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The Convict Trail Project

Building the Great North Road – An Introduction

The Old Great North Road Sweat, Suffering & pride.

If you had been standing here in 1829, the surrounding hills would have echoed with explosions and the metallica clang of sledgehammer and picks as convicts struggled to forge the road up Devine’s Hill. The heading and text are taken from the plaque, put in place by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. It stands at the beginning of the road up Devine’s Hill. A further quotation from the plaque reads as follows:

It’s now recognised as one of Australia’s most important 19th century achievements in civil engineering.

The need for the road arose from the exploration and settlement of the fertile flats around the Hunter River. As the colony’s population grew in the early 1800s, so did demands for better communication lines between Sydney and the north. The response was a 264 kilometre route, called the Great North Road.

The first route uphill from the Hawkesbury River was surveyed by Heneage Finch in 1825. Construction of Finch’s Line began in 1828 but work was abandoned after the Surveyor General, Thomas Mitchell, selected the route up Devine’s Hill – a steep 2 kilometre ascent. Over 550 convicts-some in irons-hammered, dragged and chipped at 600 kilogram blocks of sandstone which were carefully balanced on top of each other to form the retaining walls of the road. By 1829 the gangs had completed this section, with its 12 metre high walls and 43 stone box culverts. It took just 6 months. It is not clear to what section of the construction this last sentence might refer, but the actual two kilometre stretch from the ferry up Devine’s Hill was under construction from 1829 to 1831, a period of nearly three years.

Inspecting the cliff wall on the right side looking up the road, the enormity of the operations which were undertaken begins to dawn and this time scale can be understood. All along this cliff face, there are vertical grooves in the rock which were made, each by two convicts, one holding the jumperbar and turning it regularly and the other striking the bar with a sledgehammer, or maul as it was called, to drill the hole.Looking up the cliff face, it is evident that, at various times, the two convicts would have been working ten to twenty metres or more above the level at which the road was to be constructed. In many cases, the jumpbar would have been driven more than a metre into the rock, the hole cleared out by some means and filled with blasting powder. More will be said about this operation in the sections that follow. Preparation of the stone blocks would have been another major task. The huge blocks of stone from the road preparation and in the quarry had to be prepared for use in walls, culverts, drains and so on. Blocks would have been marked with a line along which grooves or pits would be made with picks. Wedges, possibly with a piece of hard bark on either side, would be driven into the grooves, steadily hitting one after another, back and forwards along the line. As the tension in the stone along the line increased, the sandstone would suddenly crack then split down, making a relatively flat face to the block. The surface of the blocks were fashioned into a fine surface using a stone pick, making the blocks fits together neatly in walls and other places such as bridges. The same process is repeated making the sandstone blocks into useful sizes.

All of this work would have provided the sounds mentioned on the plaque – maul on wedge, maul on jumperbar, and the echoing sound of blasting.

Road Construction Technology for the Great North Road

By the time that Captain Phillip and the First Fleet arrived in Britain’s new Colony, interest in road construction in Britain had become a vital aspect of the Industrial Revolution. What was more important was that there were men in England and Scotland who were investigating the best available technology for road-making. Earlier pages have adverted to this British development in the late 18th Century and into the first decades of the 19th Century.

Looking at road development in the various British counties, it is surprising to read that Cornwall for example was not blessed with any decent roads until the period from about 1760 to 1800. In the middle of the 18th Century, a writer claimed in a magazine that Cornwall, I believe, at present has the worst roads in England, a great part are intolerable, remaining in the same condition in which the Deluge left them … inaccessible to all kinds of wheeled vehicles. Robert Southey, the Poet Laureate of the period around 1800, gave some similar descriptions.

In his book Cornwall and its People, A.K. Hamilton Jenkin writes:

Within a comparatively few years after this was written, the changes foreshadowed in Macadam’s famous essay on road-making began to be seen even in this far-off ‘angle of Britain’. Not only were many of the old primitive tracks and ‘founderous’ by-ways converted into roads with broad well-laid surfaces but, in still more cases, the lines of communication themselves were changed.

He even mentions a new road which was a piece of engineering which must have involved a considerable outlay of public money as, owing to the hilly nature of the district, cuttings had in many places to be made through more than twenty feet of solid rock.


These quotes are made with the intention of directing readers to the notable fact that they refer to aspects of road-making which were to be so important in the new Colony of New South Wales. Remembering this road-making period was from about 1780 to 1820 in Britain, there are three of the Governors of the new Colony  Macquarie, Brisbane and Darling  who would have been aware of the remarkable efforts of the turnpike engineers in their home country. Manuscripts held in the NSW Archives Office make it quite evident that Brisbane and Darling were interested in the new road-making technology and its desirable use in this even more far-off angle of the World, poles apart from Britain. The records also make it clear that the army engineers posted to the Colony, and possibly others, were familiar with it also. They recognised its potential worth in the difficult tree-covered, sandstone cliff country around Sydney.

The photograph taken in the 1920s gives an indication of the rugged, tree-covered country that had to be tackled in the Hawkesbury River valley and to the north and south. There are almost cliffs of sandstone rock in many places. Rising out of the river are steep inclines on which very large trees have grown, with thick undergrowth below. Just making a path through such country was slow, exceptionally difficult and frequently dangerous.

The next sections set out the sequence of road building technology which these men employed, bearing in mind that the oversight and effort expended in putting it into effect were based entirely on the use of convict labour:

• Clear, Blaze Survey

• Excavation

• Drill & Blast

• Quarrying

• Drains, Culverts & Races

• Walls & Filling

• Surface Preparation

• Bridge Construction

Reference Material

A series of books has been published about the Great North Road by the Convict Trail Project and by the Dharug & Lower Hawkesbury Historical Society. For those who are interested in more detail than can be placed on these Web Pages, the following are recommended reading


Talking about the Great North Road, Compiled by Bill Bottomley 1996; An Informal Oral History of a Monument to Convict Engineering and Plans for its Preservation.


Archaeology and history of the Great North Road by Dr Grace Karskens, CTP Occasional Monograph 1998.


Forum Papers, edited by Lorraine Banks from a two day forum in September 1998, CTP Monograph 1998.


Two articles based on letters written by William Dumaresq in 1827. Edited and annotated by Ian Grantham, CTP Occasional Monograph 1997.


A Brief History of the North Telegraph Line by John W.(Jack) Delaney, CTP Occasional Monograph 1998.


by Carl Hoipo, CTP Occasional Monograph 1997.


Building the Great North Road from Wiseman’s Ferry to Mt Manning 1827-1832 by Ian Webb, Dharug & Lower Hawkesbury Historical Society 1999 A wonderful story of the Great North Road, history of construction work in considerable detail and explanatory maps and photographs.


Building the Great North Road from Mt. Manning to the Hunter River, 1824-1836 by Ian Webb, Dharug & Lower Hawkesbury Historical Society 2000.

The fascinating and continuing story from BLOOD SWEAT AND IRONS for the construction of the Great North Road from Wollombi to Newcastle and other connecting roads such as to Broke and elsewhere with maps and photographs and stories about people.


by Lorraine Banks & Bill Bottomley, CTP Occasional Monograph 1997.

Download a Map

Convict Trail MapThe NEW and updated map of the Great North Road is available in visitor information centres and is also available for download here.