Great North Road

The main thoroughfare through the Sydney suburb of Five Dock is called the Great North Road. It heads north from Parramatta Road for a short distance before abruptly stopping at the Parramatta River. To today's travellers, it is a great road to nowhere, but to the colonists of the 1830s it was the lifeline to the Hawkesbury and Hunter Valley regions which were being opened up to white settlement at that time.

Extending north from Sydney to the Hunter Valley, the 240 km Great North Road was built between 1826 and 1836 by re-offending convicts stationed at Newcastle. In the early 1820s settlers began taking up land in the fertile Hunter Valley. They petitioned for a decent road and in 1825 Assistant Surveyor Heneage Finch was sent to survey a suitable route. By following a number of Aboriginal tracks along the ridge-tops he achieved success. Gov. Ralph Darling assigned convict road gangs to start building the road and it was progressively brought into use. As the road passed along remote and desolate ridges where there was little food or water for travelling stock, the isolated sections of it were unpopular and travellers quickly found it preferable to use alternative routes. The Glenorie to Maroota section was abandoned shortly after its completion in favour of a more hospitable route through Pitt Town. It returned to use after motor vehicles were introduced.

The Great North Road originally branched from Windsor Road at Baulkham Hills along what is now called Old Northern Road to Wisemans Ferry. In 1829 Surveyor General Thomas Mitchell developed a shorter route which branched north from the Parramatta Road at Five Dock. A ferry crossed the Parramatta River from Abbotsford to Bedlam Point at Gladesville where part of the convict-built ferry landing remains. The original road then followed the present line of Victoria Road to St Annes church at Ryde, and then roughly followed the line of Blaxland Road, the North Road, Corunna Rd, Vimiera Rd, Essex St and Old Beecroft Road to eventually become New Line Road at Pennant Hills where it re-joins the original line of road from Castle Hill at Dural.

In 1832, steamships began servicing the Hawkesbury and fifty years later, railways entered the area, leading to the road falling into further disuse and a poor state of repair. Most of this road at the Hawkesbury end remains today, offering an alternative, slower paced scenic route between Sydney and the Hunter and access to some of 19th century Australia's greatest engineering feats created by hundreds of convicts - many working in leg-irons. These include stone retaining walls, wharves, culverts, bridges and buttresses in Sydney suburbs like Epping and Gladesville, at Wisemans Ferry, Wollombi, Bucketty and Broke, and on walks in Dharug and Yengo National Parks.

Much of this quality construction was carried out under the supervision of Assistant Surveyor Percy Simpson who was based at Wisemans Ferry between 1828 and 1832, and Heneage Finch, who was in charge of construction around Bucketty and Laguna in 1830-31. Simpson was an engineer who had sound knowledge of road construction techniques being developed in Europe and was given the most difficult sections to build. Much of the high quality work created by convicts under his command remains intact today - a tribute to his ability to lead an unskilled and unwilling labour force and get the best out of them. Up to 700 convicts worked on the road at any one time - clearing timber, digging drains, blasting and shaping stone, and shifting it into position. Some of the blocks weighed up to 660 kg. Originally 33 bridges were built, their timber decks often supported by elaborate stone foundations. The few which remain are the oldest bridges on mainland Australia. Construction required highly skilled stonemasonry as stone walls were often needed to support the road where it climbed steep hillsides and crossed gullies and watercourses. One wall on Devines Hill just north of Wisemans Ferry reaches almost 10 metres, and is supported by 5 massive buttresses.

Great North Road, Devines Hill

The Great North Road - Wiseman's Ferry area
There are still some places where well-preserved sections of the original road can be seen on what is known today as the Convict Trail. Theseinclude: a 43 km section immediately north of Wisemans Ferry which goes through very steep and rugged country. Devines Hill, beginning 500m west of the Wisemans Ferry landing on the northern side of the Hawkesbury River, contains fine examples of high walling with massive buttresses, drainage systems and quarries. These include Clares Bridge, near Ten Mile Hollow; the Circuit Flat Bridge, near Mt Manning; the descent into Wisemans Ferry from the south; the Bucketty Wall, Mt McQuoid, at the intersection of George Downes Drive and the St Albans road; Ramsays Leap and the Murrays Run Culvert between Bucketty and Laguna.
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  • The Great North Road - Abbotsford
    The only section of the Great North Road to retain its original name heads north from Parramatta Road, Five Dock for a short distance before abruptly stopping at the Parramatta River, where the road crossed the river by punt to the Gladesville section on the opposite bank. No evidence of the original roadway remains today except the line it takes through Abbotsford, which follows the original and very first section built in 1829.
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    • The Great North Road - Gladesville
      Bedlam Point was chosen as the place where The Great North Road would cross the Parramatta River. A punt service which took travellers across the river at Bedlam Point was established in 1832. Remains of the convict built landing and the cutting through which the road climbed the river bank are still visible at the end of Punt Road along with grooves and initials cut into the rock by the convict road gang which built it. Nearby in Banjo Paterson Park is Rockend cottage. Once thought to have been the puntman's cottage or an inn, it appears to have been built in the 1850s after the land around Looking Glass Bay was subdivided. In 1866 it was bought by the grandmother of poet Andrew Barton (Banjo) Paterson. UBD Map 214 Ref D 14
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      • The Great North Road - Epping
        A convict built causeway across Devlins Creek is visible at Epping on land between Beecroft Road and the railway underneath the bus flyover of the M2 Tollway. UBD Map 251 Ref B 12
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        • The Great North Road - Cherrybrook/Dural
          The small masonry abutments of Pyes Creek Bridge (circa 1830) are in Erlestoke Park, Castle Hill (UBD Map 151 Ref M 11) - take the right hand path at the end of Woodlark Place. Convict hewn rock faces and stone gutters remain on the original line of New Line Road adjacent to Daintree Place, Dural. UBD Map 151 Ref L 3

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