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Berrima, NSW

Historic village with an impressive jail and Court House.

The historic village of Berrima  is one of those tourist destinations which invites endless arguments about the nature of historic tourism. On one level it is a beautiful 1830s Australian rural town which has been well preserved and invites visitors to spend time exploring what life was like over 150 years ago. On another level the visitor has to recognise that a town has to survive and, in this case, tourism is its livelihood. It is a town driven by tourism and handicrafts surrounded by farming and grazing, coal mining and cement manufacture.


Located 131 km south-west of Sydney and 650 m above sea level, Berrima, has been by-passed by  the Hume Freeway.


Origin of Name

It is claimed that Berrima is a word meaning "to the south" in the language of the local Dharawal (sometimes spelt Tharawal) First Nation peoples.


Things to See and Do

Berrima Self-Guided Historic Walking Tours
Berrima proudly claims that it is the best preserved and finest Georgian village on the mainland. The reason for "on the mainland" is that it eliminates the obvious competition from such gems as Ross and Richmond in Tasmania. It is a village with a large number of very well preserved houses and public buildings from the early nineteenth century.

There are maps for self-guided walking tours of the town available from the Berrima Courthouse Museum, tel: (02) 4877 1505. There is also an Historic Guided Tour to 33 buildings (with brief descriptions) available at the website http://berrimavillage.com.au/historic-berrima/. The best way to experience the town is to simply wander. The historic highlights include:

The Courthouse  and Museum
The Courthouse, now a museum, is a symbol of Berrima's failure to become a major centre. The Courthouse, built between 1835-1838, now looks incongruously large and elegant for such a small village but the original plan was that Berrima would be the administrative centre of the Southern Highlands. This idea dissolved when it was decided to run the railway through Mittagong, Bowral and Moss Vale thus effectively bypassing Berrima. Prior to the arrival of the railway in the 1860s the Courthouse was hugely important. In April 1841 it became the site of the colony's first trial by jury.
There is a wonderful elegance to the building with its main courtroom surrounded by jury rooms and cells. The impressive sandstone building is notable for its solid stone Doric columns, the cedar joinery of the courtroom and its delicate decorative plasterwork cornices. It was designed by the Colonial Architect, Mortimer Lewis, and the foundation stone was laid by Governor Bourke in 1835. It was used as a court of assizes until 1848 and ceased to operate as a courthouse in 1889. Today the Courthouse has self-guided tours which include a viewing of The Berrima Quilt (this 7 metre square quilt was stitched to celebrate the town's 175th birthday), displays of photographs and memorabilia, viewings of the historic holding cells and a son et lumiere titled Treachery, Treason and Murder as well as an audio visual titled The Berrima Story chronicling the village from the 1830s to the present. There are displays of items used for corporal punishment, letters written by those about to be executed and newspaper articles dating back to the 1830s.
The Court House has over 50 mannequins dressed in 19th century clothes. They are part of a display which shows how the Court Room would have looked in the 1840s. There is information on Australia's first serial killer John Lynch who was tried at Berrima and hung in 1842 after he confessed to murdering ten people. The museum is open from 10.00 am - 4.00 pm seven days a week, contact (02) 4877 1505. For more information check out http://www.berrimacourthouse.org.au/

Berrima Gaol
Adjacent to the courthouse is Berrima's famous gaol which was built between 1834 and 1839 by contractors, not convicts in leg irons as some sources claim. The current gateway and walls were constructed from local sandstone between 1863 and 1868. The internal buildings were demolished and rebuilt in 1945. The gaol had an horrific reputation. From 1866 the prisoners spent the first nine months of their sentence in total silence and solitary confinement.
The prison was designed along the lines of a panopticon proposed by English philosopher and social reformer, Jeremy Bentham. The Panopticon ("all-seeing") worked as a 24 hour surveillance machine. Its design meant that no prisoner could ever see the surveillance inspector who was positioned at a central location within the circular configuration. Thus prisoners could never know when they were being watched. It was believed this sense of mental uncertainty provided a unique kind of discipline. This did not hinder escapes of which there were many before it was rebuilt in 1945.
The gaol was constructed to house the increasing number of bushrangers who were operating in the area. In the novel Robbery Under Arms (1888), the author Rolf Boldrewood has Captain Starlite describe the gaol as "the largest, the most severe, the most dreaded of all the prisons in New South Wales". This was more literary romance, than truth.
During World War I the gaol was used as an internment camp for 'enemy aliens' and POWs. At one time it housed 329 Germans mainly from New Guinea (which, prior to World War I was a German colony) and the SMS Emden which had sunk the HMAS Sydney.
From 1949 it operated as a rehabilitation training centre with inmates making arts and crafts. It achieved notoriety when Rex Jackson, the NSW Minister for Corrective Services, was gaoled there. By the time it closed in 2011 it was  a women-only prison.
The bodies of Lucretia Dunkley and her lover Martin Beech, who were tried at the Courthouse and hanged in 1843 for killing Dunkley's husband, were buried in the south-west corner of the gaol.

The Bulls Head Fountain
On Berrima Gaol's northern wall is a fine cast-iron moulding known as the Bulls Head Fountain (1877). It is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship which served the practical purpose of channelling water from the gaol roof into a water trough which was used by the horses of the people attending the courthouse.

Lambie's Well
Head down the side of the Gaol on Wilshire Street and you will reach the Wingecarribee River where there is a track that leads to Lambie's Well, named after Surveyor John Lamb who was in charge of the convict road gangs on the Great South Road in the 1830s. The well was reputedly the town's first water supply and was known to be a source of very pure water.

Harper's Mansion
Located at 9 Wilkinson Street, Harper's Mansion (1834) is a two-storey Georgian sandstock brick house with stone-flagged veranda, sandstone quoins and cedar joinery. It was built by  Mary and James Harper. James' father William had been an assistant surveyor to Major Thomas Mitchell. It has been carefully restored by the National Trust, is set in two acres of gardens which include cool climate heritage plants, a produce garden and heritage rose beds. It also features one of the largest hedge mazes in Australia. The National Trust have furnished the mansion in period style. It was purchased by the Catholic Church in 1856. They used it as a presbytery and then as a convent.Harper's Mansion is open to the public on Saturdays, Sundays and Public Holidays from 10.30 am until 4.00 pm. tel: (02) 4877 1508. Check out http://harpersmansion.com.au/

Old Well and Public School
The Berrima Public School (part of which dates from 1869) is located in Oxley Street. There is a well in the school grounds which was reputedly built by convict labour.

Bramber Cottage
Bramber Cottage, on the corner of Oxley Street and the Old Hume Highway, is one of Berrima's few remaining weatherboard buildings. It was built in 1855 and operated as the local post office until the current post office was built in 1886.

Taylor's Crown Inn
At 116 Old Hume Highway is a two-storey Georgian building with red brickwork, a veranda and stone lintels which was built by William Taylor as the Crown Inn (c.1834). There is a slab and stone building at the back which was used as a change house for coaching teams. It currently houses the Bay Tree Gallery.

Breen's Commercial Inn
Sometimes known as Old Breen's Inn and the Commercial Inn this historic hotel, with shuttered French windows and a stone-flagged timber veranda, was built c.1840 by Francis Breen. It is now the Eschalot Restaurant. If you want to eat historically check out http://www.eschalot.com.au/

Surveyor General Inn
One of Berrima's most famous buildings is the Surveyor General Inn which was named after Surveyor General Thomas Mitchell and built in 1834 by William Harper who had worked as Mitchell's assistant surveyor. Harper Snr handed the building over to his son, James Harper, in 1835 and James became the first licensee. It is often claimed that license has never lapsed and the Surveyor General Inn is the oldest continuously licensed inn in Australia. In fact the license has lapsed twice so, while it may be very old, it cannot claim that it has been "continuously licensed".

The Village Green
Edged by Jellore Street, Bryan Street and Market Place, and sometimes called the Market Place, this parkland is essentially the village green. It was part of Robert Hoddle's original plan for the town. It is characterised  by tall pines, an oak tree planted in 1890 by Sir Henry Parkes, the 'Father of Federation', and stones which were taken from the town's first bridge (1836) when it was replaced in 1897.

Inns of Berrima
The town has three old inns: (i) McMahons Inn, the first licensed hotel in town (1834), built from sandstock bricks by Bryan McMahon who had been an overseer supervising convict gangs on the Great South Road. (ii) The Victoria Inn, a beautifully restored coaching inn licensed in 1840 which was used by Cobb & Co as their major stopping venue in the town and (iii) the Coach & Horse Inn (c.1835) which started life as the Royal Mail Coach Inn. It is a two-storey stone cottage which was built by Michael Doyle. It is now a bed and breakfast.

Berrima House
Located near the corner of Bryan and Market Streets, the two-storey Berrima House (1835) is probably the first sandstone house that was built in the town. It has been claimed that the bushranger, Ben Hall, slept on a wooden bench on the veranda in 1864.

Berrima District Museum
Located in Market Place the Berrima District Historical and Family History Society Museum was established in 1976 and has an important collection of objects relating to the history of the district. It is open weekends and public holidays from 10.00 am - 4.00 pm, contact (02) 4877 1130. Check http://www.berrimadistricthistoricalsociety.org.au/museum/ for more details.

St Xavier's Catholic Church
Across the bridge from the town is the church once known as St Scholastica's with a foundation stone which was laid in 1849. Located above the river it is now known as St Xavier's Catholic Church (1851). It is a sandstone Gothic Revival building which was designed by Augustin Pugin who also worked on the design of the British Houses of Parliament. St Xavier's is located on a site where a convict stockade was constructed when the Great South Road was being built in the 1830s.

White Horse Inn
Located at 1 Market Place, the elegant two storey sandstone White Horse Inn (now accommodation and the White Horse Inn Restaurant) was built in the 1840s as Oldbury's Inn. It has been altered over the years although the interior has retained much of its original character. There are also bushranger bolts on the doors.

Holy Trinity Anglican Church
The Holy Trinity Anglican Church (1847-1849) in Argyle Street was designed by the great colonial architect Edmund Blacket (famous for the Quadrangle at Sydney University) in a Gothic Revival style which, according to rumour, he based on a medieval church in Wiltshire. It is also claimed that this was the first church Blacket designed. There is an octagonal bellcote and a hammer-beam roof in the nave. The church is built of sandstone quarried from the banks of the Wingecarribee River. The church exterior is intact. There is a rumour that the stained-glass windows are from Cornwall and may date back to the 15th century.



* Prior to European settlement the area around Berrima was occupied by the Gundungurra First Nation peoples.

* The first European to explore the area was John Wilson, an ex-convict, who led a party through the area in 1798. Their mission was to find out about the area so they could report to Governor Hunter who wanted to convince deluded Irish convicts that there was not a "New World" of white people living 200 miles south-west of Sydney. During the expedition Wilson shot a lyrebird and the group saw a "cullawine" (koala). On this journey they appear to have followed Joadja Creek to its junction with the Wingecarribee River, just near the future townsite.

* In July, 1805 George Caley, a botanical collector for Joseph Banks and an explorer, travelled through the area.

* In 1814 Hamilton Hume and his brother John, probably in the company of their uncle John Kennedy, explored the area.

* One of the district's first settlers was the explorer John Oxley who, in 1815, drove a herd of cattle into the area and established a property near the site of modern Berrima.

* In 1829, while surveying a route to the south of Sydney which would avoid the Mittagong Range, Surveyor General Thomas Mitchell camped on the banks of the Wingecarribee, near the site of the present bridge. He subsequently recommended the riverside location as suitable for a town because of the reliable water supply, the ease of the river crossing and the availability of sandstone.

* Plans for Berrima were drawn up by Robert Hoddle who would go on to lay out Melbourne. Hoddle's vision was distinctly English which is why the town still has a village green. The plans were approved by Governor Bourke.

* The plan was that Berrima would become the major administrative, commercial and manufacturing centre between Camden and Goulburn. It was the major centre on the Great South Road. When land was opened up for sale the blocks sold but it was mainly land speculation.  Few houses were erected.

* Being on the road between Camden and Goulburn two inns were opened in 1834. One, the Surveyor-General Inn, has held its license ever since.

* In 1836 the first bridge over the Wingecarribee River was completed.

* By 1841 there were 249 people living in the village but a decade later the number had dropped back to 192.

* In 1842 a newspaper report described Berrima as a primitive village consisting mostly of slab and bark huts with a few handsome sandstone buildings.

* The Holy Trinity Anglican Church was consecrated in 1849 and St Scholastica's, now known as St Xavier's Catholic Church, was formally opened in 1851.

* The road traffic on the Great South Road, combined with the ruggedness of the Southern Tablelands terrain, attracted bushrangers. Ben Hall and his gang were active in the area.

* The railway, when it arrived in the 1860s, bypassed Berrima. It took a route to the east through Mittagong and Bowral to Moss Vale. This meant the village did not grow or progress.

* By the 1870s the combination of disease, killings and aggressive clearance meant there were no Aborigines living in the district.

* By 1914 the population of Berrima had been reduced to 80.

* Business in the town started to improve in the 1920s with an increase in cars on the road from Sydney and the establishment of Canberra as the national capital.

* In the 1960s the town's historic significance was recognised and a concerted effort was made to restore many of the old buildings. The National Heritage Council declared the entire village an historic precinct. Most of the buildings are early Georgian, a period poorly represented elsewhere in rural Australia.


Visitor Information

The Southern Highlands region is serviced by the Southern Highlands Visitor Information Centre, 62-70 Main Street, Mittagong, tel: (02) 4871 2888.


Useful Websites

There is a good local website - http://berrimavillage.com.au/ - which has details on the places to eat, shop and stay in the village.

Got something to add?

Have we missed something or got a top tip for this town? Have your say below.

8 suggestions
  • As a matter of interest book “The Campbelltown Convicts” has a chapter on the Iron Gangs of Berrima. See

    Peter Hinds
  • Good Afternoon, Was wondering who to contact in regard to how Berrima fared after the bypass We are in Berry and about to experience similar. We are a group called the Berry Forum and was wondering who to contact in this regard.
    Much thanks

    Hania Norman
    • I think it would be better to try and find some research that has been done on bypasses. When Kiama was bypassed I remember people talking about research showing that towns that were bypassed prospered. People will remember that Berry had lots of specialist shops, great cafes, good restaurants and specialist producers and will rejoice that they are not confronted with noisy traffic in the main street. A good starting point would be https://www.bitre.gov.au/publications/1994/files/wp_011.pdf.

      Bruce Elder
  • Coming home for the weekend from RAAF Wagga Wagga in 1961 (heading for Petersham) the front window of the car was smashed by a brick. I was a front seat passenger. It was pouring rain & it was very cold. We stopped at the Surveyor General where I bought a flask of OP Rum. I drank the lot &soon passed out. Made the remainder of the trip bearable. My only memory of Berrima.

    Cec Quinnell
  • Hi, where is the closest caravan park at Berrima please

    Vanessa Ladewig
    • There are camping spaces next to the river, behind the court house. 2 night limit, no power, toilet and cold shower. Call Wingecarribee Council to book a spot. I think there is a camp site at New Berrima to the south, it may be the showground.

      Moss Vale Showgrounds has camping spots to the Council would have more information.

      The walk along the river bank, heading south west has interpretive signage, with photos, of the Austrian prisoner of war history. During their internment they were able to roam the area during the day, they established vegetable gardens selling produce to locals at market, built summer houses and model boats. The even dammed part of the river and staged a regatta to celebrate the Kaiser’s birthday……….. which brought the day release program to an end I believe. Well worth a visit

      Denise Pritchard