When we were down in the Southern Highlands we visited the historic town of Berrima. The town of Berrima was built in the 1830′s which wasn’t too long after European settlement in Australia. By 1840 it had a court house and a gaol and it became the administrative centre for the local district. Many people passed through the town in carts, drays and coaches on their way to and from Sydney. More than a dozen inns were built to accommodate visitors to the town.
During the 1860′s hopes for Berrima’s prosperous future were raised with the construction of the railway. It was believed that when the railway arrived at Berrima it would become one of the most important settlements in the colony. But when the railway came to Mittagong, it bypassed Berrima.
All new development in the Southern Highlands occurred along the railway line. The tourists stopped coming to Berrima and the town’s population went from 500 in the 1860′s to just 80 by 1914. One by one the inns closed their doors as the carts, drays and coaches ceased to visit.
The court house is the centrepiece of Berrima and deliberately positioned to be visible from every property in the town. It was opened in 1838 and is next door to the gaol. It is built completely of hand-hewn sandstone in the Regency Style (1810-1830).
In terms of dealing out justice, the court house is now closed however, it is open as a museum. We went on a tour of the court house and it provides a great view into the justice system of the 1830′s. The tour begins in the jury room where you see a video of how the town of Berrima began, then you wander into different back rooms of the court house where there is a list of the convicts who arrived on the First Fleet and what their ‘crime’ was and subsequent punishment. There didn’t seem to be a lesser sentence than seven years.
The tour ends in the court room and this is where you see a sound and light show, Treachery, Treason & Murder, a dramatic and moving audio visual experience, depicting the most infamous trial of the 1830′s. Those on trial are a married woman and her husband’s servant. They are accused of murdering the woman’s husband with an axe ‘as he lay sleeping in the marital bed’ so they could inherit his assets and property and continue their affair.
What you hear is a direct transcript of the final moments of their trial and the judge’s verdict. It’s quite chilling and will leave an impression on you as you hear about the prisoners being taken to the gaol for a public hanging, heads being severed and taken to Sydney for scientific investigation and bodies being buried standing upright so there can be ‘no rest for your souls’. All graves were unmarked and to this day, no one knows where those condemned to death are buried within the gaol.
Warning: when going on the tour, dress warmly. There is little heating inside the court house and for us, visiting in the depths of winter, we were chilled to the bone.
The gaol was opened in 1839 but closed in 1909. It reopened again during WWI in 1914 and was used to intern Germans. Most of the Germans were mariners and they were rounded up and brought to Berrima Gaol where they had to stay until the war ended. Internees were locked up at night but during the day they were allowed to roam within a two-mile radius of the gaol. They stayed at the gaol until August 1919 where the final roll-call was taken and the internees were then marched to Moss Vale station where they boarded a train for Sydney, then ships back to Germany.
The gaol was reopened for prisoners in 1949 and from 2001 it served as a medium-security prison for female prisoners. It was closed in September 2011 and promptly, the Aboriginal Land Council made a claim on the land. Now in ‘ownership’ of the property, it awaits its fate. Sadly, it is understood the property is not being maintained and there is fear it may fall into ruin. The future of this historic building is of significant interest to those in the Southern Highlands.
I believe Berrima Gaol would make a much-welcome tourist attraction for the town and it would make sense if after visiting the court house, you could continue the experience by touring the historic gaol.
Berrima Court House: Argyle Street, Berrima NSW 2577
Ph: 02 4877 1505
Tours: $20.00/family and all proceeds and donations go into the continuing maintenance of this historic building.
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