Commandant James Wallis emerged for me “ though not perhaps for Mark Dunn, The Convict Valley’s author “at the symbolic epicentre of this history. Have you ever heard of him “ or of Wallis Plains, named in his honour, also the site of what Dunn assesses as the first town upriver in the Hunter, forming in 1824 around a store, a pub, a brewery and, pretty soon, a school?

I certainly hadn’t heard of Wallis, nor could I answer the last question until I got to page 229 (of 238 pages of text), for there’s not a mention of Wallis Plains on contemporary maps of the Hunter. Mark Dunn, however, is a local, with a heroic history going back to 1822 when Thomas Dunn arrived there facing life imprisonment and no escape from ‘the convict stain’, despite becoming a constable. So perhaps he didn’t feel the need to share such essential information that many foundation names (and most Aboriginal names) in the Valley were expunged by people who were probably happiest wiping out any embarrassments from the past. Wallis Plains became Maitland.

And Wallis himself, one of eleven Commandants between 1804 and 1826 of one such embarrassment, the penal station that became Newcastle, piqued my interest despite only passing references in the book to a) his leading the forces sent out by Governor Macquarie to commit the brutal Appin Massacre which was then ordered to hang Aborigines they’d killed from the trees as a potent warning to others, effectively ending the Sydney Wars according to Stephen Gapps’s excellent book of that name (with which ‘The Convict Valley‘ has some parallels); and b) Dunn’s claim that Wallis was the Macquarie of the north – not for his brutality, but in his commissioning buildings including a church, a hospital, a goal and barracks for Newcastle during his brief two years office around 1817.

So, starting with Wallis, we’ve moved on to two glancing mentions of Macquarie. But he was also absolutely central in setting up tensions in the early years of the Hunter through his surprisingly positive project for the reform of the convict majority that he governed here. His philosophy and policies were aimed at incentivising them to become good citizens in this new land that they’d been exiled to. So emancipists or ticket-of-leave men and women could be awarded land in places like the Hunter offering a potentially substantial stake in the new society.

However, at the same time, the British government sent out John Thomas Bigge to prepare an eponymous Report which emphasised the importance of attracting migration of what Dunn calls wealthy landowners – though he fails to justify that description with any detail “ from the UK. When their plots (did they pay for them?) as laid out on a map by surveyor Henry Dangar conflicted with or bordered those of emancipists, there was bound to be trouble. A class system was being introduced from the Olde Country quite unnecessarily. And, as Governor Bourke pointed out, many of these migrant landowners were happier living in comfort in Sydney while their overseers ran the property, wielding the whip over assigned convict labour with abandon. No wonder there was a convict revolt in 1833 against the Castle Forbes property, while other brutalised convicts turned bush-ranger to escape whippings of up to 275 lashes.

For convict labour was much preferred to attempting to introduce Aboriginal labour. That was tried by George Wyndham, whose Wyndham Estate wines had their origins in the 1830s, offering kind employment as the secret of restraining their (Aborigines) tendency to furtive and vindictive depredation!

In parallel, those landlords, whether absent or present, failed to stand in the way of violence against Aborigines, theft of their women and children, and one notable (now entirely forgotten) massacre of 18 men camped in the Mount Royal Range involving a new mounted police unit lead by the settler Robert Scott.

In response, the local Worimi, Awabakal, Wonnarua, Gringai (not to be confused with the Guringai/Kuri’ngai who were ‘invented’ in the 18th Century and never existed in Sydney’s northern districts) and Geawegal committed acts of revenge on slights and violence against them, though they rarely seemed to take action to recover stolen access to land. And, despite a cover blurb on ‘The Convict Valley’ that it concerned The Bloody Struggle on Australia’s Early Frontier, this is a book much more about the invader than the native. Aborigines only play a vital part early on as the colonials seek to discover the value of the Valley via an overland route up the Boree Track from Windsor. In 1801, Governor King sent out Lieutenant-Governor Paterson with the ‘Broken Bay man’ Bungaree to find a land route to the Hunter, who’s harbour, river and coal had been found by accident when a boat sailed north in pursuit of escaping convicts. The Hunter turned out to be an easier reach than the crossing of the Blue Mountains (not ’til 1813).

But Aboriginal guides from the region would continue to lead landowners to their assigned properties and track escaping convicts for several years. And they gained such a reputation that Thomas Mitchell, Ludwig Leichardt and other explorers would employ Hunter people on their more distant travels. But Aboriginal numbers don’t seem to have been decimated by smallpox as in Sydney, with 1712 blankets distributed in 1827 “ the closest NSW came to counting its non-citizens. While a census in 1828 found 3118 ‘settlers’ between Newcastle and Lake Macquarie, then inland to what is now Denman “ 34% emancipists, 52% convicts and just 13% free settlers. At the same time there were 167,000 sheep and cattle.

All this is so early in white Australia’s history. And its taken impressive research by Mark Dunn “ who calls himself a public historian – to dig it all out from such sources as an anonymous diary of a servant of the Scott Family between 1821 and 1824, George Wyndham’s letters to his parents, magistrates’ deposition books, and Correspondence on Black Natives, 1826 in the Singleton District Historical Society’s archives. Much of the original languages and place-names has been sourced from the Rev Lancelot Threlkeld’s ‘An Australian Grammar “ Natural Rules of the Language Spoken by the Aborigines in the Vicinity of Hunter’s River, Lake Macquarie, etc’. And his mission at Lake Macquarie was frequently a refuge for Aborigines fleeing violence.

However, I was lead by Dunn’s copious notes of sources to Dr Glenn Albrecht’s ‘Rediscovering the Coquun‘ “ the Awabakal name for the lower reaches of the Hunter “ for my favourite contemporary quote “ John Dunmore Lang’s 1834 critique of colonial Australia, where he expressed outrage that the original Aboriginal names were already being replaced, then forgotten, for the sake of whatever insignificant appendage to the colonial government a colonial surveyor may think to immortalize”.

‘The Convict Valley’ was published in June by Allen & Unwin at an RRP of $32.99.