Maitland's name, Napoleon and the Red Baron

Homage to Red Baron: An Australian firing party salutes von Richthofen at his funeral  in April 1918. Photo: Australian War Memorial
Homage to Red Baron: An Australian firing party salutes von Richthofen at his funeral in April 1918. Photo: Australian War Memorial

WHY was the Hunter Valley town of Maitland so named? One locally popular theory is that it was named after the commander of the British warship Bellerophon on blockade duty off France in 1815.

The battle of Waterloo had recently been fought and the ‘scourge of Europe’ Napoleon Bonaparte, once a political non-entity who had risen to become the all-conquering French emperor, was defeated at last.

The surrendering General Bonaparte had sought refuge on the British frigate intending to seek asylum in England. Instead, he was banished to a bleak South Atlantic island where he died six years later, in May 1821.

Captain Frederick Maitland commanded the Royal Navy’s Bellerophon taking Napoleon into permanent exile. And Maitland NSW later became home to many British war veterans from the Napoleonic wars who settled here to farm.

So, it’s not a wild stretch to believe Maitland township was re-named from Wallis Plains (a name originally given to it in 1818 by colonial governor Lachlan Macquarie) in honour of Captain Maitland R.N. But is it true?

Hunter history researcher Suzanne Martin has been puzzled for years and recently did a bit more sleuthing. Her search led to a letter in the Maitland Mercury on February 12,1885. Labelled ‘The Hunter 50 years ago’, the letter – submitted by a Dungog resident – is a valuable insight into the valley’s past life, if the author was being entirely truthful. The published letter contained an extract of another letter written supposedly by an octogenarian living in Nelson, New Zealand, who had formerly lived in Dungog in 1835. 

The unnamed NZ letter writer spoke of Dungog being covered with small ti-trees when he first arrived there in April 1832. He remembered no homes at Dungog, Raymond Terrace, Seaham, Hinton, Clarence Town and also in the river township of Morpeth. This was also known not as Morpeth, but as ‘The Green Hills’, or ‘St Michael’, the archangel’s name being painted on a hulk moored in the river and used as a store ship, like a grocer shop.

“Miller the boat builder was squatted down in the forest which stille (sic) bears his name” (today’s Millers Forest).

The letter writer claimed Raymond Terrace took its name from a drunken surveyor who was there for up to nine months and had laid out the township.

The writer continued: “The Paterson township was called ‘Old Banks’ and was the end of the world”. As Paterson was the older settlement, Maitland at that time was called ‘New Banks’, or ‘Wallace’s (sic) Plains’ after soldier James Wallis.

According to the old pioneer at letter’s end, Maitland “took its name from Sir George Maitland, at that time Under Secretary for the Colonies and MP for the Borough of Whitchurch in Hampshire, England.”

Well, it’s not conclusive proof, but it might do for the moment. Sir George was around in the 1830s, so the timing for the official re-naming to Maitland (in 1833) seems right.   

As Suzanne Martin, a former Maitland girl herself, said: “I’m pleased to know at last who our Maitland was named for.”

Maitland named after a long-forgotten English politician? I’d never have guessed it.

Speaking of Napoleon Bonaparte, he’s still very much in the public eye almost 200 years after his death on the remote island of St Helena.

The latest effort is a hefty book by Oxford University professor Michael Broers. Napoleon, The Spirit of the Age (Allen & Unwin $59.99). It is an impressive, scholarly work and volume II of the Corsican wolf’s biography covering 1805-1810. Drawing on new research, copious detail and Napoleon’s newly edited letters, the book states that it allows us to hear Napoleon’s true voice. 

The book traces his extraordinary stamina to mastermind a series of victories, including at Austerlitz, which brought him to the borders of Russia, while at the same time his own family struggled to survive. It’s an intriguing and revealing study in power and audacity, of how Napoleon struck ruthlessly with his Grande Armee, rampaging across the old continent of Europe on a blood-drenched mission.

Author Broers remarks that what had begun as a desperate gamble in 1805 to save himself, ended in humiliation and defeat for his foes, hammered with a truly multi-national European army, one that was now almost invincible.

Spirited dictator: The cover of the new Napoleon biography.

Spirited dictator: The cover of the new Napoleon biography.

Red Baron anniversary

HOW time flies. Last Saturday marked the 100th anniversary of the death of a famous, feared German World War I flying ace, the Red Baron, on the Western Front. But who really killed him? The controversy about who did in the legendary ‘Red Falcon’ – as he was known during his own lifetime – has re-ignited.

Baron Manfred von Richthofen, aged 25, had 80 confirmed kills under his belt when shot down over Australian trench lines on April 21, 1918. He was buried with full military honours by Australian soldiers, who fired a volley of rifle shots (pictured) over his coffin to mark the passing of their feared foe.

As to who shot down von Richthofen, there are several contenders. One was a pursuing Canadian pilot Roy Brown, but most experts now rule him out.

Then there were the crews of two Australian machine guns on the ground, firing up. Australian gunnery sergeant Cedric Popkin is often credited as being the best candidate for bringing down the Red Baron’s Fokker triplane.

Australian war historian Charles Bean believed it was probably Popkin’s bullet that killed the Red Baron judging on the angle, a side-on, single fatal shot, which entered the German’s heart. Decades later however, Popkin himself wasn’t so sure he had fired the fatal shot.

So, is it possible a Central Coast man Robert Buie, a former WWI Lewis gunner with the 53rd battery AIF was responsible?

My money is on Buie. Even the headstone on his grave in Brooklyn Cemetery, off the old Pacific Highway, claims he downed the Red Baron and was then congratulated by four generals.  Ironically, Buie, an oyster farmer, died while fishing at Mooney Mooney Creek on Anzac Day 1964.

Gunner Buie himself was always convinced his bullets had hit the right side and front of the Baron’s red triplane, which then banked and came down near abandoned brickworks. Aussie soldiers swarmed on the scene for souvenirs and tore apart the plane. Buie found Richthofen’s fur-lined boots were missing, as was his helmet.

The Red Baron was equally famous because he’d painted his aeroplane bright scarlet. He’d commanded an elite flying unit widely known as Richthofen’s (flying) Circus. Just before his end, von Richthofen had been chasing a terrified rookie Allied pilot when Canadian pilot Brown got on his tail, firing his guns. The hunter had become the hunted.

Despite the mutual respect WWI aviators had for each other, von Richthofen was not held in high regard by everyone. Aviation writer David Crotty wrote WWI Aussie air mechanic Harold Edwards reported in 1990 that the Flying Circus hunted as a pack, up to 10 aircraft.

“If they (then) saw something . . . the poor sod they caught below didn’t stand a chance. Richthofen had the pleasure of shooting him down. I didn’t look on that as being the wonderful dog-fighter he was credited as being,” Edwards said.