Lake Macquarie History

History of Belmont Lagoon: 1820-1919

The 20-year period after Captain William Reid’s accidental discovery of Lake Macquarie in 1800 were somewhat uneventful from a government perspective, but interest was strong from settlers and others keen to exploit its natural resources - coal being the major focus. An introduction to the geological formation of Lake Macquarie below will assist the explanation here.

Lake Macquarie was formed in its current state following the Pleistocene Glaciation, which peaked about 18,000 years Before Present (BP). Sea levels at the time were 168 m (21) below current sea level. The final marine transgression stabilized circa 6000 BP at about the current sea level (0 m AHD). The geological structure of the [Lake Macquarie] area formed over millions of years as pressure turned gravel to conglomerate, sand to sandstone, and peat to coal (22)

Some squatters and settlers had other commercial interests, like fishing and fruit orchards. Acres of forest covered the hilly land near Belmont. By 1871 a timber industry had developed – to supply the mines, boat-building and housing. A sawmill was opened near Cardiff Point (now Green Point).

This period includes ongoing occupation of this land by the Awabakal as traditional custodians. Rev. L. Threlkeld was the first European settler in the area (4) (pp. 35-50). In 1825 he was granted 10,000 acres to establish the Bahtahbah Aboriginal Mission. He set this up on a hill next to the freshwater lagoon at Belmont, mainly because of the numbers of aborigines who gathered there and the abundance of food it provided. Threlkeld used government surveyor Finch’s 1828 draft map (23) to show the boundaries of this property.

Before 1860 the government did not offer much land for sale outside already-surveyed (parish) boundaries. However, the government had a great need of surveyors in 1838-39 (ibid p.49). By 1861 settlers could obtain small selections. Alluvial flats adjoining creeks and lagoons around Lake Macquarie were moderately productive; Jonathon Warner was the first orchardist in 1831. The Chinese were outstanding farmers – invariably selecting the most fertile land for their gardens. Generally, Lake Macquarie was not suited to commercial agriculture. Most of the narrow strip of land from Belmont to Swansea Heads was only a few feet above water. The residual soils were uniformly poor and the absence of permanent streams in many places further lessened their agricultural value (Clouten p.141). As government surveyor Henry Dangar noted: ‘the district of Lake Macquarie is not adapted to the settler who contemplates being the proprietor of large flocks and herds, or a busied agriculture’ (ibid p.51). A retired gentleman’s lifestyle (shooting, hunting, fishing, sailing) and mineral riches (coal) were more attractive at this stage.

The Robertson Land Act of 1861 was instrumental in unlocking the land for the ‘small settler’, and tended to discourage squatters or settlers without legal title (e.g., ex-convicts and Chinese fishermen).

1820-1919 is also an interesting period to explore the history of Belmont Lagoon from an unusual perspective, surveying. There are several credible sources of information, although both have anomalies. One is early colonial maps or written records of land holdings. Unfortunately the Garden Palace Fire of 1882 (24) destroyed many of the government’s earliest Lands Office maps and records. However, William Biden’s 1874 Crown Plan (N174-2111) of the Parish of Kahibah (25) remains accessible at the State Archives in Kingswood, NSW. This map is important in that besides showing Portions for sale around Belmont and the names of purchasers, it may offer further clues to the Lagoon’s formation.

photo: excerpt crown plan 174-2711 parish of kahibah 1874 biden

Biden and other 19th century surveyors were required to assess the land for possible commercial use as well as delineate Portion boundaries. This typically included all natural water sources on their maps – i.e., lagoons, swamps and marshes as well as rivers and creeks. Such information would be useful to prospective farmers and miners alike - for agistment of livestock, and/or mineral deposits.

From 1871-80 Portions of land were offered for sale which facilitated development of the Belmont township and indicated where coal mining might begin under adjacent swamp lands or peat marshes.

On the 1874 Crown Plan drawn by Biden, the small projection near the bottom left corner is Cane Point on the Lake’s eastern edge. The blue-shaded areas running diagonally (NNE-SSW) through Portions 140-143 represent marshes or swampland (one long watercourse) at the time. Of interest here, we note no distinct marking in the shape of a lagoon or swamp. For whatever reason this does not appear on this Plan; otherwise it might be possible to locate the lagoon and estimate its size. Perhaps one empathic reason is that Biden declined to walk his horse through long marshes or swamps to record such watercourses accurately!

There may be an anomaly here with a contemporary set of early maps shown in Clouten (24) . Threlkeld’s version of Finch’s 1828 draft map (ibid p.36) seems to show an incomplete shape of a lagoon on the Bahtahbah Mission land at that time. However, the 1841 map (ibid p.81) does show a completed figure, and the 1885 map (ibid p.178) confirms and elongates this shape. A feasible explanation for this anomaly is that marshes or swamps on Portion 143 may have been transforming to a lake.

photo: wetlands excerpt of kahibah parish map 1885 showing belmont portions

Another survey map (26) for the Parish of Kahibah dated 1885 shows the same Portions offered to selectors around Belmont and the names of purchasers. The Portion number is given in its top left- corner, and its size is given in acres. Much larger Portions were offered for mining or grazing land (eg. P123-125, 140-143) compared with those in the township (P36- 40, 60, 67, 68). Although there was no distinct outline of a lagoon on this parish map either, the lightly dotted lines within Portions 140-143 may also verify the existence of swamps or marshes, but apparently there was no permanent water at that time. A marsh or shallow depression may have filled and thus taken shape after heavy seasonal rain, but rainwater then drained through its sandy base. There is a further anomaly; this time on a Selectors Map in Murray (4) (p. 85) dated “mid-20th century”. It identifies the same Portions around Belmont sold to settlers and coal-mining interests as shown in the two previous Kahibah Parish Maps. This map has a sketched outline of a freshwater lagoon – mostly in Portion 143, but also in Portions 66, 67, 78 & 142. Unfortunately online searches have not found this selectors map elsewhere. The dates and purchasers of Portions given beneath it indicate this map may be dated as early as 1880.

It is of interest that in 1986 Belmont farmer and citizen scientist Lionel Lambkin (11) also sketched a credible map of Belmont Lagoon and commented on the surrounding wetlands.

The lagoon is a remnant of Jewell’s Swamp, which is basically a watercourse extending from Oakdale [Drive] near Charlestown, to Swan Bay south of Marks Point… [He added] …The open water of the lagoon at Belmont South used to dry up during drought, and overflowed into Lake Macquarie as a shallow floodway about a kilometre wide after rain.

As mentioned earlier, in their comprehensive inventory of all wetlands around Lake Macquarie in 1989 Winning and Markwell (6) described this lagoon as part of Belmont Lagoon Wetlands, but separate from Jewells Swamp and Swansea Wetlands.