Boats on harbour with Aboriginal people in canoes.
[Bennelong Point from Dawes Point], John Eyre, c1804. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Convicts’ Colony
1788–1819

Convicts’ Colony

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In 1788, the penal colony of New South Wales was established on the Country of the Gadigal people. Convicted prisoners were shipped to New South Wales to serve their sentences and to build and populate a British settlement. As the colony grew in the first few decades, convicts lived under conditions of relative freedom and opportunity – but this was not to last.

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Life in early Sydney

1788–1819

Group of men and children seated around table, eating.

Convicts by origin

Group of men and children seated around table, eating.
Re-enactment of convict life at the barracks. Photo © Fiona Morris for Sydney Living Museums

Who were the barracks convicts?

CONVICTS BY ORIGIN

  • 70% English
  • 24% Irish
  • 5% Scottish
  • 1% other

PERCENTAGE OF CONVICTS WHO LEFT THE COLONY AFTER THEIR SENTENCE ENDED

  • 5%

Between 1787 and 1868, around 166,000 convicts were transported to Australia. Mainly working-class people, they came from the urban centres and rural areas of England and Scotland, and the rural counties of Ireland. A smaller number were sent from across the British Empire, including India, Canada, New Zealand, Hong Kong and the Caribbean. One in seven (or around 25,000) were women. Most convicts were under 35 years old, and more than half were between the ages of 16 and 25. They were typically single and without children, and more than half could read or write. Some were violent and hardened criminals, army deserters, mutineers and political rebels, but three-quarters of all convicts were petty criminals charged with property crimes, and many were repeat offenders.

Blue water and sky, with people watching as rowboats approach.

Invasion

Blue water and sky, with people watching as rowboats approach.
Invasion, Gordon Syron, 1999. Sydney Living Museums. © Gordon Syron

Invasion

‘[The land] was invaded by the redcoats, the British, and taken off the Aboriginal people … We do matter, and we haven’t gone away, and we’re still here.’
ARTIST GORDON SYRON, 2018

The British named this place Sydney Cove, but to the local Gadigal clan of the Darug nation it was Warrane. The appropriation of Warrane by the First Fleet was the first step in an unfolding saga of devastation and dispossession of Aboriginal society.

Find out more about this artwork in the display Yura Nura at the Museum of Sydney.

Print document with handwriting and official seal above.

Path to freedom

Print document with handwriting and official seal above.
Ticket of leave number 2079, issued on 8 October 1840 to convict Thomas Beaton, permitting him to work in the Yass district of New South Wales. Hyde Park Barracks Archaeology Collection, Sydney Living Museums

Path to freedom

Well-behaved convicts or those with useful skills could earn privileges, from extra tobacco or food rations to elevation to the role of an overseer or constable, and even petition for early release. The most common reward was a ticket of leave. Typically issued after a period of time had been served, this allowed a convict to live and work as a free citizen for the remainder of their sentence, provided they stayed in a given area.

The ultimate reward was a pardon. A conditional pardon granted a convict almost all of the entitlements of free settlers, including the right to move, work and participate freely in colonial society. An absolute pardon went one step further, allowing recipients to leave the colony, if they wished, and return to Britain. On the completion of their sentence, whether by pardon or after time fully served, convicts were granted a Certificate of Freedom, giving them the same rights as free settlers.

Group of people inside stone-walled room in courtroom scene.

Becoming a convict

Group of people inside stone-walled room in courtroom scene.
The mock trial [scene inside Newgate Prison, Bristol], Francis Greenway, 1812. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales: ML 1003

Becoming a convict

A convict is a person convicted of committing a crime and sentenced in a court to be punished. Offenders facing a British judge in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were at the mercy of a system of criminal justice based on the belief that the threat of severe punishment would deter crime. Until the 1830s, more than 200 crimes, from murder and rape to robbery, carried a death sentence. Courts could also impose fines, whippings and sentences of transportation. Seven years in faraway New South Wales was most common, but convicts were also sentenced to 14 years or life in the colony. ‘Transportation for life’ was given for serious crimes or as a reprieve to people originally sentenced to hang.

Front and back of same coin, stacked.

Love tokens

Front and back of same coin, stacked.
Joseph Smith’s love token, obverse and reverse, c1817. Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museums

Love tokens

Before leaving for the colonies, some convicts created ‘love tokens’ to give to family or sweethearts as mementos. These were hand-engraved coins sometimes inscribed with messages of affection or popular rhymes. This love token is a smoothed halfpenny with the words: ‘JOSEPH SMYTH/CAST FOR DEATH/4TH JULY 1817/AGED 33’, and ‘MARY ANN SMYTH/AGED 27’. It was engraved for convicted burglar Joseph Smith (or Smyth) as he awaited execution in a London lock-up, to give to his wife, Mary Ann. Joseph was saved from the gallows, his sentence commuted to transportation for life. Poignant and rare, love tokens remind us of the uncertainty of the convicts’ fate, and the impact on family and friends left behind.

pen and wash drawing; 17.3 x 15.7 cm.

The voyage

pen and wash drawing; 17.3 x 15.7 cm.
Convicts embarking for Botany Bay, Thomas Rowlandson, c1800. Rex Nan Kivell Collection NK228, National Library of Australia

Voyage to New South Wales

By the 1810s, what had once been a voyage into the unknown was now a well-travelled route of 13,000 miles (21,000 kilometres). During a crossing of four or five months, convict ships stopped at Rio de Janeiro in Brazil or Cape Town in South Africa to take on provisions, before making their way across the vast Southern Ocean south of Australia and up the eastern seaboard to Sydney. Convicts endured cramped and poorly ventilated berths, and were only permitted to go above deck for short stints. In the early years, many convicts had arrived at Sydney Cove suffering scurvy, dysentery and other illnesses, and some died on the voyage. Following changes in 1815 to shipboard hygiene and procedures, including the placement of a Royal Navy surgeon on board with authority over convict welfare, convicts arrived in relatively good health.

Aboriginal people with ship and boatyard.

Early Sydney

Aboriginal people with ship and boatyard.
A view of Sydney Cove, New South Wales, Edward Dayes after Thomas Watling, artists; Francis Jukes, engraver, 1804. Beat Knoblauch Collection

Early Sydney

By the mid-1810s, the colonial population of New South Wales was almost 13,000, made up of convicts, ex-convicts and their families, together with soldiers, government and military officials, and a few free settlers. Sydney Town was nestled between two ridges, one crowned with a military barracks and parade grounds, while on the opposite ridge was the new general hospital, still being built. Windmills ground grain from government farms and private crops, and trading, transport and whaling vessels navigated the harbour, passing Aboriginal women fishing in nawi (canoes). The town’s paved streets lined with shops, taverns, cottages, villas and warehouses often looked familiar to newly arrived convicts, like something out of an English village. Red-coated soldiers manned the town’s fortifications, guarding against local unrest and possible attack by Britain’s enemies.

Group of wooden and metal tools on white background.

Government men

Group of wooden and metal tools on white background.
Convict-era plane, hammer, axe, mallets and gouger. Private collection. Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museums

Government men

A number of convicts, known as ‘government men’, worked on public projects and government worksites. Most carried out gruelling manual labour – clearing trees, sawing timber, breaking rocks and carting supplies – but some were skilled workers such as wheelwrights, carpenters, boatbuilders, brickmakers and blacksmiths. To enable close supervision by overseers, government men were organised into gangs. Specialist gangs might number only three or four convicts, while those working on the roads or in the cavernous sandstone quarries could comprise 60 or more.

Cameo of man in soldier's red jacket, with black collar and gold braids on right shoulder.

The governor

Cameo of man in soldier's red jacket, with black collar and gold braids on right shoulder.
Lachlan Macquarie, Richard Read senior, 1822. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales: P2/144

Major General Lachlan Macquarie

Major General Lachlan Macquarie was sworn in as governor of New South Wales on 1 January 1810, and immediately began an ambitious public works program to build fine churches, courthouses, hospitals and schools, and properly laid-out streets, all signs of the colony’s moral improvement and civic progress.

Macquarie’s building program required a more disciplined convict workforce. To house them, he decided to build a dormitory. This would provide accommodation and reduce the nuisance of government convicts in town at night, gambling, drinking and stealing; supply a more reliable and better-fed workforce to labour on government projects; and increase discipline and supervision to encourage and reward hard work. The Hyde Park Barracks, Macquarie believed, would bring peace and security to the town and provide convicts with a practical path to reform.

Model of barracks being built.

A barracks rises

Model of barracks being built.
Model representing Hyde Park Barracks construction, 1817–19. Made in Australia, 1999. Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museums

A barracks rises

The site selected for the Hyde Park Barracks was a patch of ground at the southern end of Macquarie Street. The foundations were laid in April 1817. Like most colonial buildings, the Hyde Park Barracks was a completely handmade structure, its core materials stripped from Aboriginal Country. Sandstone came from nearby quarries; clay was baked into bricks at government and private brickyards; and wood was felled and milled in outlying timber-getting camps and processed through the government lumberyard. Throughout 1817–18, convict stonecutters, bricklayers, carpenters and sawyers worked under the directions of convict architect Francis Greenway and the chief engineer, Major George Druitt. Hundreds of convicts laboured on the site, climbing up and down the scaffolding, mixing mortar, cutting and laying stone, laying bricks, timber beams and flooring, raising the roof structure and laying out the shingling.

Faded sepia-toned man's head and shoulders, wearing high-necked collar.

The architect

Faded sepia-toned man's head and shoulders, wearing high-necked collar.
Francis Howard Greenway, self-portrait (attributed), 1814–37. State Library of New South Wales: ML 482

Francis Greenway

Francis Greenway, the colony’s civil architect from 1816 to 1822, was critical to realising Macquarie’s vision for New South Wales. A talented architect from Bristol, Greenway arrived in Sydney in 1814 with a 14-year sentence for forgery. Within a month he received a ticket of leave, allowing him to work for himself and support his wife and children, who had followed him to Sydney. When the Hyde Park Barracks was completed, Macquarie granted Greenway an absolute pardon.

Greenway’s career was marked by a prolific output but plagued by clashes with colonial officials, chief engineers, influential settlers and military officers. As a result, he was dismissed as civil architect in late 1822. In debt, socially and professionally shunned, and resentful of his perceived mistreatment, Greenway died in 1837 at the age of 59 in a simple cottage in the Hunter Valley, north of Sydney. He was buried far from the elegant buildings that sprang from his talents.

Watercolour of red dirt track leading to walled compound and clouds behind.

The barracks opens

Watercolour of red dirt track leading to walled compound and clouds behind.
Convict Barrack Sydney N.S. Wales, attributed to G W Evans, c1820. State Library of New South Wales: PX*D 41

4 June 1819

HYDE PARK BARRACKS NUMBER CRUNCH

EXTERIOR BRICKS 90,460
ROOF SHINGLES 21,400
WINDOWPANES 1884
ROOF TRUSSES 11
WEIGHT OF ROOF 30+ tons
LENGTH OF BARRACKS 123 feet (37.5 metres)
HEIGHT OF BARRACKS 48 feet (14.5 metres)
WIDTH OF BARRACKS 48 feet 6 inches (14.8 metres)

The Hyde Park Barracks compound was completed in mid-1819. From the outside, it was a study in Georgian design, with its high-quality brickwork and stonemasonry, delicate window joinery, relieving arches, domed pavilions and architectural symmetry. Inside, the spaces were bare and functional. The 12 sleeping wards had hardwood floorboards, plain doorways and joinery, and rough brick walls painted in lime wash. The barracks was ready for its first residents.

A new colony

In January 1788, a fleet of 11 British tall ships sailed into a sheltered harbour, which the British called Port Jackson. Just over 1000 people stepped ashore at a small bay. More than 700 were convicts; the rest were soldiers and officials, some with their families and servants. The new governor named the bay Sydney Cove, but to the Gadigal clan who lived there it was Warrane. Like all the surrounding country, and everywhere beyond, the Sydney region was already occupied and cultivated, deeply etched with ancestral memory and interconnected by ceremony and song.

British authorities had used the system of convict transportation – banishing prisoners to serve their sentences overseas – as a form of punishment since the early 17th century, sending convicts mainly to the colonies in North America. In Britain itself, prisons were generally used as short-term confinement for debtors and those awaiting trial or punishment. With the outbreak of the American War of Independence in 1775, a new place of exile was needed. From 1784, the colonies of Gibraltar and Bermuda took transported convicts, but after 1788, most were sent to New South Wales.

The settlement of New South Wales was founded with a dual purpose and an extraordinary vision. Britain could rid itself of thousands of criminals, but once landed they were not imprisoned. Rather, their labour was put to productive use, to build a colony, and eventually to sustain themselves and their families on land granted to them after they had served their sentence. This was a unique social experiment, where convicts and ex-convicts cleared trees, formed roads and constructed bridges, established farms, ran businesses and built the towns.

Building new lives

By the early 19th century, most convicts lived with and worked for private masters, many of whom were ex-convicts. They toiled on farms, tended livestock, orchards and gardens, or worked in households, shops or businesses as servants and clerks. Some establishments, owned by wealthy landowners, colonial officials or powerful military families, were large and grand. Other workplaces were simple shops and offices, or lowly stone cottages and huts.

A number of convicts were selected for government work or public projects. Without dedicated lodgings, these convicts – known as government men – organised their own accommodation. Many built their own homes, sometimes living with partners and children. Others shared group houses, rented rooms, or slept in the corners of other people’s kitchens in exchange for bartered goods or household chores.

Government convicts worked under an arrangement known as ‘task work’. Once they had completed their set tasks or hours, they were free to spend their time at leisure or hire themselves out to private employers around town. The authorities were uneasy about allowing convicts such independence, but labour was in short supply and they did not have much choice. The system had unexpected advantages: convict enterprise helped to boost the local economy with businesses, trades and goods. Further, convicts’ eagerness to earn a livelihood and build new lives and communities gave the colony a surprising character. Thirty years after convicts first stepped ashore, Sydney was neither a prison settlement nor, for most, a hellish outpost. In fact, it was a ‘convicts’ colony’.

Yet Sydney would not stay a fledgling settlement forever. From 1815, new forces, both in Britain and in New South Wales, began to change the character of the colony, leading directly to the building of the Hyde Park Barracks.