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The Convict Trail Project

Solomon Wiseman

Solomon Wiseman and Wisemans Ferry

In 1816 Solomon Wiseman settled at what was then called Lower Portland Head, and now is Wisemans Ferry, and by 1821 was operating an inn called the The Sign of the Packet.Solomon Wiseman worked on boats in London before he was transported and he had already been running coastal trading ships from Sydney when he set up his ferry on the Hawkesbury, so he had plenty of experience with boats. In 1805 Wiseman had been convicted of stealing timber from barges on the Thames, and transported to NSW. His wife Jane and their young family accompanied him. An astute and wily businessman, he managed to have himself assigned to Jane, and while still a convict he began to carve out a business empire – mostly shipping timber along the coast. He also had inns in Sydney and on the Hawkesbury. In 1827, with the Great North Road under construction, he obtained a licence to operate the ferry to transport people and stock across the Hawkesbury. At the same time he obtained a lucrative contract to supply provisions to the convict road gangs working in the area.  In 1827 he was granted a lease for seven years to operate a ferry to take passengers, livestock and goods across the river, running a number of boats, although he had tried to get a lease for 21 years. He could charge fees to all private passengers and goods but he had to carry government men and supplies free. This he did grudgingly and over the years there were many complaints about the quality of the service he gave to people on government business. Finally, in 1832, the government bought the ferry service for £267 and put in their own ferryman to operate it.

Jane died in 1821, and Wiseman later married Sophia Warner for whom he built a grand house, Cobham Hall, in the late 1820s.

Wisemans Villa now forms part of the Wiseman Inn Hotel at Wisemans Ferry

This house forms the main part of what is now the Wisemans Inn Hotel.

The original ferry crossing at Wisemans was about 2km downstream from the present crossing, but was moved to the present location in 1829 when the Devines Hill ascent was chosen to replace the earlier ascent selected by Surveyor Heneage Finch. The ferry crossing at Wisemans is the oldest in Australia, having operated continuously since 1827. Ferry boats were initially rowed across the river. Cables were installed later in the 19th Century, and the ferry driver then had to wind the ferry across with a large windlass. Motorised ferries were introduced in the 1920s, and they continue to operate free of charge 24 hrs a day. The ferries are owned by the RTA and operated by Hawkesbury Council.

Early image of Wiseman Ferry.

Some Other Views of Mr Wiseman

Reverend John Dunmore Lang, the Hawkesbury and Mr Wiseman

“The sun was just beginning to descend beyond the distant Blue Mountains when we were suddenly delighted with the view of the broad Hawkesbury River, winding along in a deep valley far beneath us. In the upper part of its course the Hawkesbury flows through a champaign country, on which its own successive inundations have gradually deposited many feet of the riches alluvial soil: but, for sixty or seventy miles towards the ocean, the mountain ridges on either side of it approximate so nearly, that the river has scarcely room to flow between them; and it merely leaves a small patch of alluvial land, sometimes on the one side and sometimes on the other, as it sweeps more closely to the opposite bank.

At the point, however, at which the road to Hunter’s River crosses its channel, the valley of the Hawkesbury is of considerable width: the river, which at this part of its course is at least a quarter of a mile broad, suddenly changes its direction: and, as it sweeps close to the precipices on the one side, it leaves a delta of alluvial land of several hundred acres on the other of the highest fertility. Nearly opposite this point of land it also receives a tributary stream called the First Branch, (MacDonald River) on either bank of which there are numerous small settlers located for a distance of many miles, as the rich alluvial land which the settlers chiefly cultivate is more frequently met with on the Branches than on the main river. The delta I have just mentioned belonged to Mr Solomon Wiseman, a very prosperous settler, whose large two-story stone house had been most opportunely transformed… into a comfortable inn; the situation of which, overlooking the delta and the river, and facing the mountains on the opposite bank, is interesting and romantic in the highest degree.

Indeed so much pleased were His Excellency, the late Governor and Mrs Darling with the scenery in this vicinity, that they rented a part of Mr Wiseman’s house and lived in it for some time. … The road, from the high level from which we had first seen the river to the plain below was formed across deep ravines and along the edge of frightful precipices, with prodigious labour and very great expense. It is an easy task, however, to descend a mountain by a good road. We were speedily at the foot of the precipices, and safely lodged in the inn.” (John Dunmore Lang, An historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, Vol 2, 1834, London, Cochrane and McCrone.)

This is a primitive watercolour, c1830, depicting Wiseman’s Georgian-style Villa and its associated buildings. In the foreground can be seen Mr Wiseman, dressed in fine clothes, directing his stockman to work. (National Trust of Australia [NSW]) One can understand why Governor Darling rented part of the house.

Mitchell’s account: The Hawkesbury River

Two years later, Surveyor General, Sir Thomas Mitchell rode along the same route:

“Early next morning my ride was resumed, after crossing the river in the ferry-boat, where the width is 280 yards. … The scenery is fine on these broad and placid waters of the Hawkesbury, sheltered by the overhanging cliffs, 600 feet in height; they appear smooth as a mirror and afford access by boats and small vessels to the little sheltered cots and farms which now enliven the margin. These patches are of no great extent and occur alternately on either bank of this noble stream, comprising farms of from thirty to a hundred acres. …

The ascent northward from this ferry on the Hawkesbury, is a substantial and permanent work. It affords a favourable specimen of the value of convict labour, in anticipating the wants of an increasing population.” (Sir Thomas Livingstone Mitchell, Surveyor General, Three Journeys Into The Interior Of Eastern Australia, page 8, Mitchell Library, 981/2 D1-2)

Judge Robert Therry

Supreme Court Judge Robert Therry used to travel to Maitland along the Great North Road to hear court cases. He describes a journey in 1830, when he stopped overnight with Solomon Wiseman.

” …The town of Maitland is now reached from Sydney by an agreeable sea route in four or five hours. In 1830, … it was only approachable by a three days’ ride on horseback over a rough mountain road …

On the first of my three days’ ride to Maitland I arrived at the house of Solomon Wiseman, a well-known Government contractor, whose comfortable residence occupied a beautiful spot of the river Hawkesbury, commanding a fine view of the mountain ranges, and of the gently-flowing Macdonald River in the distance. There was no hotel in the neighbour- hood; and at this period it was a privilege for any traveller to expect and receive hospitality at whatever place he might halt at the end of his day’s journey. On this occasion I was particularly fortunate in my host.

He was quite a character – a person of great natural shrewdness and of considerable prosperity; for he was then engaged in the fifth year of a contract with the Government, for supplying provisions to convicts who worked upon the road, that brought him a net income of from £3000 to £4000 a year. His coming to the Colony had originally been occasioned by a difference of opinion with the Custom- house officers of the Isle of Wight as to the mode of landing spirits and cigars – his opinion being favourable to night-time, as best suited to the purpose. Be this as it may, in the Colony his conduct was industrious, and his character for probity irreproachable. I saw him often afterwards but never without a telescope in his hand, with which he kept a lookout for travellers as they descended a mountain pass on the opposite side of the river to his house. He gave to all a friendly greeting.

At the time I visited Solomon Wiseman, he was surrounded by all the substantial comforts that a farmer with a like income enjoys in England. His household consisted of his wife, an amiable Englishwoman, and four sons, remarkably fine youths, varying from thirteen to eighteen years of age. Being inquisitive how these youths were brought up, and how he provided for their education, I found his notion on the subject of education curious and original. He said education was a point on which he was not very particular; and asked me what was the good of it? – adding the observation that the acquisition of wealth was the main lesson of life.

I told him that, amongst other good things, ‘Education aided in the acquirement of property.’ ‘Oh,’ said he, ‘my views are quite different. I have four sons; and I say to Richard, ‘There’s a herd of cattle for you,’ and to Tom, ‘There’s a flock of sheep – look after them’ so in five years’ time they become rich, each the owner of large herds of cattle and flocks of sheep. Now that’s what I call education, for by it they acquire means to live.’

… These four fine young men pursued the career their parent unwisely marked out for them; and before I left the colony, from improvident courses, they failed of success in life and became insolvents.” (Extract from Reminiscences of Thirty Years Residence in NSW and Victoria by R Therry, London 1863)

Complaints about Wiseman’s Ferry Service

Many people complained about the poor service Wiseman gave travellers in the operation of his ferry . It would be reasonable to suspect that Wiseman was rather selective about the people he would carry as the following original letters of complaint indicate, in the actual words of the people who made them. They are listed here for background to the range of people involved.

Lt. Graham to Col. Snodgrass * Copy of Proceedings of Magistrates Court, Lower Portland Head * Constable Griffith Parry * Baron Charles Von Hugel

Lt. Graham to his superior officer, Col. Snodgrass

Having frequent occasions to cross the river on duty at the ferry here, I have the honour to state for your information that Mr Wiseman who keeps the ferry refuses to put me or any of the detachment under my command or even when on duty; and as there are no other means at present of being conveyed over I beg to request you will be pleased to inform me how I and the detachment are to proceed in future as also in what manner the rations are to be brought over; Mr Wiseman the contractor having likewise refused to deliver them at the camp. (Wiseman had the contract to supply rations to the road gangs and was thus obliged to deliver them under his contract.) – (NSW Archives Office, box 4/2095)

Copy of Proceedings of Magistrates Court, Lower Portland Head, before Magistrate Percy Simpson, 31st December 1830.

Lieut Graham being duly sworn states that he had been frequently detained at the Ferry waiting for the Boat and this day deponent was detained and the Prisoner who is employed at the Punt Deponent now brought before the Magistrate for this Neglect. Deponent further states that Dr McMath has been repeatedly detained at the Ferry when on duty and that there is no person regularly Kept at the Punt House. Deponent further adds that Dr McMath has been frequently charged for crossing the Ferry when on Government duty. Signed, Robert Graham, Lieut.

The Prisoner in his defence states that he had received Orders from Mr Solomon Wiseman to Ferry no person over belonging to Government except on Horseback and if required will make affidavit to that effect. – The Prisoner further states that he received Orders from Mr Wiseman by the Watchman at 10 o’clock last night not to Ferry over the Magistrate commanding the Mounted Police J Blackburne Esq, JP, Prisoner heard the Firing very plainly. (People fired a shot to alert the ferryman that they needed to cross the river.)

John Curtis Watchman to Mr Wiseman being sworn states that he received orders from Mr Thomas Wiseman to tell the Puntman not to Ferry over the officer commanding the Mounted Police at 10 o’clock last night and Deponent delivered the message accordingly. Signed John Curtis.

At this stage of the proceedings, a message was sent by Constable Hearn to request Mr Solomon Wiseman’s attendance at the Court which message was answered by the Son that he thought his Father would not come – A Summons was then sent by District Constable Cavenagh for Mr Wiseman to attend and Mr Wiseman said he could not, Cavenagh being sworn States that he went to the House of Mr Wiseman and enquired for him when Mrs Wiseman said he was not there and asked deponent what business he had on the Premises and ordered him off – Mr Wiseman afterwards made his appearance and on hearing Deponent’s business and the Summons read, he said you will give me Compliments to the Magistrates and tell them I won’t come – And one of Mr Wiseman’s sons said let them sent a warrant and we’ll see whether they will get him then or not. Signed Rich’d Cavenagh.

In consequence of Mr Wiseman’s contumacious Conduct in Refusing to attend, a fresh summons was issued for him to attend tomorrow at 10 o’clock, to answer to the Complaint of Lieut Graham. Signed Percy Simpson; J Blackburn.

Dr McMath confirmed the statement of Lieut Graham as to his being detained at the Ferry and being charged for Crossing the same on all occasions. (NSW Archives Office, Box4/2095)

Constable Griffith Parry, 20th October 1830

Be it remembered that District Constable Griffith Parry came before me and maketh oath that he had been two hours and a half waiting to cross the River at Wiseman’s Ferry or crossing place, whereby great inconvenience might have occurred and the Public Service retarded if Deponent had any particular Service to perform, And Deponent further states that on applying to Mr Solomon Wiseman and complaining to him of the detention Mr Wiseman informed him that he could not put him across as he had no boat there at the time – Deponent states that he generally pays when crossing the River which he considers he has no right to do, being on Government duty – Deponent in this instance offered the price paid for a horse in the Punt, namely 1s 6d eighteen pence – as being desirous to get across the water – but Mr Wiseman refused and told him Deponent to go to hell and made rise of this abusive language. Signed Griffith Parry. Sworn before me at Lower Portland Place, Percy Simpson. (NSW Archives Office, Box4/2095)

Baron Charles von Hugel

Being tired of riding I dismounted, laying my heavy, rain-soaked overcoat on the saddle, and wandered down the good road on foot. The ferry was on the other side, and so as to find it on my side when I got down, I coo-eed till the mountain rang but, although I saw the men in the boat it did not move until I had strained my lungs for a third time. It was hard to get my horse on board the wretched ferry, but we finally succeeded. The river presented an animated scene. Two boats, one containing some well-dressed women, were gliding downstream, and, as the view of the river opened up, more and more settlements became visible.

There were other views about the attention Mr Wiseman gave to people of significance in the society of that day. They make an interesting comparison with what was said above.

The Anonymous Letter of 1828 and Its Sequel

The debate on the route for the Great North Road took an unexpected impetus from an anonymous letter published in the Sydney Gazette of 21 January 1828:-

To the Editor of the Sydney Gazette Sir John McDonald, a native of Scotland, an assigned servant to Mr Crawford, of Prospect, has discovered (and marked most of the way) a new line of Road from hence to Wiseman’s, on the Hawkesbury, by way of Singleton’s Ferry, on Mangrove Creek: by which road the journey may be easily performed on horseback in two days, without the necessity of even once dismounting while travelling. By the present intended line of road, the journey, I believe is four or five days, without grass or water, which McDonald’s line affords in abundance the whole way; between the two places the distance does not exceed sixty-four miles. On this route and within 25 miles of Wallis’ Plains, an equally good ridge leads in 26 miles to Newcastle, by inclining a little towards the coast. McDonald’s line was hastily rode over some time since by a gentlemen of much experience, who every way highly approved of it, except in one part, where it crossed a deep ravine, which objection McDonald has obviated by diverging about one mile round. The superiority of this line, compared to that on which it is contemplated to make the New Road, or any other line now known, claims the attention of His Excellency, General Darling, who, it must be admitted, ever studies the real interests of the Colony, and readily embraces any measure for its advantage, when really practicable, which McDonald’s road would be, in preference to the one now contemplated, to the whole of the inhabitants in the populous districts on the Banks of Hunter’s River and Newcastle. Should these remarks reach His Excellency the Governor, it is respectfully hoped he may be pleased to cause competent judges, who have no personal interest whichsoever way the line may ultimately be adopted, to explore both McDonald’s route and the circuitous alpine one on which the Road Gang at Wiseman’s is shortly to commence its herculean labour; reporting ON OATH (as Surveyors do in England), their observations and opinions thereon for His Excellency’s information; who will no doubt cause that line to be completed that is most advisable for public economy – advantageous to the traveller – and expeditious in constructing; which it will be found McDonald’s line presents over any other.

No time, however, should be lost in making the survey, as the Road Gang at Wiseman’s will shortly proceed on the barren and waterless line laid down at present. The foregoing information is sent to you, Sir, for insertion as an Editor who has been pre-eminently conspicuous in inserting any remarks in your Paper that has tended to ‘advance Australia’ and which is the desire also of

Your most obedient servant


Wallis Plains, January 5th, 1828.”

In April of 1828, Simpson wrote to the Governor, explaining how he had caught some bushrangers near his property near Lake Macquarie and admitting that he was the ZZZ who had written the anonymous letter to the Editor of the Sydney Gazette:-

Lake Macquarie

April 6th 1828

Sir I beg leave to acquaint you for the information of His Excellency The Governor that I, acting on a statement made to me by some Black natives, proceeded (they refusing to accompany me) in search of Bushrangers whom they had seen at Manaring Creek, distant from hence seven miles-on riding east, I succeeded in capturing three of them – one of whom admitted to have been in the Bush six months-from Parramatta-the other two from the Australia Company. I reached Newcastle on the second day, and lodged them in Custody – During my absence an armed man without a pass or certificate visited my farm and my men on being ordered by Mrs Simpson to take him into custody refused. There is reason to suppose he was a companion to the Parramatta Bushranger whom I had taken – the Bushranger having admitted to me he had only parted from a companion of his the day before. Manaring Creek is about 45 miles North East of Wiseman’s in a pass between the mountains and southend of Lake Macquarie, through which a new line of Road has lately been discovered from Wiseman’s Ferry to Wallis Plains, which line I had the honor of pointing out for the favourable notice of Government through the Gazette under the signature of ZZZ. Considerably to the eastward of the foregoing line, towards the borders of Broadwater and Lake Macquarie, small Herds of stray and wild cattle exist, where (the Natives state to me), there are several Bushrangers who subsist on Cabbage tree, roots, game, tea and probably cattle – It is an unlocated part and central to Newcastle, Wallis Plains, the Hawkesbury – Mangrove Creek, Brisbane water and Brokenbay – and from the face of the Country well calculated to conceal Bushrangers in great security – there being neither police, constables or military within twenty miles around. I have the honour to be


Your most obedient servant

Percy Simpson.”

(NSW Archives Office)

Note:- The Australia Company was an agricultural company at Port Stephens, employing many convicts. In its day, it was the largest private business ever run in the colony.

Percy Simpson’s name has appeared several times to date in this story. There is more background on him in the special sections entitled Percy Simpson and Percy Simpson in NSW in the menu list under The Grand Vision – Personalities involved.

Petitions to the Governor and the Replies Sent

An important move for consideration of relevant requirements of settlers was to send a Petition in a prescribed form to the Governor. It was usual for replies to be forwarded by The Colonial Secretary of the time over his signature after consultation with the Governor. Here is a copy of one of the petitions or memorials lodged by settlers in 1826, seeking a land method of communication rather than having to rely on sea travel. This petition is now kept in the NSW State Archives:

The Memorial of the Settlers and Free Inhabitants of Hunters River

Respectfully Sheweth

That since Newcastle has been abandoned as a Penal Station and Hunters River entirely appropriated to the use of Settlers, it has rapidly increased in Population and Cultivation in as much that Your Memorialists are led to believe that they do not overestimate the importance of their District; when they state, that In the number of Farms and Establishments, the extent of Cultivation and Breeding; and the Population employed, Hunter’s River will be found to exceed every other out-Station within the Colony. In this State of advancement, Your Memorialists have necessarily a good deal of intercourse with Sydney as the principal port of Trade, which they are at present compelled, from the want of a Road, to carry on by Water to the very great inconvenience, risk and serious injury of their property. Your Memorialists beg leave further to State that His Excellency Sir Thomas Brisbane was pleased to cause a Survey to be made of a fit place and direction for a Road from Parramatta to Hunters River, and that a favourable Report, as they have been informed, was made thereupon, but that no further measures appear to have been afterwards taken to carry the same into effect, and they now pray, that Your Excellency would be pleased to take the same into your early consideration, and cause a suitable Road to be opened between Sydney and Hunter’s River and Your Petitioners as in duty bound be… (signed by list of prominent settlers in the area.)

The reply:

Colonial Secretary’s office

18th April 1826


I am directed by the Govr. to acknowledge the receipt of a Memorial signed by you and other settlers and free inhabitants of Hunter’s River praying that a suitable road may be opened from thence to Sydney and I have the honor by His Excellency’s Command to acquaint you for the information of the Gentlemen of Hunter’s River that the prayer of their Memorial will be immediately attended to. I have the honor to be, Gentlemen, your obedient servant Alex McLeay (The Colonial Secretary)

It must not have been clear what this reply meant for the Petitioners. Time was passing by, to the extent that it must have been decided that more prompting would be necessary to get a positive reaction. 

 Here is the some of the text in their second petition:-

… Your Memorialists are grateful for the benefits Your Excellency has conferred on this part of the Colony and particularly for so important an improvement as the partial opening of a road between Parramatta and this District. That your Memorialists have understood that a considerable period of time must elapse before this great undertaking can be completed on the scale upon which it has been commenced, during which time Your Memorialists will labour under the difficulties they complain of, they have therefore ventured to approach Your Excellency with a petition founded on the Local Knowledge and the pressure of the loss they sustain. Your Memorialists beg to state that from the possession of Water carriage with Sydney all Bulky articles will continue to be sent by sea, a Road is merely required for the Transport of Live Stock and for the use of Travellers on Horseback and that one practicable for such purpose can be made with a trifling expenditure, Principally in Blasting Rocks and that during great part of the distance little more is required than marking a Road and removing such fallen Timber and Stones as may obstruct the passage.

That your Memorialists further solicit that Your Excellency will be pleased to make small Grants or Leases of Land to such persons as may be willing to erect Inns on the road and to sanction their exemption from the Licence duty during the first years… [NSW Archives Office, Box 4/2258]

From other documents, the petitions had an effect. Both the Governor and the Surveyor General, Sir Thomas Mitchell, had registered not only the petitions but the real need for action. At this point, you can return to the main story about how Mitchell wrote about the need.



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