A history of Ash Island
Learn more about this island in the Hunter River estuary near Hexham, NSW, and the Scott Family's connection with it.
Ash Island was once one of a number of islands and mudflats found in the Hunter River estuary near Hexham. Today it is part of the larger island known as Kooragang Island. It has an interesting history of occupation and use.
The islands of the Hunter River estuary have a long history of occupation. For thousands of years the Worimi and Awabakal people hunted, fished and collected food from the area, well supplied by the abundant flora and fauna that included water birds, shellfish, wetland plants, mammals and fish.
The islands in the estuary, including Ash Island, were explored and surveyed by Europeans in 1801. Ash trees were abundant, with mangrove and swamp oak and species of eucalypt also recorded. Within about 20 years, most of the valuable timber, such as red cedar and ash (that gave the island its name), was removed from the island.
In 1827, Ash Island was granted to Alexander Walker Scott. The grant included 2560 acres of prime land that retained much of its forest, despite losing its profitable trees, and would be a paradise to naturalists. He settled there in 1831 with his mother and sister, although shared his time between the island and other properties in the Hunter and Sydney. He made Ash Island his primary residence after his marriage to Harriet Calcott in 1846, moving there with her, his step-daughter Mary Ann (his other step-daughter Frances had married) and two daughters Helena and Harriet.
Under Scott, Ash Island was a social and learned community. Despite its relative isolation, visitors included travellers, artists like Conrad Martens, scientists and collectors such as John and Elizabeth Gould, and the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, who stated in 1842 that the island ‘... is a remarkably fine place, not only to enjoy the beauty of nature, a broad shining river, a luxuriant vegetation, a tasteful comfortable cottage with a plantation of orange trees but to collect a great number of plants which I had never seen before … It’s a romantic place, which I like well enough to think that – perhaps – I’d be content to live and die there ...’.
For many years a wooden bridge linked Ash Island to the mainland at Hexham (replaced today with a short concrete bridge), but most traffic came and went by boat, docking at a long jetty built on the point of the island facing upriver. This jetty, with the Scott house in the background, appears on the cover page of Scott’s two-volume work Australian Lepidoptera and Their Transformations.
In 1866, AW Scott went bankrupt and sold his Ash Island property. After the family left, the island changed significantly. It was subdivided, cleared and drained in the late 1860s for agriculture and dairy farms. Over 50 families and a school were part of this agricultural community until 1955 when the island was devastated by a massive flood. It fell under State control and was leased for grazing and prepared as potential industrial land.
Industrial activities already existed in the Hunter estuary, with the south-east areas being used for these purposes since the late 1800s. However, from the 1960s large-scale industrial development took over the majority of the region and most of the islands were amalgamated as part of the Industrial Islands Scheme to form Kooragang Island (named in 1968). The name 'Ash Island' now refers to the land at the western end of this larger island.
Concerns about pollution and environmental degradation led to the Coffey Inquiry in the 1970s. This inquiry highlighted the importance of retaining a natural habitat in the Hunter estuary, particularly for the native wildlife that relied on the area. In 1983 the Kooragang Nature Reserve was formed, encompassing the north-east parts of Kooragang Island. In 1992 a feasibility study led to the inception of the Kooragang Wetland Rehabilitation Project, launched in 1993.
This project’s role was to restore and rehabilitate Ash Island and create new habitat for the diverse wildlife of the estuary. This strategy included protecting river banks, managing water flows, weeds and feral animals, and revegetating areas such as the woodland, floodplain rainforest and salt marshes using local native plants. To achieve the latter, they needed to know what plants grew on the island before it was cleared. Fortunately, and in a suitable return to the past, previous occupants Helena and Harriet Scott had been passionate in recording and illustrating the island’s botany. These records survive in the Australian Museum Archives and are used by KWRP as a management tool to help re-establish areas.
Fran Dorey , Exhibition Project Coordinator