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The Convict Trail Project

Which Route North from Sydney to Newcastle?

By 1826, there were already a number of alternative ways a road could be built northwards from Sydney to the Hunter River. Each person who had found a way was keen to have their route selected because they could expect a large land grant as a reward. Not only that, but people who already had land between Sydney and the Hunter Valley would have a lot of advantages if the road was built to pass close to their farms. It would make travel much easier for them and their stock and provide an opportunity to earn money from people travelling along the road, who needed places to stay overnight and food for themselves and their animals. Influential people with land along the suggested routes tried to convince the Governor to choose the route that favoured them. In this section, we will look at those who had something to gain from having their preferred route chosen and how they tried to influence the decision.

Initially, the road followed an existing road out to Parramatta and then the Windsor road to Baulkham Hills where it branched towards Wiseman’s Ferry. Captain Dumaresq, Surveyor of Roads, travelled the proposed road with John Oxley, the Surveyor General, on 24 August, 1826 and reported to the Colonial Secretary on his findings.

This is Captain Dumaresq’s report, now kept in NSW State Archives (Reel 2187):

Sydney 1st September 1826 Sir I have the honor to inform you, that on Thursday the 24th ultimo in company with Mr Oxley I examined that part of the proposed line of Road towards Newcastle, between Parramatta and the summit of the high land beyond the River Hawkesbury. I beg leave to Report for the information of His Excellency the Governor that the General line of Road is favourable, and with the exception of the descent to and ascent from the lower Hawkesbury at Mr Wiseman’s (where a punt capable of carrying 30 head of cattle at a time is already established) no real difficulty of magnitude presents itself.

The Line proposed leaves the Parramatta & Windsor road about four miles from Parramatta, when going at nearly a right angle to the right it winds through forest and occasional cleared land along a track, marked by the settlers for about fifteen miles – four of which is fenced, which will require some alteration in carrying on the road – these alterations and clearing the land of some heavy and valuable timber is all the difficulty to be encountered to this point. About four miles beyond this, the nature of the land changes from good forest to a sterile and rocky sandstone perfectly incapable of cultivation – with three trifling exceptions of about 30 acres, each the same character pervades the whole country, to the banks of the River, about a mile and a half or two miles before reaching which some difficulties present themselves in little steep descents over Sandstone rocks, capable of being relieved by cutting away and filling up. A steep descent of the principal hill which overhangs the River almost perpendicularly, will occasion some trouble in building up rough walls and filling them in, before a tolerable Road can be made. Material however abounds in the soft sandstone rocks and will be easily wrought. This part of the Road will at the best be steep from the foot of this hill.

About a mile, the Road will be carried along the banks of the River to the punt at Mr Wiseman’s, where the stream is 1200 yards broad. On Crossing it, the Road again follows the Bank of the River about 1/2 a mile, then about two miles along the edge of a Lagoon, when winding to the left up a ravine the ascent is pretty gradual, with some little labor capable of being rendered as tolerably easy and good Road. Beyond this I am led to understand, no difficulties of any consequence are found along the whole line to Wallis’s Plains, a distance of nearly fifty miles where the Road will join that running along Hunter’s River and through that settled district. In concluding these observations I have to remark that in addition to the two gangs already employed near Castle Hill, on this Road, it would be desirable if arrangements could be made to station as soon as possible one or two parties more of the iron gangs at the steep descent to the River, as this is the only obstacle at present to the easy passage of cattle and conveyance of baggage on packhorses. The difficulty presented to this arrangement is the necessity of providing near at hand a Bench of Magistrates for the summary punishment and control of this description of prisoner, none existing at present nearer than Windsor 25 or 26 miles distant. Your officer of the Veteran Companies as a Magistrate could be spared with two or three soldiers, the object might be attained, as in cases of difficulty the Police Magistrate from Windsor could no doubt readily give his assistance or perhaps regularly once a month or fortnight. The provisioning these people would be gladly undertaken by the settlers on the Hawkesbury. I have the Honor to be, Sir, Your obedient servant, Wm Dumaresq Capt, Inspector of Roads. Annotation:… Mr Dumaresq and inform him that there are now 24 prisoners ready to be sent to the Roads work in irons, whenever he will let me know that he can receive them. 6 Sept 1826.

Another Route Change

The Oxley-Dumaresq route was not very direct for travellers from Sydney. When Sir Thomas Mitchell became Surveyor General on 27 May 1828 after Oxley’s death in 1827, he was keen to make sure that all roads were as direct as possible, to cut down the distance and time needed to travel. As a result, he authorised a short-cut from Abbotsford by ferry across the Parramatta River, then through what is now Five Dock in Sydney and north to Dural, where it joined the older route to Wiseman’s Ferry. Mitchell chose Abbotsford Point for the ferry crossing because it was the narrowest place with deep water close to shore and because the approach to the river here was gradual. This made the line of the road towards Wiseman’s Ferry fairly direct, shortening the older route by four miles. The road also opened the country beyond Lane Cove, as yet still not settled.

However, the settlers already living at Concord were annoyed. They had a partly completed road to their church and school at Kissing Point, which was now left unfinished, not far from Mitchell’s new road which, for them, was an extremely roundabout way to these important places.

Remnants of the old Great North Road remain in road names today in the area south of the Parramatta River and further north. The main road through Five Dock is called The Great North Road and New Line Road runs along a stretch towards Dural.

Across the Hawkesbury River by Ferry

The road came to the Hawkesbury River at a place originally called Lower Portland Head. The big problems here were the cliffs on both sides and the wide, deep river that had to be crossed. The only way to cross was in a ferry, run by Solomon Wiseman. After a time, the place became known as Wiseman’s Ferry. Wiseman also built an inn (run most of the time by his son-in-law), so that travellers could stay there overnight and buy provisions for the next leg of their journey, which took them through largely uninhabited areas where there would be nowhere to buy food. Wiseman became very rich from these enterprises and from his contract to supply food to convicts building the road. He began to consider himself a very important person.

The cliffs on the south side, running down to the ferry, were quite a problem to bypass and it took years to build this part of the road. Reverend John Dunmore Lang wrote an account of his Journey there in 1827 and Sir Thomas Mitchell, the Surveyor General, described it two years later.

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 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.

Many people complained about the poor service Wiseman gave travellers on his ferry service. You can read some of the original letters of complaint about Mr Wiseman and his ferry service, in the actual words of the people who sent them in the Key People section, Solomon Wiseman. The list includes the following names and one major item of significance:-

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

There were others who tended to have different views about Mr Wiseman. These opinions can be found in the Key People Section under Solomon Wiseman .

Neverthless, in the 1820s, the stages of choosing and preparing the route and the road itself continued. The McDonald Line still had strong support from some influential quarters. Surprisingly, there came the first major blow in the public debate with an anonymous letter to the Sydney Gazette on 21 January 1828. The content and source of this letter make further interesting reading of the history of the debate. The text from the anonymous letter can be found in the Key people section under Soloman Wisemon.


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.