Author reflects on Hunter's colonial heritage


In a bicentennial year hampered by the global pandemic, the Back to Singleton 2020 program will culminate with an author talk by respected public historian and Singleton son Mark Dunn on his latest book, Convict Valley: The bloody struggle on Australia’s early frontier.

The descendant of convicts who settled in Singleton and a former chair of the Professional Historians Association of NSW and ACT, Mr Dunn’s book examines the Hunter’s history as the second and one of the biggest penal settlements in Australia, covering an approximately 60-year span from the 1790s to tell the stories of the region’s rich colonial heritage and original Aboriginal landholders.

The free event will be held at Singleton Civic Centre on Thursday 10 December 2020 at 6pm. Bookings are required in keeping with COVID-19 requirements.

Mr Dunn said the idea had been in the back of his mind for a long time, but became a book as the result of a PhD – appropriately in the 200th year since John Howe led the European exploration party (also including Benjamin Singleton) that found a route between Windsor and Singleton.

As well as delving into the personal papers of some of the region’s biggest landholders and the resources of the State Library of NSW, the Newcastle Regional Library and the University of Newcastle, his research brought him home to Singleton to the Library and the Local History Society.

Mr Dunn also met with Aboriginal elders not to definitely tell their story, but because “once I got going, it was very obvious you couldn’t tell one side of the story without the other because the Aboriginal and particularly the convict history are totally intertwined from day one”.

“There’s lots of little things I didn’t know about, but one thing that stood out when I finished that wasn’t really a surprise, but I was surprised I hadn’t thought of it, was how so much of the stories revolve around Singleton,” he said.

“The fact that the Putty Road was the main colonial road for people to come in overland from Sydney, who were all mainly convicts and small farmers coming from Windsor. Then the other way were all the really big land grants that started around Singleton and go north – so Glendon, Castle Forbes, Minimbah, Ravensworth – and they’re being granted to rich newcomers and both of those groups don’t like each other, and they run into each other at Singleton because that’s where the two roads come together.

“There’s a lot of Aboriginal stories around Singleton that I wasn’t aware of as well, and there’s some pretty awful violence, but also there’s lots of conflict amongst the classes of settlers – the convicts versus the rich. And that all plays out around the Singleton area.”

Mr Dunn said the purpose of the book was to demonstrate the importance and significance of the Hunter Valley in Australia’s colonial history.

“The other thing that I was trying to get at from the very start was we look around the Hunter now and we see all the big houses and the vineyards. When you look at that landscape, it looks very settled, and it doesn’t look like there was a lot of problems around it,” he said.

“But what I’m trying to show people is that that’s just the end result of all the struggles that went underneath it – all the Aboriginal resistance, and this idea that convicts actually built that valley.”

Mayor of Singleton, Cr Sue Moore said there was a great response in the first months of the bicentennial year this year, with community organisations and businesses planning their own events and people turning out for the free weekend-long commemorations over 13-15 March 2020 including Singleton Homecoming, Singleton Big Day Out and Singleton Soiree just before the COVID-19 lockdown took effect.

“When we finalised our Back to Singleton 2020 program, we had no idea that a global pandemic would impact the year of commemorations we had planned,” she said.

“It was wonderful to see the community come together to work on a fantastic program of events for the year, and disappointing to see most of them cancelled and the bicentennial take a back seat to the challenges of COVID-19 restrictions.

“But I’m pleased restrictions have eased so that we can cap off our bicentennial year with a literary event to reflect on our history and the stories of the people that made this area the place it is today.

“I’m looking forward to welcoming Mark Dunn back home to Singleton to talk about his new book and the decades he has dedicated to researching the history and archaeology of our region.

“I know there will be a lot of interest in this event and I’m glad we can end our bicentennial year with some reflection of the traditional owners and the early settlers who laid the foundations for what we now know as the Singleton local government area.”

Bookings are essential and may be made via Eventbrite at or for more information, contact Singleton Library on 02 6578 7500.