Sophia Jane and the trials of the Old North Road

Sophia Jane
IVOR JONES

As you gaze along Old Northern Rd at Baulkham Hills or Castle Hill can you imagine how it was created almost 200 years ago? The road was created with a view of linking Sydney to the Newcastle and Hunter region.

The work of building the road began in March 1826 at Castle Hill with John Oxley, the Surveyor and Colonel Dumaresq marking out the road for the iron gangs. 300 convicts in gangs of 50 or 60, most in chains and all under armed guard. Lashings were common and men unable or unwilling to work were flogged. Overseers were brutal and discipline was severe. Rations were distributed twice a week and each man received 1 lb of fresh or salt beef, 1 lb of wheaten meal and ½ lb of maize meal daily. Each man was also given two blankets.

It took the gangs two years for the road to reach from Castle Hill to Wisemans Ferry. Solomon Wiseman established a ferry across the Hawkesbury for the benefit of the farmers.

He also secured the contracts for supplying the road gangs with victuals, which returned him between 3,000 to 4,000 pounds a year.

Lt.Percy Simpson worked the gang at Wisemans Ferry and it was rumoured that 200 convicts had died along the way and that the Hangman’s Cave was the scene of many deaths at the hands of Lt. Simpson.

Another gang of convicts worked from Maitland to Wollombi which was completed in 1831 costing 90,000 pound however in the same year a regular steamship service between Sydney and Newcastle was commenced by the ship “Sophia Jane” and settlers found that it was safer to send their produce by sea rather by road as the section between Maitland and the Hawkesbury was rarely used and not kept in repair.

The Sophia Jane was paddle wheel steamer built on the Thames in England in 1826. Edward Biddulph brought the vessel to Australia in 1831 and after a voyage of 141 days she first entered Port Jackson. She would leave Port Jackson at around 7.13am and arrive in Newcastle at 3.13 pm. Next morning she would then travel on to Green Hills (Morpeth) this trip taking 3½ hours. Aborigines named the ship “Fire Devil” because of the dense black smoke and sparks which came from her. The Sophia Jane continued the run for ten years before it was retired from the service in 1841.

To add to the problems of the Great North Road was the fact that a road was constructed running between Cowan and Berowra creeks. George Peat, a shipbuilder who had built a residence along this road constructed a ferry which could take six horses across the Hawkesbury river to a road on the other side that skirted Gosford and went through what is now Ourimbah onto Cooranbong to Sandy Creek where it forked, going in one direction to Maitland and in the other to Newcastle.

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