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

Hawkesbury Hotel later Wisemans Inn Hotel Wisemans Ferry 1923 NBA ANU 1
The Hawkesbury Hotel and adjoining Cobham Hall, 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. This was likely the Branch Inn, established in 1827. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University

WHEN publican Solomon Wiseman died in 1838, he was buried next to his first wife in the garden of his hotel overlooking the Hawkesbury River. However, it wasn’t to be his last resting place, with the former convict to be dug-up another two times before he was able to rest in peace.

Solomon Wiseman was transported to Australia for the term of his natural life for smuggling before he established the Branch Inn, a small pub overlooking the Hawkebsury River, north of Sydney, in 1827.

Known today as the Wisemans Inn, the hotel is a scenic 45 minute drive from Sydney in the town named after the old pioneer – Wiseman’s Ferry.

In a story, published in the Scone Advocate on March 6, 1925, the events leading to his life as one of the colony’s early publicans was told:

Spies and rum-running

It was in the spacious days when England was at death’s grip with Napoleon that Solomon Wiseman first became notorious. He was captain of a small sloop cruising in the English Channel; and he and his little vessel had a romantic career. He was employed by the British Government to carry spies to the French coast — a highly dangerous occupation — but he added to the adventure of his life by carrying other doubtful cargo in the shape of casks of rum and brandy to the shores of England. In the picturesque old town of Folkestone may still be seen the narrow ways by which the smugglers bore the contraband liquor to the quaint little taverns after nightfall. Captain Wiseman was a brave figure in those days, in his wide blue coat, and cocked hat and invariably carrying a telescope under his arm. In after days, on the Hawkesbury he still clung to the telescope, using it to spy out the approach of travellers for whom he would hasten to prepare a welcome.

Condemned to death

But in 1806 he was chased and caught by the revenue officers off the Isle of Wight, and when they boarded his sloop they found not only contraband spirits and cigars, but certain passengers who turned out to be French spies making their way to England. For this business Solomon Wise-man was convicted and condemned to death, but in consideration of his services to the country in connection with the Secret Intelligence Department, the sentence was commuted to that of transportation. His treatment by the authorities was lenient. He arrived in Sydney in August, 1806, with his wife and two little sons, and was almost immediately given conditional liberty and a grant of 200 acres on the banks of the Hawkesbury River. He obtained from the Government the contract for feeding the large chain gangs employed on making the road from Sydney to Maitland, and was given surveillance of these gangs as superintendent. His net income amounted to £4000 a year, which was equal to five times that amount at the present day.

In 1817 Wiseman was granted land on the banks of the Hawkesbury River where in 1821 he opened the “Sign of the Packet” inn. The inn had a short trading life and closed within a few years.

When a road from Sydney to the Hunter Valley was built passing his property about the same time, he gained permission to supply the convict gangs with food. He began a ferry service across the Hawkesbury and built a grand two-storey stone house known as Cobham Hall in 1826.

After his first wife Jane died in 1821 at the age of 45, the old rum-runner married a widow, Sophia Warner in 1827 and, with increasing traffic now passing his home, had another attempt at opening a pub. This time he had much more success. He applied for a publican’s license in 1827 for Cobham Hall, giving it the sign of the Branch Inn.

Wiseman hosted the inn, which adjoined Cobham Hall, for just over a decade before his death at the age of 61 in 1838. His remains were laid beside those of his first wife in a vault at the foot of the garden of the Branch Inn and Cobham Hall.

After Wiseman’s death the old stone inn continued trading as a pub, 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 reportedly built a new inn at Maroota Forest, 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 Branch Inn at Wiseman’s Ferry closed about this time and remained empty for about a decade. Stories that the old inn was haunted first began circulating during these times.

One traveller, “humping bluey”, camped in the deserted house, 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”. 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.

The Branch Inn was no longer operating as a pub in 1843 when the family decided to remove the bodies of Wiseman and his wife from the grounds.

Rumour had it that the spirits of the publican and his wife had become restless, and the completion of a new church at Wiseman’s Ferry in 1841 prompted the family’s decision to have them disinterred and reburied. The bodies were removed to a vault under the floor of the nearby Church of St Mary Magdalene, where they rested for many years. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on August 8 1843:

Cobham Hall, the seat of Richard Wiseman, Esq., at Lower Portland Head, was yesterday the scene of unusual excitement, in consequence of the family having assembled for the purpose of removing the coffins of the late Mr. Wiseman, and other members of the family, from a vault in the ground to their final destination in the family cemetery lately built by order of Mr. Richard Wiseman, in the new church. The ceremony was strictly private; the company being confined to a few intimate acquaintance. In addition to the vault, the church is indebted to Mr. R. Wiseman for a vestry-room at his own private cost.

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

When a relative visited Wiseman’s Ferry in the1890s he found the church in which the former rum-runner and publican had been buried, derelict and no longer in use. Grave robbers had reportedly broken into the church vault and cut open the coffin.

The skull of ‘Governor Wiseman’, as he was known, 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 once again, this time in a new cemetery near the church. 

Meanwhile, Wiseman’s old pub was relicensed in 1851 by punt man, Edward Walmsley as the Travellers’ Inn.

Walmsley, an Irishman, operated the ferry over the MacDonald River at Wiseman’s Ferry. 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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