Maitland will celebrate its bicentenary in 2018 and historians are already searching for stories and images of life in pioneer times in preparation for the event.
Early Maitland notes from 1818 tell tales of runaway convicts from Newcastle stockade, a miserable place often referred to as hell by convicts, many of whom made it to Maitland.
William Slater, a silk weaver who had been transported for some minor offence, in a letter to his wife dated April 27, 1815 refers to the area now known as Maitland:
“About 80 miles up the river on the second branch, there are a few settlers, farmers, but these men are prisoners also, who have not a grant for particular services performed to government.
“These men are settlers at Patterson’s Plains, and the grain they grow does not leave Newcastle, neither is any traffic allowed to this part, saving in coals, the line being all wanted for the government.”
Slater also wrote about runaway convicts:
“Men at this settlement reduced to the last state of despair, frequently run into the woods, and live upon what nature in her uncultivated state affords among the wild production of the forest.
“But soon the delusion vanishes, starvation threatens them close and afraid to return to their duty they make the best route they can, crossing rivers and lakes, and sleeping in the open air, enduring every privation of comfort, until if they should survive fatigue, they arrive at some settlement where hope of the fostering hand of Christianity may lead them, pity induces some of the poor settlers to relieve them.
“But fear which ever haunts the guilty mind, makes then afraid to stay long in a place till at length they are apprehended, when they receive a severe punishment for their misconduct and provided they do not stand charged with any additional robbery, they are then returned to where they ran from, where they are again punished.
“Many are compelled from hunger to give themselves up and very frequently so starved they can scarcely crawl upon their hands and knees in the happy spot of a dungeon.”
Slater illustrated with his words the deplorable immoral state of the colony in the first two decades.
“Women are generally of a very drunken cast.
“Marriage was not known until the influence of Governor Macquarie to his credit, that ceremony is very frequently solemnised, and people do not depend upon each other’s word quite so much.
“Scores of women I know have cohabited regularly with different men and lived as man and wife happily with each and with unconcern about it.”
Source: Coalfields Heritage Group