Morpeth– Bygone Days Revisited
Words and photography by Mike Smith
The historic bridge at Morpeth in NSW
In its heyday in the 1800s, when paddle wheelers and steam ships used the Hunter River as a major arterial route for transporting fresh food from the farms to the remainder of the colony, the NSW town of Morpeth was a bustling port.
At the height of trade during those early colonial days, the town on the southern banks of the river had a population of up to 1700, a number big enough to warrant 18 pubs.
Such was its magnetism, brothers William and David Arnott set up an Arnott’s bakehouse there while James Taylor, a major merchant at this time, built a bond store.
In rapid time as the town flourished, Morpeth expanded with the building of the impressive St James’s Church from 1837 to 1840, the Greek revival-style Morpeth Court House (1861), the original Morpeth Post Office and the police station.
Sadly, its importance as a port dwindled over the years, almost to the point of becoming a ghost town. Gratefully, its stands today as a prime tourist attraction, its history and heritage as significant as the variety of stores, cafés and restaurants which call Morpeth home in 2020.
The number of public watering holes may have been greatly reduced but some of the 19th Century buildings – and a sprinkling of heritage sites – remain intact, preserved for us to explore.
Morpeth has a wealth of historic buildings and heritage sites
Long-time Morpeth identity Trevor Richards once summed up the character of the NSW Hunter town when he said if it was not for the decline of commercial interest during the tough years, we may have had a far different outcome.
“Morpeth almost became a ghost town” he told me. “Now it’s a quaint thriving village”.
“Many of the buildings were derelict for years which probably helped save them for preservation rather than demolition.”
Trevor is still very much a voice in the town as owner of the historic Campbell’s Store, one of the main must-see Morpeth attractions.
Morpeth may have become less significant commercially, but it remains protected as a virtual living museum – with a sprinkling of new businesses to keep the cash registers ticking over.
By taking a leisurely walk down the town’s Swan Street, I soon realise just how many buildings have been saved and lovingly restored with a fresh coat of paint.
As a reminder of its colonial past we also pass old hitching posts for horses. At one end is the 1898-built timber trestle Morpeth Bridge which continues to cater to heavy traffic.
Campbell’s Store is one of the must-see attractions
In the morning, the scent of bacon and eggs and freshly brewed coffee entices us to call in on one of the town’s most popular cafes, the contemporary Common Grounds.
We take a seat on the enclosed veranda overlooking the Hunter and the nearby historic Morpeth Bridge while owner Nadine Monaghan and her friendly team prepare a breakfast which includes potato rosti served with chorizo, ham off the bone, caramelised onion, tomato relish, roquette and poached egg, accompanied by orange juice and the mandatory cup of coffee or tea.
The café’s menu changes daily between breakfast and lunch, with a new addition to the luncheon list being the vegan option of Tofu San Choy Bow. But it is hard to pass up the chance to dine on such favourites as chilli lime calamari, pumpkin risotto and beer battered flathead.
By the time we finish breakfast, it is time to head off on a walk that takes us down narrow lanes and through some heritage-listed arcades and buildings now assigned to house businesses far different from the original use – a virtual living museum.
For example, the old Morpeth Post Office, built in 1881 and before being decommissioned in the 1990s was one of Australia’s longest continuing operated post offices, is now used as a veterinary hospital.
It remains a beautiful building with all the original cedar woodwork sourced from Morpeth flats, tallow wood floors and sandstone foundations, which came from Fig Tree Hill near the former St John’s College site.
Common Grounds, one of the town’s most popular cafes
Another must see building with a different purpose is the old Morpeth Courthouse, built in 1862 on land donated by Lieutenant Edward Close, the founder of Morpeth. The building was used as a courthouse and civic centre from 1862 until the importance of Morpeth as a commercial river port declined. With less need for its services, court proceedings ceased in 1942.
The building was used as a recruitment office during the World War II, a Red Cross station, baby health centre, a library, a residence and is now the town’s main museum, a perfect starting point for a heritage walk.
Another building synonymous with the town’s flourishing port days is the Campbell’s Store. Built by James Campbell more than 150 years ago, the store thrived through the rush of settlers and merchants.
Everyone from miles around travelled by steamship, horse-drawn cart, walked or rode to Campbell’s Store. Even founder James Campbell minted his own money to be used by patrons.
Campbell’s Store – open from Thursday till Sunday each week – presents a treasure trove of goodies, a virtual maze of items sold through 15 dealers.
Start of the heritage walk at Morpeth Bridge
Many consider the store as the main reason for visiting Morpeth, its appeal reaching guests of all ages and tastes. Almost everything from novelty teapots and children Golden Books to antique jewellery, war memorabilia and pre-decimal Australian currency is for sale.
With every step we make we spot items to rekindle our childhood, even from the childhood of our parents.
For the past 34 years, since owner Trevor Richards took over the ownership of the store, he has seen a swing towards patrons from overseas, keen on snaring a piece of Australiana to take home in the suitcase.
Behind the original store is the barn-like building which today houses the Morpeth Ginger Beer Factory and Gourmet Foods, Morpeth Gift Gallery and the first floor Morpeth Investment Art Gallery which has featured the works of some of Australia’s great artists, including highly renowned James Hough and some of his lifelike birds and wildlife paintings, and the colourful outback works of Australian iconic artist Max Mannix.
Head downstairs from the gallery, and you can prepare for a time-consuming shopping experience at this multi award-winning shop as you come across a cluster of Teddy Bears, jewellery, handbags, skin care products, jams and gourmet sauces and candy.
We find time to sample the tasty ginger beer, along with a selection of honey and fudge.
A few strides from the store, along narrow Green Street, is a new cellar door and restaurant where visitors can sample some Hunter wine without taking the 30-minite drive to the wine country.
Boydell’s Cellar Door and Restaurant is housed in a restored 1820-built slab and shingle cottage, the rustic wooden beams and corrugated iron reminders of a colonial past when pioneer Charles Boydell made his paddle steamer journeys from the township Paterson to Morpeth.
Morpeth Art Gallery features some of Australia’s great artists
The English-born settler and honorary magistrate was granted land along the Allyn River near Gresford, his name living on not only in the local history books but on the labels of the award-winning wine grown in the region.
Visit between Wednesday and Sunday, and you can either order bar eats as you sample renowned wine maker Liz Silkman’s whites and reds or book a table for lunch to pair the wines with seasonal local produce inside the restaurant or in the courtyard.
For a beverage of a different kind, the historic Commercial Hotel, across Swan Street from the historic Morpeth Bridge, is the River Port Brewing Company specialising in craft beer such as Big Hitter, in on honour of local boxing legend Les Darcy.
Drop in late afternoon on a winter’s day, and you can enjoy one of the brews kerb side or on the large balcony while taking in a spectacular Morpeth sunset.
MUST VISIT – A 10-minute drive from Morpeth, just off the New England Highway, is the Heritage Gardens Nursery where you can combine shopping for plants and outdoor decor with breakfast or lunch on the veranda of the cafe.
It’s a tranquil setting among the gnomes, floral arrangements and the birds, as you dine on such popular dishes as smashed avocado with the trimmings on sourdough bread and the soup of the day, pumpkin curry combo, much sought after in winter.
Olivia and Dwayne Bramble are a second generation of owners since the nursery – and its range of plants, pots, outdoor décor, and homewares – was established at Ashtonfield in 1984.
WHERE TO STAY – On the town’s Swan Street is a lovingly refurbished The Bronte Boutique Hotel, a five-star establishment housed in what was initially the 1822-built home and shop of Caleb Soul, of Soul Paterson Pharmacy fame.
Named after Lord Nelson, the Earl of Bronte, the hotel and its six inviting guestrooms has an overwhelming Victorian charm, the antiques of the era fused with Asian artefacts, the collection of a passionate and effervescent owner Clint Marquet who has added two self-contained contemporary apartments behind the whitewashed hotel.
Guests can enjoy a nightcap in the cosy downstairs lounge, again decorated with antique furnishings while breakfast is served daily on the upstairs balcony overlooking Swan Street – a beautiful setting to the start of a day in Morpeth.
Across the street is the 19th Century Arnotts Historic Bakehouse, where owners Alison and Stephen Arnott have converted the former bakery – once a restaurant as well – into three heritage suites aptly named after biscuit varieties – the upstairs Monte Carlo Penthouse, the street level VoVo Suite and the adjacent SAO studio.
The newly-named The William Arnott Hotel honours the founder of Arnotts Biscuits who along with brother David opened the bakery in Morpeth in 1861 before moving to Newcastle. Stephen’s is the great-great-great grandchild and hosts sourdough making classes on appointment. Details: www.historicarnottbakehouse.com.au
HOLIDAY INFORMATION – Maitland Tourism: www.mymaitland.com.au