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Morpeth, NSW

Historic river port on the banks of the Hunter River.

Morpeth is an historic inland port on the southern banks of the Hunter River. It is a town of surpassing loveliness with a beautiful riverside setting and an authentic historic ambience produced by the honey-coloured stonework of its many old buildings and the genuine charm of its main street, Swan Street. It is a tourist town with genuine charm, lots of chic shops and a good supply of cafes, coffee shops and restaurants. It is easy to spend a day in this delightful town just mooching and soaking up the atmosphere.

Location

Morpeth is located on the banks of the Hunter River 172 km north of Sydney, 35 km north-west of Newcastle and 14 km east of Maitland. 

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Origin of Name

To the local Gringgai clan of the Wanaruah Aboriginal people the area was known as "Illalaung". When Europeans sold allotments of land in 1834 a private town was established which took the name Morpeth from a town north of Newcastle upon Tyne in Northumberland, England. 

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Things to See and Do

Heritage Walk Morpeth
The Heritage Walk Morpeth brochure (a single A4 sheet) lists a total of 25 places of interest all of which are on Swan Street and the High Street. It can be downloaded at http://www.itmustbemorpeth.com.au/Resources/Documents/morpethhertiagewalk_2013.pdf or it can be obtained at the Maitland Visitor Centre. It is a very easy walk around the town and an opportunity to experience the rich heritage of this beautifully preserved river port.

1. The Commercial Hotel
Located at 127 Swan Street the Commercial Hotel replaced the Farmers Union Home Hotel which operated on this site from 1865.

2. Taylors Bond Store
Located at 130 Swan Street, Taylors Bond Store started life as the CBC Bank. It was built in 1850 and is an impressive sandstone building situated opposite the Classical Revival Court House. 

3. Morpeth Court House
Located at 123-125 Swan Street the Classical Revival Court House was completed in 1862 and features round-headed windows, channelled stone, pilasters, architrave and pediment. It now serves as a local history museum. The Museums & Galleries of NSW website points out "The fascinating history of the area is represented in the courthouse ... together with the gallery of 'The Morpeth River Boats' photographs and models. Do you remember 'OAK' milkshakes, and Arnott’s biscuits? See how they started in Morpeth along with other industries." It is open Thursday to Sunday from 11.00 am - 2.00 pm, tel: (02) 4934 4301.

4. Duncan Sim Foundry
Located at 107-109 Swan Street is the Duncan Sim Foundry which operated on this site from the 1850s through to 1926. At one time there were 60 men working on the site making iron lace, columns, agricultural machinery and domestic appliances.

5. Morpeth Post and Telegraph Office
Located at 105 Swan Street, the Morpeth Post and Telegraph Office was opened in 1881. The post office had been operating out of the Court House since the 1860s

6. William Styman - Baker
Located at 99 Swan Street, all that is left is a sandstone plinth reminding people that from the 1860s through to 1917 this was the shop of William Styman, the local baker.

7. River Royal Hotel
Located at 97 Swan Street, the Royal Hotel was opened in 1876 and primarily catered for railway workers and passengers arriving at both the railway station and the wharves on the Hunter River.

8. Morpeth Railway Station
Located at 90 Swan Street the old railway station, built in 1889, is a symmetrical design with, on either side, a room projecting from the main body, ending in a bay window beneath a gable topped by a finial. These two wings are linked by a veranda with columns. The line from East Maitland opened in 1864, when the terminus was under Fig Tree Hill. It was gradually extended to the various wharves along the river. The line closed in 1953 after flood damage although the postwar development of the road system had rendered it largely obsolete. The platform is on the far side.

9. Morpeth Trading Post
Located at 7 Robert Street, the Morpeth Trading Post was originally the J.G. White Joinery which operated continuously from 1838-1968, making it the oldest surviving joinery works building and the longest-running family business in Australia. 
A notice inside claims that the well in the building was bored through solid rock to a depth of 23 m where it taps into a natural spring which is still running. This was the town's first water supply, being dug around 1818, presumably by one of the earliest farmers who were in the district by 1814. The water supply served the joinery for many years and was rediscovered during restoration in the 1980s.

10. Marlborough House
Located at 73-75 Swan Street is Marlborough House. It was built by James and Mary Taylor in 1846. Classical columns rest on a flagged stone veranda. The house has iron and stone fencing and a well-established garden. 

11. Workers Cottages
Located at 69 Swan Street are single storey worker's cottages which were built in the mid-19th century and designed to be used by the workers who were employed by the railway or on the docks.

12. Morpeth Police Station
Located at High Street and George Street, the Morpeth Police Station (1879) is a symmetrical and finely detailed brick building designed by famous colonial architect, James Barnet, with arcaded verandas (it has seven distinctive arches), quoins, hipped roof, and arched windows with timber tracery. 

13. Morpeth Public School
Located at 36-46 High Street is the Morpeth Public School which was built in 1866 and replaced six private schools which predated it. The original brick building is still in use. It is characterised by multi-paned windows and is painted green. 

14. Methodist Parsonage
Located at 41 High Street the impressive two-storey Methodist parsonage which dates from the 1840s with intricate cast-iron lacework, hipped roof, arched doorway and shuttered, multi-paned windows. It became a private residence in the 1970s. 

15. Earlsdon
Located at 76 High Street, this was the home of John Portus who established the district's first flour mill. 

16. Sim's Cottages
Located at 78-80 High Street, here are two interesting examples of substantial workers cottages which were built for workers from the Sims Foundry. The lacework and the elaborate pillars on the verandas are examples of the work done at the foundry.

17. Astor Theatre
Located at 85 High Street, the Astor Theatre (now in a state of disrepair) was once a church and a school. When it became a theatre in the 1920s it was the local picture palace. It operated continuously as a picture theatre from 1921-1964.

18. Murphy's House
Located at 106-108 High Street, this substantial two unit residence with handsome pillars and ironwork was built by a Mr Murphy who was a local hotelier and contractor. He rented the houses to local businesspeople.

19. Morpeth School of Arts
Located at 110 High Street is the old School of Arts building with typically massive pillars supporting the architrave and pediment . It dates from 1862 when it had a library, reading room, and a hall and stage for cultural activities. The Morpeth council, formed in 1865, met here for the first time in 1866 and continued to use the building until 1944. 

20. St James Anglican Church
Located at Tank Street is St James Parish Hall, built in 1845 and once used as a schoolhouse. To the left is St James Anglican Church. The rectory dates from 1843. The church is said to represent the fulfilment of a vow made by Edward Close at the Battle of Albuera in 1811, during the Peninsular War, that he would build a house of worship if his life were spared. The foundation stone was laid in 1837 and the initial design was presumably Close's. It was consecrated in 1840. Only the tower remains of the original building. There is a memorial window to Close in the eastern wing, commissioned and funded in 1872 by the community in recognition of his services and largesse.
Noted architect Edmund Blacket was employed in 1862 to extend the east end by the addition of a chancel and sanctuary. He inserted new cedar pews which still remain and he designed both a distinguished font and a stone pulpit. The latter, beautifully carved by D. Yeates of Maitland, is an exact replica of a pulpit built in 1280 for a Cistercian Abbey which had since become Beaulieu Parish Church where Bishop Tyrrell, who funded the extensions, had been rector. 
In 1874 J. Horbury Hunt, noted colonial architect, was commissioned to rebuild the nave after a fire. Under instructions to alter the character of the building as little as possible his major contribution is a fine and beautifully crafted hammer beam roof. Thus the tower was designed by Close, the chancel by Blacket and the nave by Hunt. And yet the building has a unified feel. The organ inside was built in 1877. Edward Close and John Howe, the leader of the first overland expedition into the Hunter, are buried in the cemetery.

21. Campbell's Store
Located at 175 Swan Street, Campbells Store is a large symmetrical gabled building built of locally quarried sandstone and brick (c.1850) with flagged sandstone paving and timber posts supporting an awning. Once noted for its haberdashery it drew clientele from far afield. 

22. Surgeon's House
Located at 171-173 Swan Street the Surgeons Cottage, a smaller sandstone building with hipped roof, decorative cast-iron columns and a sandstone veranda was built for Elizabeth Hillier and her husband, a Dr Francis Bennett, around 1850. 

23. Ingall's Terrace
Located at 153-163 Swan Street are a series of terrace houses opened in 1862. They have been prominent shops for over one hundred years.

24. CBC Bank
Located at 149 Swan Street, the elaborate CBC Bank building (1889) was designed by the Mansfield brothers. It has a particularly impressive interior, featuring Italian fireplaces, porcelain servants' bells, red cedar woodwork, a fine staircase, quality panelling and original bank fittings including a huge cedar counter, ledger desk and cupboard. There is also an old vault, an underground well, a roof tank installed to improve water pressure and, at the rear of the building, the sandstone coach house, stables and loft. The exterior has a impressive arched entranceway and arched windows. 

25. Arnott Bakehouse
Located at 148 Swan Street, the historic Arnott Bakehouse, now known as Morpeth Sourdough, is the "original c.1851 bakehouse where William Arnott, the biscuit entrepreneur and his brother David, baked bread and ship’s biscuits in the 1860’s." It is now owned by Stephen and Allison Arnott. Stephen is the great-great-great grandson of William Arnott and is following in his footsteps by producing sourdough bread for the township of Morpeth. He distributes his authentic sourdough throughout New South Wales. Stephen is not connected with the current owners of Arnott’s Biscuits - the Campbell Soup Co.(USA). There is extensive information at http://www.historicarnottbakehouse.com.au.

Queens Wharf and Tank Street
On the river side of Swan Street, opposite Tank Street, is Queens Wharf Road and the original wharf area where passengers and goods boarded steamers heading down river for Paterson, Maitland, Newcastle and Sydney. A punt service once operated across the river to Phoenix Park. Tank Street was named after the Bishop's tank which was used to water the gardens of Closebourne House.

The Bridge Across The Hunter
The bridge over the Hunter River was started in 1896 and completed in 1898. It was designed by Percy Allan and built by Samuel McGill for £8,855. The local website (http://www.itmustbemorpeth.com.au/Heritage/Morpeth-Bridge.aspx) explains it technically: "It is an Allan type overhead braced timber truss road bridge. It has three main truss spans, each 33.6m (110ft) long, and 16 timber girder approach spans on the northern side, each 10.7m (35ft) long. The overhead bracing places a height restriction on vehicles using the bridge of 4.5m. The two inner supports of the truss spans are pairs of iron cylinders filled with concrete. Timber trestles support the approach spans. There are two traffic lanes on the bridge with a minimum carriageway width of 5.5m." On the Swan Street side of the bridge is the small, attractive garden known as Illalong Park.

Kia-Ora Villa
On the corner of High Street and Edward Street is Kia-Ora Villa, built for Mayor John Hogan in 1879 and later owned by Joe White of J.G. White Joinery. The governor of the colony and other VIPs are known to have stayed here whilst in Morpeth. The gardens are impressive. The twin gables at the front are stylishly rendered with finely carved timber barge boards and a graceful finial. The bull nose veranda features decorative iron columns and ornate cast-iron lacework. The pressed metal ceilings were an early trial model by Wunderlich. Today it is a country house retreat which can be booked. Check out http://thevilla.net.au/ for details.

Morpeth Common and Ray Lawler Reserve
Over the road from the Villa is Morpeth Common and Wildfowl Reserve, granted to the village by Lieutenant Close to be an antipodean replica of the English village common. The Maitland Area Birding Route brochure (https://www.hboc.org.au/wp-content/uploads/Maitland_BirdRoute__webversion.pdf) explains: "This picturesque park is located off Edward Street Morpeth. Its manicured lawns and small ponds are home to a surprising number of species and over the years 115 species have been recorded. Common species include Figbird, Olive-backed Oriole, Blue-faced and Striped Honeyeater, parrots, Yellowrumped Thornbill and Nankeen Night-Heron. Eastern Koel, White-winged Triller, Leaden Flycatcher and Rainbow Bee-eater are regular summer visitors, whilst White-naped Honeyeater, Rose Robin and Silvereye are present during the colder months. Rarities include Black Falcon, Whiteheaded and Topknot Pigeon, Baillon’s Crake, Buff-banded Rail, Flame Robin, Regent Bowerbird and Plumed Whistling-Duck. There are picnic facilities, toilets and a play ground."

Roman Catholic Precinct
Bounded by James Street, Princess Street, Duke Street and George Street, the Roman Catholic Precinct comprises St Bede's church which was built in 1870 to replace the original wooden church (1836). St Bede's became the parish school when the next church opened and it is now the Catholic Hall. On James Street is the residence known as "Rosemor" built in 1885 as the Catholic presbytery and at the corner of James and George Streets is the Church of the Immaculate Conception, built in 1897 with an arched lancet motif. The old building between the two churches was formerly a convent with the old cells still intact upstairs and the section facing the new church serving as the convent's chapel. 

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Other Attractions in the Area

Largs Public School
The Largs Public School is located on the edge of Largs in the grounds of the Largs Public School. Established in 1838 it is the oldest public school in New South Wales and in Australia. It officially became a Public School in 1849. Within the school grounds (in John Street) is the Largs Bush School, an early colonial slab hut which contains historical documents as well as desks, ink wells and an old cane. It is open to the public during school hours but you must contact  tel: (02) 4930 1888. The sign outside reads: "This slab hut was built originally as a tenant farmers home sometime in the 1830s when the land was part of the Dunmore Lang estate. It stood about 100 metres south east of its present position and was lived in continuously until the 1940s. In 1978 it was relocated."

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History

* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the Morpeth area was occupied by the Gringgai clan of the Wanaruah Aboriginal peoples. They called the district 'Illalaung'. 

* The first Europeans in the area were the party of Lieutenant Colonel Paterson who explored the Hunter River in 1801.

* The land was granted in 1821 to Lieutenant Edward Close, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, as a reward for service as Engineer of Public Works at Newcastle. 

* Close built Closebourne House around 1826. 

* A bridge over Wallis Creek was erected in 1827. 

* The years from 1827-1830 saw a town, known at the time as Green Hills, develop as a river port. 

* In 1831 the first paddlesteamer (the Sophia Jane) reached the port. 

* In 1832 the first proper wharf was erected and the town's first two inns were licensed. 

* Morpeth became the major port of the Hunter Valley between 1832 and 1890 with a regular steamer service operating to Maitland, up to Paterson and down to Newcastle.

* A road to Maitland was built by convict labour in 1833. 

* Lieutenant Close subdivided the land and sold the first batch of allotments in 1834. A private town was established which took the name Morpeth. 

* Lieutenant Close set up the first school in 1836. That year Anglican and Catholic services were held in the town. 

* A Catholic Church was built in 1836. 

* The foundation stone of St James' Church was laid in 1837. 

* The first post office opened in 1838. 

* A steam mill was built in 1840. 

* A soap works was opened in 1844. 

* In the 1840s Caleb Soul, of Soul-Pattison pharmaceuticals, manufactured talcum powder and William Arnott, later of Arnott's biscuits, had a bakery in Swan Street. 

* Closebourne House became the residence of the Bishops of Newcastle from 1848 to 1912.

* The first national school opened in 1862.

* In 1862 the population of the town reached 1,830.

* An extension of the Great Northern Railway reached the outskirts of town in 1864.  

* By 1866 there were ten hotels in the town. That year the town became a municipality.

* In 1867 the council called for tenders for 2,000 yards of kerbstones and 8,000 yards of gutter stones.

* By 1870 the river had begun to silt up. 

* The completion of the rail link between Newcastle and Sydney in 1889 effectively destroyed the river trade and the fortunes of Morpeth. 

* Morpeth was formally amalgamated into the City of Maitland in 1969. 

* The town re-emerged in the late 1980s as a tourist attraction with beautifully preserved shops and cafes.

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Visitor Information

Information about Morpeth can be obtained at the Maitland Visitor Information Centre, Ministers Park, 258 New England Highway and High Street, tel: (02) 4931 2800. 

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Useful Websites

There is a very useful local website with detailed information about dining and accommodation. Check out http://www.itmustbemorpeth.com.au.

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  • William Thomas Cook Morpeth Died 1882 buried in Church yard.
    Was on the H.MS. Victory and Boy to Lord Horatio Nelson.

    gggranddaughter Audrey Joy Burns