Cessnock lies between Australia’s earliest European settlements - Sydney, the Hawkesbury and the Hunter. Lying on the land route between these important settlements, it provided early European contact with Indigenous people, who have inhabited the Cessnock area for more than 3,000 years. The Darkinjung people were the major inhabitants at the time of European contact, with the tribe divided into a number of clans - to the north around Maitland was the land of the Wonarua tribe, whilst to the south-east, around the shores of Lake Macquarie were the Awabakal, the ‘people of the flat surface’.
Contact with Europeans was disastrous for the Darkinjung tribe. Many were murdered or died as a result of European diseases. Others were forced onto neighbouring tribal territory and killed. Many lost the will to live and occupied shanty ghettos on the edge of white settlements. Settler pressure on land also constricted traditional tribal and clannish domains, often leading to tribal fighting.
The City of Cessnock abounds in Indigenous place names and names with Indigenous association which is indicative of this settlement and include Congewai, Kurri Kurri, Laguna, Nulkaba and Wollombi.
Pastoralists commenced settling the land in the 1820s. Wollombi became the established centre of the area from the 1830s after the completion of the Great North Road that linked the Hawkesbury and Hunter Valley. By 1850, Wollombi had three hotels, and was an important resting place for travellers, as well as a rural centre for farmers and cedar getters. Wollombi remained the largest settlement for most of the 19th Century.
The township of Cessnock developed from 1850, as a service centre at the junction of the Great North Road, with branches to Singleton and Maitland.
During the 1860s, land settlement was extensive between Nulkaba and Pokolbin, with wheat, tobacco and grapes the principal crops.
The township of Branxton developed during the late 19th Century, due to its location as a road junction, and its accessibility to water and rich agricultural land.
The establishment of the South Maitland Coalfield generated extensive land settlement between 1903 and 1923. The current pattern of urban development, transport routes and industrial landscape was laid at this time. Townships sprang up adjacent to pit tops and the rail heads on the Greta seam. The township of Kurri Kurri became established at the northern end of the coal seam.
The surveying of the Greta Coal Seam by Professor Edgeworth David at the turn of the Century became the impetus for considerable social and economic change in the area with the development of the coal mining industry. In late 1939, construction began on the Greta Army Camp, just south of the Greta township. The camp was divided into two discrete sections known as Silver City and Chocolate City - so named because of the galvanised iron and oiled timber cladding used in the construction of the huts. It is said that up to 60,000 soldiers passed through the camp gates during World War II.
After the war, in 1949, it became one of the largest migrant camps in Australia with an estimated 100,000 people spending some time at the centre. At one stage, 17 different nationalities were represented in the camp. In early 1960, Greta Migrant Camp was closed and all the buildings sold. All that remains today are a few foundations and fences, but the Greta Camp lives on in the memories of those for whom it was the first step in making a new life in Australia. The Migrant Camp also had a profound influence on the social and cultural development of the Greta community.
Settlement began in the Cessnock area in 1823, and up until the turn of the century, it concentrated on the north and south arms of Wollombi Brook, which meet at Wollombi, "meeting of the waters".
Settlement on the brook was intensified between 1827-31 with the building of the Great Northern Road. This road facilitated the passage of Hawkesbury settlers into the Wollombi district as well as cartage of goods between Maitland and Wollombi.
A veterans' station at Wollombi was established around 1830 and from this year veterans from the NSW regiments received grants of land on the Wollombi.
Settlers harvested cedar and rosewood forests at Congewai and Cedar Creek. Convicts were employed to clear the narrow alluvial flats and plant maize, barley, oats, wheat, tobacco and potatoes.
Wollombi soon became the commercial and administrative centre of the region, with its own court house and police magistrate appointed in 1840. Flour mills were erected in Millfield and Wollombi by 1840. By 1858, the population of the Wollombi district was 1519. The population of Cessnock was included in the same year - there were between seven and eleven adults.
The wheat harvest was ruined by rust in 1870 and from then on the wheat industry declined, so too did the importance of Wollombi.
Wollombi was raided by a number of bushrangers including William "Yellow Billy" White and Frederick "Thunderbolt" Ward.
The junction of the Great North Road and its branch to Singleton was in the heart of Cessnock and it became a regular camping place for Wollombi teamsters. When the Cessnock Inn was established in 1856, it became a half-way house for travellers between Maitland and Wollombi.
A man by the name of John Campbell bought land east of Wollombi as early as 1826, and named it Cessnock after an Ayrshire Castle. Much of the estate was sold in 1853 to Thomas Crawford, JT Baker, B McGrane. D Henry, G Bridge, J Smith and three Maitland men.
After 1861, people began to settle north of Cessnock, between Allandale Road and the Pokolbin Hills. Most of them grew wheat but the Wilkinsons, using cuttings from Dalwood which was established by Sir John Wyndham in 1828, began growing vineyards from 1866, including Cote d'Or and Oakdale.
A skilled German vigneron by the name of Martin Bouffier established a vineyard within Cessnock itself around the same time.
Patrick J O'Neill who originally grew wheat and tobacco, established a vineyard and wineshop in 1868.
The population of Cessnock totalled 62 people in 1871, and by 1901, this had grown to 165.
George Brown struck coal in the area in 1892 and collieries were then established in East Greta, Stanford Merthyr, Pelaw Main, Abermain, Aberdare, Aberdare extended and Hebburn within 14 years of the initial find. This created the land boom of 1903-23.
By 1926 Cessnock had a population of 12,000 within a one mile radius and the area came into its own in 1939-45 when coalminers broke all production records.
Cessnock's various industries during this time included dairying, grazing, timber-getting and saw-milling, manufacturing of earthenware pipes and textiles.
Two events which affected the town of Cessnock were the Bellbird Colliery disaster of 1923 in which 21 miners died and the death of Norman Brown in the Rothbury affair when police fired their revolvers to warn off thousands of miners demonstrating against the use of voluntary labour during the lock-out.
Perhaps the most important event in the history of the town however, was the amalgamation of Kearsley and Cessnock to form the city of Greater Cessnock.