The name Berrima is believed to derive from an Aboriginal word meaning either ‘southward’ or ‘black swan’. The area around Berrima was once occupied by the Dharawal Aborigines. They had, in effect, been driven off or killed by the 1870s.
The Wingecarribee River and the area was first visited during the late 1790s, including a 1798 expedition led by an ex-convict, John Wilson. However, John and Hamilton Hume rediscovered the area in 1814. The area was explored by Charles Throsby in 1818. Runs were taken up soon after, including by one by Charles Throsby. Harper’s Mansion, which is on a hill overlooking the town, was built from 1829 – 1830. Bong Bong had been planned as a major town for the County, but as it was flood prone, the New South Wales Surveyor-General Thomas Mitchell chose Berrima town site on the road running south from Sydney to Goulburn with the intention that the town be the chief centre for southern New South Wales. The survey was conducted in 1830 and the town plan was approved in 1831. As well as being an administrative centre, there were ambitions that the town might become a commercial and manufacturing centre, “where the wool of Argyle and Camden might be made into cloth and the hide into leather”.
The court house (see below) was built between 1833 and 38. The gaol (see below) was built from 1835 by convict labour and opened in 1839. The Surveyor-General Inn was built in 1835. It has been continuously licensed since 1839 and its claim to the earliest hotel rests on its continual license and being in the original building. Berrima prospered as being at a point on the Old Hume Highway, and there were fourteen hotels in or near the town in the 1840s. However, with the building of the railway which bypassed the town, the population decreased — no new houses were built for a hundred years. In 1896, Sir Henry Parkes, Premier of New South Wales, planted an oak tree near the post office. The Berrima cement works were established in 1929.
There are many historic buildings in the town and the village as a whole is listed on the Register of the National Estate. Other notable buildings include the Holy Trinity Anglican Church designed by Edmund Blacket and built in 1849; and the St Francis Xavier Catholic Church built 1849-51 designed by Augustus Pugin, a notable British architect of Gothic-revival buildings. The Berrima Village Trust was established in 1963 to preserve historic buildings.
The first quarter sessions were held at the court house in 1841. In 1843, the first trial by jury in the colony of New South Wales was held here. The assize courts were only continued for seven years. In 1850 the district court moved to Goulburn south of Berrima. Minor courts continued at Berrima until 1873. Notable trials were of John Lynch who was hung for the murder of at least nine people, and of Lucretia Dunkley and her lover Martin Beech who were both hanged in 1843 for the murder of Dunkley’s husband. Dunkley was the only woman hanged at Berrima gaol.
Berrima Gaol was built over five years with much work done by convicts in irons. Conditions at the gaol were harsh, prisoners spent most of their days in cells and the only light was through a small grate set in the door. In 1866 the gaol was renovated to the standards described by the prison reform movement for a “model prison”. However, Berrima gaol had solitary confinement cells which measured 8 feet by 5 feet, some smaller, where it was intended that all prisoners spent one year. In 1877 a Royal Commission was held to investigate allegations of cruelty by the prison authorities but the complaints were not upheld.
During World War I the army used Berrima gaol as a German Prisoner Internment Camp. Most of the 329 internees were enemy aliens from shipping companies. There were German officers from Rabaul, German New Guinea (what is now Papua New Guinea) and also sailors from the cruiser “Emden”. It has been suggested that the prisoners' cheerful behaviour and the liberal atmosphere promoted by the authorities were a model of mutual respect.
The gaol is now an all-female Low-Medium security prison.