This article was published in The Newcastle Herald ‘Weekender’ print edition and online on January 4, 2020. Images by Mick Ross.
Small it may be but Tighes Hill is a suburb big on heart, character and community spirit.
Bordered by Throsby Creek, the noisy coal train line and pockets of industry, the humble inner-northwest Newcastle suburb of Tighes Hill is home to around 1800 Novocastrians. And its popularity is steadily increasing as more people discover its understated charm.
“One of the reasons we chose a house here in 2007 was the fact that we would not be car-dependent,” says resident Melanie McKinnon of Tighes Hill.
Initially drawn to the suburb for its location and convenience, she says it’s the people that make Tighes Hill such a great place to live.
“We didn’t know it at the time but Tighes Hill has a unique and special community vibe that resonates across the suburb.”
Tighes Hill beginnings trace back to the 1860s when it was a slaughter yard. Over the years, it has housed smelters, collieries, even a soap and candle factory. Many of which employed locals, as did the nearby steelworks.
Originally called Bingle Hill, it was later re-named Tighes Hill. Taken from Atkinson Alfred Patrick Tighe, the eldest son of Robert Tighe, a former chief constable of Newcastle, who was granted 2000 acres of local land in 1841.
The pioneering Tighe clan lives on in the suburb through streets named after family members, including John, William, Elizabeth and Atkinson.
Today, Tighes Hill’s deep working-class roots remain central to its character. It retains a grungy element and a trace of coal dust in the air, even as a slow wave of renewal moves through it and the suburbs around it.
“I love how friendly and open everyone is here. This is a place you can really say neighbours treat you like friends and family,” says local resident Ali Meldrum, who moved to Tighes Hill with her partner Amos Morris in September 2015.
“Somehow we have landed the jackpot and have some of our best friends now all in the same street,” she says.
Ali and Amos didn’t know much about Tighes Hill before they moved there but “loved the feel of this side of town” having lived in nearby Islington.
“This area still had the benefit of having lots of untouched homes that we could renovate to our taste and standard,” says Amos.
“We wanted somewhere we could add what we needed to a block, which was a work shed, garage and a backyard for our dog, Samson.”
The couple are currently renovating their home, a classic cottage, which they have refreshed and added a modern extension to at the back.
Tighes Hill’s leafy streetscape is eclectic. Its concrete-cracked footpaths dotted with verge gardens, its streets, a mixture of both steep and narrow and wide and tree-lined.
Each lined with a mish-mash of heritage houses, where freshly renovated facades neighbour gently ageing and homes, with the odd modern addition thrown in.
Tucked between them, grand old buildings, like Tighes Hill Public School (established in 1878), The School of Arts (opened in 1900 and now home to charity Got Your Back Sista), and Tighes Hill TAFE (built in the 1930s) still stand.
Remnants of old neighbourhood shops also live on. The red-tiled frontage of the R.W Cherry building on John Street, once a butcher, is now a residence; an Italian deli, circa the 1950s, resurrected as Tighes Hill Cellars; while much-loved stalwart cafe Birdy’s once housed a bike shop.
Tighes Hill is a suburb of contrasts and wonky charm. Its residents a diverse mix of ages and socio-economic backgrounds: some who have lived in the area for decades: others more recent arrivals of a few years. Known as a socially progressive pocket of Newcastle, it is home to real people who are generally proud of where they live.
“I feel incredibly lucky to have chosen to live in this special part of Newcastle,” Melanie says.
Melanie cites the Tighes Hill Community Group (THCG), community garden, the Christmas street parties and the Throsby Big Brunch (an annual event in Islington Park that brings together residents from the Throsby Villages of Tighes Hill, Carrington, Maryville, Islington and Wickham) as examples of what she loves about the suburb.
Established in 2009, the THCG further reflects the suburb’s strong sense of community.
Made up of around 40 residents, the group meet on the first Thursday of each month at the Tighes Hill Public School. Their mission to create a suburb that is “green, inclusive, safe, connected and creative.”
“Some significant achievements of the THCG includes the work done to address traffic management through the suburb,” explains Melanie, who is one of its members.
“Our bin stickers alerting people to the 40km speed limit can be seen on many bins across the suburb. While a Newcastle City Council Placemaking grant provided an opportunity for some creative street art on Maitland Road to support this cause.”
The group also campaigned to have street trees put it in on Bryant Street and for the installation of pram ramps in Union Street.
Some of THCG’s current projects include the development of the Tighes Hill Community Garden (which recently relocated to Gross Street Reserve after being evicted from its former Kings Road site), a campaign to have the Carrington coal loader not renew its lease when it expires in 2024, and working with council on a local character study to help protect Tighes Hill’s heritage character and streetscape.
Tighes Hill also counts Greens councillor and long-time community activist Dr John Mackenzie as one of its residents and active voices.
“Tighes Hill brings together people in an effortless way that not many suburbs can,” says Tony Selwood, who has been the principal at Tighes Hill Public School for the last 13 years.
The school has long been an anchor of the suburb, educating many of its youngest residents since the late-1870s.
“The people who call Tighes Hill home connect with neighbours and local families in such a welcoming and harmonious way that many families who thought this may be a short stop to renovate, hopefully, make some money and move on, never leave or dream of moving again.”
Tony says the sense of community is obvious to any newcomer to see on arrival. “Kids love to see new families move in and can’t wait to introduce them to the school and begin carving out a new friendship.”
While a decade or two ago empty shopfronts dotted the suburb, new creative businesses have started to open, drawn to the suburb for its welcoming and tightknit community.
Art gallery/coffee shop Between the Lines and art and homewares store MiiO being among those that have opened in the last year or two.
While cafe Praise Joe Urban Pantry on Elizabeth Street also set up shop in January 2019.
“We absolutely adore Tighes Hill and couldn’t think of a better place for Praise Joe to be located,” says Hayley Sinkinson, who opened the cafe with her partner Phil Gameson.
“In the short time we have been opened we have felt so welcomed into the community. To know our neighbours and to form relationships with these people is so important to us.”
Hayley and Phil recently commissioned a big mural, opposite Praise Joe, by street artist Jordan Lucky as a way of thanking the community.
“The heritage, beauty and community make Tighes Hill a remarkable place to be,” notes Phil.
Location is a big drawcard for those looking to move to Tighes Hill. Its cafes, pubs, green spaces, Tighes Hill Public School and TAFE and close proximity to the city, shops and neighbouring suburbs are all part of this appeal.
As is Throsby Creek, locals love to walk and ride along the cycleway, fish, kayak and paddleboard in its murky waters and walk their dogs at the nearby off-leash dog park. The creek, which feeds into the harbour, has long been a big part of the suburb’s story and a place of recreation.
While historically it has suffered much pollution, long-term efforts by passionate residents saw the introduction of the ‘Throsby Creek Catchment Agencies Plan 2019-2024’ this year to make it cleaner, safer and healthier into the future.
But more than that, Tighes Hill is a suburb that feels different from other parts of Newcastle. You notice it when you cross the coal line on Maitland Road from Mayfield East or pass over the Graham Bridge from Lewis Street in Maryville. There’s something edgy and earnest about Tighes Hill that makes it appealing in its own unique, imperfect way.
“It is the classic village feel that people love in Tighes Hill. It’s only a small suburb but it has huge period charm that remains relatively untouched,” says Roland Campos of real estate agency LaneCampos.
“Tighes Hill has grown in popularity over the years. It was once a sleepy suburb quietly tucked away. Younger buyers have been attracted to the suburb over the last few years and now you’re starting to see the area go through a phase of renewal making it a trendy inner suburb of Newcastle.”
This has had a dramatic impact on property prices. Citing data from realty site Pricefinder, Roland says the median price for Tighes Hill rose from $325,000 in 2009 to $715,000 in 2018.
Locals have noticed the growing interest in Tighes Hill as well. Many of who are keen to see new arrivals appreciate the suburb for what it is and not take away from its quirky character.
“It’s become a lot more expensive than when we moved here. Everyone has really caught on to how special it is here and are after that homely suburb vibe,” says Ali.
“On another note, I feel in the last year or so there has been a fresh injection of young professionals that complement the families that have been here for generations. These couples are doing exciting things with all their properties that I think are only improving on the history that is already here.”
It’s a sentiment Roland shares: “I am seeing a lot of owners take their homes through some amazing renovations while still keeping the original charm of the home.”
“It’s exciting to see this new wave of cosmopolitan elements grow in the area. As the design aesthetics here are unlike anything that I have seen anywhere else in Newcastle. It’s unique, full of personal character and an edge that is very Tighes Hill.”
It’s evident that many residents, both past and present, think of the suburb fondly and are curious about the transformation it is undergoing.
“Past students, both recent and some from the early 1900s continue to drop in and visit the school throughout the years,” says principal Tony of Tighes Hill Public School.
“For the most part they come to reconnect with memories they cherish of their time at the school and living in the locality or look up a past family member who attended.”
“They are all united in their love of the suburb and what it has become today and are immensely proud of their connection to both the school and the suburb.”