Molly Morgan is the best known today of Maitland's first settlers, but John Smith runs her close. Both "made good" from difficult convict beginnings and amassed considerable wealth.
Of all the original dozen who were given plots of land at Wallis Plains in 1818, these two prospered the most although Molly was to die poor.
Smith, born in Manchester in about 1787, was transported to Sydney in 1809. Within two years he had absconded and returned to England, but he offended again, was tried again and transported a second time. Back in Sydney he was convicted yet once more, of robbery, and sent to Newcastle.
He shares with Molly Morgan the "achievement" of returning to England from the other side of the world (a none-too-easy feat) and being transported a total of three times.
Once in Newcastle Smith began to turn his life around. Probably by ingratiating himself with Commandant James Wallis, he was made Chief Constable, a position he held until 1823 when he received a conditional pardon.
He was in charge of up to 17 constables and supervised the gaol in Newcastle. These positions placed him in good stead to become one of the dozen who were given land at Wallis Plains in 1818: on this start he was to build a sizeable property empire in Maitland and Newcastle over the following half century.
Smith was a man with an eye for the main chance. He was ambitious and determined, a sycophant to those in authority and an indefatigable seeker after commercial opportunity. His land at Wallis Plains, sited on the eastern bank of Wallis Creek, was productive thanks to the toil of the convicts assigned to him rather than to his own efforts. He lived largely in Newcastle, where he set himself up as a publican, a provider of accommodation and a retailer.
He bought a small ship, the Elizabeth, for trade between Newcastle and Sydney, and he became involved in flour milling. His portfolio of commercial interests was large and varied.
At Wallis Plains Smith expanded his farm by acquiring land from neighbours and building cottages on it. Other land was also acquired, and by 1828 he had 775 acres, a far cry from the roughly 30 he had started with only a decade earlier. He also had a hotel on what became Newcastle Rd, plus a steam flourmill and several shops and cottages.
His success was not always welcomed by others. According to Cynthia Hunter's book about Maitland's original settlers (Bound for Wallis Plains), he was called a "scoundrel" who affected "airs", and his lifelong habit of ingratiating himself with those in authority must have irritated many.
An egotist, he exaggerated his contribution to the community in a letter published in the Mercury in 1855: in it he painted himself as a benefactor. But there can be no doubt that he was a substantial contributor to the economic development of Maitland. He proved that convicts as much as free settlers could play a part.
- Maitland and District Historical Society