National Heritage Places - Old Great North Road
New South Wales
The Old Great North Road is a nationally significant example of major public infrastructure developed using convict labour. Situated in its unaltered natural bushland setting, the Old Great North Road is the best surviving example of an intact convict-built road with massive structural works, which remains undisturbed by later development. It demonstrates the isolated and harsh conditions in which the convict road building gangs lived and laboured for months at a time.
Although the road is closed to vehicles, it can be walked or cycled.
The Old Great North Road was included in the National Heritage List on 1 August 2007.
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Built between 1826 and 1836, the Old Great North Road is one of three 'Great Roads' commenced by Governor Ralph Darling. Linking Sydney with the Hunter Valley, the 250-kilometre long road was built using convict road gang labour. A 7.5-kilometre section of Old Great North Road including the 5.2 kilometre Finch's Line, the original line of road, and the re-aligned 1.8 kilometre Devine's Hill ascent plus the 0.5 kilometre road linking the two have been included on Australia's National Heritage List.
The Old Great North Road provides evidence of the transition of New South Wales from a penal colony to a permanent settlement and is an excellent representation of the extensive road building undertaken by Governor Darling to provide much needed infrastructure for the colony, provide transportation and communication links with dispersed settlements, and provide harsh punishment for convicts at minimum cost to the government.
By 1815, NSW had a non-aboriginal population of 12,911 and settlement extended in a 40-mile radius around Sydney and along the Hunter River Valley, which was accessed by sea. Fifteen years later, the radius of settlement ringing Sydney had extended to 200 miles and the non-Aboriginal population to 35,000. Newcastle, at the mouth of the Hunter River, was established in 1804 as a penal settlement for the secondary punishment of convicts who had re-offended in the colony. By 1822 Newcastle had ceased to be a penal settlement and the fertile Hunter Valley had been opened up to settlers for farming, and in 1826 these settlers petitioned the Governor for a road to be built from Sydney to the Hunter Valley.
Governor Darling sought to bring permanency to the colony of New South Wales and viewed road construction as a means to encourage the economic development of the colony and as a means of providing secondary punishment for re-offending convicts. His 'Great Roads' were modelled on the Great Roads of England that radiated from London.
Plotting the course of the road
To the north of Sydney, the terrain on the northern bank of the Hawkesbury River rises rapidly to a high sandstone plateau that falls away into the Hunter River Valley further north. This high terrain posed an impenetrable barrier to establishing a land route from Sydney to the Hunter region. In 1819-20 John Howe, the Chief Constable at Windsor had found a route northward through to Wallis Plains in the Hunter Valley and in April 1823 Major Morisset, former commandant at Newcastle, found a way south from Newcastle to Windsor. In September 1825, assistant surveyor Heneage Finch completed a survey of a line of road from the 19 mile post on the Windsor Road, through Castle Hill, north to Wiseman's Farm on the Hawkesbury River and from north of the Hawkesbury River to the head of Wollombi Brook. This line was to become the Old Great North Road.
Construction of the road
Work on the Old Great North Road commenced in 1826 and in March 1828 work on the northern side of the Hawkesbury River was started. On the Hawkesbury's northern bank, the Old Great North Road ascended approximately 200 metres to the plateau above, via a 5.2-kilometre length of road known as Finch's Line.
It was a roughly constructed road with very tight bends. Surveyor-General Thomas Mitchell inspected the road and, not satisfied with its construction, set a new 1.8-kilometre line of road ascending Devine's Hill.
Constructed between 1829 and 1832, the Devine's Hill ascent required the building of massive dry stone retaining walls to support the road on the steep hillsides. To achieve this, cut and fill operations were employed, requiring blasting as well as the quarrying of huge blocks of sandstone needed to build the dry stone retaining walls, some up to 9.5 metres in height.
An extensive drainage system was built to carry away rain runoff. This allowed the road to drain freely and avoid waterlogging of the road foundation, which would cause it to deteriorate. The road's monumental buttressed retaining walls and the associated drainage system on Devine's Hill are an impressive example of the ambitious and exacting nature of work that involved surveying, engineering, quarrying and masonry carried out by convict gangs.
Although the embodiment of the latest engineering techniques in road building, the Old Great North Road was rapidly made obsolete by another new application of technology, the steam ship, when a reliable service between Sydney and Newcastle was introduced in 1832.
There is also a rare collection of features such as the '25 Road Party' Inscription, the powder magazine, a cave at Devine's Hill used during the works, convict graffiti including a carving of a man with a hat and pipe, and the remains of a stockade where the convicts were housed. This collection enhances the rarity of the Old Great North Road as they are unique to the place.
This segment of the Old Great North Road remains undisturbed by development on or in the vicinity of the road evoking a sense of what the place would have been like for travellers in early colonial times.
Convict road gangs
Governor Darling took up his post on 19 December 1825 with specific instructions to implement the findings of the Bigge Report, which was the result of Commissioner John Bigge's review of convict transportation to NSW. It recommended a greater emphasis on the punishment of convicts to deter crime. Governor Darling viewed the use of road gangs as a means of implementing harsh secondary punishment at minimal cost to the government.
Secondary punishment occurred when a convict who had been transported from Britain re-offended in the colony and was convicted of a further offence. Punishment was made particularly severe to deter criminal behaviour in the colony and to discredit the idea that transportation to NSW was a desirable outcome for a convicted person.
Offenders were subjected to a regime of harsh labour, and often sent to a penal settlement at a remote place where, if they escaped, there was no hope of returning to civilisation. At the penal settlement convicts would endure very severe working and living conditions. Because of the harsh working conditions, often in isolated surroundings, road building was used by Darling as a means of providing secondary punishment.
Rewards for good behaviour
Maintaining the penal settlements was an expensive business and Governor Darling was under instruction to reduce costs and increase the labour supply to new settlers. To keep the numbers at the penal settlements down, he put some of the toughest offenders to work on the roads in irons, and freed the existing road workers for assignment to settlers. The worst of the convicts worked in leg irons and were chained together to form 'iron gangs'. Convicts that were better behaved joined 'road parties' and worked unimpeded by irons, as did the most skilled and best-behaved convicts who comprised the bridge building parties.
The convicts were initially housed in rough huts. Later, walled stockades were constructed, and in some cases convicts working away from a stockade were housed in portable wooden boxes. Their quarters were always extremely cramped and their meager rations yielded about 2,100 calories per day, which was almost half that supplied to American slaves and two-thirds of that supplied to soldiers in the British Army between 1813-1857.
The road gang system became the foundation of public wealth. By building roads, they placed the potential of the rich lands of NSW within easy grasp of 'respectable' classes of free settlers.
Management of the Old Great North Road
The Finch's Line-Devine's Hill precinct lies in the Dharug National Park which is administered by the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service. Local communities have been active in preserving the Old Great North Road through the formation of the Convict Trail Project, an over-arching body that draws together all parties with an interest in the road, including community, government, research and heritage professionals. For its work in preserving the Old Great North Road, the Convict Trail Project has been nationally recognised as one of the most successful community-based heritage organisations.