The Secret River


Based on Kate Grenville’s novel, the two-part drama tells the deeply personal story of Will and Sal Thornhill, early convict colonists who lay claim to a plot of land on the then remote Hawkesbury River.

Will arrives in penal New South Wales and is lucky enough to be assigned to his wife, free settler Sal. With their two sons and baby, the family struggles with the harsh surrounds: a rundown, makeshift town, drunkards, corporal punishment, snakes. “It’s no place for kids to be growing up.”

Will works hard as an oarsman transporting supplies on Sydney Harbour and befriending ex-waterman turned free settler Thomas Blackwood. After six years he earns his emancipation which is all the freedom he needs to pursue Blackwood’s idea of a relocation up the Hawkesbury River. There, a new beginning may await them, if they are prepared to leave civilisation behind.

On his first visit to the Hawkesbury, Will is captivated by the Australian setting, despite odd encounters with naked oyster farmer Smasher Sullivan and the haunting, distant fires of Aboriginal tribes. Blackwood assures, it is possible to co-exist. “Give a little, take a little, otherwise you’re dead as a flea,” he advises.

Will convinces Sal to a relocate the family to a parcel of land on the river under a 5-year plan, although she hopes to return the family to London.

As he claims the land “before some other bugger does,” Will encounters local Aboriginal people passing through. These are curious, if guarded exchanges by both although the children will be far more unfiltered in their expression. As he builds his farm through grit and determination, there's just one problem with that land: it's already owned. It's been part of the territory of the Darug people for perhaps 40,000 years.

The Aboriginal people haven't left fences or roads or houses, but they live on that land and use it, just as surely as Thornhill's planning to do. They aren't going to hand over their land without a fight.

Spears may be primitive weapons, but settlers know that they can kill a man as surely as a ball of lead from a musket. As he realises all this, Thornhill faces an impossible choice. Some of his neighbours - Smasher Sullivan, Sagitty Birtles - regard the Darug as hardly human, savages with as little right to land as a dog.

When the Darug object to being driven off, those settlers have no compunction in shooting or poisoning them. Other neighbours make a different choice, and find ways to co-exist with the Darug. Blackwood has made a family among them. Mrs Herring "gives them when they ask". Hostility between blacks and whites gradually escalates. Finally a group of settlers decides to go out and "settle" the Darug for once and for all. Will Thornhill join them? The decision he makes is with him for the rest of his life.

Whilst these characters are fictitious they serve as a microcosm of a larger Australian history, and one that is steeped in blood and shame. The second episode of Secret River is a powderkeg of emotion and brutality that makes it unmissable television.

Secret River is a complex, challenging tale for us as an audience. Part-action, part-social commentary, it has echoes of the colonial miniseries Australia used to produce in the 1970s and -hands down- it’s also the best thing Daina Reid has ever directed.


Episode guide

Episode 1

In 1813 ex-convict Will Thornhill settles on the beautiful Hawkesbury River. But his plans are soon overshadowed by misunderstandings and conflict with the local Indigenous people.

Episode 2

Will's increasing desperation to hold onto 'his' land despite the resistance of the local Indigenous people, leads to his involvement in a brutal incident which will haunt him forever.


Oliver Jackson-Cohen - William Thornhill
Sarah Snook - Sal Thornhill
Lachy Hulme - Thomas Blackwood
Tim Minchin - Smasher
Trevor Jamieson - Grey Beard
Huw Higginson - Alexander King
Rory Potter - Willie Thornhill
Finn Scicluna-O'Prey - Dickie Thornhill
Angus Pilakui - Long Bob
Rhys Muldoon - Lord Loveday
Samuel Johnson - Saggity
Leila Gurruwiwi - Mallabu
Geneviève Lemon - Mrs. Herring
Heath Bergersen - Mullaba
Katherine Kelly - Mrs. Webb
Adrian Pickering - Lavender Brother
Jon Bryden - Market Trader
James O'Connell - Dan
Benjamin Rigby - Flogging Soldier
Brendan Guerin - Lavender Brother
Kathy Marika - 'Polly'
Jeremy Costello - Convict
Paul Hallett - Customs Officer
Release dates
14 June and 21 June 2015, at 8.30pm on ABC
Video/DVD release date
24 June 2015
PG - Parental guidance
Burkhard von Dallwitz

The Secret River is based on Kate Grenville’s, Man Booker Prize nominated bestselling novel of the same name.

Actress Ursula Yovich was so distressed by the scenes of Aboriginal massacres in the stage adaption of The Secret River that she considered quitting her role.

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Cite this page

Korff, J 2020, The Secret River, <>, retrieved 26 May 2024

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