In 1820 Wallis Plains (later Maitland) was a tiny rural settlement, two years old and probably comprising 30-40 people on a dozen holdings spread over three miles of floodplain land along the right bank of the Hunter River and astride Wallis Creek.
Roughly equally on the sites of today's central Maitland and the lower portion of East Maitland, it was composed mostly convict farmers, some with wives and children, several convict labourers and a small detachment of soldiers to guard and supervise them all.
Its economy was simple in the extreme, semi-subsistence farmers feeding themselves and disposing of their surpluses to the government to help feed Sydney and Newcastle.
The settlement had been established by Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who had decided to allow a small number of convicts and others to occupy land as farmers. This was an extension of Macquarie's policy of promoting agricultural development using not only free settlers and former army officers but also emancipists. His initial experiment at Patersons Plains (between today's Paterson and Woodville) from 1812 had met with success, and Wallis Plains was a repeat effort.
The extension from emancipists to serving convicts must have seemed risky: the convicts were repeat offenders, transported twice or three times including their forced relocation from Sydney to Newcastle. They were probably considered 'the worst of the worst', but they had behaved well at Newcastle.
Macquarie offered them a better life than the one they were experiencing in the new penal colony, where work conditions and brutal military rule made life even more unpleasant than it had been in Sydney. Doubtless the harshness was thought appropriate for repeat offenders.
The Governor must have reasoned that, with a measure of freedom, assistance allocated to help them clear their holdings and a promise of title to their land if they made a success of their farms, those chosen for the new settlement had sufficient incentive to make good. And so they did, growing crops and raising livestock. The disposal of their produce was based on bartering for tea, sugar, coarse clothing and other items in Newcastle.
Essentially, the Patersons Plains and Wallis Plains settlements were experiments based on convicts being given the chance to become independent farmers. They were part of Macquarie's vision of developing a commercial economy. So long as they could plant, nurture and harvest their crops, tend to their animals, supplement their diets from the natural bounty of the land and the lagoons and ship their surpluses down the river, the experiment had a good chance of success.
The risk Macquarie took in trusting the convicts, as it turned out, was small. Nobody appears to have let him down, and some of the settlers eventually secured ownership of their holdings. The arrangement worked for the settlers, their allocated convicts and for the government, which saw convicts off their hands and functioning productively.