A Brief History of the Shire


The Hills Shire, north west of Sydney, occupies an area from Baulkham Hills in the south to Wisemans Ferry in the north.

The Shire is one of the fastest growing Local Government areas in Sydney, with two thirds in the north being rural land used for farming and other agricultural industries.  

A number of important historical themes have contributed to the present day heritage value of The Hills Shire. These include:

  • Aboriginal heritage
  • European exploration
  • Early road systems and convict labour
  • Settlement and mixed agriculture
  • Small farms along the Hawkesbury River
  • Orchard development
  • Subdivision, townships and country retreats
  • Religion, social development and industry

The above historical themes not only characterise the Shire but are of importance within the Sydney Region. Numerous buildings, sites and other reminders of these development phases allow the community and future generations to interpret or better understand the history of the Shire.

The following history of the Shire provides a basic outline of the main phases in the Shire's history that are considered important. There are numerous sources of information that provide more specific information about the area's past and its inhabitants, such as historical societies and local libraries.



Aboriginal Peoples

The Hills Shire Council area occupies part of the Dharug Country. The Dharug were the inland Aboriginal Peoples of the Sydney hinterland, making use of both the rich diversity of the Hawkesbury River food supplies and the land animals and plants of the adjacent valleys and hills. There are remains of their occupation throughout the Shire area.

Traditional Aboriginal Peoples Names for the Natural Regions and Features in The Hills Shire(PDF, 154KB)



European Exploration

It is believed that Governor Phillip and a support party were the first white visitors to the Hills District in 1788, four months after European settlement. Their aim was to find new country for settlement and farming to feed the struggling Sydney colony. Land along the Hawkesbury was identified and eventually settled given its suitable soils and river access.  


Early Road Systems and Convict Labour

The settlement of the Shire followed its two main arterial systems, the road to Windsor and Wisemans Ferry, and the Hawkesbury River, with the later addition of Pennant Hills Road to the east. Most of the initial land grants followed these lines of communication and access.

Many of these roads were constructed by convict labour. The Great North Road (which generally follows the line of Old Northern Road today) was constructed by convicts in the early 1800s providing a direct form of access to Wisemans Ferry and beyond to the present Hunter Valley. It remains one of the most impressive engineering feats of Australia's convict era.


Convict Uprisings: The Castle Hill Rebellion and the Battle of Vinegar Hill

The story of the Castle Hill Rebellion and the Battle of Vinegar Hill is a story of failed mini-rebellions, unsuccessful escape attempts, mutiny, conspiracies, betrayal and personal tragedy.

Following an uprising in 1798 in Irelands Wexford County known as the Battle of Vinegar Hill, many Irish leaders were exiled to New South Wales.

After repeated escape attempts, in March 1804 the Irish patriots at Castle Hill Government Farm decided to rise up against the authorities of the colony and escape back to Ireland. Together with their supporters they escaped, captured arms and marched towards Parramatta.

On the way to Windsor in the search for reinforcements, the NSW Corps led by Major Johnston set upon the convicts. The ensuing conflict with the British military forces took place near Rouse Hill and became known as the Battle of Vinegar Hill, after the Battle in Ireland, the first European battle fought on Australian soil. The battle left 15 convicts dead with most of the leaders of the uprising being later executed as a mark of infamy.

Today a memorial stands at Castlebrook Cemetery on Windsor Road, commemorating the battle.

Death or Liberty - Battle of Vinegar Hill 1804.pdf(PDF, 2MB)

Settlement and Mixed Agriculture

(links within this section will take you to more information and stories contained within the Hills Voices Online Project)

1794 saw the beginning of settlement in the shire when Governor Hunter officially granted the first parcel of land on the Hawkesbury Road (now Old Windsor Road) at Baulkham Hills to William Joyce, a pardoned convict.

Castle Hill Government Farm, operated by convicts from 1801 to 1811 to provide food and stock for the colony, centred on Old Castle Hill and Banks Road, was approximately 14,000 hectares and extended northwards. The first free settler at Castle Hill was a Frenchman of noble birth, Verincourt De Clambe, who had fled France because of the revolution and was granted 100 acres in 1802.

Early settlers such as Andrew McDougall, John Smith, George Suttor, and Matthew Pearce stocked their land with cattle and sheep and cleared the bush to plant crops of wheat and maize. With the spread of citrus trees especially by George Suttor and the Mobbs family, orchards developed all over the district and proved a more worthwhile crop.

From the 1860s large areas of land from Parramatta to Dural grew fruit. Bella Vista Farm, for example, quintupled its landholding to grow significant wool and citrus crops and was considered one of the major producers in the late 19th century. The Gilbert and Shore families were typical Hills orchardists who farmed for over 100 years.

Shore 40 acre orchard Cattai Ridge Road 1950s

 By the early 20th century the dominance of citrus growing was being replaced with stone fruits, poultry, eggs, and milk. Many Hills district residents like the Kentwells were self sufficient by having their own cow, fruit, vegetables, eggs, etc. With the arrival of European migrants from the 1930s and especially after the Second World War market gardening of vegetablesmushrooms and flowers became important.

Howard rotary hoes were manufactured at Northmead (now part of City of Parramatta) from the late 1920s until the 1970s and sold both locally and worldwide. Many Hills residents were employed to make these innovative machines that revolutionised farming by mechanising the tilling process.

From the 1950s agriculture declined in the shire as urban development rapidly extended northward, with Box Hill being one of the last areas to change. There are still some rural properties in the north but many farms have been reduced in size to accommodate hobby farmers. 

The annual Castle Hill Show began in the 1880s from ploughing and sporting days and has showcased the varying agricultural activities of the area for over a century. The Orange Blossom Festival, commenced as an annual event in September 1969, recognised the significance of the shire’s agricultural history.



Subdivision, Townships, Country Retreats and Transport

About 100 years ago, most of Sydney's citrus products were grown in the Hills District. The transportation of goods to and from the District was very slow, so from the 1880s the feasibility of building a railway was explored.

Two major developments that changed the face of the southern part of the Shire by 1930, were the tramway and its conversion to a railway, and the subsequent subdivision of land for residential purposes, particularly around Castle Hill and Baulkham Hills.

The tramway opened in 1902 and extended to Baulkham Hills, then on to Castle Hill in 1910, and Rogans Hill in 1924. In 1923 the tramway was replaced by a railway. The line generally followed the roadway, and as vehicular traffic increased and patronage decreased the railway was closed in 1932 and replaced by buses.  



Castle Hill Steam Tram


Learn more about the Baulkham Hills Tramway/Railway

View video on Trams and Trains in The Hills 


The Hills district also made a very attractive alternative to the Blue Mountains. One result of the desirability of the climate, the enhanced transport facilities and increasing middle-class prosperity was the creation of large houses in substantial garden settings, commonly referred to as country retreats. Typically they were located along major ridgelines such as Old Castle Hill Road to take advantage of the impressive views.


Religion and Social Development

In the nineteenth century three major Christian denominations, Anglican, Methodist and Roman Catholic, built churches in the area. Many others followed in the twentieth century and in more recent years, with the arrival of migrants from various cultures, the shire has seen the introduction of other religious buildings like a mosque at Annangrove in 2003.

Education in the shire was first provided by churches like the Roman Catholic St Michael's Denominational School Baulkham Hills from 1862 until 1867 when the school was temporarily closed due to the lack of a teacher. St Michaels Orphanage for small boys was opened in 1902 by the Mercy Sisters who have operated St Michaels Family Centre since the 1970s.

With its country atmosphere on the outskirts of Sydney, the Hills became the location for some major philanthropic activities. Burnside Homes, founded in 1911 at North Parramatta, represented a grandiose scheme by Sir James Burns and the Presbyterian Church to provide a refuge for orphans and children in need. Another example is William Thompson Masonic School which opened in 1922 at Baulkham Hills by the Freemasons.

Public schools were established in the district from the late 1800s, sometimes replacing church schools such as in Castle Hill in 1879. The number of public schools multiplied considerably from the 1960s with the rapid expansion of the urban population especially in the south. One of the earliest public schools, Baulkham Hills Public School founded in 1876, became a victim of the expansion due to its location on Windsor Road near the M2.

Most early community events centred on church and school groups. From the late nineteenth century local progress associations, like those in Annangrove, and later Box Hill, built halls for community activities. Memorial halls, honour boards and plaques were also erected by community groups after the First World War and by RSL Clubs.



No heavy industries were developed in The Hills Shire, however the extraction of raw materials and manufacturing plants has played a part in the Shire's history and development. The plant at Darling Mills founded in 1825 as a steam powered flour mill catered for local farmers' wheat crops. The mill diversified over the years into the making of linseed oil, tanning, candle making and a tweed factory.

The primary extractive industry in the Hills area was timber. Cedar along the Hawkesbury was a valuable commodity and was used in the construction of numerous homes in the region. Today, a number of sand mines now operate in the northern parts of the Shire.

The Shirewide Heritage Study provided the following statement of heritage significance for the Shire:

  • The Council area retains rare, remarkable and intelligible physical evidence of the earliest roads across the Cumberland Plain to the farms of the Windsor District and northwards to the lower Hawkesbury and the Hunter Valley.
  • The small farms along the Hawkesbury River from Cattai to Wiseman's Ferry display exceptional evidence of early colonial agriculture on pockets of rich alluvial soil shown in homesteads, outbuildings and drainage. As the Hawkesbury stopped growing wheat 120 years ago there was relatively little building development but traditional farms continued to produce modest crops of vegetables and citrus. As a result the heritage significance of early isolated farms along the river is extremely high.
  • The southern part of the Shire attracted major graziers such as the Macarthur's and encouraged smaller farming entrepreneurs such as the Pearce's, the Pyes and the McDougall's as part of the early settlement on the Cumberland Plain.
  • Baulkham Hills was the first area beyond Parramatta to be developed by orchardists. From 1800 onwards the expert pioneering work of George Suttor and William Mobbs demonstrated a high suitability of the ridges for citrus and stone fruit. By the late Victorian and Edwardian periods of sub-division, orcharding extended vigorously northwards to Dural, Glenorie and Wisemans Ferry, encouraged the building of a rail link to Parramatta and remained a potent part of the area's economy and visual impact until very recently.
  • Country retreats on the ridges, cool in the Sydney summer, became a striking feature of the area from the 1880's onwards. This was a natural extension of the interest in tourism and created Arcadian properties set in bushland or among orchards. These houses, more permanently occupied than the better known equivalent at Mount Wilson, not only changed the built environment but also encouraged local philanthropy and the building of amenities such as the Burnside Homes, the Masonic Homes or St Paul's Anglican Church at Castle Hill.


The heritage of The Hills Shire is a valuable and non-renewable resource which assists in the development and interpretation of the Shire's character and identity. As with other non-renewable resources heritage requires protection and conservation if it is to be enjoyed by future generations.

Places of heritage significance provide a link to the past informing us about our cultural history and often providing a sense of identity for a community. They may consist of landscapes, places, buildings, structures, relics or works which are valued not simply because they are old but because they are associated with phases of history or people and events of great importance.

The conservation and preservation of the Shire's heritage is often in competition with development in the Shire particularly in periods of significant urban growth and renewal. This factor has placed great pressure on Council to protect and ensure the long term conservation of the Shire's heritage for the benefit of present and future generations. 



Who is Responsible for the Shire's Heritage?

Local councils have the primary responsibility for identifying and managing places of heritage significance in New South Wales. In particular the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, 1979 and Heritage Act, 1977 requires all local councils to protect heritage items and conservation areas through their identification in planning instruments.

Council has included a list of heritage items and conservation areas in Schedule 5 of The Hills Local Environmental Plan 2012 (LEP). Special provisions apply to these items the purpose of which is to ensure their protection, facilitate conservation and ensure development is undertaken in a sympathetic manner.

In assessing development applications affecting heritage items, Council also has regard to the provisions of the The Hills Development Control Plan 2012 - Part C Section 4 - Heritage and principles of the ICOMOS Burra Charter.

The NSW Heritage Office is largely responsible for protecting heritage that is considered to be of State significance. There are 10 items in the Shire that are listed on the State Heritage Register under the Heritage Act, 1977. This generally means that the approval of the NSW Heritage Council is also required when works to these items are proposed.

There are many local historical societies and residents who maintain an interest in the Shire's heritage and are concerned with its protection.