Peter Douglas and Graham Wilson - Heritage Park


Castle Hill Heritage Park

Interview 1a

Interviewees: Peter Douglas, born 1959
          and Graham Wilson, born 1955

Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
            for Baulkham Hills Shire Council

Date of Interview: 1 May 2007

Transcription: Kevin Murray, July 2007

This interview represents the personal recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee  

Right, now, what were the circumstances that led you both to work with the Baulkham Hills Shire Council?

Well, I have a firm, a company, an archaeological company based in Annandale, and Baulkham Hills Council asked us to undertake some research and look over the site and basically do an archaeological assessment to determine where the Barracks, the Castle Hill Barracks was. It was two years out from the Bicentenary of the (Castle Hill) Rebellion - March the 4th (1804. And the Battle of Vinegar Hill, March 5th 1804). So they contacted me first and I put together a crew to look at the existing research and do the fieldwork, and Graham became part of that, just the same way as we've worked for many years now, which is the two of us go to a site together and look over the ground and at the end of a field inspection we'll pool our heads, really, and say what we think. I'll tend to go off and write the front end of the report and manage the client and Graham goes into the archives, sometimes with a team put together by the firm, and away we go.

Can you tell me what the brief was, that the Council gave you?

Well, the brief was to find the Barracks, essentially. Council had got hold of this block of land - it was covered in lantana and weeds and they basically wanted to rezone it as a regional level park because a lot of subdivision had gone in around it. As part of that park - they knew it was a significant Heritage item - and they essentially wanted some physical remains of the Barracks so they could put into place an interpretation scheme and communicate the significance of the place and the value of that landscape in terms of the Shire's history. It was all driven along by the local Historical Society (The Hills District Historical Society), but Council, as landowner, were the entity obtaining money and commissioning the works - the professional work.

Now, was one of the Council's plans for you to find out whether the place was what it was supposed to be? Was that one of your briefs?

Well, this is really the context in which a single building which was the Barracks was located. So in order to understand the history of the Barracks, we really needed to know the history of the whole place. What other structures, what other areas within the Heritage Park - how they functioned in relationship to this focal building, and how the landscape had been modified over time, what we had when we walked onto the field at that stage. How that had been achieved over the previous 200 years - what had actually gone on here.

You weren't asking whether or not they actually believed that there was a Barracks there? Because you couldn't see anything - it was a tad "mythical" at the start. Because people had looked for it in the records, and also there had been three or four surveys, archaeologists before us that had looked over the place. So there was an element of questioning whether or not the remains were actually there. What they really wanted was, firstly, are there any remains of the Barracks or significant buildings associated with the Third Government Farm? If so, what condition are they in, and what opportunities have we got as far as interpretation and integrating them within a modern parkland setting, and how you manage that. That was really what they were after us to do, and we've just finished some further excavation there and prepared a conservation plan with another firm. So the Council is moving towards - you know, they've got their conservation plan in place now, it's a case of managing the new fabric that they'll put in there. Things like interpretation centres and amenities blocks for visitors and the like.

Demolition of former barracks 1866 on Castle Hill Heritage Park

Now, how important, historically, is this site? Can you give me a history of what happened, starting with Governor King?

Well, one of the main problems with the early European settlement was providing enough food to keep the colony alive. There'd been a couple of previous attempts to get Government-established farms operating in order to sustain the colony. They had basically been encroached upon with granting of land to private settlers. Governor King in 1801 decided that there was a need for a new Government Farm beyond the limits of the then settlement, which gave the Government sufficient area of land to farm without being encroached upon. Castle Hill was selected as the most likely candidate for a successful farming venture, and from 1801 the clearing of the land, the felling of the bluegum forest began. There was a small detachment of military there to look over a fairly small population of convicts who were responsible for the clearance and for the growing of crops. From 1801 until 1804 the establishment continued to grow. The number of acres of land under wheat and corn increased. There was also attempts to create a vineyard, which was just outside the Heritage Park. There was also the need for facilities for prisoners and in 1803 the two-storey Barrack was constructed to accommodate the prisoners. Prior to that date they had been living in small huts which had been scattered through the central part of the farm. Also, within the Derwent(?) program at that stage was the creation of buildings like barns, millhouses, stores. And there was a variety of buildings. There was accommodation required for all the various officers who were in charge of the agricultural establishment. There was also a prime stock raising area as well, providing stock such as cattle and pigs to other settlers. It was a breeding area for stock. And in that regard it was an extremely important part of the operation of the colony, particularly the economic operation of it.

Now I believe there were 474 convicts who worked on clearing the land. Was that right?

It varied from year to year and from season to season. One of the other reasons that there were so many convicts stationed out there was that during the harvest between the Hawkesbury and Parramatta, convicts could be despatched to private farms in order to assist with the harvest, so they had a sort of day-release system in operation during the harvest season. So you had this pool of labour that could be moved from the Government Farm to private farms and then they could work the harvest and then return to the Government Farm.

Now why is it so significant, then, the history of this place? It seems to have been the beginning of the Vinegar Hill Rebellion (ie, the Castle Hill Rebellion and the Battle of Vinegar Hill). Tell me about that - when it broke out, and what was significant about that as far as our history's concerned.

Castle Hill was also reasonably isolated in that it was away from the main centres of population which in those days was Sydney Cove and Parramatta. It was a good place to locate prisoners who were considered to be problems, and during the period 1801 and 1802, the main problem from the Government side of things was seen as being the Irish convicts. These had started to arrive in the colony following uprisings in Ireland. They were considered a threat to good order. Rather than dispersing them through the colony, the decision was made to concentrate them in one place and that one place was Castle Hill. There'd been some problems there during 1803, and then in 1804 they rose in rebellion and Castle Hill Government Farm and specifically the area that is now occupied by the Castle Hill Heritage Park, was the point from which various groups were to be dispatched throughout the colony to seize places like the farms on the Hawkesbury, the settlement at Parramatta and then to move on to Sydney where ships could be obtained to leave the colony. It was really the only instance in which the military, at that stage the New South Wales Corps was called into any sort of action that was of a strictly military nature.

The insurgents as they left Castle Hill raided a number of local farms and then started to move towards the farms on the Hawkesbury, and then they were intercepted by the New South Wales Corps somewhere in the vicinity of Rouse Hill, Vinegar Hill. Possibly between Vinegar Hill and the cemetery, Castlebrook Cemetery. And it was there that the famous battle took place.

Convict well at Castle Hill Heritage Park 2007

Were there any casualties in that battle?

The actual casualty figures for the Irish convicts tends to vary, depending on which records one reads, but I think there were 15 deaths ascribed to the actual action itself. There were no casualties on the Government side. The whole thing was put down fairly rapidly, then a lid was placed on Castle Hill, but it was... the terms following the uprising were reasonably liberal, in that there had been 300 to 400 prisoners who had scattered from the farm. They were given a certain number of days to make their way back to the farm and all would be forgiven, apart from those who had been singled out as ringleaders. Some various positions...

So these were mainly Irish convicts, then?

Mainly Irish. It wasn't an exclusively Irish establishment, but certainly the main thrust of the uprising had an Irish dimension.

So Castle Hill Heritage Park is actually where the Rebellion began, you said?

Yes, the whole thing was kicked off by setting alight of a hut and then the ringing of the Settlement Bell. The bell is what regulated all movements on the Government Farm, and for it to be rung out of sequence was a signal that alerted everybody within the Government Farm that it was time to take over the property, secure the property. Following the firing of the hut there was no further damage done to any of the buildings on the Government Farm, because it was, I suspect, being used as the base for their operations and you don't destroy your own base. But the bell was a central aspect of the uprising that allowed people to come in from elsewhere on the farm and then to march out of the farm to their allotted destinations, such as Toongabbie, Parramatta or the Hawkesbury.

Now this was on March the 3rd, 1804, and the next day, the 4th of March  was the battle? (Actually talking about March 4th and March 5th)

Was the battle, and then pretty much everything came to a conclusion within the following two weeks. I think everybody who had taken leave of the farm was back in the farm.

When did you actually commence work on the Castle Hill Heritage Park, then, on the project?

I can't recall. It would have been about 11 months before the 4th of March 2004, so it would have been in 2003, probably in the Autumn, I would have thought.

Can you describe the Park for those people who don't actually know where it is exactly, it's position and it's size in hectares... what is the Park?

Frank, you're really dredging my memory now, as far as the specifics. I think it's something like 15 to 17 hectares, that's what the Council has, now (Actually 20 hectares. The area originally allocated for the Farm in 1801 was 34,539 acres). That's only a very small part of a much larger area - the historical Government Farm, of course. It's north of Castle Hill shopping centre these days - up over the ridge line. And to the north and west of Rogan's Hill, which is one of the high points out there.

What are the natural features of the site?

Reasonably deep soil - quite deep soil. Good soil. This is currently. About five water courses converged on the place. Some immediately to the north of the main area of the Government Farm was Castle Hill itself, which rises quite sharply from the valley and... the Great Northern Road follows part of the ridge and Gilbert Road forms part of the northern boundary of the Heritage Park. And then Old Castle Hill Road comes up from what is now the Castle Hill Shopping Centre to the southern part of the Park.

Vegetation and signage at Castle Hill Heritage Park

What about the vegetation... There's some remnant bluegum forest on the site, I believe, is that right?

Well, now there is a considerable amount of bluegum forest there. Most of that is regrowth from a period after 1940 or thereabouts. There may have been remnant patches of timber along the creek lines in the years after, say, 1960. Regrowth along the water courses to a considerable extent, and that has included the regrowth of quite a number of different species which have been identified during previous studies.

Even now in Spain Reserve it was cleaned out. There's some big timber down there, but it's pretty sparse - it's mostly regrowth.

So it's gone from its original state, before the convicts arrived, which was bluegum forest, to clearing, now back to bluegum...

Well there was orcharding in between.  That was a fairly substantial vegetation regime.

Tell me about the uses of the land in the period say, early 1800's and 1960's, what would have happened there?

Well, I'll defer to Graham again as the guy who's right on top of the history...

Well, the uprising indicated that there were a few problems. The settlement tended to be reduced in scale over the following years. Many of the recalcitrant prisoners were sent to other stations ssuch as Newcastle. In 1810, when Governor Macquarie arrived, his main aim was not so much to encourage Government Farms, but to encourage small holders, so he instituted a program of subdividing the Government Farm, leaving a core of about 200 acres, of which the Heritage Park forms a part. They needed to find a use for this site, which included a large stone Barrack as well as ancilliary buildings. There'd been no specific mental health facility or asylum within the colony. Prior to that date people with mental health problems had been held in gaol, particularly in Parramatta Gaol. So it was decided (in 1811) to convert the former Government Farm into a Lunatic Asylum, and it continued to operate as such up until the 1820's (1826). And the Liverpool Asylum was then opened and the inmates were transferred from Castle Hill to Liverpool. The site then was transferred to the Church and School Lands Corporation, which was a part of the Church of England, for use as a Church and for use as a school. The former Superintendant of Agriculture's house, the former assistant Surgeon's house were used as the first school in the district, while the Barrack building was converted into St Simon's Church of England. And it remained operational up until about 1860, when its condition had reached a stage where the buillding was starting to fall apart. And in 1860 it was decided to pull the whole thing down, and...

It's interesting, that, isn't it, when you think about it... the building wasn't that old. Really it's something I haven't given a great deal of thought too is the quality of the workmanship initially, in the early 1800's when it was being built. I'm just... talking about a building with a footing of a metre wide at the base, two storey stone with buttresses, and it's all over in 50 years. It's just... it really says something about... it was either neglected in terms of maintenance in the 50 year period, or the quality of the construction.

Entrance to Castle Hill Heritage Par

What happened to the stone that was used for the stone Barracks? Where did it go?

The best stone was removed from the site and used in the construction of St Paul's Rectory, in Castle Hill (The Parsonage on the southern corner of Old Northern and Parsonage Roads). I reckon they only used it for the footings, though. When you go up there and have a look at the Rectory, you've got the old stone in the bottom. I think that some stones were used around the district. There's also some down the bottom. A lot of it would have been tossed around down the hill, and then it's been replaced and re-used over the years. There'll still be plenty in the ground on that slope, I think, down the hill between the Heritage Mews and the Park. The new development is the Mews.

Now the Lunatic Asylum that was created on the site, about the stone cottage which became the Lunatic Asylum - is that significant, because that would have been the first mental institution in Australia?

Well it was the first designated mental health facility on the continent, and I think that has been recognised by historians of health in this country. It was quite a considerable departure from the previous system, and in part I think it reflects Macquarie's influence on the way society was being changed in New South Wales, because this decision to create a separate facility took place within the first 12 months of his governorship.

And how early was the school? There was a school set up on the site?


Was that one of the first schools in Australia?

Not necessarily one of the first schools in Australia, because there was already an existing Church and Schools Corporation that had been in existence for a few years beforehand, but it was notable in that it was really the first school in the district, providing education for a number of families who had taken up the opportunity of the subdivisions that Macquarie had provided when they broke up the Government Farm.

It's really, with the establishment of the church and school, the formal establishment of it on that land, you've got a couple of the pillars of local government and local community, so in terms of a social history program, relevant to the Shire, that period there is pretty important.

Now how well is the site served by history?

Interesting question... the Rebellion gets a mention in many of the histories. The operation of the Government Farm itself is treated fairly scantly. The history of the site as a Lunatic Asylum is known in medical historical circles, but not widely known outside. The use of the site as a church and school is known at the local level, but not really well known outside that, despite the fact that the Church had close connections with an individual, ther Reverend W. B. Clarke, who was probably one of the finest minds in the colony during the whole of the Nineteenth Century. A man of great talents, many interests, a scientist as well as a vicar. A communicant with Charles Darwin, he was an intellectual giant within the colony. His works weren't always immediately appreciated, but his association with the site is an important (part).

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