Convicts in the Hills
Settlers and convicts began working and farming in the Hills district from 1800. Convicts worked at a government farm at Castle Hill until 1816, and a convict timber getting industry was established at Pennant Hills in 1817. In the late 1820s, when the Great North Road was being constructed, a few settlers had begun developing farms and orchards in the Dural area. The word "Dural" - or Dural Dural as it was initially called - is an Aboriginal word meaning "many fires," attributed to the local Aborigines description of the many fires lit by the convict gangs as they burned the piles of trees felled to clear land for farms and make way for the Road.
There is a local legend that when the gangs were working at Forest Glen, just north of Glenorie, an uprising took place among the convicts, and a number were killed as authorities attempted to quell the riot. No records have been found to substantiate this legend, but in 1998 RTA staff involved in widening the Road came across an old map with "convict graves" marked. Using ground penetrating radar they found evidence of two ordinary graves, and a third large grave, probably used for burying a number of bodies. There is no proof that convicts are buried in the grave, or that those buried died as a result of an uprising, but it provides an interesting convergence of legend and evidence.
The area north of Glenorie was described by one traveller as "a stony and barren ridge", and was viewed as wild and inhospitable country. Early travellers quickly abandoned this section, preferring a longer but more inhabited route, which followed the Windsor Road until it branched to Pitt Town, and then went through Cattai and South Maroota - following the line of the current Wisemans Ferry Road to its junction with Old Northern Road at Maroota.
Early reports tell of an inn at this junction where a gruesome murder once took place. By about 1900 it was merely a ruin. Inns were developed at regular intervals along the road to provide food, refreshments, and accommodation for travellers, their horses and stock. While a traveller on horseback might cover 50kms a day, those with stock, and bullocks pulling heavy drays would generally only make about 10-15 km a day.
A major convict campsite was located on Tobruk (now private property) on the western side of the Road in an area called the Little Maroota Forest. A branch road runs from here down to the Hawkesbury River at Walkers Beach. Information about this road is sparse, but it appears on an 1832 map, and is similar in construction to Finch's line of ascent north of the Hawkesbury River, suggesting it may have been convict-built in the late 1820s. Now known as Mr Sharpes Rd, it can be accessed from River Road near Walkers Beach, although plans to develop it as a walking track are yet to be finalised.
North of Little Maroota Forest, occasional pick marks can be seen on stone faces beside the road and on stone retaining walls, although they are not easy to see while driving along. Good examples can be seen approaching Hawkins Lookout which provides a stopping place with picnic and barbeque facilities, and great views over the Hawkesbury River. A couple of hundred metres south of Hawkins Lookout a small abandoned convict-built bridge (circa 1828-9) lies beside the road.
The descent into Wisemans Ferry took four years for Iron Gang No 4 to build. The steep grades required much cutting, blasting, quarrying and filling. The modern sealed road continues to be supported by these convict-hewn stone retaining walls. Fourteen culverts take water under the road in this section. Some of these remain in original condition, although others have been replaced by concrete pipes. A small bridge (built in 1830) continues in use. Unfortunately these extensive convict works are difficult to see while driving, because of the narrow, winding nature of the road.
The convicts working here were stationed in a stockade on the hill above the road. Remnants of two groups of buildings can be found at the site - one contains 13 stone structures, believed to have been fireplaces in timber buildings now long-gone. The other contains remains of 6 structures, including one large building with stone walls up to a metre high still standing. The stockade is now a Historic Site under control of the National Parks and Wildlife Service.