Most, if not all, residents of Hornsby and Kuring-gai will know of Wiseman’s Ferry, a township located 75km north-west of the Sydney CBD in the combined local government areas of Hornsby Shire, The Hills Shire, City of Hawkesbury and City of Gosford. The town is nestled at the confluence of the Hawkesbury River and the MacDonald River and is a favourite with weekend day-trippers and motoring enthusiasts alike, as the drive to Wisemans Ferry on the Old Northern Road is a picturesque one meandering through National Park and semi-rural land and market gardens. By simple extension, then, many of us will be vaguely aware of Solomon Wiseman, the ex-convict-cum-businessman for whom the township is named. However fewer of us will be aware of this man’s incredible life and fortunes which is closely linked to the early history and settlement of the northern districts of the colony of New South Wales. Wiseman is believed to have been born in 1778 at Cobham near Folkestone, Kent, to a respectable landowning family. One version of the story goes that he became engaged in the “respectable profession” of smuggling, conveying spies to France for the British government and French products back across the Channel during the Napoleonic Wars (1803 -15).
On 30th October 1805 he was apprehended and convicted, sentenced to death for stealing from a lighter, but then reprieved (presumably through the connections of his or his wife’s family) and transported to Botany Bay in 1806. Old Bailey sessions papers show that Wiseman was convicted of theft of wool and other property whilst employed as a lighterman (a worker who operates a lighter or flat- bottomed barge) on the Thames. It’s possible that the two versions of the story can be reconciled, perhaps. It seems that the commutation of sentence to transportation was a normal concession of the times, and it appears clear that Wiseman had several witnesses who could vouch for his good character. It’s said that Lord Bathurst interceded for him, and as a result he was able to take his wife and young family with him to New South Wales. Wiseman was sufficiently well-off to secure comfortable accommodation on board the Alexander 1. Wiseman, his first wife Jane, his son William (aged 5), another son Richard who was born at the Cape of Good Hope and another daughter who was listed but not named, all arrived in New South Wales in August 1806. Little is known of Wiseman’s first years as a convict, but it is believed that he was given conditional liberty which meant his sentence was to be carried out under the supervision of his wife. By 1811 he constructed a sloop called the Hawkesbury Packet, which was a 21 ton river based trader shipping coals from Newcastle, wheat from the Hawkesbury and timber from the Shoalhaven. In 1812, Wiseman received a pardon from Governor Macquarie. Wiseman proved to be a shrewd businessman. In the course of his early life as a pardoned man in New South Wales, he was an innkeeper, a merchant and ferryman who owned several sloops. Disaster struck in 1817 when both of his sloops (Hawkesbury Packet and the Hope) were wrecked within months of each other. His property in Sydney was heavily mortgaged and as a result he was almost ruined by these losses. However he had already applied for and received a grant of 200 acres of land, which he selected at what is now known as Wisemans Ferry. He moved there with his family in 1819, and was able to make another fortune based on farming, inn keeping and the profits from Government concessions and contracts. By 1821 Wiseman had established an Inn called “Sign of the Packet” on the banks of the Hawkesbury River.
At this time (circa 1821) the overland track which linked Sydney with the Hunter Valley towns of Wollombi, Maitland, Singleton and Newcastle was developed into the Great North Road. The road was built mainly by convict labour. The 1828 Census lists Wiseman as owning 1100 acres, 220 of which were cleared, and all of those cultivated. Wiseman’s wife Jane passed away in 1821 and he remarried in 1826. In 1827, Wiseman built the ferry at the Hawkesbury River crossing. The original site was 2km downstream from its present location but was moved in 1829 when the Devine’s Hill ascent was chosen as the new route for the Great North Road. He was granted exclusive right to the tolls for seven years, subject to an exemption for Government horses and property. The Wiseman family lived in a home known as Cobham Hall, part of which remains today and forms part of the side section of the present Wiseman Inn. This inn is supposed to be the scene of ghostly apparitions: some say it is the unhappy ghost of Jane Wiseman, who fell or was pushed from the balcony and died on the steps. However, as Jane Wiseman died 5 years before the building was finished, this story would appear to have no substance. Harsh treatment of convicts led many to attempt to escape. In order to escape a death penalty on recapture, many convicts became bushrangers who outraged the settlers in and travellers to the region. There is said to have been an impromptu hanging place near Wisemans Ferry for recaptured bushrangers – Judgement Rock and the Hangman’s Tree. Interestingly, Wiseman was not known to show leniency towards his convict servants. If he came across a good worker, he was inclined to provoke a quarrel just before the worker was due his ticket of leave. The worker would be lashed and his ticket of leave withheld for another year. His attitude towards his servants and convict labourers was out of step with his image as “king of the Hawkesbury”: he wore a swallowtail coat, a flowery vest, polished boots and a dress sword. He looked more like a Lord Mayor than an inn keeper. Wiseman died in 1838 at age 62. He was buried in his own grounds, next to his wife Jane. Wisemans Ferry remained the principal crossing place for many years, until the opening of the Hawkesbury railway bridge in 1889. “The Secret River” is an award-winning novel by Australian novelist Kate Grenville, who is Wiseman’s great great great granddaughter. Initially intended to be a work of non fiction about Wiseman and his life when he and his family first arrived in New South Wales, the book became a successful fictional work based loosely on Wiseman’s life and focused on what may have happened when Europeans colonised land already inhabited by Aboriginal people. The novel confronts the clash of cultures without trying to drive home a moral or political message, leaving the reader to examine flawed human lives against the backdrop of New South Wales in the early 1800s.