Saving Life and Property

Maitland’s Boat Brigade for Times of Flood

Colourful streamers stretched across the water and spectators lined the riverbanks, while the Federal Band played upbeat tunes and ladies served tea from a patriotically decorated tent. The impressive turnout was for the 1915 Carnival at the Horseshoe Bend of the Hunter River at Maitland, hosted by the West Maitland Water Brigade. The afternoon’s events were outlined in a special programme, which now survives among a collection of ephemera (paper items) collected by the Brigade, also including a 1912 rule booklet, a printed meeting notice form, and the Brigade’s minute book for 1908 to 1912. 

The Hunter River/Coquun provided amusement and sport for local people at such events, but ironically, it was the flooding of that same watercourse that constantly threatened residents with loss of property, and their lives. Recurring floods have always been, and remain, an integral part of the life in the Hunter Valley.

Following devastating flooding in 1870, the water brigade was formed by the local council, and drew on volunteer community members who could both swim and row. The brigade’s regattas were held regularly since the 1870s, but their work wasn’t all boat races and games. The crew never knew when they would be needed, so they trained regularly and maintained a boatshed on the riverbank, from which they could quickly launch their rescue boats during times of flood.

But despite helping in numerous floods, the organisation and its membership struggled at various times. A new committee was appointed in 1909 and the 1915 carnival was a popular success, but the Brigade became dysfunctional by the 1920s. Its rescue work was taken over by the West Maitland Rowing Club, surf boat crews from elsewhere, and today, the State Emergency Service (SES). This document collection now survives as a reminder of Maitland’s early efforts in community flood rescue.