The convict era

Exploration and surveying from the south

Between 1794 and 1796 the first settlers moved into the Macdonald and Mangrove Mountain Valleys.  John Macdonald was a local bushman and ex-convict who tracked through the area with friendly Darkinjung in the early 1820s.  He later also accompanied Blaxland through this area.  It was perhaps because of John Macdonald that Aboriginal names were linked to the different places;  they became more or less the official names and thus survived into modern times.  Within a period of twenty years over 1,000 people had settled there. The Macdonald Valley (then still called ‘The First Branch’, the first official name of the river) was not surveyed until 1808. In 1829 John Macdonald was one of the first to drove cattle from the First Branch to Wollombi. His name remains connected with the River and the beautiful ‘Forgotten Valley’.

The village of St Albans was surveyed in 1840.  It was named after the home town of one of the settlers.  The decline of the valley began after 1850, when many early settler families moved on to the Hunter Valley.

The drought of 1818/1819 forced the first white settlers in Sydney to search for agistment suitable for cattle and agriculture.  Land around the Coal (Hunter) River had been explored via the sea route.  In 1817 John Howe, with the help of local Aboriginal people, travelled from Windsor to the Hunter River.  The route he took would roughly follow the present Putty Road.  He arrived at Jerry’s Plains and when back in Sydney reported on the fertile land he had come across.  This information encouraged three Sydney settlers – John Blaxland, Andrew Murray and James Milson – to take off, with six servants, from Castle Hill.  Forced by the drought they took their cattle and drove them north to ‘the promised land’.  They travelled more or less along the track that would later become the Pacific Highway.  They swam their cattle over the Hawkesbury River.  The route became popular enough to start a ferry crossing over the Hawkesbury river, which was run by a man called Peat.

Andrew Murray was happy with the land he found at the lower end of the Wollombi Brook.  After some initial problems he received land titles for the land he occupied, and the area became known as Murrays Run.  James Milson settled in Milsons Arm and John Blaxland in Blaxland Arm, both a bit further to the north and close to the settlement that was under development on the Great North Road – Wollombi.

These pioneers were soon followed by more settlers, some followed the Great North Road other followed the shorter track via Peats Ridge. The most well-known settlers in Murrays Run are the Sternbecks. They are the only family left that have lived in this area for more than 150 years.

Settling from the north

In the 1820s, when the population of the colony of NSW had grown to 35,000 people, there was an increased need for agricultural land.  Newcastle (Coal River) was discovered in 1797 and a penal settlement started there in 1801.  Under pressure from settlers, who wanted to occupy the fertile area, the penal settlement was closed in 1818.

In 1819 the first settlers, following Howe’s Route, arrived in what is now the Millfield district.  Two years later 23 settlers arrived, having received land grants.  By 1825, 283 people had received grants.  The Hunter Valley was earmarked as a very promising production area and in total some 4,000 people settled the Hunter Valley in those early years.  In 1825/1826 the first settlers arrived in Paynes Crossing and in the 1830s all of Wollombi was settled.  In 1823 Major Morriset found a new way from Newcastle via Wollombi to the Hawkesbury River.  In 1825 Heneage Finch surveyed a new and shorter route.  This line of road would later become the Great North Road, but in 1825 many settlers followed Finch Line to places such as Murrays Run, Wollombi, Paynes Crossing and Millfield.

Making the shift from being a penal colony to becoming an acceptable part of the British Empire, grander plans were developed.

Roads were recognised as being a very important element in this.  By the mid-1820s there was an elaborate network of tracks in the Macdonald and Mangrove Mountain Valleys and from here to Murrays Run, Wollombi and further north.

Many exploration and survey trips were made in the 1820s by John Howe, Thomas Mitchell, Major Morriset and Felton Matthew.

Dennis’s Dog Kennel on the Great North Road

Settlers in the Hunter Valley petitioned Governor Ralph Darling in 1826 for a ‘proper’ road between Sydney via Wisemans Ferry to Newcastle.  Construction started the same year.  Major-General Sir Thomas Mitchell arrived in 1827 and as the Surveyor General he upgraded the quality of work and employed the latest developments in road construction that had only been introduced in France and Britain a few years earlier.

Lieutenant Percy Simpson, who showed excellent qualities as a surveyor and engineer, became the Assistant Surveyor-General in 1828 and over a four-year period he supervised the 700 convicts, mostly in chain gangs.  He was familiar with the new road-building techniques developed by Telford and MacAdam, and the roads in New South Wales ended up as a combination of the two:

  • Telford produced solid foundations, large rock base decreasing rock sizes, pavement bears weight of traffic;
  • MacAdam built cheaper roads, because no foundation of large stones was needed, the pavement function was to keep road dry and natural ground would then carry the traffic.

Both techniques addressed the need for proper draining and solid concave surfaces.

Simpson had received a land grant that he took up in Cooranbong on the Central Coast.  He surveyed a route from Wisemans Ferry via the Central Coast to the Hunter River.  This road had a much better supply of fresh water, feed for bullocks, horses and cattle and would not need as much rock blasting and construction work as the route surveyed by Heneage Finch via Bucketty and Wollombi.

In 1829, Mitchell made a three-week surveying trip through the area and decided that Finch’s line would be used, and not Simpson’s line.  One of the reasons for the selection of this route was the lobbying power of the richer settlers in the Hunter;  those in the Macdonald and Mangrove Valleys were, generally speaking, poorer and therefore had less influence.

There is a track off George Downes Drive just past Bucketty Arm, when coming from the north, which commemorates Mitchell’s visit.  The track is known as Mitchells Camp Road and this track leads to Hungry Flat, where Thomas Mitchell and his party had a picnic when they inspected the Great North Road.

Convict Road Parties Bucketty area 1830-1831

Location Convict Gang Period
Mt Manning No 9 Iron Gang January – April 1830
Mt McQuoid No 29 Road Party April – December 1830
Mt Simpson No 27 Road PartyNo 29 Road PartyN0 7 Iron Gang April 1830 – December 1831March – April 1830September – November 1830

Source: Grace Karskens

Note: it is uncertain if the Bridge Party was involved at the Mt McQuoid Bridge. The Bridge  Party was in the area in September 1830. They built the Clare Bridge midway between Ten Mile Hollow and Mt Manning.

Heneage Finch replaced Simpson in 1830, for the construction of the road north of Mt Manning.  It was under his supervision that most of the road in the Bucketty area was built.  He aimed to build a road comparable to the other part (Devine’s Hill at Wisemans Ferry).  The remains of the road visible today – at Mt Manning, (filled in ramp see video clip), Mt McQuoid (bridge abutments), Mt Simpson (Ramsey’s Leap) and Wollombi (culverts) indicate that he succeeded.

Finch was dismissed in 1831 after a dispute, and road building would never be the same again.  The momentum on building ‘Great Roads’ was lessening, and a steamboat service started to operate between Sydney and Newcastle.  His successors, Dulhunty (1831-1834) and Ogilvie (1835-1836) were less enthusiastic.  The recall of Governor Darling in 1832 meant the end of the focus on the ‘Great Roads’.  Changes in regulations regarding convict labour was another element that contributed to the decline of this once grand vision.

As was common in those days the surveyors also allocated land as areas that should become settlements.  One of these areas was at the only spring directly situated on the surveyed Great North Road, which soon acquired the name of Dennis’s Dog Kennel.  Indications are that this area was used as a stockade for the convicts at the road, and the name might date back to this period.  The first recorded use of the name dates back to 1829 when Mitchell made his three-week surveying trip through the area.  Dennis’s Dog Kennel has a constantly flowing deep spring, the only large supply of water for many miles.  This could well be the original Bucketty spring of the Darkinjung people.  The site is still in use by the Bucketty Fire Brigade as a water collection point.

Dennis’s Dog Kennel had its ‘reserve’ status revoked on 11 May 1889.

The Simpson Track

While the official Great North Road now went from Wisemans Ferry over Devine’s Hill to Ten Miles Hollow and then on to Bucketty and Wollombi to the Hunter, the Simpson Track became the gateway to the Central Coast.  It left the Great North Road after Ten Mile Hollow and went to Lower Mangrove, and from there to Yarramalong (over Bumble Hill) and via the Watagan Forest to Cooranbong at Lake Macquarie, finally ending in Maitland.  It serviced the communities along the Macdonald and Mangrove Rivers as well as townships such as Yarramalong and other timber communities at the edge of the Watagans.

The other track to the Central Coast, first used by Milson, Blaxland and Murray, also had to cross the Hawkesbury River.  This is now the Pacific Highway.  Peat had set up a ferry crossing, but this service was unreliable and for the major part of the 19th century this route was not in use.  Up to the 1930s the Simpson Track was used as a major thoroughfare, with thriving pubs and communities along the road.  The situation changed dramatically after WWII and the Simpson Track quickly fell into disuse. Large parts of the track and its many branches became impassable when the Mangrove Dam was built in the 1970s.

Mount McQuoid – Bucketty

The convict era left several other historical names behind.  The name Mt McQuoid was given to honour the Sheriff of Sydney, Thomas McQuoid, a former merchant in Java, who travelled the Road in 1829, perhaps to collect money handed into the court by defeated litigants.  McQuoid might have been one of the first people who travelled from the Central Coast via the Simpson Track to what is now Kulnura and followed the ridge to where it hit the Great North Road, at the exact location of Mt McQuoid.  McQuoid was one of the early pioneers on the Central Coast (Ourimbah) and encountered many difficulties. As a Sheriff he embezzled 3743 pounds from the Supreme Court and eventually committed suicide in 1841.

Text at plaque at the Convict Wall in Bucketty

Mt McQuoid

The following text comes from a letter dated September 11 1830 from Surveyor Heneage Finch stationed in Wollombi, to Surveyor General Mitchell in Sydney. It describes the building of the Great North Road between Dennis’s Dog Kennel (now St Albans Road) and Mt Simpson.  Mt McQuoid, is in the middle of this stretch.

“The track is now cleared with some trifling exceptions from Dennis’s Dog Kennel to the foot of the range leading to the valley at the back of Murrays farm  (which valley has no name upon the map). The principal, that is, the most difficult parts of this line are completed and in a state of readiness. A road is formed in the side of Mt McQuoid and continued to the foot of the adjoining hill (on the northward). As a cart can proceed hence to Mt Simpson the operations of cutting and forming recommence at this latter place and are insufficiently advanced to admit of a wheel carriage. The road hence to the valley is forming and already made half way down the hill. On account of the abrupt termination of the range a great deal of labour has been required to form the latter part of this road but the operations here are approaching to a close.” See also video clip.

Other historical names from the convict era are: Mt Simpson and Mt Finch they both refer to the road builders.  The Judge Dowling Range refers to the judge who travelled over the Great North Road from Sydney to the court in Wollombi.  A bridge near Mt Manning is called the Circuit Flat Bridge, also referring to Judge Dowling.

The spectacular convict-built retainer wall known as Ramsey’s Leap commemorates a convict of that name who escaped in March 1854 at that spot.  This event eventually led to a court-case in 1855 where the chief constable who was responsible for the transport of this convicted man from the Macdonald River to Wollombi was investigated for deliberately allowing the man to escape. The Magistrates Messrs. Wiseman and Lindsay dismissed the case, pronouncing it to be a ‘trumped-up affair’.

  • With the financial assistance of Energy Australia a small monument has been erected at the Convict Wall commemorating the origin of the name of the Ramsey’s Leap precinct.  The Minister of Tourism, Energy and Corrective Services Bob Debus unveiled a plaque in March 1998.  All three functions of the Minister came together in this project.  The Convict Trail was promoted as an important eco-tourism project, the monument was funded by Energy Australia and the maintenance work at the site was done by prisoners from the Mobile Outreach Program!

In 1830 Felton Matthew was instructed to explore the area from Mt McQuoid towards Brisbane Waters (Gosford).  This route became a frequently used track as early as 1832, but with the decline in road building that began to occur only a few years later no further developments took place for another 100 years.  It was not until 1942 that a proper road was built between Kulnura and Bucketty.  This was done by the Department of Defence to establish a better link between the Barracks in Singleton and Sydney in case of war emergencies.

Many of Kulnura’s first settlers arrived in the early 1900s – several from the Norrgard-Hastro-Holm area of Finland. These first settlers gave the place its current name, Kulnura, an Aboriginal word that means ‘inside of a sea’ (there is always plenty of fog around in Kulnura). They started the orchards for which the area is still well-known. In the 1960s the road between Kulnura and Bucketty was sealed and received its current name, George Downes Drive, named after the Gosford councillor who lobbied hard for the sealing of the road. He lived opposite Floreat Farm near Collins Lane halfway between Bucketty and Kulnura.  Floreat Farm owned by the Collins Family (see below) was demolished after Gosford Council resumed the land for the Mangrove Dam Catchment Area. However, one of the original slab huts left in the area, next to Floreat Farm was saved as an historic monument.

The Convict Trail Project

On Australia Day 1990 the author of this book noticed that a large number of sandstone blocks had been stolen from a convict-built wall on the other side of the road at the bottom of his property. He alerted the authorities and, along with other members of the Bucketty community, tried to get official authorities interested in preventing further damage and restoring the monument. While the Great North Road is classified as a national monument, no action was taken. Together with Carl Hoipo from Wollombi Tidy Valley he established the Convict Trail Project. The project had a two-tiered approach;

  • Act locally by restoring, cleaning up and maintaining the convict-built road and its monuments in the local area;
  • Lift the plan state-wide/nationally to obtain overall support for the restoration, maintenance and promotion of this ‘240km museum of convict engineering’.

The Convict Trail Project quickly gained the support of the local communities along the Great North Road between Sydney and Newcastle, who began to take responsibility for the convict heritage in their area. More than 30 organisations, including Councils, Historical Societies, Tidy Towns, NPWS, NSW Heritage Council, State Authorities, National Trust and Australian Geographic, are participating in this project. The aim is to protect, restore, maintain and promote this unique piece of Australian heritage. Merlijn Budde, the daughter of the author, wrote the Tourism Plan for the Convict Trail Project, which was presented to the Minister for Tourism in 1997.

The Bucketty and Wollombi communities took a leading role in the early years and restored and cleaned up large sections of the Road within their communities. In 1996 the organisation received funding for a part-time Executive Director and appointed Lorraine Banks to this position. Sections of the Road have been earmarked for World Heritage Listing.

See also Convict Trail Project website.

Next see: Farmers and City Slickers