POSSIBLY the most fascinating single group of migrants to ever settle in the Lower Hunter would be the 'Lacemakers of Calais'.
Strangely, they were mostly neither French, nor even lacemakers soon after their arrival in Australia after fleeing persecution and poverty.
The late Maitland historian Harry Boyle became obsessed with their romantic tale and avidly followed threads of families involved whenever he made a connection.
It's a big story starting 172 years ago, but it begins locally when scores of lacemaker emigrants sailed into the Australian colonies on three ships, the Fairlie, the Harpley and the Agincourt in 1848.
Other ships followed, but it's said that these first three vessels carried about 80 per cent of the economic exiles from France, who were really English artisans, who earlier had settled and worked near the port of Calais in northern France.
The sailing ship, Harpley, took its passengers to settle in Adelaide, but the new arrivals on both the Fairlie and Agincourt landed in Port Jackson (Sydney) after three-month voyages.
To prevent new arrivals disembarking to sample the fleshpots of Sydney, most of the Fairlie lacemakers were rushed off to Bathurst, in country NSW.
The Agincourt's passengers, though, were spilt in half. One half went upriver to the Parramatta immigrants' barracks, before being transported also across the Blue Mountains to Bathurst, a 10-day journey away.
The other half was soon dispatched by steamer to our river port of Morpeth from where they walked to the East Maitland barracks to be helped with jobs as rural labourers, including as shepherds, or as female domestic servants.
According to group historian Gillian Kelly, OAM, part of their original agreement to come to Australia stipulated the Lacemakers of Calais would not bring their trade with them.
And they didn't, except for a few scraps of machinery plans. The new arrivals then moved on, away from the dirty, noisy trade that had until then dominated their lives, Kelly says.
Almost 700 men, women and children came on those first three ships and while at least nine other vessels later carried fellow refugees, it is the original arrivals with all their knowledge and skills who were the original Lacemakers of Calais and who are the focus of the present society of descendants.
Australia was a land of opportunity, of sunshine and food and the children of the newly arrived artisans did not have to work long hours in early childhood. It was also the era of gold rushes and land acts achieved what many thought previously impossible - to finally own their own land.
Historian Kelly, who has already written two books on the subject of the English machine lacemakers, has called their story almost too big to fully document.
And it's easy to see why. The Australian Society of the Lacemakers of Calais (ASLC) was formed in 1982 and finally announced its last issue of the society magazine Tulle (French for net) in August 2018 after 36 years.
According to Kelly, the story of the lacemakers is a vast, wide-open topic, best tackled in small, specific bites.
She says there's a story of drinkers on the verandah of the old Traveller's Arms at East Maitland, swapping yarns and of family links with Kate Kelly, the sister of iron outlaw Ned Kelly.
Also a link to Holden cars and to Sir Garfield Barwick, a direct descendant of the Calais lacemakers, who was the seventh and longest-serving Chief Justice of Australia (1964-81) and a federal minister in the Menzies Government.
There's a strong link to the NSW gold rushes in 1851 at a spot on the Turon River goldfields (near Sofala) called the Maitland Bar and inhabited by ex-lacemakers.
My interest in the Calais lacemakers was reawakened by a recent email from Robin Gordon OAM, of Belmont, herself a lacemaker descendant.
She wrote that the society was forever endeavouring to find more of its lacemaker families and among the surnames of those English and French lacemakers was a family called Roe, which this history page had recently featured. Could I help?
"These people came here, escaping the economic unrest and upheaval in Europe and the UK in 1848 - this is the unrest and disastrous times about which (writer) Victor Hugo basedhis book (later a popular musical) Les Miserables,"she wrote.
Like many others, Gordon's own interest in past family ties began with some family history research at Newcastle Region Library in Laman Street ages ago.
For the full background to the whole saga you really have to go back to Nottingham in the English Midlands at the end of the 18th century. Author Gillian Kelly discovered it was "a dirty trade of sweat shops and pathetic wages, long hours, cruelty to little working girls (but) still totally unable to meet the growing demand" for the delicate, netlike, ornamental fabric.
The first lace machines, which could produce tulle, were invented in the early 1800s in Nottingham. The tulle base was embroidered by hand, to make a lace fabric.
England led the world in mechanical textile manufacture but was hugely protective of its industry. Across the English channel, France imposed high tariffs on English lace, so around 1816 a businessman smuggled a Leavers loom machine, a "monster" of 15 tons into Calais to begin afresh. It was dismantled in England and crated up as scrap iron to be re-assembled in the village of Saint-Pierre, just outside the Calais walls.
Soon 11 machines were in operation, all operated by Englishmen. Then the French began operating their own copied machines. Everything seemed cosy.
In the 1830s, equipment modifications meant it was then possible to produce real lace entirely by machine.
By the early 1840s, more than 1500 English lacemakers were in France and with their families, meaning about 3000 people overall.
But in 1848 came a new French revolution. All lace factories were closed and the English lace factory owners returned to England. Their destitute workers left behind were caught in a vice between going to English poorhouses or being broke and menaced in France.
Some 114 families initially petitioned the British Government for assistance to emigrate to Australia and the rest is history.
Some British families, however, chose to stay and 91 years later, in 1939, the Nazis invaded France and sent these potentially English "spies" off to internment camps.
The final word here then, should maybe go to Maitland-born June Howarth. Writing in the last Tulle magazine in 2018, she said she had moved into a retirement unit at Closebourne, Morpeth, after living for 47 years in Sydney's Roseville.
She was inspired by her great grandmother Rose Saywell who had come to Morpeth in 1848 via the ship Agincourt when she was 18 years old.
"As residents drive from our village we look down on scene similar to a French landscape - ploughed fields, green pastures and farmers at work. A family friend and World War I veteran used to liken the view of Hinton Anglican Church and surrounds to a French village. It seems I have come the full circle," Howarth wrote.