The Convict Valley: The Bloody Struggle on Australia's Early Frontier

Shortlist year: 2021

Shortlist category: Australian history

Published by: Allen & Unwin

In 1790, five convicts escaped Sydney by boat and were swept ashore near present-day Newcastle. They were taken in by the Worimi people, given Aboriginal names, and started families. Thus began a long and at times dramatic series of encounters between Aboriginal people and convicts in the second penal settlement in Australia.

The fertile valley of the Hunter River was the first area outside the Sydney basin explored by the British, and it became one of the largest penal settlements. Today manicured lawns and prosperous vineyards hide the struggle, violence and toil of the thousands of convicts who laid its foundations. The Convict Valley uncovers this rich colonial past, as well as the story of the original Aboriginal landholders. While there were friendships and alliances in the early years, in the later scramble for land in the 1820s—as the Valley was opened to free settlers—tensions rose and bloodshed ensued.

With fascinating stories about convicts, white settlers and the Aboriginal inhabitants that have long been forgotten, 'The Convict Valley' is a new Australian history classic.

About the author

 Mark Dunn

Mark Dunn

Mark Dunn is a public historian and former chair of the Professional Historians Association of NSW and ACT. He is descended from convicts who settled in the Hunter, and he has spent two decades investigating the history, heritage and archaeology of the region.

Judges’ comments

'The Convict Valley' is a study of the colonial invasion of the Hunter Valley in NSW. Known today for its vineyards, horse studs, cattle and coal mines, it stretches northwest from Newcastle to the escarpment overshadowing Murrurundi. Until a boatload of convict escapees from Sydney washed ashore near Port Stephens in 1790, this was the traditionally managed, undisturbed country of the Worimi, Kamilaroi, Wonnarua, Birpa and Awabakal people, a landscape richly endowed with food resources and imbued with a culture evident in numerous rock art and ceremonial sites.

Mark Dunn's narrative history traces, in large part, the interplay between Aboriginal people, convicts, and free settlers from their earliest peaceful encounters to the bloody struggle that accompanied the land rush of the 1820s. Importantly, he restores to centre stage the valley's original inhabitants and defenders, and the convicts whose labour laid the foundations for the industry and wealth characterising the Hunter today.

Beautifully written and finely researched, Dunn successfully balances multiple perspectives in a nuanced work that never loses sight of the fundamental role played by Aboriginal people, whose 'skill, knowledge and bushcraft' many colonists relied on, but who were 'excluded from the very economy they had helped establish'.