After the devastating flood of 1955, there was much discussion in Maitland about relocating the original town to the high ground of East Maitland.
This was not the first time such an idea had been entertained: it had been a live issue during the late 1820s after several floods. A governmental attempt at relocation failed, as was to happen again after 1955.
In 1829 George Boyle White, on orders from Surveyor General Sir Thomas Mitchell, laid out East Maitland which the government sought to promote as the administrative centre and primary business focus of the Hunter Valley.
At the time Maitland's growth was largely confined to the Port of Maitland and along High Street. A ragged, strung-out ribbon of commercial premises and dwellings had formed at this jumping-off point for overland travel to the upper Hunter and beyond.
The government's effort to shape Maitland's development to make it less prone to floods was not immediately successful. There were water supply difficulties in East Maitland, and those who had dwellings and were pursuing livelihoods in High St and at the Port rejected the longer commuting trips that would have been needed.
The original Maitland was raw, lawless, "unkempt and unblessed" as W Allan Wood had it in Dawn in the Valley, but it had the magnetic attraction of a bustling centre where money could be made. The officially ordained, planned Town of Maitland, where land was available for purchase from 1833, could not match the advantage that West Maitland's critical mass had already generated.
People needed to be close to the action of the town on the floodplain. Jostling for custom and work meant being where the customers and work were.
Growth in the "government town" was thus slow despite provision having been made for public buildings and open spaces, churches, schools, a cemetery and a grid network of streets. Some West Maitland people even petitioned the governor to abandon the planned hill town and relocate the post office to the original town.
Some, indeed, had wanted West Maitland re-established across the river on McDougall's Brush (today's site of Lorn).
In 1832 it was reported in the Sydney Monitor that "finding by repeated floods that the site [of West Maitland] has been injudiciously chosen, they are about to petition the Governor that [the town] may be removed to the opposite bank of the river where the bank is higher." But the land there was only marginally higher, and far from secure from floods.
Years later, George Boyle White was still arguing against development in the original Maitland. In a letter to the Maitland Mercury after a particularly damaging flood in 1857 he raised his "warning voice against building on the low lands of West Maitland". But East Maitland was to match the West's growth only when the West was essentially full apart from low-lying, highly flood prone land.
Floods mattered, but not enough to remake the town whatever the authorities thought. In the end the government could not force people to live where they did not wish to live. With more big floods like those of 1820 and 1955, things might have been different.
The original town suffered many more floods after the 1830s. But none could make it move.
Maitland District Historical Society