The first inhabitants of the area around Singleton were the people of the Wanaruah tribal area, or the people of the hills and plains. The Great Spirit of the Wanaruah was Biame, the creator of all things, and known to the local Wanaruah people as the Keeper of the Valley. The Biame is depicted in red ochre in a sandstone cave at Milbrodale Gap, just south of Singleton, over what is now the Putty Road.
From the wall of the sandstone overhang... and into the Upper Hunter Valley. His long arms outstretched embracing the Valley and its people...All who come to this place feel the presence of Biame and sense that he still watches over the people and the Valley.
The first Europeans arrived in the area in 1820. John Howe, a farmer and the chief constable at Windsor had heard of the rich country in the valley along the Hunter River and in October 1819 decided to take an expedition to find out for himself.
Eleven days into the journey Howe looked down from the range of mountains to a vast valley extending as far as the eye could see to the east and northeast. The Aboriginal men guiding the party told him it was Kamilaroi country. The next day, the party came down the mountain into a widening valley with good grass and a stream, which was to be known as Doyle's Creek. They were able to travel downstream, marvelling at how rich the country was and collecting pieces of coal to take home (Banks et al).
Howe wrote the following in his journal in 1819, on seeing the area around Patrick's Plains:
"It is the finest sheep country I have ever seen since I left England... the grass on the low ground equals a meadow in England and will grow as good a swathe..."
Yet they did not know they were at the Hunter River. They turned back, tired, hungry and sick:
"...some natives we saw going out - the two of them (an old man and his son) seeing the horses look worse than when we went out, enquired what was the matter with them, I explained one of them had been ill and the road bad for them and almost knocked them up. He asked Murphy (a black native and who went as our guide and interpreter) which way he took us and was very angry, saying he took us the wrong way, that he and his son would take us a better way where the river was larger and deeper and on asking him which way the river ran he said "the water came from the sea and then went back again" & if it ran into the Coal River, "no, more further off a great deal" & on asking if he knew Port Stephens he said "no, he never been there," & on asking if there was much clear land down the river he said "Too much! Too much! Too much! All about" - he called the rest of the natives and many kept us company that day the others following came up to us at night - this afternoon we shot 2 large kangaroos one of which we gave them and keeping the hind quarters of the other gave them the remainder" (Banks et al).
In March 1820, John Howe set out on his second expedition, aiming to reach the Hunter River and travel along it. The expedition included a number of free settlers, volunteers and convicts and was accompanied by two Aboriginal guides, known as Myles and Mullaboy.
The group reached the Hunter River on 15 March 1820 and travelled downstream for five days, arriving at Wallis Plains. The route they followed is today known as the Putty Road (Banks et al).
All of the free men on the expedition received land grants in the Hunter Valley as a reward for their efforts in setting a route for travel from Windsor to the Hunter Valley. Among them was Benjamin Singleton, who was rewarded with a grant of 240 acres and established himself as a landholder and trader. He erected a residence near the ford that crossed the Hunter River.
The first one hundred years of Singleton's settled history were dominated by agriculture, and today dairy farms and cereal cropping primarily occupy the rich alluvial flats of the Hunter River and its tributaries, with more than 90% of these farms relying on irrigation from the river to produce their pastures and crops for milk production (CMA, 2006).
More recently the discovery of coal has transformed the area into one of the largest coal producers in NSW. Irrigator Neville Holtz has lived on the Hunter River all his life and remembers his father and grandfather fishing in the river when he was a child. Although the property is surrounded by five separate coal mines, he says he's determined to stick around to make sure the land is looked after. Neville spoke to Phil Ashley-Brown in 2003 about his experience of farming on the banks of the Hunter. (interview)
Floods have plagued residents and primary producers in Singleton for many years and a number of floods were recorded on the Hunter River during the 1800s including a major flood in 1832. There were several smaller floods in 1840 and in 1851 and then a series of catastrophic floods between 1857 and 1867. Descriptions of the Hunter River began to change dramatically through this time.
There was such concern over the degradation of the river and the rapid rate of bank erosion, in the mid 1800s that a government inquest was undertaken, resulting in the Moriarty Report of 1870.
Witnesses giving evidence for the Commission were among the first Europeans to take up land by the river and provide a telling record of change over the decades following settlement. They include compelling descriptions of the rapid acceleration of erosion: from a restricted, localised occurrence in the 1830s to a defining feature of the river by the 1860s (Spencer et. al, 2004).
In reference to the flood of 1867, Singleton resident, William Dangar described the changes to the river along his property;
"I lost a great deal of lucerne that I had sown, and the washing away of fences of course is a great loss, as well as the landslips on the banks of the river. In some instances several acres gone. I know one place where seven or eight acres went" (Spencer et. al, 2004).
Unfortunately major erosion of riverbanks along the Hunter continued throughout the 1900s, with the floods of 1955 and 1970 doing considerable damage, altering the shape and character of the Hunter River forever.
Thankfully the scale of erosion witnessed through the mid-1900s is no longer seen in the Hunter catchment. Following the flood of June 2007 - the second largest flood in both the Goulburn River and the middle Hunter around Singleton (after 1955), and in the Wollombi Brook (after 1949) - inspections carried out by agency staff and others involved in managing the river, revealed a positive picture.
Although there were some areas that suffered considerable damage from the June 2007 flood, notably areas downstream of Singleton at Whittingham, Scotts Flat and Belford, where riverbanks were washed away by powerful floodwaters, the picture overall was quite promising. It appears, from the inspections carried out at various locations along the river, that decades of rehabilitation and changing land management are paying off.
One of the people involved in the post-flood inspections was Nick Cook from the Aquatic Science Unit at the Department of Water and Energy (DWE). Nick has been working in the field of river rehabilitation and river ecology in the Hunter catchment for over 10 years and has made a significant contribution to the science that now informs decisions on how government funding is invested on the rehabilitation of the river.
"Surveys conducted pre and post June 2007 indicate that erosion occurred only in localised areas where there was sparse or no vegetation. Vegetation appeared to reduce erosion rates and prevented sediment from being washed down the catchment. Natural features such as pools and bars were largely unaffected (in the 1955 event these were flushed out or infilled) and no channel straightening or erosion of the macro channel occurred."
Nick says that the structure and function of the Hunter River have changed dramatically from what they were 200 hundred years ago, but the river has actually adjusted over time to the various disturbances that have impacted upon it.
"A thorough assessment of the characteristics of streams in the Hunter has been undertaken in recent years, producing 32 different 'river styles' over 10,000 km of river. These have then been ranked according to their fragility or vulnerability to change, which has led to an assessment of each stream's realistic recovery potential in its current state," explains Nick.
"In the Hunter, up to 48% of the Hunter's streams have been classified as having high recovery potential or better, while 34% have moderate and 18% low or no recovery potential."
"The case of nearby Wollombi Brook, a tributary of the Hunter River provides great cause for optimism. In the Wollombi Brook, which was in pretty poor shape in the 1970s, changing land management practices have meant that native vegetation has been allowed to naturally regenerate throughout the stream. This has helped to stabilise the highly-erodible sands, which are characteristic of the southern part of the Hunter catchment and as a result many of the natural features of the river are returning - like pools and riffles, which are so important for native fish."
"The potential for a similar recovery on the Hunter River is reasonably good, provided that planting of native trees and plants, improved stock management and weed control are undertaken to encourage natural regeneration of native pioneer species."