Office) and later in the municipal building in Hunter Street. The first designated Council chambers were built in Watt Street in 1884, the building now occupied by the United Services Club.
Throughout the 20th century the State Government brought in legislation that changed Newcastle council area boundaries as well as the roles and responsibilities of all local councils in planning, service provision and environmental issues.
Since its inception Newcastle Council like others throughout the state has played a major part in the management and eradication of infectious diseases through its public health measures and immunisation programs. Cholera, typhoid, diphtheria and polio are no longer feared as the great threat to life and the well-being of the community they once presented.
In the midst of the economic downturn during the 1920s the city fathers showed great faith in the future of the city and committed to building the City Hall and Civic Theatre.
Major services and facilities provided by Council that have served the Newcastle community well include the ocean baths and suburban pools, the most popular library lending service in the state, art gallery, and the significant Blackbutt Reserve which was the initiative of the then eight councils that bordered New Lambton in the 1930s. It was at this time that ten smaller Councils and parts of Lake Macquarie joined Newcastle after almost twenty years of enquiries and conferences to become Greater Newcastle Council in 1938.
Electricity supply, abattoirs and fruit and vegetable markets are all activities that were started and have since moved from Newcastle Council’s responsibility to a regional one. More recently Newcastle City Council (a city since 1947) has worked with neighbouring councils to develop environment protection, airport, recreation, and open space amenities and regional plans for future development.
Newcastle City Council moves through the 21st century confident in the future and the ability of its community to deal with critical issues such as natural disasters, environmental and economic challenges, as well as support for the economic drivers of education and health services.