The Hawkesbury, still steeped in Tradition

This item by Mick Dawson is proudly published as a reminder that our campaign in Hawkesbury is about more than immediate political issues. It’s about a long history.


Australia was first charted by Captain James Cook in 1770. Sydney sprouted to unsustainable proportions overnight. Farming land was needed to feed a mainly convict population. The city needed farming land with a ready water supply. The answer came in the form of a river.

Since the day it was first settled, many kilometres inland residents have lived and died in the river district. Some of those families still dwell there today. Others have moved there from suburbia. Every resident affectionately refers to the river, their home, as the Hawkesbury.

The Hawkesbury has enjoyed a varied and interesting history since the time of its discovery.  A mere 18 years later two expeditions set out to explore its length. One end was named the “Nepean”, the other was the “Hawkesbury”.  Both parties met, realising they explored the same waterway.

Settlement was tough on many levels. The new residents were cut off from the city and had to clear their properties by hand. The Aborigines who objected to their presence slaughtered them. The reports were so many that by 1795 an army contingent was sent to the remote stretches of the river to protect them.

By the turn of the 1800s farming communities were established in relative safety. The year 1804 saw the first battle for Australia’s independence at Vinegar Hill.

Today Australian students know nothing about Vinegar Hill.

In 1806, the Hawkesbury district suffered the bullying iron fist of Governor Bligh. He handed out huge parcels of land along the river to the more privileged, beginning with himself. A petition was used by the state to overthrow him. Signatures were added to the document by Hawkesbury residents.

The river trade grew prosperous under Governor Lachlan Macquarie, first appointed in 1809. During that time sloops sailed the river, carrying supplies to the riverside farmers, and returned with produce for Sydney. It was an arduous task for the crews. They had to constantly tack (change direction of sail) to keep the vessels from running aground. River traffic became so constant by 1814 that a commercial dock was built in Windsor.

A new age of steamships arrived by the 1830s doing the same task more efficiently. Farm families dropped what they were doing at the sound of a distant steam whistle and ran to the river’s edge.  Around a bend would chuff the welcomed sight of a paddle wheeler, bringing supplies, mail, and any news of the city.

By the 1880s steam powered paddle wheelers were being phased out with trains, as rail could transport cargo so much more swiftly overland.

In the 1920s trucks commonly transported goods everywhere. It was an age when the Hawkesbury River ceased as a natural highway.  As traffic grew denser, the roads were paved. Buildings of concrete and steel sprouted in both the Hawkesbury district and in Sydney.

During the last eighty years the Hawkesbury has evolved into the area we know today. Sydney has grown unevenly to house a quarter of Australia’s population. The Hawkesbury, for all its modern developments is still an area steeped in tradition. Up until a decade ago antique markets were plentiful. Items as rare as cannons were sold to its inhabitants.

The Hawkesbury was a picturesque spot. Residents in the lowlands claimed they could see all the way to the bottom of the river. Sand dredgers cleared away sandy stretches on the banks residents once used as beaches. With the natural filter taken away the river became soiled. Sewage was contemptuously added to the mix. Cyanobacteria or blue – green algae ensued in epidemic proportions.

Historic buildings are still everywhere, overlooking the mess made by people ungrateful to the memory of the Hawkesbury’s service. Among these are the buildings of Thompson Square. The oldest standing pub in Australia is the Macquarie Arms and still trading. Behind them, overlooking Windsor bridge is a nestle of historic structures, including the Thompson Square museum. Within its walls one can view signatures made by local residents wishing to oust Governor Bligh. 

It seems the Hawkesbury is still steeped in tradition. As in Bligh’s day, the ruling classes of the Hawkesbury want to ignore the wishes of the people. These buildings are to be removed to make way for a new expressway across Old Windsor Bridge.

What is the price for this change? Is it for a more noble cause? Is it to build a new landmark that the Hawkesbury can proudly show to the world? Or was it simply done for the sake of the dollar?