Building the Great North Road was a quite extraordinary feat on the part of the men who were the surveyors with their supervisors and the convicts who made up the road parties, the bridge parties and iron gangs (those who worked in leg-irons). Even before the Great North Road was completed there were people who travelled on it. Fortunately, there were some of these people who wrote about their experiences.
We are fortunate to have copies of reports, notes, diaries and letters made by people travelling from Sydney to Maitland and Newcastle and back, referring to conditions on the road, times taken over various stretches of the road and commentaries on the quality of work which was performed in very difficult conditions.
Finally we are confronted with the decline in maintenance of the road and the deviations from the Great North Road which were taken by those who saw the difficult sections of the road as unacceptable. It was the impact of the introduction of steamships, running between Sydney and Newcastle, that tolled the seeming death knell for this wonderful piece of road with its marvellous stonework, drains and road surface made to the then new technologies developed in England by Telford and Macadam. It is appropriate that we finish the Great North Road story with the background to its decline. We cannot finish without filling in some of the history of the road, covering the period from the middle of the 19th Century to our present day 21st Century. There is great credit to be given to those who have devoted much time and effort to keeping the fine workmanship shown retained in reasonable condition.
Travellers on the Great North Road
The line of road was in use long before the Great North Road had reached completion. Early travellers would have walked or ridden past gangs of convicts toiling on the moving rocks, building retaining walls, grubbing out trees and burning them and even building bridges.
It is possible to present some accounts from early travellers about what it was like to travel on the road and what they saw on the way to their destinations. To read these personal accounts, visit the Journal entries page in the Key People section of this website or click on one of the Link’s below.
John Dunmore Lang’s Travels
- John Dunmore Lang’s Travels To Wiseman’s Ferry
- John Dunmore Lang’s Travels On the Great North Road from Wiseman’s to Wollombi
Mitchell travels the Devil’s Backbone from Ten Mile Hollow to Hungry Flat
Mitchell – Description of a journey from Parramatta to Hawkesbury
- North from the Hawkesbury
- Warrawalong and Hungry Flat to Wollombi
Baron von Hugel travels the Great North Road
Decline of the Great North Road
Almost before it was finished, use of the Great North Road fell into a decline. Because it was long and lonely and had little water or feed for horses and bullocks, it was never a popular road. Alternative road developed very quickly to bypass the difficult and dry sections. What was even more regrettable, maintenance was not kept up adequately and people living along the Great North Road often had to pay to do or have the maintenance done, themselves.
Accounts of the Great North Road Decline
Below are some examples of stories about the decline of the road found in reports, newspaper accounts and letters from that time.
- Baron von Hugel
- Sydney Herald 4 August 1841
- Pat Doolan’s letter about the decline of the road
- Letter to the Maitland Mercury 1846
The first alternative route to find favour was a detour which left the road at Devine’s Hill and dropped down into the Macdonald Valley, along Shepherds Gully to cross the Macdonald River at Books Ferry. From there, it followed the river bank to St Albans, then along Mogo Creek to a spur at the head of the valley. The route went along part of Blaxland’s line (now called the Boree Track). Until the 1920s, the Shepherds Gully section was still in use and is preserved in the Dharug National Park.
Other alternatives included parts of McDonald’s Line and the Mangrove Road where food for animals and plentiful supplies of water existed. Later, a road developed further east where George Peat operated a ferry across the Hawkesbury, allowing people to cross close to the line of what is now the Pacific Highway.
Apart from these factors, another over-riding option had appeared – by 1832, steamship travel between Sydney and Newcastle was offering a quicker and more comfortable option for those who could afford the fares. Furthermore, animals and goods could be moved more quickly and efficiently between Newcastle and Sydney without the losses which could occur on the Great North Road.
Development of Steamship Travel
In April 1831, the paddle-steamer Sophia had been sailed from England and arrived in Sydney to begin trading along the New South Wales coast. In Sydney, the paddle wheels were fitted, giving her a speed of 8 knots. She was elegantly fitted out for passengers and, for the first time, people could travel quickly along the coast to Newcastle, even when there was little wind and driving against the current running south. In 1832, she was joined by the first Australian-built steamer, William the Fourth, built at Clarence Town on the Hunter River. It was soon in regular service between Sydney and Morpeth, near Maitland, via Newcastle. The steamers quickly became the preferred route for passengers and freight to the Hunter River region and Maitland became a flourishing town.
Effect of the Steam Boats on the Road
Sir Thomas Mitchell described the effect that steamships had on the Great North Road traffic in his book Three Journeys Into the Interior of Eastern Australia (page 8: Mitchell Library, 981/2 D1-2): “… it had been opened but a short time, when I thus proceeded along it, accompanied by Mr Simpson, the assistant surveyor, who, under my directions, had accomplished the work. Just then, however, the first steam vessel had arrived in Australia, thus affording a regular coast communication between Sydney and the northern portion of the colony. The land communication became, in consequence, an object of less importance than before, to the present handful of settlers at least, although it was not the less essential to a respectable government, or where an armed force had been organised as in New South Wales, solely for the suppression of bushrangers … which happily can now only exist in places inaccessible to the mounted police.”
Baron von Hugel, on his visit to the Hunter in 1834, explained how the steamboat had improved transport to the Hunter region. “No other part of New South Wales has such large areas providing feed for sheep in such close proximity [to Sydney], and with so few obstacles to overcome. For if you come to Maitland from Sydney by steamboat, and have your horse waiting, you can easily get from there to Patrick’s Plains in 24 hours. Bathurst (at least with the present road) can by no means compare with the Hunter River, particularly as regards shipping produce to the metropolis or even sending wool to England, which can leave from Newcastle direct.”