Maintenance and Signage
In some of the sections, we have mentioned the group of men who have carried out a considerable amount of repairs and maintenance at various places along the route of the Great North Road. Now here is the present day story of how this work has been performed and who the men are who did such sterling work of assisting in the upkeep of the GNR.
The Department of Corrective Services has been most helpful in supporting the Convict Trail Project. For many years until the recent changes a crew of prisoners from the St Helliers Correctional Centre has undertaken a variety of work along the Great North Road. The Great North Road was built by convicts in the 1820s and 30s, and has been maintained by their modern-day counterparts.
St Helliers Correctional Centre at Muswellbrook a minimum security prison operated for a number of years a mobile prison crew which worked on community based projects. The crew comprised a senior overseer and about half a dozen prisoners, who use their skills to undertake various jobs, outside the prison boundaries. They are equipped with a truck which pulled a caravan containing a kitchen, toilet and shower facilities. The truck carried the men's camping gear, a generator, basic work tools and equipment, and water supply. They set up camp on suitably arranged local sites, arriving Monday mornings and working until Friday morning when they returned to the prison.
St Helliers as a site has strong links to the Convict Trail. It is a property which was originally settled by Henry Dumaresq who, with his brother William, was a pioneer settler of the Hunter region. You will have read something of William Dumaresq in these pages. He was Surveyor of Roads and Bridges when construction of the Great North Road was commenced. William's descriptions of his early travels in the Hunter and along the Great North Road have been referred to already under the title XYZ Goes North, one of the series of Convict Trail monographs.
The St Heliers mobile prison crew have undertaken a range of conservation and maintenance works for the Convict Trail Project. They have done clearing, maintenance, stabilisation and conservation work at:
- Bucketty Wall site
- St Albans Road ramp
- Circuit Flat bridge
- Ten Mile Hollow
- Sampsons Pass
- Fernances Crossing culvert and abandoned road loop
- Sawyers Gully
- Laguna Barns
- Ramseys Leap
- installed much of the interpretative signage along the road
- assisted in the reconstruction of Bucketty Culvert
They have camped at various places along the Road, often on private property, with the landowners offering space for the crew to set up camp, and often other facilities. When they were camped next to the Bucketty Rural Fire Service Shed, the local community put on a barbeque to acknowledge their contribution. Other landowners have been similarly hospitable.
The prisoners who worked with the crew were at the final stages of their sentence, and the program was designed to help them adjust to the realities of life outside a prison. A normal work day routine, mixing with the public, using initiative and work skills, working as a team, accepting responsibility, and adjusting to life outside prison bars were all components of the program. The only (minor) disappointment for the Convict Trail Project was that the prisoners are often released before they finish the task they started. One of those who worked on the Laguna barns was a qualified builder, and with sensitivity to heritage he led the team doing the stabilisation work on the barns. His sentence expired before the team was able to undertake the work on the second barn, after successfully completing the stabilisation of the feed barn. We wished him well, but quietly hoped that another with his skills and would work his way through the system to assist us in the near future.
The men took a keen interest and pride in their work. They asked lots of questions about what life was like for the convicts who built the Great North Road, and compare their present conditions. Certainly the food is better, the accommodation is better - they have their own tents these days. We have provided the prison library with our various publications about the Great North Road, and many of the men read these before and during the time they work for us. One of the men once asked for a copy of one of the publications for himself - for which he offered to pay. The then Executive Director, Lorraine Banks, gave him the book, but like all prisoners he did not have the money with him, so it was agreed to accept payment later. His mates laughed and said he was doing time for embezzlement, but his valid cheque arrived in the mail a few days later!
Other prisoners have asked for their photo to be taken alongside the work they have done, as they want a copy to show their family. They are always asked, when photographs are to be taken, if they are willing to have these used in publicity material. By and large, they are always proud to stand up and be photographed. Their pride in their work is immense, and this shows in the quality of what they do and the atmosphere when one works with them. When Installing the signage with a small crew Elizabeth found they wanted to work overtime to get the job finished. They are great. It is only by working with the St Heliers prison crew that both Lorraine and Elizabeth have been able to gain an insight into the motivation, workmanship, and pride which their earlier equivalents put into this marvellous piece of our heritage. People are people, after all, and we all are willing to put effort into something we value.
Unfortunately following the untimely death in August 2003 of the senior overseer who led this group the St Heliers MOP in this format has been abandoned. Much of the conservation work the Convict Trail Project has been able to achieve was due to the assistance of the St Heliers MOP, they and their supervisor are sadly missed.
In recent years The Silverwater Periodic Detention Prisoners have carried out conservation work on an occasional day basis on sites in Sydney and as far north as Clares Bridge.
In 2000 the Convict Trail Project received a $28 330 grant from Environment Australia Cultural Heritage grant to place signage and interpretation plaques along the entire road at sites designated in the conservation plan. Implementation of this grant brought the CTP a major step forward in its plan to promote the Great North Road as a Convict Heritage Trail, in this it was greatly helped by the St Heliers MOP. The $28330 was used to manufacture 15 road signs and 21 text plaques and 21 broad arrow 'branding' plaques and four interpretative Pillars. With the money spent on purchasing the signage there were little funds for the installation. The large timber interpretative pillars had been planned for Wisemans Ferry, St Albans, Bucketty and Wollombi and as the Transportation of these pillars was a considerable expense, it was imperative they were all delivered on the one trip.
Hawkesbury City Council and Baulkham Hills Shire Council rallied to the call and installed the signs in the vicinity of Wisemans Ferry and Devines Hill and the Pillar at Wisemans Ferry and St Albans before the Governor unveiled the Engineering Landmark plaque on Devines Hill. This involved co-ordinating the councils so the workmen were waiting at Wisemans Ferry and St Albans when the delivery truck arrived so they could unload the pillar into the prepared holes. The remaining pillars were left on private land at Bucketty and Wollombi near where were to installed. The Mobile Outreach Program of the St Heliers Correctional Centre installed the pillars at Wollombi and Bucketty and the road signs and interpretative plaques between St Albans and Broke. The pillars were heavier than anyone imagined but the MOP crew managed to place them with no more equipment than their convict forebears would have used. Attaching plaques to rocks was something neither the Hawkesbury Council workmen nor the MOP Crew had tackled before but they both made an excellent job of a difficult task. A lot of the signage was unveiled in late Aril 2002 at a number of Heritage Festivals events on the same day in five different councils areas, some held simultaneously. This was a step in getting a number of councils to see the road as a whole and as a Tourism asset not just a heritage obligation.