Walsh Island Aerodrome

My August 2019 article for “The Local” is now out, this month on the crash of a DC47 aircraft at the District Park aerodrome in August 1944. In researching the article I was intrigued to discover that for a brief period in the 1930s there was an aerodrome on Walsh Island, in the northern part of Newcastle Harbour.

Walsh Island no longer exists as a separate island. With extensive land reclamation over the years, it is now part of Kooragang Island. The name however is retained in Walsh Point at the southern tip of Kooragang Island.

The outline of Walsh Island as it was in 1913, superimposed over a Google Earth image.

The location of Walsh Island was originally a collection of small low islands amidst shallow sand and mud banks in the north arm of the Hunter River. Major T. S. Parrot’s 1893 map shows Goat Island and a pair of adjacent islands evocatively named the Spectacle Islands. The future shape of Walsh Island can be seen in this map in the outline of the mud flats around these small islands.

Parrott’s 1893 map shows the Spectacle Islands where Walsh Island will later be created. National Library of Australia.

In 1898 a number of harbour improvements were instigated in Newcastle by the Harbours and Rivers Department. The Daily Telegraph on 17 March 1898 reported that construction of the northern break-wall at Stockton had commenced under the direction of Mr. H. D. Walsh the resident engineer, and that …

Another work which will be put in hand almost immediately is the erection of the training wall round the mud flat in the north harbor, euphoniously called — in anticipation — Walsh’s Island.

On 28 June 1898 the Newcastle Morning Herald noted that …

The reclamation of the sand-flat known as Walsh’s Island, in the upper portion of the north harbour, is being proceeded with, and a wall is now being built up around the edges by tipping stone, at the rate of 100 tons daily.

After the formation of Walsh Island was completed, nothing was done with it. In 1906 some were arguing that it had been a mistake to put the island there, and in 1907 the J and A Brown Company were suggesting that “the best thing to do with Walsh Island was to remove it altogether.

Walsh Island and the dredge “Castor” Newcastle, NSW, 5 May 1901. University of Newcastle, Cultural Collections.

Corporal Barrett’s map of Newcastle shows that in 1910 the southern part of Walsh Island had been constructed, but was devoid of any buildings or industry. The island is marked as being “8 feet above high water mark” and bounded on the left and right by a “low stone wall”.

Walsh Island on Barrett’s 1910 map. University of Newcastle, Cultural Collections.

In September 1912, Mr Griffiths, the State Minister for Works, announced that a new Government Dockyards and Engineering Works would be constructed on Walsh Island. The ceremonial laying of the foundation stone for the new works was performed on 14 June 1913, and the official opening took place on Friday 27 November 1914. At that time the Dockyards and Workshops employed a 1000 men. By 1920 the workforce had expanded to 2500 skilled artisans.

The first recorded use of Walsh Island for aviation occurred on 21 August 1920, when the island had an unexpected visitor from the skies. Lieutenant Raymond Parer and Lieutenant John McIntosh were flying from Brisbane to Sydney, on one of the last legs in their epic seven month problem plagued journey from England to Australia. Facing an unexpected headwind for most of their flight down the coast, they ran low on fuel and needed to land in Newcastle. After making three attempts to land at the old Newcastle racecourse, they determined that it looked to be too bumpy, and after scouting around for other landing sites, eventually touched down on the sands of Walsh Island. They spent the night on the island resting in the home of Mr Cutler (manager of the dockyards), and resumed their journey to Sydney’s Mascot airport the next afternoon.

The impromptu landing of Parer and McIntosh directed attention to the need for “an acceptable aerodrome in this city.” Opinions were divided as to whether a new aerodrome should be situated on Walsh Island or in Broadmeadow. In October 1923 the Government gazetted 52 acres of District Park in Broadmeadow for aviation purposes. Despite the official gazetting, little was done to develop the Broadmeadow site.

On 29 January 1929, Squadron-Leader Charles Kingsford Smith landed his Southern Cross plane at District Park and spent the day inspecting areas in Newcastle suggested as aerodrome sites.

Interviewed a few minutes before his departure, the famous aviator had no hesitation in saying that he favoured Walsh Island as an aerodrome site in preference to those he had inspected at Hexham and Redhead. If an aerodrome were constructed there, a fleet of fast motor launches could be commissioned to run in conjunction with the proposed air service, and would cover the distance separating Walsh Island from the mainland in about seven minutes.

Kingsford-Smith’s endorsement carried weight, for by May 1929 an aerodrome was being constructed on the island.

Levelling dredged sand on Walsh Island, 17 May 1929. University of Newcastle, Cultural Collections.

On 23 May 1929, Captain E. C. Johnson, superintendent of aerodromes for the Civil Aviation Department inspected the construction site, and declared that “Walsh Island is an ideal site and will make an excellent aerodrome” and “that judging by the progress made by the Works Department, in levelling the site, it would be ready within six months.” Flight Lieutenant Ulm of Australian National Airways visited Newcastle on 14 June 1929 and landed his DeHaviland Moth aircraft on Walsh Island to inspect the aerodrome preparations. The Daily Telegraph reported that ….

Lieutenant Ulm spoke in terms of the highest praise of the work already done at the aerodrome. When the service is in full operation the Australian National Airways proposes to erect a hangar at Walsh Island.

Captain Ulm after landing on Walsh Island, 14 June 1929. University of Newcastle, Cultural Collections.

In August 1929 the Newcastle Morning Herald reported that …

The work of making ready the site for Newcastle’s aerodrome at Walsh Island is progressing satisfactorily. Three dredges are being kept busy at Walsh Island, and the material they are lifting from the river bed is being deposited on the aerodrome site. It should not be long now before the ground is ready.

A photograph in the National Library of Australia captioned as circa 1930 shows that the area planned for the Civil Aviation airfield is still under construction, with reclamation of the land from river dredging still in progress. On the middle right hand side of the photo there is wide dark straight line which I suspect may be one of the aerodrome runways under construction.

Aerial view of Walsh Island state dockyard and engineering works, Newcastle, New South Wales, ca. 1930. National Library of Australia

Two separate but adjacent airfields were proposed for the island – a smaller airfield to be used by the recently formed Newcastle Aero Club, and a larger airfield to be used for civil aviation.

Illustration from the Newcastle Sun, 15 August 1929, showing the location of the two proposed airfields on Walsh Island – the Aero Club field and the Civil Aviation field.

Although the land reclamation and levelling was performed by the Department of Works, the construction of the aerodrome was also enthusiastically and financially supported by the Government Dockyard. In August 1929, the Newcastle Aero Club in a letter to Colonel Brinsmead, Comptroller of Civil Aviation, wrote …

Dockyard authorities have been engaged assiduously in the preparation of the proposed aerodrome … Arrangements have been made for the construction by the dockyard authorities, of suitable hangar accommodation, and the dockyard is in a position to do so, and is most anxious to carry out all necessary repairs and will cooperate with the club in every way possible.

Construction of the aerodrome runways proceeded during 1929, and by late August it was reported that “one run-way has been practically completed.” A 30 November 1929 report noted that …

An aerodrome has been established on Walsh Island, embracing three runways, each 160ft wide and approximately 2500ft long, situated in the direction of the prevailing winds, enabling ‘planes to land in any direction on the site

With completion of the aerodrome imminent, Australian National Airways announced in September 1929 that …

Before 1929 has run its course, giant triple-engined ‘planes will be roaring over the aerial highway in a regular passenger service between Sydney and Brisbane, with Newcastle as an important port of call en route. Boarding the air liner at Walsh Island, Newcastle passengers booked for Sydney will land at Mascot aerodrome after an hour’s flight. The fare, probably, will be £2.

The airline’s dreams of a passenger service from Walsh Island proved to be premature. Just three months later in December 1929, their plans to use the aerodrome were in doubt …

Mr. M. C. Reid, of Newcastle, who is a director of the company [Australian National Airways], said that the area which would be available when the air service was commenced in January might not be considered sufficient to permit the giant air liners to alight and take off in perfect safety.

Despite the setback with regard to passenger traffic, the Newcastle Aero Club persisted with their plans. In March 1930, at a meeting to present their first annual report to members, the club’s committee noted that the aerodrome “is now fit to be licensed as a training ground” and that they had “asked the Civil Aviation Department to send an inspector to examine the Walsh Island Aerodrome.” Captain Burgess, NSW District Superintendent of the Civil Aviation Department, inspected both the District Park (Broadmeadow) and the Walsh Island aerodromes on 11 July 1930.

When interviewed, Captain Burgess would not commit himself, but is understood to have been of the opinion that the District Park site could be made suitable for an aerodrome if £3000 or £4000 were spent on improving it, but not otherwise; nor would the Walsh Island site be licensed unless improvements, costing at least as much, were made.

For the next two years, arguments were made for and against establishing Newcastle’s aerodrome at Walsh Island or District Park. Despite the fact that “some thousands of pounds were spent on preparatory work at Walsh Island”, the expenditure “was wasted, the site being abandoned”. The location of an aerodrome for Newcastle was effectively settled in August 1932 when the Department of Lands ruled in favour of the District Park site. The Department wrote to the chairman of the District Park Trust (Alderman Jenner) …

The matter of the establishment of an aerodrome at District Park has been given further consideration, and in view or the heavy costs to establish an aerodrome at Walsh Island as an alternative to the District Park site, it has been decided to allow the reservation [in District Park] for the joint purposes of public recreation and aviation.

The other factor in 1932 that doomed the Walsh Island aerodrome was the fate of the Government Dockyard. From the very beginning in 1929, the dockyard had been an avid supporter of the aerodrome project. Unfortunately the dockyard’s enthusiasm was not matched by the NSW Auditor-General, who in his report in December 1930 “found fault with the aerodrome expenditure without authority”, stating that …

… in my opinion, the surplus on the year’s trading was understated, by reason of certain capital expenditure, estimated by the General Manager at £5000, incurred in the preparation of an aerodrome site, having been incorrectly charged as “workshop expenses.”

This creative accounting led to personal consequences for the manager. In January 1932, with the dockyard’s profitability plummeting and a general dissatisfaction with the manager’s performance, the Government announced that …

… Mr. A. C. Waters (general manager of the State Government Dockyards at Newcastle) had received notice that his services would not be required after January 8 … Little has been made public concerning the inquiry into the administration of Walsh Island. It is understood, however, that the expenditure incurred in the attempt to create a Walsh Island aerodrome is one basis of the criticisms offered against Mr. Waters.

In the midst of the economic depression, the dockyard’s financial position became dire, and on 18 January 1933, the NSW Minister for Works (Mr Weaver) announced that the dockyards would be closed. The workforce was then progressively laid off as the remaining orders were completed. On 4 Jul 1933 it was reported that ..

The Government Dockyard at Walsh Island is at present working on its last job, and the workshop will then be closed down. Engineers who have had a look at the place recently state that it is being completely dismantled, and there is not much valuable machinery there now.

With the closure of the dockyard and engineering workshops, the island was once again practically deserted. The once grand plans of a Walsh Island aerodrome were now dead in the water. In the ensuing years there were occasional suggestions (March 1936, December 1940, May 1950) that the Walsh Island aerodrome could be be completed, but no action was taken.

In 1950 the industrial future of Walsh Island was re-launched by the State Government, with the Newcastle Morning Herald reporting on 30 March 1950 that …

The exchange of land between the Crown and the Broken Hill Pty. Co. Ltd., proposed in the bill before State Parliament, is regarded by industrialists as the first major step in the reclamation of 6500 acres of Hunter River delta islands for industrial expansion.

The reclamation of land, “requiring more than 750,000 tons of harbour silt” commenced in January 1951. Eastern Nitrogen (now Incitec) subsequently established a fertiliser production plant on the site of Walsh Island in 1968.

The re-touched photograph

An undated aerial photograph on the Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association website shows the two adjacent airfields, each with three runways arranged in a triangular pattern. Don Phillips who worked on Walsh Island in the 1940s, in an interview in the Newcastle Herald on 14 September 2018 thinks this is a ‘re-touched’ photo. I agree with him, as the runways here are too crisp and clean in comparison with the rest of the photo, and there is no evidence of any adjoining infrastructure such as roads or hangars. Also the pale colour of the runways and their perfect symmetry is in contradiction to the 1 August 1936 newspaper report that the runways had a “tarred surface” and that “the work was never completed.”

The Aero Club and Civil Aviation airfields to the north of the Government Dockyard facilities on Walsh Island. Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association.

Newspaper articles

Article Date Event DateNotes
17 Mar 1898"Another work which will be put in hand almost immediately is the erection of the training wall round the mud flat in the north harbor, euphoniously called - in anticipation - Walsh's Island."
28 Jun 1898"The reclamation of the sand-flat known as Walsh's Island, in the upper portion of the north harbour, is being proceeded with, and a wall is now being built up around the edges by tipping stone, at the rate of 100 tons daily."
18 Jun 1906"Ten years ago an island was built up in the North Harbour, and its usefulness has ever since been a source of discussion. There are many who hold that it was a mistake to put the island there, claiming, as they do, that there is not sufficient water accommodation."
12 Jun 1907"Mr. R. B. Hogue, manager for Messrs. J. and A, Brown, said he thought the best thing to do with Walsh Island was to remove it altogether."
21 Sep 1912Mr. Griffiith, the State Minister for Works informs the local M.P. Mr Grahame "that it had been definitely decided to establish the new Government works at Newcastle on Walsh Island."
16 Jun 1913
14 Jun 1913
"The laying of the foundation stone of the new workshops of the State Government … took place on Saturday last.
28 Nov 1914
27 Nov 1914
The official opening of the State Government Dockyards at Walsh Island.
25 Jun 1920The Prince of Wales launches the "Enoggera" at the Walsh Island dockyards, which now employs 2500 workmen.
23 Aug 1920
21 Aug 1920
Lieutenants Parer and McIntosh while on a flight from Brisbane to Sydney, elect to land on Walsh Island, after running low on fuel.
23 Aug 1920Lieutenant Parer and Lieutenant McIntosh, on one of their last legs in a seven month flight from England, are forced to land on Walsh Island. They originally made three attempts to land at the old racecourse "but no landing was effected, the reason, as Lieutenant Parer afterwards explained, being that the ground looked too bumpy, and there was risk from the fences."
23 Aug 1920"The landing of Lieutenants Parer and McIntosh at Walsh Island on Saturday directs fresh attention to the failure to provide an acceptable aerodrome site in this city. Almost every week, one or more airmen visit Newcastle, and have accustomed themselves to the inadequate accommodation to be found on the old racecourse. The City Council may reasonably be asked to seriously consider, the selection of a site which will not have to be passed over by world-famed airmen; because it Is 'too small and too bumpy.' "
30 Jan 1929
29 Jan 1929
Charles Kingsford Smoth inspects areas in Newcastle suggested as aerodrome sites. "Interviewed a few minutes before his departure, the famous aviator had no hesitation in saying that he favoured Walsh Island as an aerodrome site in preference to those he had inspected at Hexham and Redhead."
8 May 1929"Newcastle's aerodrome, under construction at Walsh Island, will be inspected next week by the supervisor of aerodromes (Captain E. C. Johnston) of the Civil Aviation Department."
23 May 1929"'Walsh Island is an ideal site and will make an excellent aerodrome,' said the superintendent of aerodromes (Captain Johnston) this afternoon, after an inspection of the 'drome there. He added that judging by the progress made by the Works Department, in levelling the site, it would be ready within six months."
14 Jun 1929"Flight-Lieutenant Ulm, accompanied by Mrs Ulm, flew from Sydney to Newcastle to-day to inspect the site of the aerodrome at Walsh Island, which is to be used in the Sydney-Brisbane air mail service."
6 Sep 1929Mr. Mark Reid, Director of Australian National Airways, Ltd announces that "before 1929 has run its course, giant triple-engined 'planes will be roaring over the aerial highway in a regular passenger service between Sydney and Brisbane, with Newcastle [Walsh Island] as an important port of call en route."
5 Dec 1929"Doubt has arisen as to whether Newcastle will be a port of call for the big triple-engined 'planes of the air mail line between Sydney and Brisbane, as was originally intended."
"Australian National Airways Ltd had planned to use the Walsh Island aerodrome as their Newcastle base ... the area which would be available when the air service was commenced in January might not be considered sufficient to permit the giant air liners to alight and take off in perfect safety."
29 Aug 1930"After months of investigation only two sites were found in Newcastle [for an aerodrome]. One was at Walsh Island and the other at District Park. The Walsh Island area has everything in its favor except that it is difficult of access. It takes only about 45 minutes to fly from Sydney to Newcastle, but it would take more than the flying time to get by launch and road from Walsh island to the city."
9 Dec 1930"The Auditor-General has some interesting observations to make concerning the Government Dockyard, Newcastle. He finds fault with the aerodrome expenditure without authority … estimated by the General Manager at £5000, incurred in the preparation of an aerodrome site, having been incorrectly charged as 'workshop expenses'."
21 Mar 1931"Several efforts have been made to establish an aerodrome at Newcastle, and there has been just as many set-backs. Some thousands of pounds were spent on preparatory work at Walsh Island, but it was wasted, the site being abandoned."
7 Jan 1932The General Manager of the Government Dockyards (Mr. A. C. Waters) dismissed. One factor in his dismissal was the unauthorised expenditure on the Walsh Island aerodrome.
18 Jan 1933The Minister for Works (Mr Weaver) announces that "when present orders are completed, within a few months time, the Government Dockyard, at Walsh Island, Newcastle, will be closed down."
19 Jan 1933"The Minister for Works (Mr. R. W. D. Weaver) stated to-night that on account of the continued financial loss in the operation of Walsh Island … that, with the exception of a small staff, which will be retained to carry out Government work, the services of all other employees will be dispensed with."
4 Jul 1933"The Government Dockyard at Walsh Island is at present working on its last job, and the workshop will then be closed down."
5 Aug 1933"The big dockyard at Walsh Island, which closed down some time ago, is being sold piecemeal. Only a workshop will be retained to handle minor repairs."
1 Aug 1936On Walsh Island … "before the engineering shops were closed, a considerable sum was spent on laying down a large area of tarred surface, which was intended for use as an aeroplane runway. The work was never completed, but it was carried so far that some time later several aeroplanes were able to make use of what surfacing had been carried out."

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