History is a wonderful thing, it provides us with a frame of reference, a background and tales of the past, ours. It is our greatest shame that our children are not taught Australian history in our schools and are instead taught mostly English maritime history.
Australian history or the deeds and challenges of the past are epic, from the trials of the native Australians to the building of our nation, including both the good, the bad and the downright distasteful.
This time though I would like to talk about an epic feat of our convict past. These are feats, challenges and achievements, which are commonly ignored or barely glossed over because great things were achieved by ordinary people, albeit that they were considered felons. That the colonization of the Australian continent began with the rough and ready penal settlement of Sydney Town that struggled for its very survival in the first decades, is an indisputable fact.
It is one of the saddest and yet another of the most remarkable of times. Tens of thousands of native Australians died when the young colony, one based in a maritime history that bought with it the arrival of the colonists and mariner’s, diseases from the cesspool of the greater Europe and Asia. So much valuable knowledge, culture and Lore was lost that it is truly tragic, however the indigenous Aboriginal tribes did survive through these times, as did Europe, Asia and the America’s in their time, though thousands died and life was greatly changed by these tragedies.
As the colony began to expand beyond the natural border of the Great Dividing Range, venturing into and seizing Aboriginal Lands, the tribal people fought back as best as they could against the guns of whitefellas. In the end, the wisest of our Aboriginal resistance heroes such as Pemulwuy, Windradyne and other Australian Aboriginal warriors realized the futility in fighting against the flood or colonists and the losses they suffered and sought peace with the whitefella’s. They preserved what they could of their culture and their people and as the blackfella’s and whitefella’s went on to achieve an often precarious nationhood together. Children of both cultures were born and blended into an identity all of their own. It was the birthing of the nation and it is inarguable that Australia is a nation well blended of many different cultures.
By 1826 the settlers, ticketed (freed) men and women along with the first waves of emigrants had pushed beyond the arm of the surveyors and government men and were clamouring for surer route along which to travel north. The Hunter Valley north of Sydney Town was opening up and being settled and farmed to help feed the new colony. Bringing new foods and a different lifestyle to the people of tribes as well as a new way of life for convict and native alike. This was also occurring where other small settlements were in their growing pains all about and around the ribald Sydney Town.
The Governor in his wisdom, set the convict men to task in building a solid road into the wilderness where only thin spidery native tracks and traditional songlines had existed before. This, one of the earliest roads built outside of Sydney was some 240klm long, it stretched from Sydney Town onto present day Singleton and even today it is considered an engineering masterpiece. It was a task that was to take 10 years and bring with it death for many, freedom for others and the completion of a remarkable piece of living history. The Great Northern Road, or the Convict Road was built to stand witness to the achievement of a remarkable band of men and women, the convicts. These men were under the leadership and supervision of a notable engineer, the Assistant Surveyor Percy Simpson and others.
The first part of the road, which at first wound its way to the magnificent Hawkesbury River was a trail of legend. Built so early in the colony’s first struggling decades many of the tales of its achievement have fallen into legend. Such as in the insurrection against the many injustices the men suffered that occurred at Forest Glen near Glenorie where they found the mass grave of what is believed to be one for murdered convicts. Men brutally disposed of in stealth where life was considered cheap.
The Great Northern Road, which also became known as the Convict Road, was built by the Iron gangs mostly. They were considered unruly men who worked and lived in iron shackles to prevent their escape into the wilderness where they would form bands of men surviving as best as they could, often with native families. They were also joined by the chain gangs, men who worked chained to each other during the day, this to also prevent escape. Later came the road gangs, which were mostly ticketed men who having served their sentences now worked as road builders. It should be noted that many of the men who worked in the road gangs were shackled, not because they were necessarily dangerous but because the Redcoats, or marines sent out to the budding colony to guard them couldn’t be bothered to do just that. They were shackled to prevent escape and for no other reason.
Most of these men who laboured in the road gangs were second time offenders which means that they not only commonly stole or were those who committed nonsensical crimes involving survival in a starving world, this against their overlords in good ole’ England, Scotland and Ireland but they also stole from the colony for various reasons and committed they other often menial crimes. Perhaps they managed to become embroiled in a drunken street fight or came under the weight of displeasure or scrutiny of the corrupt and self-interested members of the Rum Corps, who terrorized the colony and the Governors of the day as history tells it.
The mariners of the Rum Corps were often also thieves. These supposedly upstanding members of the Corps were commonly the malcontents and trouble-makers amongst the marines who were sent out from England to guard the convicts. Instead they decided that there were better pickings to be had in the land grabs and other nefarious enterprises of the young colony. Guarding the felons was not something they cared to do, instead they worked to line the pockets of their families and recreate an England which no-one but them wanted in the antipodes. The likes of Ross and Macarthur, Johnston and other ex-Rum Corps members of the military known as the Redcoats who went on to reform their corps yet once again within the young colony after their dismissal, this in the 1820’s.
These men or ex-mariners however largely got away with their crimes, even insurrection… at least until they were mostly sent temporarily packing back to England by sterner and stronger Governors. Such as the admirable order which Governor Lachlan Macquarie bought, when he disbanded them and packed them off to face the military courts for their arrogance. Many however were to return as emigrants to continue in their questionable activities and practices with vast properties under their belt to manage. They used the slave labour of the convict system to feather their nests and the proprietorial presumption of ownership over the Aboriginal tribes people living on their own tribal lands which had now become lands granted to others under the presumption of ownership by the Crown of England. This went on for many more generations.
In large the men who built the Convict Road were second offenders in a convict town where every misdemeanour was an offence against the aristocracy and military of another world. Their feat however, in scoring a way through a wilderness remains in evidence today. Their labour a testament to their brutal enslavement under often inhuman conditions.
It was this adventure that The Man and I have been on… following the trail of the Convict Road in the wake of the convicts and settlers of two hundred years ago. What an adventure it is!
Once the road gangs crossed the Hawkesbury they embarked on the most difficult of sections. This section that wound up and around Devines Hill and which involves one section of masonry wall that uses no mortar and reaches almost 10 metres. This retaining wall alone is supported by five massive stone buttresses, with some stone blocks weighing up to 660kg. Cleverly designed drainage systems keep rainwater diverted and originally there were some 33 bridges built with their timber decking supported by elaborate stone foundations.
There is a 42klm section of the Convict Road just north from the Wisemans Ferry crossing that is now closed to vehicular traffic north from the Ferry to Mnt Manning. It is closed in a bid to preserve what is truly a remarkable history. Evidence of the convict stockades can also be found along the road, where the men were housed in anything from tents to more substantial structures.
If you would like to take an hour long stroll to appreciate the convict works then begin on the gentle slope up from the Wisemans Ferry where you can find the most outstanding convict masonry works in both building and quarrying as well as the curiosity of Hangmans Rock. Or you can undertake the full 42klm walk, or tour on a mountain bike camping overnight along the way in the freecamps.
You can even download a companion ‘Convict Road app’ for free to keep you company along the way and there is a book available for a few dollars from ‘Tourism NSW’ called ‘Exploring the Convict Trail: The Great North Road ISBN 0958569754’ which I would highly recommend. Further info can be found on their web site to help you plan your own adventure into history.
We had a wonderful time and it was truly an eye-opener on what men under great duress can achieve. Wouldn’t it be lovely if they actually taught our kids their own history and introduced them to their Australian heritage occasionally so that such an achievement as this can be appreciated by all.
If you would prefer to delve into an account of the Australian Ancient Lore you can find fictional tales of the Aboriginal Shaman of today in the stories of The Dreaming Series.