University of Newcastle Library guides

Mayfield website:  John Laurio Platt

The Mayfield Website was created in 1995 to provide primary historical source materials such as early printed accounts, pioneer letters, oral history transcriptions, photographs, maps and plans on the little known history of the Newcastle, NSW suburb.

Mayfield website

John Laurio Platt (1782-1836)

The land that Mayfield now rests upon formed part of a land grant of 2000 acres made to John Laurio Platt, who was one of the first free settlers to the region. He built his homestead on Ironbark Hill, which is now the Steel River site, formerly the location of the Murray-Dwyer Orphanage.

John Laurio Platt was born in 1782 in Nottingham England. In October of 1801 he joined the navy. In 1814 he retired and was appointed Harbour Master at Heligoland. On the 23rd December 1815 he married Rosanne Dutton and in 1821 embark ed on the ship “Providence” to Australia.

His letter of Introduction to the Governor, Sir Thomas Brisbane:

“This letter will be delivered to you by Mr John Platt who proceeds with his family to settle in New South Wales and proposes to erect sawmills and other machinery in the Colony. As Mr Platt has been for some years past employed under this Department on the Lakes in Canada, and as Harbour Master at Heligoland, and he has served not only with credit to himself but with advantage to the British Service, I have been directed by Lord Bathurst to introduce him more particularly to your notice and protection as having claims beyond those of an ordinary settler. Feb. 13th, 1821.”

The Providence arrived January 7th 1822, Platt was granted 2000 acres in the County of Northumberland on August 21st 1822. By 1823 Platt was occupying his land and chosen Ironbark Hill. He was unable to get his sawmill working and so was forced to use it as a flour mill for the grinding of wheat. This was due to a lack of assigned millrights who knew what to do with a sawmill.

In December 1831, tragedy struck when two of his young boys, while chasing bandicoots were consumed by a bush fire and killed. They were found by Constable Hewson and brought back to the homestead on Ironbark Hill. They were later buried at Christ Church Cathedral Cemetery. The family collapsed in on itself and by 1836 Platt and his wife were dead.

The remaining seven children were adopted by E.C.Close, a friend of Platt’s and went to live in Morpeth. The eldest son remained on Ironbark Hill until the land was sold to the Australian Agricultural Company in 1839.

Sophia Campbell Painting  courtesy of National Library Images1 Database

Painting by Sophia Campbell of what could possibly be Platt’s Farm circa 1829.
Courtesy Picture Australia

Note the mill at the extreme right, the Spit Island and Platt’s Channel behind the tallest building, and behind that, in the distance, two structures looking like either a windmill or lighthouse on the hill and Christ Church (without the spire).

The Real Fate of the Platt Children

Contrary to popular belief the two Platt Children, (Robert and John)did not die in a house fire, but a bush fire. This error crept in to the historical record in the memoirs of the late Joseph Francis Crebert. Their eventual fate is sadder still. The account of their deaths is recorded in an 1835 letter to the Colonial Secretary by Platt himself.

Click for transcription: Platt to Colonial Secretary, 28th January 1835, Colonial Secretary Letters Received. AO 4/2291.3, Letter 35/905.

Here is the story that sheds some light on what became of their bodies, as well as their father John Laurio Platt, and of the extent of Christ Church Cathedral cemetery, and proves that at one time (in the 1830s) it did extend down to the now Market Square site (formerly Strand Theatre/Borough Markets) in the Newcastle Mall.

I was recently fortunate to meet a researcher who shared a similar interest in the family of John Laurio Platt and who told me a fascinating story. It comes from the unpublished memoirs of a Newcastle Printer Reginald Pogonoski (undated).

Pogonoski says that while they were excavating the site of his printing factory (known as the Falcon Printery and we asume sometime around 1915) in the Borough Markets (that later became the site of the Strand Theatre) the workers made an interesting discovery. Under the floor where his printing press stood they discovered a coffin belonging to the child of a Lieut. ‘John Plat(e)’ with an engraved coffin plate. The coffin plate went to a J.J. Moloney of the Australian Society of Patriots and the bones were sent off to a bone and rag merchant. The coffin must have belonged to one of the children of John Laurio Platt Platt, two of which were buried in Christ Church Cathedral cemetery in December 1831 following a tragic event.

I became interested in John Laurio Platt in 1996-97 when BHP were going to build on the Steel River site in Mayfield. At that time it was generally believed that the two boys were killed in a house fire and buried somewhere on site.

Platt arrived aboard the Providence on January 7th 1822, and was granted 2000 acres on August 21st 1822. By 1823 Platt was occupying his land and chose Ironbark Hill with the object of sawing timber with a state of the art mill. Unfortunately, he was unable to get his sawmill working and so was forced to use it as a flour mill for the grinding of wheat.

In December 1831, tragedy struck when two of his young boys were consumed by a bush fire and killed. News reached far afield. Whilst discussing the subject of the ravages of bushfires the convictJoseph Mason in his Memoirs states:

“And from all I heard it appeared there was never greater distruction made among the fences than by the fire of 1831-2 that is Novr. Decr. & jany. many hundred of miles being burn’t down. But the fences are not the most material of the property that is oft destroyed whole feilds of wheat being frequently consumed & one small settler (about 8 miles from us) lost all in his way (not excepting his dwelling house & furniture such as it was) & went about the country with a paper expressive of the damage he had sustained & soliciting contributions to reinstate him in his business Another large settler within 3 miles of the same spot also suffered a great loss about the same time most of his wheat ricks & a great part of his farm building being destroyed the damage was estimated at 3000 pounds Nor are these occurences without their parellel in other parts of the country nay a more calamitious event than either of the above took place in the Hunter’s River District where 2 children had strayed into the bush for the purpose it was supposed of hunting bandacoots & being so intent on their amusement did not perceive their dangar & so became surrounded by the fire & fell victims to its rage. They were found some time after lying both together dreadfully burnt & quite dead” (From Joseph Mason Assigned Convict 1831-1837. Melbourne: MUP, 1996. pp. 112-113)

They were found by Constable Hewson and brought back to the homestead on Ironbark Hill. They were later buried at Christ Church Cathedral Cemetery. Their burials are recorded in the Christ Church Cathedral burials of that year (Shelf Location: B7806) No. 169 Robert Platt (aged 13) and No. 170 John Platt (aged 4) Buried 22nd December 1831 with the note by the presiding chaplain Charles P.N. Wilton that ‘These two brothers killed by the fires in the bush of the 20th ulto’.

The family subsequently collapsed in on itself in grief and by 1836 due to poor health Platt and his wife were dead. The remaining seven children were adopted by E.C.Close and went to live in Morpeth. The eldest son remained on Ironbark Hill until the land was sold to the AACo in 1839.

It was as a community representative on the Steel River committee and the heritage studies that we urged BHP to do (since no one seemed to believe that Platt lived there at all) that we finally did learn that contrary to most of what was written about Platt to date, the children hadn’t died in a house fire, and that no other house was built on the site of St Josephs etc. but that they were actually burned in a bushfire in December 1831.

Click for Heritage Report: An Assessment of the Historical and Archaeological Values of BHP Land at Tourle St., Newcastle, February 1996 (4.04MB PDF)

I was happy, then, to see their entries in the Christ Church Cathedral registers with the note written in by the priest in the margin. At least they are at peace I thought.

Now, I see they were re-discovered under the site of a printing press and ended up being carted away to Steptoe and Son. What an undignified end.

The Christ Church Cathedral cemetery itself must have come further down the hill before the King street came through to cut it off. Compare Pogonoski’s account with a couple of Herald articles that related to possible Aboriginal burial sites in Newcastle. The articles state that more remains were discovered on the same site in 1915. The clippingsare digitised on the Virtual Sourcebook for Aboriginal Studies in the Hunter Region pages under 1915:

Article entitled “Early Newcastle Cemetery – Borough Market Site” from the Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners Advocate, 11th November 1915 p.6. (PDF)

Article entitled “Early Burial Place – Borough Market Site” from the Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners Advocate, 13th November 1915 p.3. (PDF)

The ‘bones’ that the article says were ‘discovered on the Wednesday’ were probably (in the opinion of Colin Christie) those of a white man, ‘a soldier in service in the early period when the white population was chiefly attached to the Imperial Service’.

It dawned on me that the other skeletons they discovered were probably that of the boys’ parents who died in 1836. John Laurio Platt and his wife who died within months of one another would have wanted to be buried near their sons in Christ Church cemetery.

I would really like to see the coffin plate that went into the collection of the Australian Society of Patriots and was later (we believe) absorbed into the Longworth Institute collection. I hope this collection comes back from oblivion some day.

Gionni Di Gravio
University Archivist
26th June 2006

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