Home » Towns » New South Wales » Hunter Valley » Cessnock, NSW

Cessnock, NSW

Mining city at the southern edge of the Hunter Valley.

If the world was ruled by common sense and imagination, Cessnock would be the emotional and economic heart of the great Hunter Valley wine area. It would be a classy city full of chic cafes and restaurants; boutique accommodation and specialist providores catering for the clientele of the 150 vineyards in the district. Instead it is a coal mining town struggling to find a new identity. It is a place of cheap cafes, op shops, bargain basement stores which make it a deeply working class residential area with shops and buildings which recall a time when "coal was king". The town started as a service centre for travellers and the district's farmers. Its real development as a city occurred when the area became a major mining centre at the end of the 19th century. 


Cessnock is located 152 km north of Sydney via the M1 freeway. It is situated 107 metres above sea-level.


Origin of Name

The name of Cessnock comes from John Campbell, an early settler who was granted 1560 acres along Black Creek in 1826. He named his property after Cessnock Castle in Ayrshire, Scotland, which belonged to his baronial grandfather.
The history of the subsequent naming of the town is complex and confusing. There was a move to establish a village in the area and land was reserved for a church and school north of present-day Cessnock as early as 1829. A village was laid out in 1884-85 and officially described as 'The Village of Pokolbin'. By 1890 it was known as Cessnock but that name was transferred south to the town now called Cessnock in 1908 and the northern village became known by its local name, Nulkaba, which was officially adopted in 1927. 


Things to See and Do

Cessnock History Walk
There is a useful Cessnock History Walk ) which contains a good map and detailed information. It lists a total of 29 places of interest around Cessnock and provides details of a pleasant 3 km, 45 minute walk around the town which, with a few diversions, basically goes along Cumberland Street, down Vincent Street, turns into Cooper Street, then goes along North and South Avenue and returns to the city centre via Wollombi Road. It includes detailed information about:

1. Cessnock Fire Station (1906)
Located in Edward Street, the Cessnock Fire Brigade dates from 1906 when it was created by two former members of the Newcastle Fire Brigade. This building was constructed in 1915 and opened in 1916. By September, 1918 it had a motor fire engine.
2. Masonic Temple (1907)
When it was opened on 16 December, 1907 the Masonic Temple in Cumberland Street was the scene of a huge gathering. People travelled to Cessnock by special train. At the time it was common for most local businessmen to be members of the Masonic Lodge.
3. Convent Hill Steps
The Convent Hill Steps, which rise up the hill from Cumberland Street, are located on a piece of land which was mined for coal in conjunction with the Catholic Church. Walking up the steps you are standing on top of the place where the Greta Top Seam begins. There is an excellent view of the city from the top of the stairs.
4. Catholic Hall (1922)
Located on Cumberland Street, the Catholic Hall, known as the Lyceum Hall, was built in 1922 on land purchased in 1921 and subsequently used for both the presbytery and the city's church.
5. Presbytery (1932)
It wasn't until 1905 that the parish priest from Branxton was replaced by an official Pastor from Cessnock and it wasn't until 1932 that a Father Davoren built a presbytery beside the Catholic Hall.
6. Catholic Church (1953)
And then it wasn't until after World War II that Father Davoren, having not found a suitable contractor, decided to start building the local church himself. "There was considerable excavation involved in preparing of the site, and this was started in September 1950 Father Davoren began digging the foundations in November 1951 and underwent test drilling to prove a solid rock foundation. Soon afterwards, concrete was poured and bricklayers set to work. Father Davoren himself carted, by train, all the marble which was used in the altar and altar rails. He used to go to Merewether near Newcastle every weekend to bring back a block of marble for the construction. On 11 May 1952 the foundation stone was blessed and laid. It took Father Davoren just under thirty months to complete his toil of love, which was finally opened in October 1953."
7. Cessnock Police Station
Located in Maitland Road next to the Court House, the Cessnock Police Station was established as a single building in 1881. At the time it housed the Court House, Police Station, Lockup and Clerk of Petty Sessions. Between 1903 and 1914 a Sergeant Ernest Henry Nowland ran the station and, during that time, saw the building of the current Police Station.
8. Cessnock Court House
Located next to the Police Station, the current Court House dates from 1913. When it was built there were only two stone buildings in the district and locals asked why the government had spent so much money.
9. Cessnock Inn (1857)
Located on the corner of Wollombi Road and Vincent Street, at the heart of the town, is the Cessnock Inn which, amusingly and appropriately, was the first business in Cessnock. It was located strategically where the teamsters camped beside Black Creek. The first licencee was Michael Carroll who charged one shilling for bed and a meal and threepence for a glass of rum.
10. School of Arts (1924)
Cessnock has had three School of Arts buildings. The first was where Sternbeck's Park now stands. This building was completed in 1924 and housed a library, a games room, a meeting hall and even Turkish Baths.
11. Cessnock Soldiers Memorial Hall (1922)
Located at 14 Vincent Street, the Memorial Hall was paid for by fund raising from the mothers and wives of returning World War I soldiers. It was designed by W. Pender, an architect from Maitland, and constructed in 1922 at a cost of around £3000. The Sydney Morning Herald of 9 August, 1922 records: "The site was donated by the State Government, and the foundation-stone was laid by General Rosenthal. The names of about 700 soldiers are to be inscribed on marble tablets to be erected on each side of the entrance hall; but, strange to say, the soldiers themselves are unlikely to derive the benefit from its erection that was originally intended. The spirit of unrest which is always a feature of the coalfields seems to have eaten into the returned soldiers' organisation there, and the local R.S. and S.L. League is practically defunct. The two large rooms on the ground floor were intended to be fitted up for the use of returned soldiers, one as a billiard-room and the other as a meeting-room. The committee responsible for the movement has, however, had a thankless task, and it seems almost certain now that the School of Arts will take over these rooms. However, the memorial will remain a permanent feature. The memorial will be officially opened in about three weeks’ time." There is a detailed account of the building at http://monumentaustralia.org.au/themes/conflict/ww1/display/105599-cessnock-soldiers-memorial-hall-.
12. Water Board Building (1920s)
Located on Vincent Street the Water Board building, completed in the 1920s, is a classic example of Art Deco architecture - a rare example in the Hunter Valley. It is beautifully intact with original pressed metal ceilings and original fittings.
13. Kearsley Chambers
Located on Vincent Street, Kearsley Chambers historically houses the Kearsley Shire Council which merged with the Cessnock Shire Council in 1956.
14. Sarroff Building
This building, located in Vincent Street, was constructed by Mr Arthur Sarroff who, in the early years of his business, worked out of the back of a van. When he decided he needed permanent, non-mobile, premises he constructed this grand building. It was completed in the early 1920s.
15. Wentworth Hotel (1924)
The Wentworth Hotel in Vincent Street was the last pub to be granted a licence on Vincent Street. Costing £12,000, it was opened in August 1924 by Robert Smith and was considered an “imposing structure”. Smith remained the licencee until his death in 1968. It has been demolished.
16. Lowes (old Cessnock Coop Society)
Originally known as the Cessnock and Aberdare Co-operative Society Ltd and located on the corner of Vincent Street and Cooper Street, the society was started in 1907 with a membership of 34 and initial share capital of £123. By 1920 it had 1433 members, a turnover of £180,000 and over 80 employees. In 1957, it was reported to have 172 employees and a turnover of well over £830,000 per annum.
17. Jurds Real Estate (old Northumberland Hotel 1910)
Located on the corner of Vincent Street and Cooper Street, on the same side as Lowes, is an imposing 3 storey building which was opened in May, 1910 by Alfred Howard who was the last licencee of the Cessnock Inn before it became the Cessnock Hotel. The initial rent to the owners of the building was £7 per week and the whole property was valued at £5000. The hotel closed in April 1979.
18. Coal Memorial
Located at the roundabout at the bottom of Cooper Street, this memorial, which was moved to this located in 1999, is a symbol of the city's deep roots with the coal mining industry. The plaque reads: "This monument commemorates the contribution of coal mining to the Cessnock region. The obelisk was established by the Rotary Club of Cessnock and marks the discovery of coal in Cessnock. It stood originally at the outcrop of the Greta Seam on the hillside behind Vincent Street. It has been relocated for greater public exposure and protection from rock falls.
“The coal industry grew to become the major economic and social influence in the district. At its peak it employed more than 10,000 people at over 40 pits within 30 km of Cessnock.
“Over the years, coal miners have contributed greatly to their communities. They provided ambulance services, medical schemes, benefit funds, choirs, bands, and other amenities. They helped pay for and maintain Cessnock and Kurri Kurri hospitals, other projects including the police and community youth club and the Cessnock Town Hall that formerly stood on this site. They continue to support many worthy causes today.”
19. War Memorial
Located on North Avenue the War Memorial has been moved a number of times. It was originally inside the Memorial Hall, then it was moved to Rotary Park behind the Town Hall and then in 1999 it was moved to its present location where, in 2005, the cannon from HMAS Cessnock was added.
20. Black Creek
Further down North Avenue is what is left of Black Creek (the original name of the town) As you walk down North Avenue you will come to some weeping willows with a crossing over what now remains of Black Creek. Black Creek and the fresh water it provided made Cessnock perfect for the teamsters that travelled through the area. When coal mining started at the beginning of the 20th century, the easy availabillity was vital to the success of the mining operations. During the Great Depression in the 1930s the creek was concreted in by men who were given a number of days work according to how many mouths they had to feed. A man with a wife and seven children worked 5 days per week and earned a small stipend for working these days. This stipend was, for many, the only income available to them.
21. Australia Hotel (1923)
There was only one hotel during the coal mining era that sold Tooheys beer - and it still does. The Australia Hotel, on Wollombi Road, was built in 1923 by Joseph Sumner, who was a former deputy at Abermain No. 2 Colliery. It was originally called Sumner's Australia Hotel. It was famous for its “black beer” and it was also famous for the greatest volume of beer sold in Cessnock at a single establishment. The current owners have purchased an extensive collection of coal mining memorabilia.
22. Gun-Barrel Houses (1920s)
There are four timber houses from 156 to 162 Wollombi Road which are a classic, well-preserved examples of 1920s colonial architecture. This type of housing, called “gun-barrel” housing, was built in all coal mining towns and is also seen commonly in the earlier developments of Sydney and Wollongong. look at these houses and register that Kevin McCloud, the host of Grand Designs and an expert on architecture, commented: ""I loved Cessnock in the NSW Hunter Valley. I photographed almost every house along the main road: 1920s and 1930s domestic architecture, low to the ground and with a veranda. We don't value that era in the UK, and we don't do ground-hugging architecture well."
23. Birthing House (1900s)
Located at 147 Wollombi Road, it is now a private house but a very unusual one, is a rare example of what were called Birthing Houses. These houses were a combination of pre-natal care facility, delivery room, and GP's surgery. They gave women the choice of birthing their children in a “medical” environment or going through the process at home with the aid of a midwife. The original building is now over 100 years old. The practice of using these birthing homes stopped in the late 1940s when hospital facilities became more readily available.
24. Sylvester’s Bakery (1919)
Sylvester's Bakery has been a part of Cessnock since 1919. The bakery started at Wollombi in 1904 when teams of bullocks would deliver bread as far away as Maitland. It is the only “old style” bakery left in New South Wales and one of only six in Australia. 
25. Police Citizens Youth Club (1945)
Located on Wollombi Road is the Police Citizens Youth Club which was built after 1953 and located on 6 acres of ground which was part of an orchard and vineyard established at the turn of the century by George Brown, a pioneer of Cessnock. Originally with a membership of less than 30 boys, the club grew so that by the early 1960s it had 2,500 enrolled between the ages of 6 and 20 with a daily average attendance of around 200.
25. Marthaville
Located next door to the PCYC is Marthaville, built for Martha Jones, who was the wife of George Brown, an early settler to Cessnock proper. It is the oldest sawn timber home in Cessnock. George Brown is credited with beginning the boom years of Cessnock with his discovery of coal. Marthaville is a cultural centre and is open from Friday to Sunday.
27. St John's Church
Located in Westcott Street is the Church of England or, at least, most of it. This building is actually only half a building. In 1884 St Lukes was constructed in the cemetery at Nulkaba. In 1908, the building was cut into two halves, with half transported to this spot and called St Johns Church. The other half is now a private residence in Bellbird.
26. John Campbell Memorial
Located in Wollombi Road near the swimming pool is a memorial commissioned by the City of Cessnock Historical Society to commemorate the death of John Campbell. In 1826 this early settler was granted the title over the original land Cessnock was built on. He was the person who named the area Cessnock, after the castle in Ayrshire in Scotland which was his birthplace and family heritage. The land grant was for 2,560 acres originally and was first subdivided in 1853.
27. Cessnock Pool (1934) 
On the corner of Wollombi Road and Allandale Road is the Cessnock pool which was built in 1934 and, at the time, was Australia's first pool built to Olympic standards and the first pool in the world to use black tiles as lane markers. It's opening program booklet states that this pool was designed to hold 1000 swimmers and 1000 spectators. 


Other Attractions in the Area

Making Sense of the Hunter Valley
Aussie Towns is a guide to towns and the Hunter Valley wine region is uniquely characterised by not having a central town. It is a series of over 150 vineyards stretching from Cessnock in the south to the New England Highway in the north. There is a dedicated website - http://www.winecountry.com.au - which covers all aspects of the vineyards and the Hunter Valley including accommodation, suitable cellar doors, tours (so you can drink and not drive), restaurants and diverse things to do.

The Brick Beehive Kilns
Located in the grounds of the Potters Hotel Brewery Resort on Wine Country Drive in Nulkaba are two beehive structures which are an unusual part of the history of the Pokolbin area. The first Brickworks were set up by Stephen Arthur Hennery and Mark Robinson on 10 acres. The location was chosen because the local clay deposits were suitable for the making of bricks. The initial business was very simple with wire cut pressed bricks being used in coal mines, houses and public works.
By 1928 a company known as Robinson and Hennery Ltd had been formed and the kilns were being used to produce garden terracotta pots as well as bricks. A new kiln was commissioned from a pottery manufacturer in England. The following year the company changed its name to Cessnock Potteries.
By 1931 Cessnock Council accepted a tender for the salt glazed stoneware pipes for the development of sewerage lines in the area. During this time brick and garden pottery ceased at Cessnock Potteries and public works took over. This expansion continued and sewerage pipes were supplied to Scone, Singleton and Muswellbrook as well as Condobolin and Bourke. During the 1940s renovations where undertaken to convert to electric power and during World War II the company was declared as an essential industry for the war effort. The kilns are Heritage listed. For more information check out http://www.pottershbr.com.au.

Hunter Valley Zoo
Located at 138 Lomas Lane, Nulkaba and open six days a week (closed on Wednesdays) between 9.00 am - 4.00 pm the Hunter Valley Zoo has a mixture of international animals and local favourites including dingoes, Tasmanian devils, wombats, kangaroos, koalas, snakes and birdlife. It currently offers an opportunity to get up close and personal to meerkats, marmosets and Emperor tamarin. There are keeper talks every half hour from 10.00 am starting with dingoes, Malayan tapirs, African lions, Capuchin monkeys, koalas, meerkats, squirrel monkeys and at 3.00 pm the white African lion. For more information check out https://www.huntervalleyzoo.com.au.

Hunter Valley Gardens
Located on Broke Road, Pokolbin (just down from McDonalds Road) the Hunter Valley Gardens are open every day from 9.00 am - 5.00 pm. The huge complex includes a range of specific gardens spread across 60 acres (24 hectares) including The Sunken Garden, the Storybook Garden, the Rose Garden, the Oriental Garden, the Lakes Walk, the Italian Grotto, the Indian Mosaic Garden, the Formal Garden, the Chinese Garden, the Border Garden. On the website the Gardens Creator, Bill Roche, explains:  "Hunter Valley Gardens has many outstanding features including 10 differently themed garden areas with over eight kilometres of pathways, all carefully graded for easy walking. A talented crew of some 40 and at times 50 gardeners worked here week in and week out for over four years constructing the gardens. They were all marvellous people and most had a real love of nature and a joy in creating something of beauty for today and for the generations to come ...
Hunter Valley Gardens aims to provide visitors with a magical experience – a combination of the sounds of water and birds, together with a multitude of fragrances and colour. For many, an exciting and enriching experience, for others one of calm and comfort. I trust we have provided something for everyone." For more detailed information on these remarkable gardens check out http://www.huntervalleygardens.com.au.

Bellbird Mining Disaster Memorial
Located 4 km from Cessnock, on the corner of Wollombi Road and Kendall Street is the Bellbird Mining Disaster Memorial in a small park. This simple monument stands opposite the site of Bellbird Colliery where, on Saturday, September the 1st, 1923, explosions and fires underground killed 21 men and their horses. Another man, John Brown, the manager at Aberdare, died in the rescue attempt. Working conditions at the time were very poor. The unionised workforce had pressed for central rescue stations in the mines but their pleas were ignored. Some did not even have safety lamps. A huge crowd of 25 000 people attended the ensuing mass funeral. Subsequently the Central Mines Rescue Station was formed.
At the time the Western Grazier newspaper reported: "A terrible explosion occurred at the Bellbird Colliery, one of the busiest on the Maitland coalfields, on Saturday last. The disaster occurred in No. 3 section of the mine, shortly after 2 p.m. The death toll totals 21, of whom 15 were brought to the surface by rescuers. There are still six at the bottom of the mine, but all hopes of rescue have been abandoned. A shift comprising 30 men went down at 1 o'clock, and exactly an hour later an employee saw volumes of curling thick black smoke belching forth from the fan-shaft.  He immediately rushed to the engineer's quarters, and in a few moments the news of the fire spread throughout the field, and it was not long before the distracted wives, children and relatives of the entombed miners had reached the tunnelmouth of the mine, and terrible scenes were witnessed as the bodies were brought out of the tunnel. The mine will have to be totally closed down for probably six months, according to local opinion, in order to allow the fires to burn themselves out. Seven hundred men will be thrown out of work. John Brown, manager of the Aberdare colliery, lost his life while carrying out rescue work." For more information check out http://monumentaustralia.org.au/themes/disaster/industrial/display/20293-bellbird-mining-disaster.



* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the Darkinjung lived in the area around Cessnock. The language group was divided between the Wonnarua to the north and the Awabakal to the south. At the time of settlement it was estimated that around 3,000 people were living between the Hawkesbury River and Lake Macquarie. Cessnock is within the boundaries of the Awabakal people.

* By the 1820s settlers had moved into the area. There is evidence of considerable violence against the local people as the settlers advanced into the region.

* John Campbell was granted 1,560 acres in 1826 along Black Creek where the town is now situated. He named the property after Cessnock Castle in Ayrshire, Scotland.

* Between 1826-1834 the Great North Road from Sydney to the Hunter Valley was built by 3,000 convicts.

* By 1827 it was estimated there were only 65 Aborigines living in the area.

* The junction where Cessnock now stands became an important camp for teamsters.

* Land was reserved for a church and school north of present-day Cessnock as early as 1829. 

* Much of the Campbell property was sold in 1853 enabling the emergence of a private village.

* The Cessnock Inn opened for business in 1856 for those travelling between Wollombi and Maitland. 

* Coal was discovered in the district by William Keene in 1856.

* By 1858 there were only eleven adults in the village.

* After the Robertson Land Act of 1861 small landholders began to settle on farms along Black Creek and Anvil Creek to the north and north-west of Cessnock. 

* A German winemaker named Bouffier established a vineyard at Cessnock around 1866. 

* The town developed as a service centre to local farmers and travellers. 

* Wheat-growing declined in the district after rust destroyed the crop in 1870.

* St Luke's Anglican Church was consecrated in 1867.

* By 1871 the town's population had reached 62.

* The original slab-construction St Patrick's Catholic Church was completed in 1872.  

* A school opened in 1877. 

* Cessnock village was laid out in 1884-85. Officially described as 'The Village of Pokolbin' it became known as Cessnock later in the decade.

* By 1901 the town had a population of 165. 

* The name was transferred south to the town now called Cessnock in 1908.

* By 1926, with the growth of mining, the town had a population of over 12,000. That year it became a municipality.

* The northern village of Cessnock became known by its local name, Nulkaba and that was officially adopted in 1927. 

* The full potential of the Greta coal seam was recognised in 1886 when T.W. Edgeworth David did some exploratory work.

*  The first colliery (Richmond Vale) was opened in 1891 and was linked by rail with Maitland.

* Aberdare Mine was opened in 1905. It was the first Cessnock mine.  

* By 1906 the East Greta, Stanford Merthyr, Pelaw Main, Abermain, Aberdare and Hebburn collieries were all in operation. 

* By World War I 17 collieries existed on the South Maitland Coal Field, employing nearly 10,000 men and boys and supporting a population of 43,000 in the district.

* On September 1, 1923, 20 men and their horses were killed in an underground explosion and fire at Bellbird Colliery. One of the rescuers, John Brown, the manager at Aberdare, also died. 

* In 1929 Norman Brown was shot and killed at Rothbury when police fired their pistols to warn off thousands of miners protesting against scab labour during a lock-out. 

* Many mines closed during the Great Depression of the 1930s. 

* Mines reopened during World War II. The war was profitable years for the mine-owners although unrest continued over pay and conditions. 

* Striking employees were visited by novelist Katherine Susannah Prichard in 1944. 

* The pits began to close from the late 1950s and wine slowly supplanted coal as the centrepiece of the local economy.

* The City of Cessnock was declared in 1957.

* The Greater City of Cessnock was declared in 1984. It incorporated 25 formerly separate towns and mining villages.

* Richmond Vale mine was closed in 1967 and it subsequently became a mining museum.


Visitor Information

Hunter Valley Visitor Centre, 455 Wine Country Drive, Pokolbin, tel: (02) 4993 6700, 1300 6948 6837. Open 9.00 am - 5.00 pm Monday to Saturday and 9.00 am - 4.00 pm Sunday.


Useful Websites

There is a very detailed history of Cessnock on the Council website. Check out https://www.cessnock.nsw.gov.au/community/about-our-region/history.

Got something to add?

Have we missed something or got a top tip for this town? Have your say below.

6 suggestions
  • I own one of the gun barrel cottages and it was built in 1909. I believe them to be the earliest houses in that area except for Marthaville.

  • I believe that the 2 brick homes at 19 & 21 Chidgey Street Cessnock West were built during 1920 by brothers that operated a market garden which encompassed the whole area north of Wollombi Rd to Bellbird Creek, from Barrett Ave at the eastern side and west to what is now Wangi Ave.

    Michelle Earl
  • Cessnock police station underway with huge transformation.
    Sylvesters bakery 1919 – 2011, burnt and now only a memory. The smell of fresh bread and cakes no longer on the breeze.
    Jurds no longer occupies, but the Northumberland building still stands, so many pub corners.
    PCYC no longer occupies wollombi rd, the building has retainded its look, now neighbourcare. PCYC has relocated to the old Bonds Factory retaining some of its history, including the .”1929 White Rose boiler” 1B Short Street.

    What a fantastic page this is, will be using on my travels xx

  • John Campbell’s grant is variously stated on this site as 2560 and 1560 acres. It would be good to clarify this. I always thought it 2560 acres (being 4 Sq miles)

    Lindsay Threadgate
  • What street in Bellbird were the gun barrel homes ?

  • Have you included a history of Devil’s Rock in Yengo National Park? I have had a small plot there since 1984. My brother lives there now and we’ve frequently visited. Our history extends back to the St Alban’s area where ancestors were given grants by Lachlan Macquarie in the earlier 1800s.They were all emancipists at this stage and are buried in cemeterys and on their landholding. Surnames were Fernance, Biggers, Walters, Prosser and Bailey. My mother, Nita Bailey Hosking passed this information onto me. Stan Parkes’s wife was a Fernance descendant.

    Miss J.A.Hosking