Singleton’s Big Party ~ Howe’s That!

As mining cancerously erodes St. Patrick Plains’ alluvial bounty - “the finest sheep country he (John Howe) had seen since leaving England” - it is grim irony indeed that global conglomerates dispossess by legislative violence the Valley community’s rural inheritance, just as their ancestral land grantees in turn stole, with equal ruthlessness, the very same from its guileless Wonnarua custodians. 

The Singleton Times reported in April 1864 that:

Singleton is one of the most important inland towns in the colony, and yields the Government a large revenue, but she has not got any assistance to enable her to keep her position, facilitate her trade, or even make the town a tolerable place of residence.”
One and a half centuries later, “the governor” is still hoarding regional revenue, it seems:
According to the government’s own figures, Singleton has the state’s highest concentration of mining industry with a 43.24 “location quotient” (LQ… Yet Singleton – which contributes $340 million in royalties to the State’s coffers each year – continues to miss out,” said the Mayor of Singleton, Councilor Sue Moore. (Read more in this news item)

This is the background to the Hunter Valley township’s bicentennial commemoration - the 200th anniversary of explorers John Howe and Benjamin Singleton who discovered the upper Hunter’s most verdant and fertile treasure, (St.) Patrick Plains.  


The residents’ full appreciation, from a two-century vantage, of one of Australia’s most treasured regions that survived millennia of sustainable traditional ownership, its European occupation, and a century of agricultural abundance – and their qualms about the immediate riches of destructive and clearly unsustainable mining. The Singleton Bicentennial Commemorative Working Group met on 6 May to prepare for the BIG party. The group comprises community representatives and Council staff who raised a list of ideas including a procession, a grand ball, a statue, and a re-enactment of Howe’s and Singleton’s arrival. 

The working group is keen to hear from people in the community of their ideas, ahead of the next meeting later this month. Anyone with a suggestion is encouraged to email Council’s Community Participation Coordinator Claire Briggs at by 24 May 2019. Council staff will now collate all the ideas for the community commemoration to be reviewed at the working group’s next meeting on 27 May. Ideas from the community will also be presented to the meeting to add to the mix.

If you’ve got an idea or a suggestion for how we can mark this important event, we want to hear it,” Cr Moore said. It can be something small or something outlandish – at this stage everything is on the table as we work through a major event or a program of events to reflect Singleton’s history and all that we love about our area.”
Early Days

When the central bureaucracy of NSW failed to finance regional public infrastructure, it was left to the locals through a municipal law. When Singleton shire was created the new municipality had a population of approximately 2,160 persons, consisted of 301 acres, and 496 buildings. The election of the members of the new council was held on the 1 March 1866. 

Revenue was gathered by the levy of one shilling in the pound (5%) of unimproved value, a formula not far from today’s local government rates. Local historian Terry Callaghan goes into great detail on his website. Discussing Singleton and Architecture, Terry Callaghan notes that the township essentially came into existence some 30 years after the arrival of land grantees, who were growing their plantations of crops, flocks, and herds, on the fertile surrounds of Patrick Plains. When the northern railway line out of Newcastle reached Singleton in 1863, commerce finally flourished and the region’s produce more easily and rapidly made it’s way to Newcastle. 

Land values could only have increased due to the railroad, as “the price paid for good sections of farming lands is enormous.”

Pictured ~ Singleton’s 1914 train crash. An event for all the town to relish, even some sheep in town on a visit to the abattoir. Not a security guard or rent-a-fence in sight. Them were the days. Image courtesy NSW State Library.
Pictured at lead ~ George Street watering hole in 1903 – NSW State Library

The flood of workers, finding fast and easy access to the valley and its demand for farm labour had, within 3 years of rail, also brought a proliferation of “licensed public houses” - over 20 of them feeding the lowly workers’ hunger for “bad liquor, high charges, and drunkenness.” 

Sounds like a typical episode from an American western film, when the cow-pokes come to town. In Singleton’s case, it was no doubt the sheep shearers.


It was only then that significant public buildings were constructed. 

They were of the same style replicated throughout Australia, and Novocastrians will see similar fine examples in their CBD, which the city is fortunate to have afforded during its century of affluence, as the country enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the world during the 20th century – “home on the sheep’s back” was the motto for a prosperous century.

Singleton Mechanics Institute, 74 George Street. Image supplied by Singleton Council

Two buildings of note - both in George Street - characterise the era. The first and oldest building, the Mechanics Institute, was built in 1867. 

The second was the council building in 1911 for the “Shire of Patrick Plains Council.” Callaghan concludes:

.. it is argued that the ideals and values represented in Australia in the two centuries since settlement have reflected that of the parent British culture. In a Australian context our classical style moved from the simple plain Georgian Greek Greenway styles of early settlement to that of the massive buildings of the 1860s and 70s with the ornateness of a Victorian period. The persistence of classic designs well into the architecture of the 20th century only continuing its two and half thousand year march.

The classic architecture of Australia in these two centuries represented the ideals and values of a society. A society initially concerned with law and order, then one seeking as it were legitimization through its architecture. A society whose aspirations for independence and a national individualism inspired a mix or architectural styles but one which still maintains the under lying ideals and values of classicism as being a prerequisite for a cultural identity
Rural Wealth

When the Main Northern railway line reached Singleton in 1863 the area’s produce more easily made its way to Maitland and Newcastle, and agriculture expanded. The early settlers - already prosperous from their generous land grants - now found their wealth further multiplying as the expanding township presented a landholder’s favourite indulgence: the delight of suburban subdivision. 

Before the area was being settled, an attempt was made to create a town at Whittingham in a flood-free area, where the mansions reside. But, like all the Valley’s townships, it grew up beside the river instead. Townsfolk are so lazy. Public buildings aside, it was the land barons who put the region “on the map” for ostentatious grandiosity. Minimbah House at Whittingham, east of Singleton, is a 45-room mansion built in 1877 that features columns, long lacework verandahs, and an entry foyer with an ornately-carved cedar and rosewood staircase. Neotsfield homestead - “small” with “only 29 rooms” - at Whittingham was finished in 1828.

Baroona ~ The “Mannerist Mountain” which A.A. Dangar “caused to be raised in several stages around an early colonial core.” Horbury Hunt and Benjamin Backhouse among architect contributors to “the most fantastic country house in the Hunter Valley.”
Baroona, begun in 1829, described as a castle, the stately home..
…sits proudly on 100 acres of grazing country watered by 6 dams and town water, just South of the Hunter Valley town of Singleton and only 15 minutes drive from the Pokolbin Wine Region. You will be lost in the magic as you approach through the picturesque Jacarandah lined drive to the grand 'carriage drive' complimented by a semi circular lawn and signature brick surrounding wall.

The sandstone 'flagged' verandah and intricate carved double cedar front doors are the perfect invite into the wondrous home with its stunning cedar joinery, high ceilings ornate plasterwork, original marble and wild rose fireplaces. An opulent example of high Victorian architecture with an amazing convict built wine cellar, 26 main rooms, 7 bedrooms, 5 bathrooms, an observation tower…”

This YouTube published by estate sales in 2010 gives a breathtaking tour. The early rural prosperity is also evident in various large churches, elaborate convents, and civic buildings. Singleton’s high school, built in 1940, puts even Newcastle’s leading schools at the time almost to shame. 

Styled in the same brickwork fashion as Newcastle Boy’s High School, its four great columns, however, signal clearly who was the lesser cousin, who were the heirs to landed gentry, and who were the offspring of industrial workers.

Singleton High School in 2007. Image credit
Singleton’s Discovery

John Howe led the first party of white men to the Upper Hunter in 1819. He made a second trip in 1820. Benjamin Singleton was a member of the second party, but subordinate to Howe, who was authorised by Governor Macquarie to lead both expeditions. As a reward for the success of his mission, Howe was granted temporarily the grazing rights of the whole of Patrick Plains, and later as given a grant of land in the district. 

The former grant, as well as Howe's account of his trips and description of the country through which he passed, may be seen in the Mitchell Library. The prolific Newcastle historian, W. J. Goold, wrote in 1932 a detailed account of the trials confronting the two explorers (and apparently extremely bored Richmond locals) John Howe and Benjamin Singleton.

“St. Patrick’s Plains”

This is Goold’s account: At Kurry Jong (just out of Richmond) there was a young farmer and mill owner named Benjamin Singleton, a man of restless disposition who, like many of the old pioneers, was ever keen to know what lay beyond the hills. In the latter part of 1818 he fell in with a man named Parr, a Government mineralogist, who was endeavouring to find a track through the mountains. Singleton decided to join him, and took with him two of his as signed servants and an aboriginal, and after some difficulties the party succeeded in reaching what was later known as Howe's Valley. 

While they were endeavouring to find a way over the mountains, Singleton's aboriginal brought him the information that they were within a day’s march of a big river. Singleton, evidently realising that he would get very little credit for the discovery decided to give up the search and return to his farm. Parr could make no further headway on his own and, after some days of fruitless search, he also gave it up. On his return to Kurry Jong, Singleton confided the information that he had received from the aboriginal to his neighbour, John Howe. Howe at that time was the Chief Constable of Windsor, and he passed the information on to the Governor, with the result that he was instructed to form a party with himself as leader and Singleton as guide. 

They left Kurry Jong in February, 1810, and following Singleton's previous tracks they fought their way through the mountainous regions, meeting with blacks who had never seen a white man or a horse before. On March 17, 1819, they came down on the beautiful plains, near where Whittingham railway station is to-day. Being March 17, the name of St. Patrick was given to the plains. This has since been abbreviated to Patrick's Plains. John Howe described the plains as being the finest sheep country he had seen since leaving old England - miles of flat country, with very few trees. The party followed the river down to a heavy cedar brush (what is now West Maitland), where to their surprise they came upon a gang of convicts working under military guard, cutting down the cedar trees and lashing them into rafts to b' floated down to the lumber yards at Newcastle. 

Howe had no idea that they were so close -to the convict settlement, and the party at once retraced their steps and followed the river to where the town of Singleton is to-day. Here John Howe was taken ill, and a camp was made, some of the party staying with the leader, whilst the others pushed on to what is now Jerry's Plains. The name was given to this place owing to one of the servants named Jerry Butler, in the act of lighting a fire with the aid of some gunpowder from his flask, had the misfortune to blow his hand off.


This account of the discovery of Patrick's Plains does not altogether agree with the Journal of John Howe, but it is based on reports from the Singleton family, and seems to be fairly reasonable. John Howe was reimbursed by the Government to the amount of £74/14/6 for expenses incurred in the trip, and Howe, Singleton, and other members of the party received grants of land on the plains. The track followed by the Howe-Singleton party was a very rough and rugged road, and there was very little water available. 

The pass over the Bulga was for years known as the "drover's nightmare," but it was along this terrible road that Singleton and the early settlers brought their families, stock, and materials. This was, in fact, the first North road and the only means of reaching the Hunter River by land. Cunningham passed over this track from Windsor to Patrick's Plains, and in his book he describes it as being "90 miles over a rugged bridle track quite unfit to take even an empty cart."

Aerial of Singleton and Patrick Plains being consumed by open cut mining - in many areas deep alluvial soil is removed from agriculture for decades, as mining reaches the banks of the Hunter River.

Post a Comment

Additional information, anecdotes, etc., or corrections are welcome.

Previous Post Next Post