Berrima Court House and Berrima Gaol

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.

Berrima Court House

Berrima Court House

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.

The guard to greet you as you enter the court house

The guard to greet you as you enter the court house

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 admission room in the court house

The court house has curved doors hand-sawn from a single piece of cedar

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).

A judge and a barrister from the 1830's

A judge and a barrister from the 1830’s

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 holding cell inside the courthouse for male prisoners

The holding cell inside the courthouse for male prisoners

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.

The public gallery

The public gallery

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.

The judge

The jury.  Jurors in 1830 were exclusively male and had to be significant property owners

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.

Charged with murder, they await their fate

Charged with murder, they await their fate

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.

Outside the gates of Berrima Gaol

Outside the gates of Berrima Gaol

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.

The court room as it was in 1830

The court room as it was in 1830 and Alfie on tour

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.

The original 'out-houses', modernised for today's visitors but still without hot water!

The original ‘out-houses’, modernised for today’s visitors but still without hot water!

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.

Berrima Court House

Berrima Court House

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  1. Very interesting Charlie, I don’t know that part of the world well at all. It’s amazing that such grand buildings were built so quickly after settlement. Imagine the work… the blood, seat and tears of poor old convicts I bet.

  2. Looks like you had a good time. I love these historic tours and they’re always a bit chilling. I hope they are able to maintain proper ownership of the land and maintain it for future visitors. It’s always sad when historic buildings and sites end up in disarray.

    • I know, Nazneen, I do hope the building is preserved so that it can become a tourist attraction. There’s just so much pioneering Australian history here and it would be sad to have that become null and void.

  3. that sounds like a fascinating tour – is it only the gaol that is being claimed by the ABoriginal Land Council – are they some distance from each other or quite close by? I found it quite chilling going on a gaol tour in Fremantle and at the end the tourguide told us he was the deputy hangman. Amazing how long the sentences were for the first fleet – no wonder the prisons were overcrowded. And the fact that we were treating germans like that so recently is sad too.

    • I don’t know if it’s the only gaol being claimed. I was just told that when any government land becomes unoccupied, that’s when the Aboriginal Land Council will make a claim. The Germans, (Hans) were treated very well even if the prison conditions (in terms of accommodation) weren’t the best. They brought a lot to the town of Berrima.

  4. An interesting tourist attraction! I’m sure kids could learn a lot. When I used to visit gaols for school, I learnt that I didn’t want to go to one under any circumstances! 😛

  5. Sounds like my kind of day out. I hope the gaol is opened up to tourists as well. I’d love to visit again.
    I haven’t been there for years

  6. I’ve never been there and it will display my Americanness when I want to type jail and when I read gaol I want to say gail. 🙂

    I hope they restore the gaol and make it part of the tour. Anything else is nonsense.

  7. Interesting post Charlie! I’ve been through Berrima a few times, but never to the court house or the gaol.

    • I hope you do visit, Lizzy as it’s not far from the ACT and after you’ve visited the court house, there’s all those beautiful shops to explore.

  8. Very Interesting, but I’m looking forward to all the foodie things you bought on your trip… There is always something yummy in that part of the world! Liz x

  9. What a great post Charlie, thank you. I love these historic sites and it’s particularly amazing how they’ve been able to make it come alive with the installations and audio. We also have aboriginals in Canada and it’s always a difficult balance on how to create an equal compromise. I hope that your government and aboriginals are able to work this out in a way that would allow this historic site to continue — perhaps they might even put a casino on it like they do in North America! 🙂

  10. A nostalgic trip back in time! Thanks for showing us, Charlie!

    Gourmet Getaways

  11. Wow, that’s surreal. So interesting, chilling, and creepy, all at the same time. Sad it’s not being looked after, as it does look priceless piece of historicl time capsule that would so well being preserved.

    I wonder if the woman and her servant were really guilty….how terrible! I would do a lot to experience a historical trial like this one……we do have our creepy town here in MA, and it has been on my bucket list forever (hubby gets creeped out very easily, so it’s been sitting on the bucket list for eternity).

  12. What a great historical tour!

  13. How very interesting! And, I gotta say, funny to think of it being the depths of winter for you! It’s warm and lovely here in Minnesota!

    • Methinks Charlie’s idea of the ‘depths of winter’ is quite a bit different from what that would mean in MN! What was it Charlie, 50 degrees Fahrenheit or thereabouts?!

      • Ah yes, TJ – we have a different perspective on the term, ‘depths of winter’. It was about 8C the day I was there but just as cold inside the building as out. That’s the problem with Australia – everyone pretends we don’t have a winter so homes, shops, restaurants, galleries etc, usually have inadequate heating – it’s not easy to escape the cold!

  14. It’s had quite the interesting history and would be a great visit. Hope its ownership is settled soon although you’d think that it would be in the interest of all parties in keeping it going as a commercial interest in the meantime.

  15. What a cool place to visit! I love old, historical buildings…I always wonder what it was like to live in the buildings and what the people who lived there were like. I’m still trying to figure out why your subscription to my blog isn’t working. I’m only showing one blog subscription and it’s not you…. ?!?!

  16. What an interesting place. Such a shame the jail is not being maintained. Thanks for sharing this!

  17. I spent quite a lot of time in Berrima in my late teens, but I’ve never been to the gaol! Thanks for the tour, Charlie!

  18. Thoroughly enjoyed the story and photo gallery! Methinks Berrima is quite one of my favourite townships in the Highlands: interesting to walk thru’ and having some enjoyable watering holes!! Pretty as well as historic!! Didn’t know the jail had closed – amusingly when I did part of my BA on Open Learning some years back the library van with the week’s books would first drop my pile off and then go down to the jail, half of the inmates doing degrees!! Honest injun 🙂 !

    • I didn’t know you knew the town so well! Yes, it does have some watering holes and my next post is about one of those – stay tuned, Eha!

      • Hey 🙂 ! I only live less than 50 kms away now!! And when I resided in Sydney, the Canberra >< was well trodden!!! Berrima was a well liked rest stop! I wonder whether stairs down come into your post 😉 !!

  19. Didn’t the ‘models’ freak you out a bit?! They would have me:) It would be interesting to know what the so called crimes were of that first fleet that warranted a minimum seven year sentence. And interesting it was used up to 2001 for women prisoners – it doesn’t look very habitable in all honesty.

  20. Maybe it wasn’t the weather that was causing chills Charlie, but the never-resting spirits of the couple on trial? It looks like a decent tour, but it’s definitely a shame that the goal isn’t included and is being neglected xox

  21. Thanks for this interesting tour through a historic Australian town Charlie!
    I’m not so familiar with your country’s history and learned quite a few things reading your post.
    Hope the buildings will be maintained, a great learning place for kids and adults.

  22. brrrrr it must have been cold for the convicts too!

  23. Brilliant, thanks for taking me along on your tour – at least I was a bit warmer.
    Have a super week ahead Charlie.
    🙂 Mandy xo

  24. I have never learnt about the smaller towns but thank you for sharing its history. But wow, yes it is soooo cold right now!

    Choc Chip Uru

  25. I love your travel post – you write in detail and if I was going to go to this town and look for attraction and things to do, post like this is very handy! We often check out some reviews and stuff online. I wish you were in the US (and in my area). Your blog would be so helpful! 😉

  26. I love this kind of museum filled with exhibits that give a really close look at what was happening in another era. To hear the transcript of the notorious murder must have been interesting. I’ve never before heard about burying “standing up’ to prevent a peaceful afterlife. How interesting. This would be a great tourist attraction, certainly!


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