Lake Macquarie History

How we grew - the 19th Century

The development of Lake Macquarie has been characterised by the growth of a number of small villages which eventually became the centre of thriving townships and developed into large suburban areas, coalescing to become the City we know today.

photo: lake macquarie heads

Indigenous population

The City Council of Lake Macquarie acknowledge the Aboriginal people known today as the Awabakal as the traditional Custodians of the land respecting Aboriginal Elders past, present and future. Lake Macquarie City Council recognise the local Aboriginal community today in all of their diversity, who came forward to share their experiences, knowledge, images and memories.

It is difficult to estimate the size of the aboriginal clan of Lake Macquarie before white settlement. The first white settler to Lake Macquarie, Lancelot Threlkeld, did not arrive until 1825 and many of the indigenous population would have succumbed to European diseases by then. Evidence points to there being only a few hundred members of the Awabakal tribe before 1788.

The writings of Threlkeld are our main source of information for this time period and in 1828 he reported "there were twenty four men, twenty six women, ten boys and four girls ... making a total of sixty four". By the time of his 1840 report, the population had fallen to fifteen men, seven women, three boys and one girl, making a total of twenty six.

In 1833, local magistrate Jonathan Warner accounted for one hundred and seventeen people present at the annual government issue of blankets to the natives. Warner was based in Brisbane Water, so there would have been natives from other tribes included in this number.

European diseases, ill treatment by escaped convicts and some settlers and attacks by adjacent tribes had diminished the population greatly. Aboriginal women were particularly vulnerable. The lack of European females in the colony made women very scarce, and much sought after by convicts and other white males. This resulted in them being separated from their tribes and as a result rates of native children being born subsequently declined.

White settlement

In the earliest years of white settlement, Lake Macquarie was an outpost of Newcastle - mostly a location for hunting and fishing with only a few intrepid settlers living in the area on a permanant basis. Like all remote and sparsely populated areas national and international events had a profound effect on growth and settlement.

The links below lead to pages outlining the factors affecting growth during the different decades, and provide insight into why some areas flourished while others did not.

1800 - 1820 1820s 1830s 1840s 1850s 1860s 1870s 1880s 1890s


It is difficult to obtain accurate population figures for the 19th century. Although censuses and convict musters were taken at regular intervals - 1833, 1836, 1841, 1846, 1851, 1856, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891 - much of this data was destroyed in the Garden Palace fire in Sydney in 1882. Although statistics remain from the 1828, 1841, 1891 and 1901 censuses, Lake Macquarie as a shire in it's own right did not come into existence until 1906. Population figures were usually added into the neighbouring area of Brisbane Waters, which included Gosford and the Central Coast districts.

One thing is certain, people followed work, and communities only existed in places where industries could support them. Populations sprang up when mines opened, and declined just as quickly when they closed. The often fleeting nature of employment and length of time it took for reliable road transport to be established around the lake, has meant that Lake Macquarie did not develop the historic built environment of many other early cities. Another impeding factor to growth was the lake itself, as it made it more difficult for geographically isolated communities to keep in contact.

The table below lists the few accurate figures we have from the time period.

West Wallsend40

The following quotations from Reids Mistake by Keith Clouten give insight into the populations of certain areas:

"The earliest population statistics for the entire Brisbane Water district (including Lake Macquarie) available to us are for the year 1829, when a total of eighty-nine persons resided in the area."

"According to the 1841 Brisbane Water Census there were then 198 convicts in a total district population of 1,090 persons."

"The improvements to Lake Macquarie Entrance (Swansea, 1879) will employ over 150 men,£20,000 having been granted for the purpose. Messrs. Lamb, Knox and Parbury are opening a Colliery and large saw mills which will also employ a large number of men, so that in a very short time in addition to the settled population we will have something like 300 men on the ground, when a post office will be absolutely necessary."

"The opening of the timber mill at Wyee Point drew a small resident population to the area, and a number of small selections were taken up along the adjacent lakeshores, two of the selectors being John Overall and Thomas Bridge. In January 1879 another of these settlers, James Armitage, applied to the Department of Public Instruction to have a school teacher appointed to the neighbourhood - During the last 12 months the residents of the above locality erected a building for a school and employed a teacher at their own expense. . . . There was 17 children on the roll during that time and there will be an addition of 5 more in one month from date."

"In 1884, when the railway employment boom had barely begun, it was estimated that Cooranbong held a population of 700 persons,43 and this hardly seems an exaggeration."
and after the railway line went through ...
"Many of the houses were empty, and the official census of 1891 gave the population of Cooranbong as 206 persons. "


Clouten, Keith 1967, Reid's mistake : the story of Lake Macquarie from its discovery until 1890, Lake Macquarie Shire Council, [Speers Point, N.S.W.]

Nilson, Laurie & Leis, Susan & Noble, Rodney & Lake Macquarie (N.S.W.). Council 1985, Lake Macquarie : past and present, Lake Macquarie City Council, [Boolaroo, N.S.W.]