Convict Road Gangs and Iron Gangs
Governor Darling had a strong inclination to the concept of fine roads, directed towards the growing areas of the Colony. He was greatly concerned that accurate surveys of individual grants and purchases as well as of the whole colony should be undertaken. In this aspect, he certainly received the firm and able support of Major Thomas Mitchell who had become the Surveyor General for the Colony. In the first year of his appointment, he had set up a better organised civil service with detailed recording of the activities of each department in a systematic manner.
As part of the organisation of his civil service within the Surveyor- General’s Department, Darling had set up the Surveyor of Roads and Bridges to service the construction of the roads, with an increased number of staff from two surveyors in 1826 to 30 surveyors and draughtsmen in 1830. In September 1826, a letter was sent to the Surveyor of Roads and Bridges ordering the first gangs to work on the road north. Darling’s convict road-gang system was serviced by the Roads and Bridges Department whose chief surveyor had the task of developing accommodation and supervision of these gangs while they were working on the roads. The first Surveyor of Roads and Bridges was Captain William Dumaresq, the brother-in-law of the Governor.
The convict Road Gangs were made up of groups of men who had committed a further crime in the colony and were sentenced to a term in a Road Gang which could vary from a few weeks to many months. They came from a wide variety of backgrounds but few were capable in any aspect of road building, stone work or associated masonry. They were supervised by an overseer who had some convict background and, over years, had developed in matters such as organisational and clerical skills. In some cases, the overseer may have gained experience in road work and stone wall construction and these men were much in demand by the Assistant Surveyors or Army Officers who were in charge of some area of a road project.
The Road Gangs were made up of two groups of convicts generally, Iron-gangs and Road Parties, though this increased to three later on with a specialist Bridge Party who had developed real masonry skills in bridge building. The Iron-gang members of the Road Gangs were usually the men who had been sentenced in the Colony for some crime, other than the serious ones of manslaughter or murder. The sentence period may have been weeks, months or even years in leg- irons, in some remote area. The leg-irons were shackles to prevent escape by running away (in principle!). They were an additional form of punishment to the lash. They were the men who carried out the labour-intensive part of the road building operations – cutting down trees, removing stumps, burning off the excess timber, grubbing up sections of road moving large pieces of stone, helping in the splitting of rock and so on. Road Parties often contained men whose sentence to an Iron Gang had expired and who had developed skills that were useful in road building. There were also men in the Road Parties who were still serving the original sentence for which they had been transported. In some cases, they included men who had been assessed by a magistrate as better kept working in a remote area. Whatever the reason for their presence in the Road Parties, the men were not shackled with leg-irons. After February 1829 all convicts being returned from assignment to settlers as unsuitable were to be forwarded immediately to the nearest Road Party where they were to work for six months. As soon as the six months period had passed they were to be reassigned.
In a letter to the Surveyor of Roads and Bridges, William Dumaresq, in September 1826 about the new line of road to the north, the first gangs were ordered to the road. According to the Returns of the Colony in 1830, the number of convicts working this road, that had become named the Great North Road, had reached 558 with a total of 1,755 labouring on the Colony’s roads, directed to the north, south and west.