Finding A Way North

Exploring the Coast of Australia

In 1770, after crossing the Pacific Ocean and spending time in New Zealand, Captain James Cook sailed up the East Coast of Australia. Not seeing any other Europeans along the shore, he claimed it for Britain. Eighteen years later, when the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay, Captain Phillip soon realised that there was not enough fresh water for a settlement. He explored up the coast and found a magnificent harbour which he named Port Jackson and quickly moved the settlement there from Botany Bay.


Phillip went north, later, in a little boat, sailing into Broken Bay. On 28th June, 1788, Phillip explored further into Broken Bay than he had been before and found the Hawkesbury River with all its tributaries, following it all the way through the craggy lower reaches to Richmond, near the foot of the Blue Mountains.

In 1797, Lt Shortland on board the Reliance was sent north to find some runaway convicts who had stolen a boat. The convicts had a good head start and disappeared. Shortland, sailing close to the coast, saw a bright green island, like a Nob. It turned out to be protecting a harbour at the mouth of a large river. He searched for the convicts up stream, including climbing a hill beside the harbour. Although they didn’t find the runaways, they noticed coal jutting out from the cliffs. A piece was broken off to take back to the Governor Hunter. Shortland named the river Coal River. Later, the river was named after the Governor of that time, Hunter's River. It became the Hunter River soon afterwards. In 1800, Captain Reid was sent to fetch some coal from Hunter’s River but his navigation abilities were rather poor and found himself in the Swansea Channel, on the way into Lake Macquarie. For a long time after, Lake Macquarie was known as Reid’s Mistake.

Gradually, other waterways were discovered but finding a route overland was proving very difficult because of the mountains, gorges and rivers. A decision on a definite route overland between Sydney and Newcastle would take another 20 years.

Mangrove Creek

King's Town = Newcastle

By 1804, the convict population had grown to such an extent that Governor King decided that the more recalcitrant ones would be sent to a new penal settlement at the mouth of the Hunter River. Those sent were ones who had committed more crimes in Australia and then only the worst. It was first known as King's Town but this was not well accepted and it became Newcastle, after the coal mining town in England. The first Commandant of the prison was Charles Throsby, arriving there with 20 soldiers and 20 prisoners. The convicts had to build their own gaol, construct a wharf or berthing the supply ships, burn lime for mortar and cut timber (hardwood and cedar) for a variety of uses. To call at Newcastle, ships had to be under licence from the government in Sydney.

While Newcastle was a penal settlement, free people were not allowed to take up land in the Hunter Valley because escaping convicts might get help or supplies. However, convicts were escaping from Newcastle anyway. By 1816, the Commandant Wallis had 1000 convicts to control.


Neverthless, from 1813 a few people were allowed to farm at Paterson's Plains on the Paterson River. By 1822, the first of many prisoners were moved up the coast to another new penal settlement at Port Macquarie. By 1823, the move was complete and Newcastle was declared a free settlement though the old gaol was not shut down completely at that time. By 1830, free settlers had taken up much of the land in the Hunter Valley and export of farm produce was considerable.

A Plan of Newcastle, given below, is an adaptation of a Plan of Newcastle by James Meehan Esq., Deputy Surveyor General, dated August 7th, 1818.


1 Christ Church
1a. Church Yard
2. Gaol
3. Officers' Barracks
4. Surgeon's House
5. Hospital
6. Court House
7. Superintendent's House
8. Watch House
9. Wharf
10. Boat House
11. Sand Pits
12. Flagstaff
13. Blacksmith's Shop
14. Store
15. Barracks
16. Government Office
17. Government House
18. Flagstaff
19. Lumber Yard
20. Government Garden
21. Stock shed and stockyard


The Unofficial Mangrove Road


Apart from the official roads, there were unofficial ones too. One of these is the Mangrove Road. Already by 1825, men had gone into the rich rainforest creeks running north from the Hawkesbury River, looking for cedar. These men had made their own trails for their bullocks to drag the cedar logs out of the forest and down to the deep tidal water of the creeks. From there, they could load the logs onto boats to take the cargo to Sydney. They had quickly moved right up Mangrove Creek, over the ridge and into Yarramalong Valley. The track was never mapped as a road and only a guess can be made about its route. The track itself would have been very rough but it was used when needed by government officials.

There is a mention of the Mangrove Road in the journal of Surveyor General, Thomas Mitchell, who was travelling along the line of the Great North Road when it was just a rugged blazed trail along the ridgetops. He wrote in his journal:—

Saturday 12th, left the encampment at half past eight and travelled along a very bad path along the range —so bad that one of the horses named Sharper — making a false step — fell and rolling was precipitated from rock to rock, till he was out of sight. To the surprise of everyone, he was afterwards found below, still alive and subsequently carried his load! Being only injured by a severe cut on one of his thighs which made him lame a little. My table and seat were broken to pieces, but the rest of his load consisting of my tent and bedding was uninjured. We continued with difficulty along the rugged crest of a winding ridge. Sharper falling down again and the other animals requiring frequent adjustment of their loads, so that we made with difficulty at sunset, a poor open spot, clear of timber from mere sterility, called Hungry Flat, where we encamped for the night, a distance travelled being only 10 miles.

Sunday 13th, while the animals were loading, I went to the top of a hill to reconnoitre the country. Saw Warrawalong, apparently distant about 12 miles — but from the sinuosity of the ranges, I thought it would be better to proceed to Young Wiseman's and strike across to it. Before we left camp, I sent back an overseer with a note to Mr Abbott requesting him to come by the Mangrove Road, this being so bad, and I directed this man to conduct them as soon as he could to Warrawalong — and then find out my encampment and conduct the party to it — It having appeared to me that the road by Mangrove must be both better and more direct road to the mountain.

Heneage Finch's Line for the Great North Road

The expansion of population in the Hunter Valley was enhanced by the presence of many wealthy and well-connected immigrants who took up land in the valley. In 1826, they had petitioned Governor Ralph Darling that a good road should be established between Sydney and the Hunter Valley. In this, they were fortunate in having a Governor who was trying to set up a permanent and all-encompassing road system for the colony. It was to this end that the Great North Road was to be developed along a line to be properly surveyed and mapped. The original line of the Great North Road had been surveyed in 1825 by Assistant Surveyor Heneage Finch.

Heneage Finch was the second son of a Vice-Admiral and grandson of the Earl of Winchelsea. He was a brilliant mathematician and graduated from Oxford University before he came to Australia at the age of 22. He arrived with his wife on 23 January 1825 on the ship Grenada after a trip of only 113 days, fast for the times. He was appointed as an assistant surveyor, one of the first to be properly qualified for the job in the colony and The Great North Road was the name of the first official road built from Sydney to Newcastle between 1826 and 1832.

There is more about Heneage Finch in the About The Trail under the Key People Section.

The Finch Line


Heneage Finch's surveyed line for the Great North Road in 1825 branched off the existing Sydney to Windsor Road near Parramatta, running out to Castle Hill, then to Lower Portland Head on the Hawkesbury River. Here it crossed the river and climbed to the top of a steep and rocky range (the Judge Dowling Range) running northwards towards Wollombi. The line of road selected by Finch was a conglomeration of existing tracks, routes newly discovered by settlers and the lines of ridges north and south of Wiseman's Ferry. Somewhere around the Hawkesbury River, a section of the line was developed by Richard Wiseman . Although details were changed along the way, this route was more or less the one which was finally built between 1826 and 1832.

John MacDonald's(McDonald) Line


John Macdonald, originally from Ireland. was a boy of 17 when he was sentenced in Scotland to transportation for life for theft. He was transported on 3 September 1820 on board the Asia, arriving in Sydney on December 28th. He was assigned to Robert Crawford, at his Ellalong Property.

While he was living there, he became friendly with the Aboriginal people living around. No-one knows exactly how he came to be told or shown, but he learned from them a way to reach the Hawkesbury River from the Hunter Valley. This was known as MacDonald’s Line and ran north-east, across Mangrove Creek, through the Watagan Mountains and beside Lake Macquarie, before turning north into the Hunter Valley over Brunkerville Gap. Some influential settlers, particularly Percy Simpson, wanted this to be the route of the Great North Road, because it came past their properties, unlike the Finch Line, which took a more westerly route.

As a result of Simpson’s influence, Captain William Dumaresq, Surveyor of Roads and Bridges, arranged to have the line surveyed to see if it would be the better route. He sent Jonathan Warner out with John MacDonald to report back. Although their report said that the route was easier and shorter than the Finch line, Captain Dumaresq wrote to the Governor that he thought it would not be very useful to the rich and numerous settlers in the upper Hunter area, from Wollombi out to Broke and Patrick’s Plains. Captain Dumaresq himself was one of these people as he owned land in the Hunter Valley.

Learn more about John MacDonald in the Key People section of this website.
© 2014 the Convict Trail Project Inc