Friday, June 19, 2020

History on the Hume: Berrima snapshot (1984)

The busy Hume Highway winds like a black ribbon through the very heart of this small Georgian village, but so forceful is the town's character that it scarcely impairs Berrima's charm.

(Ed: Berrima was subsequently bypassed in 1989)

Official parties, including explorer Dr Charles Throsby. sent by Governor Macquarie to explore the land south of Sydney in 1818 reported in glowing terms on the excellence of the land and the quality of the pastures. Throsby and nine other Free Persons were granted permission to take up land in the district, and when Macquarie toured the southern counties in 1820 he found the countryside 'particularly beautiful and rich-resembling a fine extensive pleasure ground in England'.

Surveyor General Inn: Although substantially altered, the basic form of this inn (1835) survives, and it has the distinction of being the oldest continuously licensed inn within the same walls in Australia. It was built by William Harper, who had been Assistant Surveyor to Major Thomas Mitchell, the Surveyor-General, in whose honour he named the hotel. The inn remained in the Harper family for almost a century. The observant eye will see where the sandstone blocks ran out and sand stock bricks were used to complete the walls. Hume Hwy. (Pic: DNSW)

In 1829 Surveyor-General Major Thomas Mitchell chose a 'fine romantic part of the river' (the Wingecarribee) as the most suitable spot for a town. By 1832 the townsite for Berrima was marked out. Convicts started work on the gaol in 1834, labouring in chains, hewing the stone from the river banks. The Regency style courthouse was completed in 1838, and a cluster of inns and hostelries vied for trade as a steady stream of traffic moved between Sydney Town and the south. Berrima looked set for a busy, prosperous future. Then the government decided to move the district court to Goulburn in 1850, and in the 1860s the rail line bypassed Berrima. As the passing trade slowed to a trickle, the town's trade disappeared and people moved away. By the First World War the population had dwindled to eighty.

Berrima Court House. Colonial Architect Mortimer Lewis was a great admirer of the Greek Revival style and used it to great effect in Berrima courthouse (1833-38). the town's most handsome building. The simple Doric columns support a Classical pediment, and the cedar doors are shaped from solid planks. A contemporary praised the interior as being 'fitted up in the first style of elegance'. The building stands on a slight rise, the golden stonework complemented by the mature European trees. (Pic: Berrima Historial Society)

Source: Explore Historic Australia
by Margaret Barca 1984

In recent years, however, the golden stonework of the old inns and houses glows again, as craftsmen and potters have taken up residence; restaurants, galleries and tearooms have opened, and the Berrima Village Trust is ensuring the careful preservation of a remarkable town.

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T HE Berrima district was first seen by Europeans in 1798 when Governor John Hunter sent out an exploratory party to dispel a wild rumour circulating amongst the convicts of Sydney that China lay somewhere to the south of Botany Bay. The group failed to find China but carried back to the Governor glowing reports of high-quality pasture land they had crossed.

The early colony of New South Wales lacked the resources to open up this promising land, and further official exploration of the Berrima region had to wait until 1818 when Governor Lachlan Macquarie sent Hamilton Hume, James Meehan and Charles Throsby to survey the south.

The site for the town of Berrima was selected in 1829 by the Surveyor-General, Major Thomas Mit- chell. The government surveyor, Robert Hoddle, was put to work on laying out the town. It was on the route of the new main road south from Sydney so it was named 'Berrima', from an Aboriginal word said to mean 'to the south'.

Another surveyor, William Govett, looked over Berrima in 1837 and declared that it 'wore a melancholy aspect'. His desolation was to be shared by the builders and inmates of Berrima gaol, one of the colony's most notoriously brutal institutions. A visiting bishop in 1835 described a chain gang hewing their future home from local sandstone: 'They are fettered with heavy chains, harrassed with heavy work, and fed on salt meat and coarse bread; their faces are awful to behold and their existence one of desperation'.

Former Colonial Inn (
For the townsfolk and the many travellers who passed through Berrima, life was merrier. The town had 13 inns, kept by publicans whom the Reverend John Dunmore Lang described as 'of low character'. But they provided weary coach passengers with welcome refreshment after the bone-shaking three-day journey from Sydney.

Berrima, with its substantial gaol and imposing courthouse, was set to become the central administrative town to the south of Sydney. Then several crucial decisions were made district court would move to Goulburn in 1850 and the railway would bypass Berrima and stop at Mittagong. Berrima's fortunes flagged after that and at one stage the population declined to a mere 80.

Former White Horse Inn (
Lack of interest in developing the town helped to preserve the many early buildings built of local sandstone. More recently, a revival of interest in Australia's early history has given a new lease of life to what is still a small village of only 700 people. The National Trust, working closely with the Berrima Village Trust, is ensuring that future development is sensitive and sympathetic.

Text source: Reader's Digest 1982

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MORE: History on the Hume series

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