Opening in 1819, the Hyde Park Barracks brought major changes to the lives of male government convicts in Sydney. New systems of control and discipline affected everything from how the men worked to how they dressed. The barracks also fuelled the labour force that drove the colony outwards, pushing settlement ever deeper into Aboriginal Country.
Life at the barracks
The barracks clock
The barracks clock
High up on the front of the Hyde Park Barracks is a large and ornate clock, above the bold inscription L MACQUARIE ESQ GOVERNOR 1817. The oldest public clock in Australia, it regulated not just convict labour but Sydney Town itself. The clockmaker, convict James Oatley, probably built the original clock under Governor Macquarie’s instructions. His clockwork was replaced in about 1837 with the more accurate and powerful mechanism still working today. The replacement clock, complete with pendulum, was built by the prestigious London firm Vulliamy & Sons. All that remains of Oatley’s original work are the hands and the painted face, which was made from hammered copper sheets recycled from ships’ hulls. Today, the clock continues to be wound by hand each week using an enormous crank handle.
The sleeping wards in the Hyde Park Barracks were lined with rows of rough canvas hammocks slung close together between strong timber frames. With the barracks’ population in constant flux, extra hammocks could be added by shuffling the old ones along. Other than the hammocks, the wards held only toilet buckets and a solitary oil lamp, hung on the wall.
In a colony founded on convict work, every trade relied on tools being kept in good order. This hefty grinding wheel, its iron cradle stamped with a broad arrow and ‘BO’ (Board of Ordnance) to mark it as government property, was a critical piece of equipment in early Sydney. It sharpened and smoothed hundreds of implements used in everyday work, including axes and saws to fell trees; scythes to clear scrub; picks and chisels to quarry stone; hatchets and hammers to build fences; and planes, files and pliers to make furniture, carts and buckets. The heavy wheel could be disassembled to be easily transported from one place to another.
This intact striped calico convict shirt is one of the world’s few remaining examples. Complete with government stamp and bone buttons, it was found bundled inside a staircase during building renovations at the Hyde Park Barracks in 1980. Made of cotton or linen cloth woven by convict women at the Parramatta Female Factory, convict shirts were hand-sewn by convict tailors.
As many as one in four convicts was tattooed. Some designs were complex and artistic, rich in religious symbolism or mystical imagery. Many captured critical moments in the convict’s life, such as the date of their marriage, the birth of a child or the year of conviction. Others remembered family, friends and lovers, in initials, love hearts or sentimental verse. Self-drawn or carved by a more expert hand, tattoos were made with a blade or needle and coloured with ink, ash, coal or gunpowder. Visible to the public, officials and fellow prisoners, tattoos nonetheless told a personal story, wrestling back control of a body that was dominated by others.
Looking further out
Looking further out
This mid-1820s image of a road-building party clearing bush and rocks in the Blue Mountains shows the new reality of convicts’ lives in this era of European expansion – prisoners sent far from town to toil in misery, opening up endless pastures for the benefit of wealthy farmers and wool growers.
Convicts were allocated rations – a set amount of food per week, supplied from the government store. In 1820, this included beef, mutton or salt pork, flour, maize (corn meal), sugar and tea. It was expected that these items would be supplemented with any vegetables on hand, such as potatoes, pumpkins, turnips and cabbages. Although their meals may have lacked variety, the men’s average daily energy intake was probably around 13,000 kilojoules – in line with today’s recommendations for men doing manual labour.
WEEKLY CONVICT RATIONS IN 1820
- BEEF OR MUTTON
- 7 pounds (3.2 kilograms)
- OR SALT PORK
- 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms)
- 7 pounds (3.2 kilograms)
- MAIZE (CORN MEAL)
- 3½ pounds (1.6 kilograms)
- 1 pound (450 grams)
- ¼ pound (110 grams)
Convict rations were prepared in large cauldrons such as this one by convict cooks in the kitchen at the Hyde Park Barracks. The food was portioned out to mess groups of six men to share, with convict overseers stationed to make sure it was distributed fairly.
The Bathurst Wars
The Bathurst Wars
‘… Windradyne was going out enforcing Wiradjuri law killing white settlers or white convicts who’d actually killed Wiradjuri people.’
Uncle Bill/Dhinawan, a descendant of Windradyne
In 1815, Governor Macquarie and his entourage travelled along the newly built road across the Blue Mountains into Wiradjuri Country. On the banks of a wide river, which he named after himself, Macquarie founded the town of Bathurst. As land grants increased in the 1820s, local Aboriginal food resources became strained, while sacred sites were destroyed. By 1824, attacks against European farmers by Wiradjuri warriors were increasing, many led by the celebrated leader and lawman Windradyne, and in August 1824 Governor Brisbane declared martial law. This triggered a brutal phase of military raids and fierce Aboriginal resistance that came to be known as the Bathurst Wars.
The leather convict cap was one of the most recognisable symbols of convictism in Australia. It had a brim that could be folded up and tied, or turned down to protect the wearer from both sun and rain. The caps were unpopular with convicts, who preferred wearing woollen caps in winter and broad-brimmed straw hats in summer. Despite being impractical, the leather caps remained part of the convict uniform at least into the 1850s.
Two or three pairs of shoes were issued to each convict annually. This leather convict shoe was discovered by archaeologists beneath the floor of the north-eastern sleeping ward on level two of the Hyde Park Barracks. The Board of Ordnance and broad arrow stamp on the inner sole confirm that it was government made, either by the shoemaking gang at the government lumberyard in Bridge Street, or in the tailoring establishment at the Hyde Park Barracks, which operated after 1826. Convict shoemakers were required to make one pair of shoes a day.
Sydney’s golden-hued sandstone gave its early buildings a distinctive character and proved to be a useful and robust construction material. Extracting and transporting the stone was a gruelling and often dangerous task involving large teams of convict labourers. Gangs of expert stonecutters then went to work sawing, shaping and detailing the material into architectural masonry, under the supervision of overseers and engineers.
‘The stone-cutters gangs are very numerous, and are distributed in five or six different places in and about Sydney, for the purpose of raising and quarrying stone as near as it can be procured to the buildings.’ John Thomas Bigge, Report of the Commissioner of Inquiry into the state of the Colony of New South Wales, House of Commons, London, 19 June 1822, np.
An ‘excellent institution’
The Hyde Park Barracks officially went into operation on 4 June 1819. That day, 589 convicts assembled in the new dining halls for an uncommonly generous meal of beef, plum pudding and punch. Governor Macquarie briefly visited, and noted in his diary that the convicts ‘appeared very happy and contented’. A review in The Sydney Gazette on 17 July praised the building’s ‘towering grandeur’ and noted that ‘much good must be expected to result … from this humane, this highly salutary, and excellent institution’.
Convicts lodged at the barracks faced new regulations governing their working hours, and how they were dressed and fed. The men rose at sunrise with the ringing of the yard bell. After breakfast they assembled in work gangs in the yard and filed out through the gates to worksites around Sydney – dockyards, brickyards, limekilns, stables, breweries, quarries, windmills and foundries.
At dusk, they returned to the barracks to be searched at the gate for liquor or other contraband. Following a muster, they huddled around fires in the yard, smoking pipes and passing the time. At 8pm, the yard bell rang, sending the men into their wards. The convicts’ day ended with a third and final headcount to make sure no-one had slipped out for the night.
Agriculture, not architecture
Almost as soon as the barracks opened, its purpose was challenged. The British government had long objected to the expense and scale of Governor Macquarie’s public works program and questioned his focus on urban infrastructure. It believed that the growing convict workforce would better serve the interests of Britain – and the colony’s future – as agricultural labourers, land clearers and road builders far from Sydney.
A London lawyer, John Thomas Bigge, was sent out to investigate the state of the colony and assess opportunities for large-scale farming. Bigge’s report was published in 1822. Heavily influenced by the opinions of a small group of wealthy free settlers, it recommended that convicts be sent far from Sydney, to work for landowners and assist in the development of agriculture.
From now on colonial expansion was inevitable. The growing frontier brought convicts and ex-convicts into regular contact with Aboriginal nations. The groups worked, traded and formed relationships, but encounters could also turn violent. For the Aboriginal nations whose cultivated landscapes were overrun with foreign livestock and European agriculture, the impact of expansion was sudden and devastating. Survivors sought to remain on their lands, their resistance sometimes intensifying into outright warfare, as they found new ways to live in a rapidly changing world.