Lake Macquarie History

Why Rathmines

As early as 1936, the Newcastle Herald was reporting on military personnel inspecting land at "Toronto and Kilaben Bay" seeking to establish a "combined aeroplane landing ground and sea plane base." Reports in August and October 1939 note that the land inspected was not suitable for the aeroplane landing ground. However, mention is made of the natural features of Lake Macquarie including it being a "large body of water … which has a suitable depth at many places right to the foreshores." Water depth seems to have been one of the major driving factors for the choice of the site, along with the small population allowing the military’s control of the foreshore less problematically politically than it would have been in a more populated location.

photo: rathmines air base, rathmines, lake macquarie nsw 1956, showing hanger and officers quarters

By 1939, Rathmines had been selected as the site for the sea plane base, and a sounding survey to note the depth of the water was conducted in that same year. However, some locals were clearly unimpressed about their peaceful homes being interrupted by Defence taking control of both the land and water in the bay. This dissatisfaction was evident in the House of Representatives in Canberra with the member for Hunter asking if the Rathmines site had been chosen over a Toronto site because the government were unconcerned about the working class people who lived at Rathmines and would be affected by the decision. The Defence Minister claimed that was not an issue, but in the same sitting explained that the Rathmines public would be forbidden access to the foreshore although the main boating and bathing area would not be affected.

Much of the public discussion of the base after this is focused on two issues. The first is whether the lake entrance would need to be further dredged to allow heavy military boats to enter the lake. At no point did the military suggest this was a need or requirement and once the base came into use in 1940 this issue seems to have dissipated from community interest.

However, the economic cost to locals remained a vital issue and there were a number of newspaper articles throughout 1939 and 1940 with locals, military and government people seeking to alleviate the fears of locals and sell the economic positives of the development. There are mentions of increased property values for the 32 property owners who would have their land "resumed" (forcibly purchased) for between £12000 and £15000 (the large numbers suggesting that the remunerations for the locals were significant).

There were also suggestions of increased property values for others who could sell their land to the military, or to military personnel situated at the base, or possibly rent homes to families of married officers who did not have to reside at the base. There is also mention of the safety the base would ensure for the ports of northern NSW – intimating that this would assist jobs and the economy generally. Of course, many Australians had been forced to work on government projects during the Great Depression and this focus on local employment was continued with discussion of day labour in building the site leading to excellent employment opportunities, particularly for local miners who had lost jobs because of the downturn in the mining industry. There was also great public interest in some of the construction work being tendered to private businesses.

This seclusion, access to waterfront and appropriate water depth saw Rathmines change dramatically. There is no public statement from Defence that suggests anything other than these three factors were considered when deciding to build a sea plane base. However, in 1941, the Defence Department purchased another 35 acres of land at the site for the purpose of establishing a dump. There seems to have been minimal protest from locals about this decision. Accounts from civilians suggest many had a positive relationship, personally and financially, with the soldiers and the Air Base:

"As a taxi driver, we would go to a pre-arranged spot on the perimeter of the Base and pick up Officers and Airmen going AWOL. Our rewards for these favours would be a tin of salmon, a tin of fruit, some sugar, butter, eggs or anything else that was rationed to civilians and many a feast we had with our ill-gotten goods."

Acknowledgement of Country

We remember and respect the Ancestors who cared for and nurtured this Country. It is in their footsteps that we travel these lands and waters. Lake Macquarie City Council acknowledges the Awabakal people and Elders past, present and future.

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