Railways in NSW

 

 

 

 

How significant was the arrival of the railway in NSW?

The Australian Colonies
Stage 3 | History

Looking for related content?

Go to Gold rush & bushrangers!

More learning resources

Drawing that shows a horse and carriage crossing a flooded river
Activity: source analysis

Will they make it? Crossing flooded rivers was dangerous, even in a coach.

Look carefully at this artwork:

  • What is happening?
  • What do you think the title of the artwork means? It's called,'We chance the river' .

Source: 'We chance the river', G Lacy, c1850. National Library of Australia

During the gold rush, new road networks connected gold mining towns. But the arrival of the railway had the most significant impact. 

Building new roads

In the early years of the colony, simple roads and tracks were built to connect people to new towns. Sometimes these were built over existing Aboriginal walking tracks.1

During the 1800s the road network grew and inns opened along the way to provide places for travellers to rest.

But travelling by foot, horse, or horse and carriage was exhausting and slow; and it could also be dangerous.

For example, trying to cross a river that did not have a bridge could easily become fatal.

Bad weather also created problems, for example: 

  • heavy rain destroyed dirt roads, and could also delay repairs;2
  • flooded rivers could wash away bridges, stranding people on either side.

 

  • 2. Hunter River District News’ The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 9 July 1951, p2.
People travelling on the roads, in rain, during the 1850s
Activity: source analysis

Both the artwork (above) and the newspaper quote (below) are from the early 1850s.

"For the last two weeks the mail from Bathurst to Sydney has either broken down or [been] much delayed by the state of the roads."

Q. What do they tell you about travelling by road during the early years of the gold rush?

Sources: 'Moist weather-road to the diggings', G Lacy, c1850. National Library of Australia

Gold rush!

The discovery of gold in 1851 initially made the roads worse.

Thousands of people rushed to the goldfields, using roads and tracks that usually saw little traffic, and causing significant wear and tear.

This put more pressure on them when people needed them the most.

As more and more people headed to the goldfields, the government invested money and labour to improve the roads.

By 1860 the length of 'good quality' roads in NSW had tripled to a total of 1450 kilometres4.

Sturdy bridges had also been built across most rivers and creeks along these roads.

The colony's roads remained an important means of transport throughout the gold rush - especially with the introduction of the Cobb & Co coach service in 1863.

Travel by road was now faster than before, but dangers - such as bushrangers - still existed.

What came next, however, would have a significant impact. 

  • 4. Internal Communication of New South Wales, 4th report, 1860, NSW State Records.
Table showing increase in railway lines in NSW 1855-1885
Activity: Mathematics

Q. Create a graph that shows the increase in kilometres in NSW's railway lines between 1855 and 1885.

For comparison, in 1886 the United Kingdom had 27,000 kilometres of railway lines!

*Extension activity:

Q. How many kilometres of railway lines do you think there were in 1895?  

Have a guess. But the answer is hidden in this equation (5953-1880=?).

Source: The railway guide of New South Wales, 3rd edn, 1886, p20. National Library of Australia; New South Wales: the mother colony of the Australians, F Hutchinson, 1896, p270. National Library of Australia. 

The advent of rail

Between 1850 and 1880, millions of pounds were spent and thousands of workers were employed building three main rail lines: Great Northern; Great Western; and Great Southern.

It was a slow process, and took years of preparation.8

  • land often had to be purchased from private citizens - although, the traditional Aboriginal owners, whose lands were being crossed, were not compensated; 
  • the proposed route had to be surveyed (mapped) and marked out with wooden stakes;
  • the government then had to allocate money to the project;
  • finally, a company had to be contracted to build it.

Construction took years and could be held up for numerous reasons.  

  • 8. Internal Communication of New South Wales, 4th report, 1860, NSW State Records.

Once built, however, the railways dramatically shortened travel times. A journey that took 24 hours by horse and cart, might take six to nine hours by train.

This helped to boost the colony's economy, as goods and materials (farm animals, wool, or crops and machinery) could be transported over long distances, very quickly.

General map of NSW railway lines during the gold rush

Expansion - but at what cost?

Thousands of kilometres of railway lines helped to rapidly expand the colony of NSW.

However, the effect of this was the continued displacement of Aboriginal people, as rail lines spread throughout more and more Aboriginal Nations.

Impact of expansion

For Aboriginal communities, who had already been affected by decades of pastoral expansion, the railways brought a new wave of dispossession.9

Towns and settlements quickly sprang up along the routes, spreading the colony's population further Sydney.

Combined with increased migration, this meant that more and more Aboriginal land was turned into farmland and towns. 

  • 9. Convict Sydney Part 3 ‘Back to Business’ (sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/convict-sydney/back-business).

How did railways affect bushrangers?

Once the Blue Mountains were crossed (1867-69), the railway quickly expanded into areas that had been threatened by bushrangers.

People could now use the train to transport gold, mail and valuables. Instead of coaches, which were easy for bushrangers to 'bail up'.

Also, if police needed to send reinforcements from Sydney to regional areas, to pursue bushrangers, they could do so more quickly than before.

 

Activities for students:

Stage 3 | The Australian Colonies
English | Mathematics | History

These simple tasks, which complement the web resource, have been designed to fit easily into your busy classroom schedule.

English: comprehension

Here; Hidden; Head: comprehension activity.

Mathematics: Data and Graphs

Development of railways: use the data to track the increase.

History: Impact on Aboriginal peoples and Country

Expansion, but at what cost?

Footnotes

About the author

Head and shoulders portrait of man standing holding old bottle and in front of shelf of bottles.

Edward Washington

Program Producer – Learning

Ed is part of the Sydney Living Museums learning team, which provides curriculum-based programs to more than 60,000 students and teachers every year. In 2019 he received the Ruth Pope Bequest Annual Travelling Scholarship for international travel and study.