Three or more different Aboriginal groups lived in the area around what is now known as Maitland: the Awabakal from the south-east, the Worrimi from the north-east, and the Wanaruah from the west. The extensive rainforest, wetlands and open forest grasslands provided a vast array of food and other resources for these groups (Maitland Region Landcare, 2003).
The first Europeans that ventured up the river were confronted by a wall of dense rainforest lining the river banks. At Wallis and Paterson's Plains (near Maitland) rainforest occupied most of the floodplain.
Massive red cedars up to 8 metres in circumference with trunks more than 15 metres in height feature in descriptions of the forest in this area at the time of European settlement (Rusden, in Wood, 1972 as cited in Spencer et. al, 2004).
The great red cedars were soon identified as a valuable commodity as was the rich floodplain alluvium and clearing began in earnest. Typically, gangs of 30 convicts were tasked to clear 100 trees a month and get the logs to water. These were formed into rafts and floated to Newcastle, with the journey from Wallis Plains to Newcastle taking around 8 days (Spencer et al, 2004).
European settlement of Paterson's Plains began in 1813 with several settlers establishing farms upon the alluvial lowlands. The river flats were opened up into 30 acre lots and by 1820 there were 11 farms on Wallis Plains. An anonymous paper written in 1830 remarked that 12 of the best behaved convicts were permitted to occupy land at Wallis Plains conditional to their supply of a specified and continuing quantity of cedar to the Government (Spencer et al, 2004).
Professor Glenn Albrecht, lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle, draws on quotes from early accounts of European explorers and settlers, and visiting naturalists, painting a compelling picture of what the Hunter River may have looked like prior to this period of development.
"It is hard to imagine today but some of these early accounts refer to heavily forested areas right along the river so dense in some places that light couldn't penetrate, illustrated in the following quote from [...] Lang:
"...figure to himself a noble river, as wide as the Thames in the lower part of its course, winding slowly towards the ocean, among forests that have never felt the stroke of an axe... on either bank, the lofty gum tree or eucalyptus shoots up its white naked stem to a height of 150 feet from the rich alluvial soil, while underwood of most luxuriant growth completely covers the ground; and numerous wild vines, as the flowering shrubs and parasitical plants of the alluvial land are indiscriminately called by the settlers, dip their long branches covered with white flowers into the very water."(Lang 1834:64-5 cited in Glenn Albrecht, Rediscovering the Coquun: Towards an Environmental History of the Hunter River, 2001)
Professor Albrecht speaks to Murdo MacLeod about the effects of land clearing and mining, carried out from the early days of European settlement, on the ecological health of the Hunter River. (interview)
The planned township of East Maitland was established in the 1830s, with West Maitland developing as a commercial centre. Land was used mainly for farming and mineral mining. Some growth took place in the late 1800s, following the construction of the railway line to Sydney in 1857 and the establishment of coal mining. During the 1830s and 1840s Morpeth was the Hunter Valley's major port. (Maitland City Council)
Vessels with a shallow draft could navigate the Hunter River to West Maitland and Morpeth served as the head of navigation for larger ships and later, steamships. Goods could be transported upriver to West Maitland on barges and smaller vessels before being unloaded and distributed to the hinterland. For almost 20 years, until the gold rushes in Victoria, Maitland was the second largest town in Australia. (Maitland City Council)
During the middle of the nineteenth century, the three towns of East Maitland, West Maitland and Morpeth dominated the affairs of the Hunter Valley, as the major centre for government administration, and commercial and port activities until the arrival of the railway from Newcastle, and the increasing siltation of the river and larger ships spelt the end of the traditional river traffic. (Maitland City Council)
Today Maitland is a major rural and residential centre with a population of around 62,000. Up to 82% of the local government area is involved with grazing, farming, mining or viticulture. (Maitland City Council)
The storm events on the June long weekend brought a deluge of rain to the Upper and Lower catchment areas, resulting in the highest flood in 30 years on the Hunter River at Maitland, causing extensive damage to homes, roads, railway lines and rural properties.
In Maitland, almost three-quarters of the average monthly rainfall fell in three days, with 285 mm recorded between 7 and 9 June. The flood reached a height of 10.71 m (AHD*) on the Hunter River at the Belmore Bridge gauge early in the morning on Monday 11 June. It was the third highest flood in Maitland since the 1955 flood, which reached 12.1 m (AHD) (CMA, 2007)
* Australian Height Datum (AHD) - a datum used to measure vertical height based on mean sea level as zero.
The flood height at Maitland was predicted to reach 11.4 m. In response, SES volunteers and emergency management agencies worked around the clock to prepare Maitland City and the surrounding suburbs for the impact of severe flooding. On Sunday 10 June 4200 residents were evacuated from Lorn, Central and South Maitland. The floodgates at the Maitland railway station were closed and sandbagged for the first time since being installed in 1974.
The flood of 1955 was the most catastrophic of all floods recorded on the Hunter River since European settlement. It was the first Australian natural disaster to be broadcast on an international scale.
14 lives were lost, 5200 homes flooded, 130 of which had to be demolished. 58 homes, including 31 at Maitland were washed away or destroyed during the flood. There was severe damage to farmland, bridges, streets and railways. The cost of the damage in today's terms would be over $2 billion. Maitland was hardest hit, followed by Singleton and Muswellbrook.
In Maitland, the flood peaked at 12.3 metres at the Belmore Bridge on 25 February. The very high velocity of the flood water broke levee banks, inundating most of the central business district and surrounding suburbs and extensive areas of farmland.
Some of the most severe damage occurred in Mt Pleasant Street, in Maitland. The levee banks broke at Oakhampton, and a tremendous head of water rushed along the floodplain. Houses on Mt Pleasant St were swept up and smashed against the Long Bridge. The waters rose 1.5m above deck level of the bridge.
Some of the most dramatic moments of the flood came from the many rescue operations. The Navy, Army, Air Force and the Police all played a role along with surfboat crews from 15 surf life saving clubs in Newcastle.
Newcastle Morning Herald 25 February 1955. (from 'A report on the Flood of February 1955 in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales', WC Hawke.)
"Nurses from the roof of Maitland Hospital on Friday saw a roaring torrent pick up about 20 houses from the Oakhampton/Mount Pleasant street area of Maitland and smash them against the long bridge. One house had seven people on the roof, and as it smashed into the bridge, over which the water was racing, they all jumped. Afterward, only 3 people were seen clinging to the bridge. The other four, including a pregnant woman due to have her child within 48 hours, floated five miles on a mattress before being rescued."
"On Friday night there were two men in the roof of a green cottage in Mount Pleasant Street. They were standing yelling for help and signalling. At 6.00am on Saturday, when the water was still tearing across the bridge at terrific pace, a surf boat crew battled its way through to the house. When the crew reached it they found, besides the two on the roof, two more men, three women and three or four children and brought all of them off. The boat crew then went to the bridge to take off people who had been clinging to it all night, but this time another surfboat arrived first."
Ron Whiteley lived at Louth Park at the time of the floods of 1949 and 1955. In both case the initial flooding was from Wallis and Fishery creeks, but he recalls the great difference between the two events with the water reaching levels at least 1.5 metres higher in the latter year and being much more turbulent and fast-flowing. Livestock were removed to the saleyards in both floods, household items were stacked on wardrobes and tables with the treasures uppermost, and the family evacuated via the rail overpass to Rose St (in 1949) and to the Maitland Girls' High School in Church St (in 1955). The water remained high in Louth Park for days during the floods, the roads were wrecked repeatedly during the 1950s and many farmers were forced out of business. On the positive side, there was a great richness of bird life in those days, water levels in the swamps remaining high for years on end.
Other stories like Ron's will be featured in a book that is due to be released in December 2008 on flooding in the Maitland area. For more information contact CMA Flood Education Officer Amanda Hyde on 4930 1030.
In response to the disastrous flood of 1955, the Lower Hunter Flood Mitigation Scheme was initiated. Under the Scheme, the natural floodways were re-opened to divert excess water in moderate floods away from the river channel. It is designed to direct floodwaters onto the floodplain, to bypass urban areas and reduce peak flood heights.
The scheme includes levees, spillways, control banks and floodgates, has been designed to protect against minor and moderate levels of flooding. It was effective in diverting floodwaters from Central Maitland in 1971, when a 20 year flood occurred. Moderate levels of flooding were also experienced in 1978, 1989, 1998, and 2001. These floods were largely contained to rural communities on the floodplain.
The most recent test for the scheme came in the flood of June 2007, which peaked at 10.7 m at the Belmore Bridge gauge. The scheme worked according to plan by diverting floodwaters away from the city centre and residential areas. The spillway at Oakhampton overtopped and directed floodwater from the Hunter River, along the floodway and under the Long Bridge. The ring levee protected residential areas in South Maitland.
It is important to remember that flooding is inevitable and it is just a matter of time before we have another flood the size of 1955 (which reached 12.1 m at the Belmore Bridge). The flood mitigation scheme will only protect Maitland from moderate flooding, which means that a flood of 1955 magnitude will again inundate the Maitland area.
The State Emergency Service in NSW was created in 1955 in the aftermath of some of the most severe flooding ever experienced in the State. 50 years later, the SES exists in all NSW cities and shires, and is made up entirely of volunteers. The Maitland SES unit, with more than 50 active members, is the largest outside Sydney. (taken from 1955 Commemorative flood feature, p12)
As was experienced in June 2007, major floods can strike at any time and with little warning. History has shown that long periods of drought can be broken by sudden intense rainfall, resulting in severe flooding. It is important to be prepared at all times, listen to the local radio station for regular up-dates, and have a home emergency kit packed and ready to go if you need to evacuate.