The Old Great North Road and The Convict Trail
Last Monday marked the Queen’s birthday – a bank holiday in most of Australia. So to get out of Sydney (any excuse for me!) but not have to travel too far, we headed up the historic Old Great North Road to the small town of Wisemans Ferry to see what has become known as The Convict Trail.
The Great North Road was built to link Sydney to the fertile Hunter valley in the north. The road was built by convicts between 1825 and 1836. It covers some 260 kilometres (162 miles) across some extremely rugged terrain. To put that into perspective, that’s about 26 kilometres per year or just over 2 kilometres per month. When you see (just part of) the old road and all of its support walls and drainage channels you will realise just how impressive that really is. Certainly impressive enough to be included on the Australian National Heritage List (added in August 2007) and also on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
A Little History
The road was a real feat of engineering but it was not exactly a success in practical terms. The steep gradients and the lack of water and horse feed along the route meant that it quickly fell into disuse. As soon as there were alternative means of getting to the Hunter Valley, such as new faster steamships and newer roads the Great North Road’s fate was basically sealed.
While much of the road was abandoned, parts of the original route has been overlaid by modern roads for the main route out of Sydney with only some evidence remaining. But once the other side of the Hawkesbury river a large section of the original road can be walked (or cycled) for some distance.
As it was constructed using convict labour this route is also known as ‘The Convict Trail’. Remember; this road was built by hand. We only saw a small part of it, but trust me, it is bloody impressive!
Hangman’s Rock was so called as it was thought that this place was used to hang convicts who tried to escape. A noose was hung from a tree above the hole in the rock formation and the prisoner was then pushed through the hole. Well that is what legend says but there is actually no real evidence that this did (or indeed did not) happen. But it was certainly used for something as steps were excavated up into the (mostly) covered area. Whatever this spot was used for it certainly makes for a great point of interest on the trail.
The small town of Wisemans Ferry sits on the banks of the Hawkesbury river about an hour and a half from the centre of Sydney. As close as it is to the metropolis, it could be a million miles away. The town (originally called Lower Portland Headland) was named Wisemans Ferry, after Solomon Wiseman, who was a former convict.
The huge Hawkesbury river dominates the area and boats are a big part of this town. Especially the ferry services which run 24/7 taking cars across the river. The crossings are free. Well, “free” unless you are a tax payer I suppose…
This was a bank holiday weekend so it was fairly busy. (I guess. I have nothing to measure it against this being the first time we had been there.)
Solomon Wiseman is one of those characters who would surely have made his mark in any era of history.
Wiseman was born in England in 1777 and had several jobs including working on barges on the river Thames and being employed by the British government to carry spies to France. In 1805 he was found guilty of stealing wood and was sentenced to death. As was quite common back then his sentence was commuted to ‘Transportation for Life’ in the new penal colony in New South Wales, Australia. On arrival he was almost immediately given conditional liberty and lived with his wife and two sons who had travelled to Australia with him. In 1810 he was given parole and in 1812 a full pardon.
Clearly a natural entrepreneur Wiseman wasted no time and built and ran a shipping business ferrying coal and timber up and down the coast. In 1817 Wiseman received a land grant in the area (from the then Governor Macquarie) and when he learned that the government was planing to build The Great North Road (so the story goes) he persuaded them to build it passing through his land. He later set up a ferry service crossing the Hawkesbury River and in 1827 he spotted the opportunity for the transport of produce and provisions to the convicts building the Great North Road. Unsurprisingly he later became known as King of the Hawkesbury.
Wiseman is buried in the town’s old cemetery a few kilometres downstream from the present day town. Like all of these old cemeteries – especially in these frontier/pioneer locations – there is a lot of nostalgia and history buried here…