A bit of our story
Pre European Settlement
Once covered in dense rainforest the Morpeth area was probably occupied by the Gringgai clan of the Wanaruah indigenous peoples who called it 'Illalung'. It is known that the Wanaruah had trade and ceremonial links with the Kamilaroi people. They favoured goannas as a food source, covering larger animals in hot ashes and stuffing them with grass. They also adopted burning off practices as the new shoots which emerged after fire attracted kangaroos which they surrounded and killed with clubs and spears (du-rane) barbed with sharp stones.
The first Europeans in the area were the party of Lt Col. Paterson who undertook an exploration of the Hunter River in 1801. Paterson named the locality Green Hills. The land here was granted in 1821 to Lt Edward Close, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, as a reward for service as Engineer of Public Works at Newcastle. He built an impressive homestead, Closebourne House (still standing), around 1826 which became the residence of the various Bishops of Newcastle from 1848 to 1912. He built a new Residence up the hill - Morpeth House - which he later sold to the Anglican Church who used ot for some time as a centre for theological learning.
A bridge over Wallis Creek was erected in 1827 facilitating trade with the township of Wallis Plains (now Maitland) which, although 40 km away by river, was just 5 km by road.
The years from 1827-1830 saw Green Hills developing as a river port. However, the locality really took off after the arrival, in 1831, of the first paddle steamer (the Sophia Jane). It was soon a regular, along with the William IV, the first Australian-made, ocean-going paddlesteamer. In 1832 the first proper wharf was erected and the first two inns were licensed. A proper road to Maitland was built by convict labour in 1833.
Close subdivided the land with the first batch of allotments sold in 1834. A private town was established which, at this time, took the name Morpeth which was originally the name of a town near Newcastle in England.
Morpeth became the major port of the Hunter Valley and surrounding districts between 1832 and 1890 with a regular steamer service operating to Maitland, up to Paterson and down to Newcastle. An important trade, cultural, commercial and religious centre, much of the Hunter Valley's produce passed through its wharves en route to Newcastle and Sydney while most persons and goods headed from those centres into the valley and beyond also set foot on its wharves.
Lt Close set up the first school in 1836, the year both Anglican and Catholic services commenced. A Catholic Church was built in 1836 and the foundation stone of St James' Church was laid in 1837. The first post office opened in 1838, a steam mill was built in 1840 and a soap works in 1844. In the 1840s Caleb Soul, of Soul-Pattinson pharmaceuticals, manufactured talcum powder and William Arnott, later of Arnott's biscuits, had a bakery here. Their businesses were both located on the river side of Swan St, between Tank and Northumberland Sts. The first national school opened in 1862, the year the population peaked at 1830. There were ten hotels in the town when it became a municipality in 1866.
Rail Triumphed over River
However, Newcastle had begun to grow, and the Great Northern Railway, which reached Maitland in 1857, initially bypassed Morpeth. Although the extension of the railway to the outskirts of town in 1864 and to the wharves in 1870 the river had begun to silt up. The completion of the rail link between Newcastle and Sydney in 1889 sealed the fate of the river trade and the fortunes of Morpeth.
Morpeth was formally amalgamated into the City of Maitland in 1969. It re-emerged in the late 1980s as a tourist attraction with the opening of the gift shops. At the top of High St is the Tank St T-intersection. To the right is St James Parish Hall, built in 1845 and once used as a schoolhouse. To the left is St James Anglican Church. The rectory dates from 1843.
The church is said to represent the fulfilment of a vow made by Edward Close at the Battle of Albuera in 1811, during the Peninsular War, that he would build a house of worship if his life were spared. The foundation stone was laid in 1837 and the initial design was presumably Close's. It was consecrated in 1840. Only the tower remains of the original building. There is a memorial window to Close in the eastern wing, commissioned and funded in 1872 by the community in recognition of his services and largesse.
Noted architect Edmund Blacket was employed in 1862 to extend the east end by the addition of a chancel and sanctuary. He inserted new cedar pews which still remain and he designed both a distinguished font and a stone pulpit. The latter, beautifully carved by D. Yeates of Maitland, is an exact replica of a pulpit built in 1280 for a Cistercian Abbey which had since become Beaulieu Parish Church where Bishop Tyrrell, who funded the extensions, had been rector.
In 1874 J. Horbury Hunt, colonial Australia's most original and interesting architect, was commissioned to rebuild the nave after a fire. Under instructions to alter the character of the building as little as possible he subordinated his personal creativity. His major contribution is a fine and beautifully crafted hammerbeam roof. Thus the tower was designed by Close, the chancel by Blacket and the nave by Hunt. And yet the building has a unifed feel. The organ inside was built in 1877.
Edward Close and John Howe, the leader of the first overland expedition into the Hunter (from Windsor to the Singleton area), are buried in the cemetery. Standing outside the entryway of the church looking across Tank St a series of brush box trees planted in two rows in the early 1890s form a walkway which connects the church to Closebourne House , then the episcopal residence.
Find you way around our fabulous village
Maitland City Council put out this Heritage Walk a few years ago now, and much of it is still relevant and accurate.