When settlement began in the Wingecarribee district in the 1820s, the area was remote from colonial civilisation, yet the law had to be upheld.
An overview of the district's legal administration is presented in this series.
In 1821 a government village was established at Bong Bong, where the South Road crossed the Wingecarribee River. By 1829 the administrative settlement included a gaoler's hut and lock-up, soldiers' barracks, school and store but, being on flood-prone river flats, it proved to be an unsuitable location.
In 1830 Sir Thomas Mitchell surveyed a new line for the South Road. Constructed in the early 1830s, it diverted travellers through the township of Berrima, established where the new road crossed the river, five miles downstream from Bong Bong. Civil and military functions were moved to Berrima, which developed rapidly. A gaol and court house were built and it became the administrative and judicial centre for the entire southern section of Camden County.
From the colony's earliest days, unpaid magistrates were responsible for the regional administration of justice, including at Bong Bong/Berrima where landowners served on the bench.
In 1824 the NSW Supreme Court was established with judge and jury to handle capital offences. Courts of Quarter Sessions dealt with crimes and misdemeanours not punishable by death, including drunkenness and disobedience among convicts. These sessions were presided over by magistrates who appointed one of their number as chairman. The two tiers of justice visited regional areas on a circuit basis.
From 1832, in most NSW districts, Courts of Petty Sessions dealt with minor civil offences. From 1839 those in regional areas including Berrima were presided over by paid magistrates (called Police Magistrates).
Civil cases such as the theft of stock or property, the recovery of debts, and the issuing of licenses were dealt with.
By the early 1830s a gaol was under construction at Berrima and a nearby site was selected for the district's first court house. Four years later Berrima Court House, an imposing sandstone structure, opened with Quarter Sessions being held from April 1838.
The building of Berrima Gaol was dogged by delays, finally opening in 1839. Within stone walls were staff rooms and a central building from which radiated three cell blocks to house prisoners appearing before the Berrima circuit courts.
Berrima's first Supreme Court session was in 1841, being the trial of gentleman bushranger William 'Jacky Jacky' Westwood. Tried for robbery with firearms and stealing a mare, he was sentenced to transportation for life. He ended his days on Norfolk Island where he led a convict mutiny in 1846 and was hanged.
Another notorious trial was that of John Lynch, an Irish ex-convict who murdered at least 10 people in a five-year killing spree until his capture and hanging in 1842. The following year Lucretia Dunkley and her lover Martin Beech were tried for the grisly murder of Lucretia's husband Henry. They were hanged at Berrima Gaol.
By the early 1840s the population of Berrima had grown to around 250, boosted by travellers and bullockies plying between southern pastoral districts and Sydney. It eventuated that Goulburn grew faster than Berrima and, once a gaol and court house were established, the district's circuit courts sat there from 1850.
Upper-tier courts thus ceased at Berrima and its gaol remained almost empty.
Due to population growth in regional NSW in the 1850s, District Courts were instituted to handle all former Quarter Sessions. Berrima was initially included in the Cumberland and Coast district, then from the 1860s in the Southern District.
A heavy legal workload was expected due to increased settlement in the district and the re-opening, in 1866, of Berrima Gaol as a 'model' prison based on a system of solitary confinement. Its walls were raised and cell blocks enlarged to house the State's most recalcitrant prisoners.
By 1900, however, the district's pattern of settlement had changed with Berrima no longer being the main administrative or legal centre.
- Berrima District Historical & Family History Society - compiled by PD Morton. Part 1 of a 4-part series. To be continued.
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