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From Sydney the lacemakers travelled overnight on the paddle steamer Maitland and early the next morning the steamer turned in towards the coast. It slowed as it rounded Nobby’s, a tall and narrow rock at the entrance to the Hunter River, passed a new breakwater and nosed towards a small settlement on the hill above the shoreline – Newcastle. However, the steamer did not berth but turned along a wide but tightly curved bend and continued up the river. The lacemakers gazed out onto low sandy islands covered with dry scrub and grasses and more bends. At another tight bend they passed a river joining the main flow. The steamer continued up  the Hunter River until early afternoon when another river joined it. Soon the steamer began to slow as a village appeared on the left-hand shoreline. Maitland came alongside the wharf at Morpeth and the lacemakers journey of many months was nearly ended. Ashore at last on Queen’s Wharf they gathered their belongings and children and set off to the depot at East Maitland, just three miles walk away.

The remining group of lacemakers bound for Maitland would arrive two days later.

Paddle Steamer Thistle

Thistle was a steamer similar to Maitland

It is shown offshore of the entrance into the Hunter River with Nobby's in the background

Early yearsMaitland and the Hunter River Valley

As for much of the Australian continent, the Hunter River valley was occupied by indigenous people long before the white colonists arrived. These Indigenous groups were the Awabakal on the south bank whose traditional territory ranged from near the river mouth at Newcastle, down the coast to Lake Macquarie and west to Wollombi, the Gringai on the north bank opposite Maitland and in the Allyn and Paterson River valleys and the Geawegal in the upper Hunter Valley. These peoples had lived in and nurtured their land for many thousands of years before the British colonists arrived to push them back from the rivers and creeks, wetlands, forests, and open grass lands that provided them with all they needed including food, tools and shelter.

After the British arrived in Australia and established their settlement in Sydney in 1788, it was a decade before they sailed into the inlet to find “a very fine coal river”. The first explorers found the environment along the river varied greatly from the river mouth to the hills above the river floodplains further upstream. Around the estuary and its low islands, the land was sandy and covered in scrub with few trees. However, upriver and along its tributaries grew tall cedar trees and thick vine-covered scrub in amongst lagoons, silted flood channels and open swamps. Beyond the timbered riverbanks and on the land around the upper reaches of the Hunter River the explorers found largely open grasslands on fertile soils among few trees. It’s likely that for thousands of years, the various forms of this landscape had been carefully nurtured by the indigenous people to provide them with all their needs. A few white settlers then arrived to dig for coal and cut timber and within a few years, a penal colony on the south bank was established inside the river mouth. The rough camp of huts and tents would later develop into Newcastle.

Lower Hunter River

Sketch map based on 1844 map of the Hunter River by Surveyor George Boyle White

Note the many bends between Morpeth and West Maitland at top far left. The Nobby’s Island breakwater was first built in 1846 and was in place when the lacemakers’ steamers rounded Nobby’s Island and steamed to Morpeth via the Hunter River’s north channel

Map drawn by Stephen Black

Over the next ten years, the trees and fertile soils attracted a few timer-getters and settlers. They had little interaction with nor impact on the local peoples. However, by 1820, explorers had found an overland route from western Sydney into the Hunter River valley and followed the river down to its lower reaches. Meanwhile others explored up the river as far as boats could take them. More settlers followed and established farms in the fertile lands along the upper reaches of the river. As the white settlers spread out into the countryside, their crop and grazing practices were in conflict with those of the locals and conflicts occurred. Sometimes, the conflicts became deadly. Between 1826 and 1841, the white settlers and police units initiated six massacres of black men, women and children in reprisal of theft of crops, cattle and sheep. On two occasions, the action was taken after ‘the blacks’ had stolen a child or killed a shepherd guarding the flocks. These six massacres resulted in the deaths of 77 indigenous people and 3 colonisers. The white settlers also brought diseases to which the local peoples had no immunity.

A Maitland – or three

The present-day town of Maitland is really two towns, if not three. The development of the towns of West Maitland, East Maitland and Morpeth are as intertwined as they are geographically close, and all were linked by and dependent on the river.

West Maitland, initially called Wallis Plains was “a long straggling street” on the riverbank at the head of the navigable river and was the main river port and supply centre for the settlers up and down the valley. There was no road connecting Wallis Plains with Newcastle, then little more than a staging point for passengers from Sydney to the lower river areas and often by-passed by vessels heading to Wallis Plains. Morpeth was just a day’s journey for bullock drays down river from Wallis Plains but there were over 15 miles of river bends for vessels and barges to pass. Built on private land and originally called Green Hills, Morpeth was settled at the head of the easily navigable river, and soon became the river port for goods to and from the valley to Sydney. The government then built a town along the road between Wallis Plains and Morpeth, but on high ground above the regular floods of the river. The new town was named Maitland. Within a few years, due to their proximity Wallis Plains was renamed West Maitland and confusion soon saw Maitland become East Maitland.


West Maitland grew without any apparent planning. With good water, a river crossing, room to expand and despite regular floods and a poor town plan, West Maitland expanded rapidly and outgrew its sister town. West Maitland became the commercial centre while the government town East Maitland, became the seat of administration. However, the two Maitlands remained the major “town” on the Hunter River. In 1841 the population of the two Maitlands was more than double that of Newcastle.


After the expansion and prosperity of the 1830s, the Maitlands and the surrounding districts fell on hard times from the effects of drought and the depression affection the whole colony of New South Wales. The causes were drought, land boom, and low prices for produce and stock. Despite the downturn and shortage of finance, the Maitlands continued to expand. A boiling-down works was built. It converted animals into hides, tallow, soap and candles which could be sold locally and exported. Private schools, a hospital, hotels, stores and the first Protestant churches were built, as was the gaol. In 1842 Caroline Chisholm founded one of her Female Emigrants’ Homes at East Maitland. In West Maitland the Maitland Mercury newspaper was established in January 1843. When the lacemakers arrived in Maitland  it was being published twice a week – on Wednesday and Saturday mornings at a cost of 4½ pence while a quarterly subscription cost 9 shillings.

Despite the hard economic times, at the end of the 1840s West Maitland was still a bustling and vibrant frontier town with a steady stream of travellers.

Maitlands and Morpeth 1848

Sketch map of Hunter River between Morpeth and West Maitland showing the course of the Hunter River in 1848 with the many bends between Morpeth and West Maitland. 

Map drawn by Stephen Black

The Maitlands in 1848

West Maitland was described in WH Wells’ A Geographical Dictionary or Gazetteer of the Australian Colonies 1848 as not having much beauty ‘consisting as it does, of one long, irregular, main street, with a few minor ones branching from it at unequal distances … and may now ... be called the capital of the northern districts. Surrounded by an extensive agricultural country and commanding the traffic to and from the squatting districts of Liverpool plains, New England, &c., West Maitland is necessarily a thriving and important town, as numerous large stores amply furnished with goods, and commodious hotels, well filled with travellers, sufficiently prove.’ Herds of cattle and sheep were often driven through town and a constant stream of bullock teams hauled produce such as wool from the surrounding districts for shipment to Sydney and beyond. After unloading at the Morpeth wharves, the wagons loaded up with supplies for the return journey. To service this trade new stores and warehouses, both retail and wholesale were built in Morpeth and the two Maitlands which became home to a wide range of businesses, including flourmills, a tobacco processing factory, breweries, soap and candle making and salt stores. Ironworkers, blacksmiths and saddlers also.

It was the three towns and the surrounding districts that supported the lacemakers when they arrived in October 1848. In the 1850s the three towns continued to grow. New services and retailers established themselves including tailors, hairdressers, wig makers, confectioners, photographers, and dressmakers who provided services and trades for the residents and workers within the area. Land was subdivided and sold, and new houses were constructed in stone and weatherboard for sale and rent. In 1850 West Maitland had some 650 houses of which 290 were built with brick or stone.

Morpeth, when the immigrants looked out from the steamers moored alongside Queen’s Wharf, was a small but prosperous-looking town and described by an 1848 gazetteer as being ‘situated at the head of the navigable part of the Hunter river 29 miles by water from Newcastle; it at present contains about 635 inhabitants, … an Episcopalian church and parsonage, a Wesleyan chapel, a ladies’ school and two day schools; fine inns, one steam flour mill, a soap and candle manufactory, five large stores, some excellent shops, 37 stone and brick buildings, and about 117 wooden dwellings. The easily-navigable river and the extensive wharf of the Hunter River Steam Navigation Company is here, and throughout the greater part of the year there is a daily communication to and from the metropolis by the steam vessels of the Company; a considerable number of sailing vessels also trade between this place and Sydney.

East Maitland  was described by an 1848 gazetteer as a town of about 910 inhabitants living in 227 houses and other buildings. ‘Laid out by the government – the site is a pleasant one, but the scarcity of good water in the immediate vicinity of the town is serious drawback to its prosperity. It has two neat churches.' The town was also served by a spacious and convenient courthouse, a branch of the Bank of Australasia in a building that ‘is perhaps one of the best in town’. The forbidding walls of the newly completed gaol were a dominate and forbidding sight on the edge of the town.

Further reading

'Maitland and Morpeth in 1848' journal Tulle Issue 104 pp24-27

Helen Brayshaw, Aborigines of the Hunter Valley, Scone and Upper Hunter Historical Society, 1987

Brian Walsh, Voices from Tocal: convict life on a rural estate, CB Alexander Foundation, 2008

The Council of the City of Maitland, A History of Maitland, 1983

The University of Newcastle Australia, Mapping the massacres of Australia’s colonial frontier

William Henry Wells, Geographical Dictionary or Gazetteer of the Australian Colonies, published by WF Ford 1848

Indigenous peoples:

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