Colonial life changed dramatically from the mid-1820s as the convict population of New South Wales skyrocketed. The Hyde Park Barracks was transformed into the administrative centre of an increasingly merciless convict system that reached across the colony. As free settlers began to fear and despise the convicts whose labour underpinned their lives, calls grew for the end of transportation.
Life at the barracks
‘… the convict barracks called Hyde Park [is] a place of torment and pain for the poor miserable convicts. There cruelty and barbarism are dished out, which I can’t explain for lack of strong enough terms.’ CONVICT FRANÇOIS-MAURICE LEPAILLEUR, 1840
By 1836, when this picture was published, Britain finally had a system of exile centred around punishment and terror, rather than redemption or reform. At its heart stood the Hyde Park Barracks. Built to lodge convict workers, it now functioned as the most powerful convict building in the colony, where the Principal Superintendent of Convicts held office, the Assignment Board oversaw convict labour across the colony, and troublesome convicts or their unscrupulous masters appeared before the new magistrates bench.
Crowded and infested
Crowded and infested
‘… rats came by hundreds; they even came into the bed, crept in at our breast, under the bed-clothes, and out at the feet, like a pack of hounds, and biting at our noses and ears all through the night.’ CONVICT JOSEPH LINGARD, 1837
The number of convicts at the Hyde Park Barracks peaked in May 1837 with 1700 men sleeping in dormitories built for 600. The roof leaked, and broken windows were not repaired. Convicts complained that their hammocks and clothing were filthy and infested with lice, and rats overran the dormitory each night.
While rats made life hellish for convicts, today we are grateful for their activity. They became the first ‘curators’ of the Hyde Park Barracks, hoarding thousands of scraps of fabric, food and personal treasures later discovered crammed beneath the floors. A few rats, themselves dried and preserved, also form part of this collection.
‘I have known as many as twenty-nine flogged on one single morning, till their backs were as red as a round of beef …’ CONVICT JOSEPH LINGARD, 1846
All male convicts lived under the constant threat of being flogged. Typical punishments ranged from 25 to 100 lashes, and were carried out by ‘scourgers’ (themselves convicts) in the presence of officials and surgeons. Fellow convicts were often ordered to watch. At the Hyde Park Barracks, the convict was taken to a yard outside the eastern wall and strapped to a wooden triangle. The cat-o’-nine-tails whip inflicted a devastating injury: its knotted ends gouged out flesh and muscle, sometimes exposing the convict’s ribs and spine. In 1833 the notoriously cruel barracks superintendent Ernest Slade introduced his own, more ruthless ‘cat’ that lacerated flesh after only four lashes.
Long hidden under the barracks and unearthed by archaeologists, this jew’s (or mouth) harp, attached to a fragment of convict clothing, tells us that convicts found simple ways to alleviate the harshness of daily – and nightly – life in the barracks. Along with diverse languages, dialects and cultures, convicts brought a rich kaleidoscope of musical traditions to the colony. Tall tales, tapping feet and tunes from faraway places may have echoed through the convict dormitories well into the night.
This early-20th-century photograph shows the ruins and remains of convict compounds and administrative buildings on notorious Norfolk Island, where troublesome convicts from the mainland were banished up until 1855. Here, as in other so-called ‘secondary settlements’ such as Moreton Bay (Brisbane), and Port Macquarie and Port Arthur in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), hapless convicts endured brutal and dehumanising treatment and relentless labour.
Violence at the frontier
Violence at the frontier
‘The main thing is that the story is told about what really happened that day … to tell the truth and get the truth out there … [and then] our ancestors are at peace.’
AUNTY SUE BLACKLOCK AM, 2019
Frontier violence, common from the earliest days of settlement, greatly increased in the 1830s as the colony rapidly expanded, pushing settlers, their workers and stock further onto Aboriginal lands. Convicts, often led by free settlers or troopers, were involved in confrontations with and atrocities against Aboriginal groups. One such event occurred at Myall Creek Station in northern New South Wales, instigated by Australian-born settler John Fleming and involving convicts assigned from the Hyde Park Barracks.
Among the range of punishments endured by misbehaving convicts was a gruelling stint on the treadmill. This was a giant paddle-wheel contraption, operated by a group of people – convict men, women and children – stepping continuously for set periods of time to rotate a large cylindrical drum, which in turn drove a grinding stone. Sydney’s treadmill was located at the so-called House of Correction, where Central railway station stands today, and was based on a similar apparatus in London’s Brixton Prison.
Leg-irons and cuff
Leg-irons and cuff
‘I was taken to the Blacksmith, and had my irons, the badge of infamy and degradation rivetted upon me …’
EDWARD LILBURN, c1841
Riveted together and worn around the ankles, leg-irons were used widely as a way of punishing convicts who had committed crimes after arriving in the colony. Heavy leg-irons, like those pictured here, weighed 8 kilograms, and made walking difficult and tiring. Worst of all, they rubbed the ankles raw. This leather ankle protector found under floorboards at the barracks suggests that convicts with the means or ingenuity could fashion ways to avoid some of the painful effects of being ‘ironed’.
The two men in this picture, shown at work on the Darlinghurst ridge overlooking the Hyde Park Barracks, wore matching ‘fleshbags’, ‘kickseys’ and, of course, a sturdy pair of ‘crabshells’. At least, that’s what they may have called their shirts, pants and shoes, using the convicts’ underground ‘flash’ language of the time. To the frustration of authorities, convicts were known to use these colourful terms and expressions to share information under the noses of officials and masters. In 1819, convict James Hardy Vaux published a list of convict slang in his ‘Vocabulary of the flash language’. Many terms, such as ‘grub’ (food), ‘mate’ (friend) and ‘kid’ (to deceive), remain in everyday use in Australia today.
Read more about ‘flash’ language.
‘A nest of infamy’
In the 1840s, the Hyde Park Barracks earned a reputation for housing dangerous criminals. A notorious murder carried out by barracks convicts in 1844 sparked widespread outrage and calls to close the complex down. Among those involved was George Vigors, a barracks shoemaker with a long criminal history for which he’d clocked up 1100 lashes, several stints in leg-irons and sentences to remote penal stations. What started as a robbery ended in the stabbing of a homeowner in Sydney’s Clarence Street. Awaiting execution several weeks later, the 39-year-old Vigors told his keepers that he had been in many prisons but never ‘in a place where so much crime and rascality was carried on as in Hyde Park Barracks’.
NUMBER OF CONVICT SHIPS TO NEW SOUTH WALES, 1788–1840
80,500: men: 68,000; women: 12,500
TOTAL NUMBER OF CONVICTS TO NEW SOUTH WALES
NUMBER OF CONVICTS THROUGH THE HYDE PARK BARRACKS
By the late 1830s, the tide of public opinion was turning against convict transportation, both in the colony and in Britain. A damning report, released in 1837, concluded that the system was unjust, inefficient, immoral, and out of step with changing ideas on prison reform and crime prevention. As a result, both private assignment and transportation to New South Wales ceased in 1840. Transportation to Tasmania continued until 1853, and to Western Australia until 1868.
Looking to the future
Looking to the future
‘May we soon see the day when all trace of our penal origin shall have vanished, and when the evils of the system will be “as a tale that is told”.’ THE MAITLAND MERCURY AND HUNTER RIVER GENERAL ADVERTISER, 26 JANUARY 1848
By the mid-1840s, the newly designated city of Sydney had outgrown its convict origins. Gone were the convict ships; instead the waterfront was alive with trade and industry. In the urban centre were advances like piped gas, street lighting and town water. Further out were emerging suburbs, home to a fast-growing population glad to be free from the shame of convictism. Among them were ex-convicts, their children and grandchildren, keen to take their place as part of a proudly unshackled society.
Tightening the grip
In 1825 a new governor, Ralph Darling, arrived in New South Wales. A skilled and headstrong administrator, he introduced measures to increase surveillance and regimentation of convicts, and reduce the opportunities and privileges well-behaved convicts had previously enjoyed.
The aim was to reinforce the image of transportation as a cruel and fearsome experience, by tightening regulations, ramping up convict discipline, and placing punishment, not production, at the heart of the convict system. Record numbers of convicts were sent to New South Wales throughout the 1830s, but even more free settlers arrived, soon outnumbering convicts. While many convicts quietly served out their sentences, others openly defied authority and continued to commit crimes. Rising public fear of convict violence and runaways made it imperative that the government tighten control of all the colony’s convicts.
To tackle inefficiency and favouritism in the hiring and allocation of workers, an Assignment Board was set up to consider settlers’ requests for convict men and women. The Principal Superintendent of Convicts managed a growing mountain of paperwork – recording each convict’s location and behaviour, reviewing applications for family reunions and marriage, and even handling personal mail.
Troublesome convicts faced the ever-present threat of being flogged (whipped), clapped in leg-irons or banished to remote penal stations. During the 1830s, punishments grew in severity and frequency, with the flogging triangle and solitary confinement cells at the Hyde Park Barracks put to greater use. Convicts who repeatedly reoffended faced even crueller punishments in a range of locations across the colony.
The end of transportation
For decades, convict transportation had been criticised by British prison reformers, who advocated for the introduction of modern penitentiaries focused on separation, surveillance and moral rehabilitation, rather than banishment and physical punishment. In 1837, the British government commissioned an inquiry into transportation, the treatment of convicts and secondary punishment. The inquiry found that the system was unjust, inefficient, immoral, and out of step with modern ideas on prison reform and crime prevention, and the system of private assignment meant that convicts could be exploited by unscrupulous masters. As a result, the practice of private assignment was abolished immediately, and transportation to New South Wales ceased in 1840.