History of the Hawkesbury

Located 50 kilometres north-west of Sydney Harbour, the City of Hawkesbury boasts some of the deepest and richest history found in the whole of Australia. One of the first non-coastal settlements made by Europeans, it remains a treasure-trove of stories and landmarks from the beginnings of Australia as a nation.

Initially intended as a humble farming settlement, Hawkesbury has developed as Australia has developed, and now finds itself on the fringes of metropolitan Sydney. Let’s have a look at the Hawkesbury’s journey, from its beginnings lonely outpost, to its modern-day urbanisation.

Pre-Colonisation

Pre-1788, the area now occupied by the Hawkesbury was inhabited by the Darug people, the same hunter-gatherers that controlled a large swathe of land that is now dominated by modern-day Sydney. The Darug’s land reached from the Cumberland Plain in Western Sydney, to the foot of the Blue Mountains in the west, and to Camden in the south.

The Darug people were made up of hundreds of clans, but shared a common tongue, and when needed, would unite against neighbouring tribes such as the Kuringgai in the north-east and the Gandangara in the south-west. However, from the minimal evidence available, it seems as though they lead a very peaceful existence. That was to quickly change in the late 1700s.

European Settlement

After landing at Sydney Cove in 1788, the British quickly went to work establishing themselves and exploring the surrounding area. The Hawkesbury River was discovered by Governor A. Phillip and a team of his explorers in 1789, and the mapping of the area, including the river and its tributaries, soon led the party to believe that it was prime farming land.

In April of 1794, a plan was submitted to line the banks of the Hawkesbury River with 22 farms. Twenty-two farmers were chosen from the free settlers of the colony to occupy these farms, in the hope that they might be able to feed the ever-burgeoning population. They were given 30 acres apiece, and most initially focussed on wheat production.

The subsequent combination of land-clearing and smallpox that the colony’s farmers brought with them had a huge impact on the area’s aboriginal population. In an attempt to fight back, a tribe of the Darug people used guerrilla tactics to try to dissuade the farmers, but were eventually quashed when troops were sent to the region in June 1795. This battle was one of the triggers for the Hawkesbury and Nepean Wars that affected the colony for the next twenty years.

By 1798, the area was home to some 600 free settlers plus innumerable convict labourers.

The Formation of Towns

The Hawkesbury that we know today was formed in December 1810, with Governor Lachlan Macquarie establishing the five Macquarie Towns that now form the City proper: Castlereagh, Pitt Town, Richmond, Wilberforce and Windsor. All five were located on and around the Hawkesbury River, and proved a masterstroke, as the area was soon supplying half of the colony of New South Wales’ grain requirements.

Many of the original buildings in these settlements are still being used for their original purpose. In Windsor, the Macquarie Arms Hotel is still serving up as delicious a pint as it was when it was opened back in 1815, and the smaller settlement of Ebenezer is home to both Australia’s oldest church and oldest schoolhouse, having been erected in 1809 and 1817 respectively.

15 minutes East of Windsor lies Rouse Hill Estate, a beautiful sandstone building that was raised by convict labourers between 1813 and 1818, who reportedly worked in horrible conditions. The Rouses have occupied the building ever since it was constructed, with the sixth generation of inhabitants calling it home some 200 years later. Rouse Hill Estate boasts Australia’s oldest surviving garden.

1800s

Throughout the 1800s, the Hawkesbury continued to serve as the food bowl of the area, growing to meet the needs of the expanding population of Sydney. Britons were starting to see the move to Australia as less of a punishment and more of an opportunity, and the produce of the Hawkesbury, with its proximity to the city, was subject to ever-greater demand.

The area soon saw the need for local governance, and formed the Windsor district council in 1843, just the second proclaimed council in New South Wales. But due to a number of factors it was disbanded just 3 years later. The townships of Windsor (1871) and Richmond (1872) eventually founded their own councils in a more permanent fashion.

1900s

The councils of Windsor and Richmond amalgamated in 1949 to become Windsor Municipal Council, and when Colo Shire council (formed in 1906) joined Windsor Municipal in 1981, the Hawkesbury Shire Council was born. At this time, the Hawkesbury boasted a population of just under 40,000. By 1989, this had grown to 50,000, and city status was granted to the Hawkesbury.

Present Day

The modern day Hawkesbury is home to over 60,000 people, and is slowly morphing from what used to be a rural community, to more of a city of satellite suburbs. Although southern edge of the region has been transformed into dormitory suburbs that have been enveloped by the growing expanse of Sydney, the north of the region still contains some farmlands and a large national park.

Tourism is a major driver of the region, with heritage listed sites dotting the region and surrounds. The residents of the Hawkesbury are rightly proud of their history, and are doing well to ensure that the past isn’t forgotten.