Publican buried three times! The restless soul of publican Solomon Wiseman

Hawkesbury Hotel later Wisemans Inn Hotel Wisemans Ferry 1923 NBA ANU 1
The Hawkesbury Hotel, Wiseman’s Ferry, 1923. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University
Hawkesbury Hotel later Wisemans Inn Hotel Wisemans Ferry 1923 NBA ANU 2
The bar of the Hawkesbury Hotel, Wiseman’s Ferry, 1923. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University

WHEN former smuggler, and later publican Solomon Wiseman died in 1838, he was buried next to his first wife in the garden of his hotel, which today is a popular tourist destination on the banks of the Hawkesbury River.

Known as the Wisemans Inn, the hotel is a 45 minute drive from Sydney, near the banks of the Hawkesbury River in the town named after the old pioneer – Wiseman’s Ferry.

Solomon Wiseman licensed his home as a hotel in 1827, giving it the sign of the ‘Branch Inn’. Wiseman’s first wife, Jane, died in 1821, when only 45, and he then married a widow, Sophia Warner. Seventeen years later, Wiseman himself died at the age of 61. His remains in a leaden coffin, were laid beside those of his first wife in a vault at the foot of the hotel garden. He remained buried in the pub’s yard until 1841 when a church was built at Wiseman’s Ferry.

Rumour had it that the publican’s soul had become restless, and as a result his body, and that of his wife, Jane Wiseman, were disinterred and reburied in a vault under the floor of the nearby Church of St Mary Magdalene, where they rested for many years.

A story gained momentum that a part of the publican’s great wealth had been placed in his coffin, that he lay there decked with rich jewels, his fingers covered with wrings, and bags of gold about his body.

When his grand-nephew visited Wiseman’s Ferry about 1890 he found the church in which he had been buried derelict. Grave robbers had reportedly broken into the church vault and cut open the coffin . The skull of the ‘Governor Wiseman’ was “rolling about the church yard for any foot to trample”.

Whether the robbers found the treasures probably will never be known. The remains, with those of his wife and his niece, were reinterred in a new cemetery with great ceremony. 

After Wiseman’s death the old stone inn continued trading with his son-in-law, Thomas Crawford taking the license for a few years. The Branch Inn was later leased to Thomas D’Arcy, who was host until 1843, when it closed for business.

D’Arcy had built a new inn at Wollombi, which he hosted for many years. The Sydney Herald reported on May 19, 1842:

Mr. Thomas D’Arcey, of the Branch Inn, at Wiseman’s, has nearly completed a comfortable house of accommodation at the junction of the Windsor and Dural roads, on Maroota Forest, which cannot fail of being a welcome sight to the weary and heavy laden on that cheerless and inhospitable line. We are not aware whether it is his intention to remove his license to this new site; but whether or not, we should opine that a well conducted house, with comfortable lodging and accommodation for travellers, and yards for stock, would amply repay the outlay, and be productive of much mutual accommodation. 

The former inn remained derelict and empty for about a decade before it was relicensed to Irish puntman, Edward Walmsley in 1851 as the Travellers’ Inn.

Stories that the old inn was haunted first began circulating during these times. One traveller, “humping bluey”, camped in the old house while it was deserted, and he often told his children the weird experiences he had during that memorable night. He said he was awakened shortly after midnight “by the most unearthly noises”. Many years later the Scone Advocate reported the story on March 6 1925:

There were the muffled screams of a woman, followed by the slamming of a door. As he sat up, startled, he distinctly heard footsteps echoing through the empty house, and it seemed as if something passed him in the darkness. He was not a superstitious man, and he decided that his rest had been disturbed by the cries of night birds and the sigh of the wind off the river. But as he lay uneasily trying to sleep, a more nerve-shaking sound fell on his ears. It was the clank of metal, and a heavy, slow step that crossed the yard and entered the house, the step of a man wearing leg-irons. The traveller tried no more efforts of sleep. He hurriedly shifted his quarters, without waiting for further developments.

Besides the ghosts of poorly treated convicts, the first wife of Wiseman is also said to haunt the old hotel. The Scone Advocate continued:

Reports of a shadowy female form rising from the location of the old vault in the garden after midnight, moving across the flat and into the old house were reported. It was supposed to be the spirit of Wiseman’s first wife, and various theories are current as to why she should haunt her old home. Perhaps she wished to draw attention to a treasure she had left behind, for some years ago a box of sovereigns was found under the floor of what had been Mrs. Wiseman’s bedroom. There are other unauthenticated stories of tragedies in those long-ago days. The isolation of men and women in this valley by the river, the desperate character of many of them, the autocratic rule and rough justice all lend themselves to the fascination of legends of passion and crime. But all these are vague.

Walmsley, who had the inn relicensed in 1851, operated the ferry over the MacDonald River at Wiseman’s Ferry at the time. He had arrived in Australia about 1840 before settling in the Hawkesbury district. It seems it wasn’t his first attempt at trading in liquor. In 1846 he was fined £100 for operating an illicit still at North Rocks near Windsor before gaining the punt license for the MacDonald River.

Walmsley and his wife, Isabella, remained hosts of the Travellers’ Inn during the 1850s before the license was transferred to their son-in-law, John McKenzie in 1859.

Walmsley amassed considerable property holdings in the district before his death at the age of 103 in 1885.

McKenzie and his wife, Sarah had a short stay as host of the Travellers’ Rest and they fell into financially difficulties in the early 1860s. McKenzie was forced to sell the inn during 1864.

George Purvis Black bought the property in 1864 and changed the hotel’s sign to the ‘Hawkesbury River Inn’. Like his predecessors, Black was also the Wiseman’s Ferry punt-man.

Black died at the hotel in 1880 after “a long and painful illness, which he bore patiently, supposed to have been caused by injuries received by upsetting the Wiseman’s Ferry punt”. He left a wife and eight children to mourn their loss.

The hotel remained in the Black family for over 60 years and in 1925 extensive renovations were undertaken. The squarely cut stones which formed a substantial wall round Wiseman’s estate were utilised to build additions to the hotel, and to make way for the renovations, a portion of the old house was demolished.

The major part remained, however, to carry on the legend and to provide a valuable link with Australia’s early history, leaving the establishment currently known as the Wiseman’s Inn, looking much the same as it does today.

Solomon Wiseman and his grave stone. Pictures: Supplied.

The Sydney Mail newspaper published the following story of the life of the old publican on September 3, 1924:

Solomon Wiseman, of Wiseman’s Ferry
By George G. Reeve

SOLOMON WISEMAN, with his wife (an English lady) and their two young sons, arrived at Sydney on August 20th 1806 by the Alexander (Captain Brooks).

The elder of the boys was William, who was born in England on November 1st.1801, and was celebrated in later times of the colonial sealing trade, as Captain Wiseman. His history is very fascinating. He learnt the craft of the sea from his uncle, another Captain Wiseman, who died in England many years later. Captain William Wiseman the younger married Miss Matilda Grono, daughter of the famous Captain Grono, at Ebenezer Church, Hawkesbury River, on June 22nd 1829.

The famous brig industry was built at Captain Grono’s shipbuilding yard at Pitt Town in 1826. She traded with seal oil and fur-skins between the southern New Zealand coast and Sydney, and various other ports of the world, notably Port Louis, Mauritius, for about five years. She ultimately came to an untimely fate, being lost in a gale at Stewart Island on February 28th 1831, when mostly all on board, including the master, Captain William Wiseman the younger, ten seamen, and six New Zealand women, perished.

Two survivors came on to Sydney by the Caroline. After the arrival of the Alexander at the Cape of Good Hope on her way to Sydney Mrs Wiseman gave birth to the second son on July 3rd 1806. This son Richard Alexander Wiseman, many years afterwards inherited, as the eldest surviving son of three, all the property and landed estate of his father at the Hawkesbury, where he was highly esteemed by his servants, and notable also as a pioneer agriculturist. His death occurred at Berrima, on his way to Sydney, on May 24th 1856, at the age of 19. Two other sons and two daughters were born later to Mr. and Mrs. Solomon Wiseman in Australia.

On arrival Solomon presented recommendations to Governor Bligh and was given a grant of 200 acres of land on the banks of the Hawkesbury opposite the first branch of the river, and adjoining Singleton’s Mill grant, the place famous in the history of this country, and known as Wiseman’s Ferry.

Three hundred assigned Government men were allotted to him as superintendent of road construction, in order to make the portion of the North Road (two miles of the road being cut out of the solid rock immediately on the north side of the river) over the range of hills on to Wollombi, thence to Maitland. On the hill to the right on the north bank are the ruins of the old convict, stockade, with one or two other official buildings, long since fallen into disuse; but time was when they had their uses, and to pretty lively purpose. In the days when the settlement was in going order a number of soldiers were quartered there, their duty being to see, in the last resort, to the general good behaviour of the gangs of convicts employed in road construction and in working on Solomon Wiseman’s farming estate.

Amongst such a large body of men there were, of course, some refractory ones, and sometimes there were some floggings to be done, for the times were hard and stern.

At one time, three convicts escaped from the stockade and swam across the river with their leg-irons on. On reaching the southern bank they scaled the stone wall round the homestead and stole some pumpkins. On returning two were drowned and the survivor on reaching the stockade was discovered by one of the guards. The following day he was given fifty lashes with the ‘cat-o’-nine-tails’ by the ‘scourger,’ at the instance, of the discoverer.

The flogged man made a promise to his fellow-convicts that he would kill him when he got the chance, which he did shortly afterwards by driving a pick through the overseer’s skull in an unguarded moment.

The prisoner was afterwards hanged on ‘Judgement Rock,’ a high towering rock on the northern side of the river above the old stockade ruins, where punishment was meted out to the convicts who offended.

Opposite, on the south or Sydney side of the river, is a large, overhanging rock which is known as ‘Court House Cave’. It was at this spot that the first official court was held in the early ‘thirties. David Dunlop of Wollombi being the first resident magistrate in the district.

Hawksberry Hotel Wiseman Ferry 1909
Cobham Hall, an old colonial mansion, once the homestead and family residence of Solomon Wiseman. This historic house was constructed during the years 1816 and 1817. Its solid masonry and its great depth of windows sills, with stone and rubble wall surrounding, testify to its faithful workmanship by the assigned craftsmen under the superintendence of its founder. During the years 1829-32 the building was re-constructed by Solomon Wiseman, when a license was held by him under the name of The Branch Inn. The place is a splendid remnant of the olden days of the ferry crossing-place. Picture Supplied (Photo: F. Walker).

The original Wiseman homestead is a commodious stone structure, most solidly built. It was slightly altered during the twenties of last century, and turned into a public-house, as well as being his residence, during Solomon Wiseman’s lifetime, when it was known as the Branch Inn.

The building has for many years past been known as the Hawkesbury Hotel. Some of the older residents have originated a story that one of the rooms there is haunted.

A few years ago a box of sovereigns was found under the floor in what is supposed to have been Mrs. Wiseman’s bedroom, and a pair of leg-irons and other relics of the olden days have been unearthed in the garden next to the old mansion.

Solomon Wiseman died on November 28th 1838, aged 61 years, and was buried beside his first wife (nee of Jane Middleton) in his own grounds, adjoining his residence on the southern side; but after the erection of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in 1841 the bodies were disinterred and reburied in a vault under the floor of that church, where they rested for many years.

st mary wisemans ferry 1890s
St Mary Magdalene’s Church, Wiseman’s Ferry 1890. In its best days it must have presented a noble appearance with its Norman tower, walls of dressed stone, and its ornate features generally. Nothing remains of it to-day. The present Church of England at Wiseman’s Ferry is built in another position, and is not nearly so artistic or picturesque as the original building. Picture: Sydney Mail September 3, 1924

The church at last fell into decay, however, so for many years the coffins, like the church, were subjected to sacrilegious vandalism. When the cemetery two miles down the river was made, Solomon Wiseman’s bachelor grandson of the same name (a son of John Wiseman, of Granbalang, on the Hunter River, near Singleton) removed what was left of his ancestors thither, and a marble headstone records the dates of their deaths.

Mrs. Jane Wiseman (nee. Middleton) died at the early age of 45 years on July 20th 1821. Her husband then married Mrs. Sophia Williams Warner. This lady bore no children to Mr. Wiseman, and died at Hammersmith, a suburb of London, at the age of 90 years, during July 1870.

The copper plate let into the foundation stone of the old church of St. Mary Magdalene was rescued by a local resident from the ruins (it is said to be now in the possession of the Milson family, of North Sydney). The inscription thereon was as follows :-“The foundation stone of this church, dedicated to God and Divine worship, to be denominated the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, was laid on June 3rd. 1841. S. G. Dalgely. James Ascough, Alexander Books. Joseph Fleming, and Thomas Green, Trustees. And the Rev. Edward Gifford Pryce, B.A., Minister of the Parish.”

Hawkesbury Hotel later Wisemans Inn Hotel Wisemans Ferry March 1930 NBA ANU
The Hawkesbury Hotel, Wiseman’s Ferry, 1930. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University
Hawkesbury Hotel later Wisemans Inn Hotel Wisemans Ferry September 18 1937 NBA ANU
The Hawkesbury Hotel, Wiseman’s Ferry, 1937. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University
Hawkesbury Hotel later Wisemans Inn Hotel Wisemans Ferry 1956 NBA ANU
The Hawkesbury Hotel, Wiseman’s Ferry, 1956. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University

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