Williams River

Written and compiled by Micheala Gilligan
with thanks to the research and writing of the late Cynthia Hunter – historian

The first recorded exploration of the Williams River was in 1801 by a party under the command of Colonel William Paterson. This early survey was part of a wider exploration of the ‘Hunter’s River’ undertaken by men aboard the ‘Lady Nelson’ which had been dispatched from Sydney for the purpose by Governor King. Lieutenant James Grant commanded the ship and was accompanied by several labouring mechanics and the aboriginal man ‘Bungaree’.

King established a penal out post at the mouth of the Hunter River (now Newcastle) in 1804 for the purpose of obtaining coal and cedar. In 1823 under the direction of Governor Macquarie, the penal colony was moved to Port Macquarie and free settlement in the Hunter Valley began.

Amongst the earliest European settlers on the Williams River were cedar cutters, one of whom was Alexander Harris. He left an early account of life along the Williams:

 “The river… is now well settled, but at the time we were there, spoiling it of its cedar, only here and there amidst the lonely wilderness were to be found a settler’s farm or stockman’s hut. The blacks were occasionally, but not often, troublesome. Tree after tree went crashing down before our labourer’s axe… pile after pile of square red plank arose… road after road stretched away from the piles of cedar to the river’s edge.”

By 1820 the cedar had been cleared from the lower reaches of the Hunter which led timber gangs to work further up the river. “Trees were selected by the overseers, and then cut down, lopped and rolled to the river bank where logs were made into rafts on which huts were erected to accommodate the prisoners… It usually took a week to navigate the raft down to the mouth of the river.”
J.H.M Abbott – The Newcastle Packets of the Hunter Valley

As the land was cleared and more settlers occupied the banks of the Williams,
it became a busy river.

Cecily Mitchell’s account of the river traffic shows the growth from
Clarence Town to the south:

“By 1866, Clarence Town had a population of 300 people. It boasted 2 flour mills, 3 churches, a store, post office, a bank, an insurance office, a coach booking office, 2 tobacco factories and a tannery. Both sides of the river from Clarence Town to Raymond Terrace were dotted with farms. One could travel up river by a tri-weekly service to and from Newcastle, and ocean going sailing ships laden with timber were towed downstream by rowing boats. Cream boats plied up and down, calling at the farms along the banks… the river was teeming with life. Goods came up to Clarence Town in large paddle-wheel steamers for transhipment to Gloucester and the hinterland.”

Seaham was an intermediate river port for sailing boats and steam ships navigating the river to Clarence Town. Clarence Town, in fact, was a centre for shipbuilding on the river, in part due to the abundance of excellent hardwoods such as iron bark and flooded gums. The Deptford Shipyard, owned by two newly arrived young Scottish shipbuilders, James Marshall and William Lowe, began operations in 1830. In 1831 they obtained the contract to build the paddle-wheel steamer ‘William IV’ for a Sydney businessman Joseph Hickey Grose. Launched in November 1831, this 54 ton wooden ship was the first ocean going steamer to be built in Australia. The William IV was described at the time to be a ‘beautiful specimen of Colonial enterprise’ with ‘superb and tasteful accommodation, having 12 berths for gentlemen in the principal cabin, and 6 for ladies’. From 1832 until 1835 the ship was mainly used in the trade from Sydney to Newcastle and on to Green Hills (Morpeth), leaving Sydney every Monday evening at 7pm and arriving in Newcastle around 6am on Tuesday.

In the 1870s, the river would have seen many newly launched ships from the other 3 or 4 ship builders in Clarence Town.
There was one other shipbuilding industry closer to Seaham, downstream at Eagleton.

During the late 19th and early 20th century several steam boats carried goods and passengers along the river stopping at Seaham. They were the vessels of The Williams River Steam Ship Company. When it ceased operations in 1911 The Lower Hunter Steam Ship Company’s steamers then provided a river service past Seaham.

Many farmers had their own boat because the river was the most convenient transport route.

“William Sweeney of Seaham (owner of ‘The Cottage of Content’ wine shop and The Seaham Hotel) died aged 37 years, having spent the last 5 years of his life paralysed with arthritis. Perhaps this may have been brought on by his labours rowing backwards and forwards on the Williams River to Raymond Terrace, buying and selling goods from settlers along the way.” B GILLIGAN

During the early to mid 20th century, a fleet of small launches plied the river worked by Jim Scott and others. They collected cream from the dairies and delivered the cans to the butter factory, first at Raymond Terrace, then at Hexham.

River Crossings

Travelling overland was slow and difficult, wagons and drays were required to negotiate rough bush tracks. There were farms on both sides of the river and a river crossing place was essential. George Mossman from ‘Burrowel’ at East Seaham had a private boat which he made available to passengers. In 1843 John Saward established a punt service a quarter of a mile downstream. Fares were charged – horse and gig 1 shilling, 1 horse – sixpence and a foot passengers threepence. The stone ramps on each side of the river still remain at the Torrence St boat ramp. The punt probably operated at several crossing places over the years, in alignment with Nelson St, and also Dixon St.

In the 1870s the Seaham ferry was not only used by local farmers, but also by travellers, from the Manning and other northern districts, who had business in Morpeth or Maitland.

In 1926 Port Stephens Shire Council directed the Hackett Brothers of Clarence Town to build a 4 car punt that was launched with a bottle of champagne and called the Seaham Ferry. In the 1950s the ferry’s sea worthiness was concerning so the Public Works Department transferred a vessel from Karuah to Seaham. In the 1960s plans for a bridge to replace the ferry began. The ferry required considerable maintenance in the 1970s.

Seaham punt - last run, 26 March 1971

Seaham punt - last run, 26 March 1971

by Athel D'Ombrain from the University of Newcastle Special Collections. Licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

Seaham punt - last run, 26 March 1971

Seaham punt - last run, 26 March 1971 Children on punt

Weismantel sisters from Seaham, who now go by the names (LtoR) Colleen Graham, Beverley Hewitt, Fay Deer and Jennifer Quinn. By Athel D'Ombrain from the University of Newcastle Special Collections. Licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

The Ferry Men

The ferry man’s job was certainly varied – in the 1850s he was expected to keep the Post Office and manage the pound (yards for cattle). The ferry was to be kept running for as long as possible in flood times and the problem of submerged cables was to be dealt with. On a social level, he was often the source of news and local knowledge which he shared with travellers and locals.

Seaham punt - last run 26th March, 1971 - punt driver

Jim Salter - punt driver. Seaham Punt - last run 26th March, 1971

by Athel D'Ombrain from the University of Newcastle Special Collections. Licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

Jim Salter – The last Seaham ferry man

Jim Salter and his family came to the area in 1960. He took over the running of the ferry in 1964 and, with hardly a break, he kept it running 24hrs a day, 7 days a week until 1973 when the service was replaced by the new bridge.

Jim lived next to the punt in Torrence St and had many memories of his service. He recalled being woken by people from Newcastle at 2 or 3am to get them back across the river. He also remembered the young folk of the 1960s entertaining themselves all night by doing the round trip from the Nelsons Plain ferry, across at Seaham, then back along Newline Rd. He was called again and again through the night. Hundreds of people visited the Edgeworth David Quarry, but because the ferry couldn’t carry a bus, they were dropped at Seaham, then the bus would drive to Clarence Town to cross the river by bridge and wait for them on the other side at Seaham. Trucks carrying fuel, mail and timber regularly crossed the river. School children from the Seaham side crossed in order to catch a bus to the high school in Raymond Terrace via Newline Rd. Jim sold raffle tickets to raise funds for school or other worthwhile causes. He also promoted local events and shared news.

Just before the new bridge was built, the punt was transporting 30-50 vehicles a day over a 24hr day, 7 days a week!

Jim’s patience, stamina and good humour as well as forbearance with tricksters was valued by the Seaham community. He remained living in his home by the river for several years.

Opening of the bridge in Seaham.

By Athel D'Ombrain from the University of Newcastle Special Collections. Licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

The Jim Scott Bridge

The bridge was officially opened in April 1973. Jim Scott had spent much of his working life on the river, his early days doing a milk run by launch along the Williams. He had served on Port Stephens Shire Council for many years including several terms as President.

It was said ‘he knew every bend in the river’.

Seaham Weir

Chichester Dam and Tomago Sandbeds were the two main water sources for the Hunter region from 1939. By the early 1950s a growing demand for water, mainly driven at that time by industrial companies, saw the need for a third water source. The Grahamstown Scheme envisaged that water would be delivered from a tidal weir pool into a storage lake – Grahamstown Dam.

In 1955 Seaham was recommended as a suitable site for the weir. Construction of the rock filled weir began in in January 1967. Unfortunately, fine particles between the rocks were soon washed away. Cement – clay grouting was used to seal the weir in 3 stages between 1972 and 1978.

Grahamstown Dam had first delivered water to Newcastle in 1964, but it wasn’t until the drought, beginning in 1965, that the construction of Seaham weir became necessary. The first operation of the Balickera Pumping Station was in March 1966 and by 1967, the first stage of the Seaham weir was completed.

The scheme works by drawing water from the Seaham weir pool east along Balickera Canal to the pumping station. Hunter Water technicians thoroughly test the water before pumping occurs. Water is pumped to a height from which it can drain into the northern end of Grahamstown Dam. The weir separates fresh upstream water from saline downstream water. A concrete fishway allows for year round fish movements.

New Gates at the weir

By Athel D'Ombrain from the University of Newcastle Special Collections. Licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

The impacts of the weir

A detailed coverage of these impacts can be found in the excellent essay by Martin McLeod and Dick Holroyde in ‘Essays on Seaham’ by Cynthia Hunter. Published by Seaham Public School P&C Association.

In brief summary… bank erosion may occur which can lead to increased sediment in the river, loss of farming land and changes to river dynamics. These problems can be addressed by providing re-vegetation and fencing, stock shade, wood-lot fencing and off stream water access equipment. Hunter Water monitors water levels in the weir to ensure levels  don’t drop to the point where banks are over exposed.

A benefit for the farmers along the banks of the Williams between the weir and Mill Dam Falls is that they have a constant supply of freshwater. This benefit came with significant ‘costs’ to several landholders close to the weir. One example of this was the considerable disruption to the Ralston family on ‘Porphyry’ who moved temporarily from their home while it was boarded up as a safety precaution against the effects of blasting.

The Seaham Weir is a vital part of Hunter Water Corporation’s supply system that ensures that the community has a reliable supply of water during extended periods of dry weather.

The Hunter Water Corporation will continue to monitor and report on water quality and other issues of importance to the Williams River.

New gates at weir below Porphry, Seaham, NSW, Australia

by Athel D'Ombrain from the University of Newcastle Special Collections. Licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0