Hear how the Great North Road came about. Listen to 'The want of a road' in the audio section on this page.
Bucketty to Wollombi
To access the Convict Trail at Bucketty take the Peats Ridge exit from the Sydney/Newcastle expressway, proceed to Peats Ridge and then follow George Downes Drive for 29km to the intersection with St Albans Road.
The drive between Bucketty and Wollombi mostly follows the original road, and convict-built relics can be seen beside the road, or supporting it.
The Wollombi Valley was first settled by Europeans shortly before the Great North Road was built. Andrew Murray, John Blaxland, Richard Wiseman and James Milson all found ways to drive cattle up to this area during a drought in the early 1820s. They established properties up the valleys branching from the Wollombi Brook - Murrays Run, Milsons Arm and Blaxlands Arm are local names which continue in use today.
Bucketty is made up of a series of small acreages, mostly in a bushland setting. Few houses can be seen from the road, but the quaint rows of letterboxes have become a tourist feature.
Bucketty Precinct contains all the main elements of the Great North Road. Be sure not to miss seeing the convict relics of the Bucketty Wall, Mt McQuiod which is located at the intersection of George Downes Drive and the road from St Albans. Disabled parking is adjacent to the large wooden gate. The restored curved wall located at Bucketty forms a natural amphitheatre, and is used by the local community for concerts and gatherings.
A range of convict relics remains along a 400 metre section where the road has been re-aligned. Features include a curved wall which once flanked a small bridge, handpicked gutters and rock faces, a rock cutting with the road surface cut into the bedrock, a stone lined box culvert, and a very large culvert with (partially collapsed) winged walling. This precinct was constructed in 1829-31 by the No 29 Road Party. In 1990 some stones were stolen from the wall, and local community united to restore the damage. It was this activity which led them to establish the Convict Trail Project.
As you travel further north along the road descends Mt Simpson, named after Percy Simpson, surveyor - engineer in charge of construction 1828-1832 and Mt Finch into the Wollombi Valley with its historic buildings and landscapes. The cleared valley floor of the Wollombi Valley framed by rugged timbered hills blends with the simple elegance of early buildings made from local natural materials. The meandering Wollombi Brook complements these charming landscapes which are reminiscent of the 1800s.
Another key point of interest can be found at Ramsays Leap approximately 2.5 kms north of the Bucketty intersection which was named after a prisoner who leapt over the wall while being escorted by police from St Albans to Wollombi in 1854. Substantial convict stone walling can be seen here and in some places is up to 4.5 metres high, with a buttressed flume to take water from the culvert under the road. Below todays road surface lies the original hand built road. Nearby is a drinking trough hand-carved into the face of the rock wall, where convicts could get water while they were working.
Learn more of the amazing story of Ramsays Leap click on the Audio link on this page!
Other fine examples of stone work along the route can be seen as you wind your way across this picturesque Valley floor. Fernances Crossing culvert is just beside the present road and can be found about 7kms north of the original Bucketty intersection. Constructed in 1830 by Road Party 27 - now bypassed for its protection this abandoned loop, a curved stone retaining wall with a central rectangular culvert was constructed to carry the road across a small gully. Conservation work was carried out by the local community in 1995.
To hear more about Fernances Crossing, Murrays Run and Thompsons Bridge click on the Audio link ont his page.
Murrays Run Culvert is another example of an abandoned culvert. Here you will find the only known example of its type on the road. This culvert has an elaborate decorative arch that supports the retaining wall above. The culvert was lovingly restored by the local community after it was bypassed by a realignment of the main road.
How many convict built bridges remain along the Great North Road? Listen to the bridges Audio file to find out!
Thompson's Bridge can be found 1 km north of Murray's Run, about 15 km south of Laguna. It is not certain whether this is an original structure but maybe a later replacement. This small wooden bridge is flanked by a stone retaining wall. The stone walls on each side are coursed rubble work uncharacteristic of other work in this area.
Who was Blaxland and what happened to his arm? Listen to the Blaxland Arm audio and find out.
As you continue towards Wollombi you will come across Laguna Farm built in 1830 this house and barns from the 1840s are best viewed from the north looking back across the flats.
Laguna House, with its out buildings and sheds are among the oldest buildings in the region. Heneage Finch who surveyed the original route was in charge of building the Road in the Bucketty-Wollombi area in 1830-1, and he started to build Laguna House in the early 1830s. The convicts gangs camped in tents on his property on the other side of the road. The depot included a blacksmiths shop, hospital, store, and bullocks.
Richard Wiseman, son of Solomon Wiseman received a land grant at Dairy Arm for helping to find the route north from the Hawkesbury River, and he later bought Laguna House from Finch. The house remains the oldest in the area, and its associated 19th Century barns and feed shed can be seen across the road. These buildings are private property, and not open to the public.
The settlement of Laguna has a church, a school, a community hall and the Laguna Wine bar and store that also sells petrol. An abandoned loop of the Great North Road runs in front of the Wine Bar. The picturesque Wollombi Brook meanders beside the Road as it passes through and on to Wollombi. Click on the Laguna House link to learn more about the history of this wonderful house.
What was Milsons Arm used for in the early days of settlement? Listen to the Milsons Arm Audio and find out.
Mulla Villa an elegant 1840’s stone house was built by David Dunlop, the first magistrate appointed to the Wollombi-Macdonald police district. The original cells where convicts were chained remain under the house.
To learn more click on the Mulla Villa Audio link.
"Wollombi" is an Aboriginal word for "meeting place". The north and south arms of Wollombi Brook converge here. There area has a rich Aboriginal history, and was the meeting place for several tribes.
Wollombi developed as a township through its key location on the Great North Road, where the two northern branches diverge. It became the centre of a very productive agricultural area, initially relying on wheat and cereals, although settlers diversified into other industries such as timber-getting and collecting wattle bark for use in tanning leather. In 1862 over 200 people lived in the Wollombi township, with almost 2000 in the Wollombi Valley. (At that time less than a dozen people lived in Cessnock).
Many of the buildings in Wollombi are heritage classified. The beautiful Blackett-designed St John's Anglican church was built in the 1840s. The foundation stone of St Michael's Catholic church was laid in 1840, but following damage caused by the great flood of 1893 the church was re-built at its present site beside the two storey heritage- listed former post office.
Other heritage buildings in Wollombi include the stone school building (c1881), the timber general store which is over 100 years old, and the former courthouse (c1866), now the Endeavour Museum. The museum contains many local relics of interest, including a number of items relating to the Great North Road. The cemetery is another interesting site worth visiting.
The Great North Road branches at Wollombi, with one branch leading through Broke to Jerrys Plains, Muswellbrook and the upper Hunter Valley, while the other branch leads to Maitland and Newcastle in the Lower Hunter Valley.
Step back in time and hear some of Baron von Hugel thoughts as he travels the Wollombi District.
The Broke Road
The Wollombi Brook meanders through attractive fertile valleys, framed by steepsided wooded hills. The landscape remains similar to what it would have looked like in the mid 1800s - except that grain crops would have been growing on the flats instead of grass. Some early buildings remain, like the house built in the 1840s by former convict Edward Payne at Paynes Crossing.
The original 9 crossings of the Wollombi Brook between Wollombi and Paynes Crossing were reduced to 3 after road realignments in the 1860s.
North of Paynes Crossing the Hunter Valley vineyards begin to dominate the valley landscape. Although wheat and other cereals were originally the main crops, vineyards were established as soon as Europeans began farming the Hunter Valley. Many of the farms in the Upper Hunter Valley were established by well-to-do immigrants, who chose to live in Sydney, leaving management of their farms to assigned convicts. Convict labour was used to clear land, plant vines, and harvest the crops.
John Blaxland established his property Fordwych here. The original Great North Road branches again with one branch going to Singleton via Warkworth, along roads now known as Charlton Road and Wallaby Scrub Road. The other branch to Patricks Plains (Whittingham) commences along Cessnock Road then goes into Commonwealth Army land, and emerges as Range Road. No convict structures remain along these roads, as the land was relatively open and flat requiring little more than clearing. Along Charlton and Wallaby Scrub Roads Mitchell's passion for straight lines can be experienced.
An exploring party led by constable John Howe and early settler Benjamin Singleton named the area Patrick's plains as they arrived here just before St Patrick's Day 1820, after coming overland from Windsor. An early track, which roughly follows the line of the present Putty Road, was developed along the route.
Between Wollombi and Millfield the present road continues to closely follow the original line and many early buildings remain. Caves above the road were extensively used by Aboriginal people, and later by bushranger Yellow Billy, who twice escaped from the Wollombi lock-up.
Millfield is named after its first industrial enterprise, a flour mill, which ground the thousands of bushells of wheat grown in the area, before rust disease became endemic in the 1870s. Originally powered by bullocks, the mill was later converted to steam. Two timber mills continue to operate in Millfield. Former Great North Road convict Pat Doolan established the Rising Sun inn here.
Development around the Cessnock area has mostly taken place in the past century, with the expansion of wine-growing in the area and the growth of mining in the Hunter Valley.
North of Cessnock, the Great North Road followed what is now Old Maitland Road through Sawyers Gully to Rutherford.
Sawyers Gully contains a number of convict-built culverts which remain in use, including a double culvert, the only one remaining on mainland Australia. An old timber and rubble bridge has been bypassed, but it remains beside the road. Local legend tells of the graves of convict road-workers in the Sawyers Gully area, but their exact location is unknown.
A toll-gate operated at Campbells Hill, near the junction of the Great North Road and what is now the New England Highway. Bushranger Thunderbolt held up the toll-keeper there in 1863. He met his victim again a few hours later while enjoying a drink in the nearby Spread Eagle Inn, and returned the cash-box to him!
Maitland and Morpeth
Convicts were allowed to establish farms here before 1820. Many emancipated convicts obtained small land grants as the towns of Maitland and Morpeth were being developed in the late 1820s. Both towns contain many buildings which date back to the convict era. Situated at the head of navigation on the Hunter River, these towns became the commercial hub of the fertile valley. Convict stockades in East and West Maitland housed the many convicts who formed an important labour force in the development of the Hunter Valley. In 1824 they built the first road between Newcastle and Wallis Plains, and in the 1830s a convict iron gang quarried stone at Morpeth for the walls of the Maitland Gaol. Convict gangs also built sections of the gaol.
Australia's first steam ship the Sophia-Jane began trading between Morpeth and Sydney in 1831, reducing the need for many goods and people to use the Great North Road. The first steam ship built in Australia, the William IV began operating from here shortly after.
Many remnants of Newcastle's convict era can be found in Newcastle's East End today. The first coal mines in Australia were developed with convict labour at Colliers Point, under what is now Fort Scratchley. Convicts built the breakwater to connect Nobbys to the mainland. Originally an island at the mouth of the Hunter River, Nobbys was reduced to half its height when convicts mined it for coal. A convict lumber yard was established near the site of the later customs house to service the coal and timber industries. A coal-fired beacon was built on Signal Hill to light the harbour entrance. Convict labour was used to excavate the Bogey Hole, a bathing hole for the military men stationed in Newcastle. Largely through the effort of its convict prisoners, Newcastle developed as an important harbour.