In 1848, no longer required for convicts, the Hyde Park Barracks became an immigration depot and hiring office for unaccompanied women newly arrived in Sydney. Many had emigrated under government schemes aimed to boost the number of women in the colony. From 1862, the building also served as a shelter for elderly or destitute women.
Life at the Barracks
From barracks to depot
From barracks to depot
This view is among the earliest photographs of the Hyde Park Barracks. It was taken in 1858 by William Stanley Jevons, who worked next door in the Royal Mint. It shows the main dormitory building, now occupied by immigrant women, looming over the enclosed courtyard with its toilets and washrooms along the back wall, and the squat corner pavilion with its distinctive domed roof. Panoramic views to the west, across Sydney’s streets and buildings, gave new arrivals some of their first glimpses of the city. Views to the east stretched across the leafy Domain, taking in Darlinghurst and Woolloomooloo, and extended all the way to the majestic heads, where incoming ships, many filled with hopeful immigrants, could be spotted entering Sydney Harbour.
An immigrant’s journey
An immigrant’s journey
Immigrant ships departed for New South Wales from Liverpool, London, Plymouth and Portsmouth. During the three or four months at sea, women travelling alone were closely supervised by a matron, who kept an eye on their health and comfort and guarded against interactions with sailors and other passengers. Like the convicts before them, the women experienced homesickness, overcrowding, seasickness, and rat, lice and flea infestations. Once arrived in Sydney Harbour, immigrants were processed by an immigration agent and medical officer before coming ashore. Women who needed temporary accommodation before they found work or reunited with family were taken to the Hyde Park Barracks, with their luggage following on horse-drawn carts.
‘Stormy night, thunder and lightning and very heavy rain. Many girls very sick – all kept between decks the entire day.’ Diary of the matron on board the Hornet, 22 February 1859
Irish orphan box
Irish orphan box
This regulation pine travelling box belonged to 17-year-old Margaret Hurley, who emigrated from County Galway in Ireland to Australia in 1849. Margaret travelled under the Earl Grey orphan scheme, a British government program aimed to empty the Irish workhouses, crowded with destitute children, and bolster the female workforce of New South Wales. The Irish girls who emigrated under the scheme had few possessions, but they all arrived with a small wooden box like this one, supplied by the workhouses, and filled with new clothes, toiletries and a Bible.
In Sydney, Margaret lodged at the Hyde Park Barracks, before being apprenticed as a house servant in 1850. Two years later she married, and went on to have seven children. She died in 1922, aged 90. Margaret’s is the only box supplied to the Irish orphans known to have survived.
The Great Hunger
The Great Hunger
The dramatic sculpture bisecting the southern wall of the Hyde Park Barracks is the Australian Monument to the Great Irish Famine, created by Adelaide artists Hossein and Angela Valamanesh. The monument recalls the human suffering and social upheaval brought by years of potato crop failures and famine in Ireland from the mid-1840s, a catastrophic event known to the Irish as an Gorta Mór, or the Great Hunger. It also acknowledges the pivotal role played by the Hyde Park Barracks in welcoming and sheltering thousands of Irish immigrants in search of new lives, and futures, in the fast-growing colony of New South Wales. This national memorial is the focus of an annual commemoration and is cherished by Australia’s Irish community.
The accommodation at the Immigration Depot was spartan, and strict rules were upheld by the matron. The women were encouraged to pass the time with needlework, sewing, reading or craft projects. This endearing piece of handiwork was made by mounting a coloured postcard to a cardboard backing and framing the picture with shells, glued carefully into place. Lovingly made, it was either lost or left behind by an immigrant woman, only to be recovered in the 1980s during archaeological investigations of the compound.
Leaving the depot
Leaving the depot
‘… there had assembled outside the door about two hundred ladies in want of servants … In less than a quarter of an hour from the opening of the doors the last girl had been engaged …’ Australian Town and Country Journal, 19 JULY 1879
About a third of the women who passed through the Immigration Depot relied on it to find employment, as cooks, laundry maids, needlewomen, nursemaids, or general house and farm servants. On ‘hiring days’, the dining room became a hiring room where the immigrant women waited. At midday, prospective employers considered by the matron to be ‘respectable’ rushed in to interview the women. As one journalist observed in 1883, while a flurry of hiring was under way, ‘for these 24 girls there were no less than 92 applicants … the girls felt their own importance, and for once in their lives were “mistresses” of the situation’ (The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 August 1883, p9).
Matron Lucy Hicks
Matron Lucy Hicks
Lucy Applewhaite (later Hicks) was 27 when she became matron of the Immigration Depot in 1861. When the Hyde Park Asylum opened the following year, she took on combined responsibility for both institutions. She and her family lived in two small front rooms on the second floor. By 1869, when her first husband died, Lucy had six children aged between 18 years and 11 months. After remarrying a year later, Lucy went on to have five more children, two of whom died in infancy.
During her 25 years at the barracks, Lucy oversaw immigrant women as they arrived in the depot, along with the daily operations of the asylum upstairs. When both institutions closed, Lucy moved with the asylum inmates to the just built Newington Asylum in 1886, before retiring a few years later. She died in 1909, aged 75, survived by only five of her 14 children.
‘I do anything I can when I am well enough; when I can sew, I sew; I do nothing but sewing …’
MARY LONDON, HYDE PARK ASYLUM INMATE, 1886
One of the most touching ‘institutional’ objects discovered by archaeologists at the Hyde Park Barracks in the 1980s is a plain cotton bonnet with the initials HPA, for Hyde Park Asylum, stamped on the back. On arrival at the asylum, the women were issued with regulation clothing, including bonnets like this one. The abundance of sewing materials left behind or lost between the floorboards, along with scissors, thimbles, buttons and pins, indicates that mending, making and recycling fabric occupied much of the inmates’ time and attention. There are thousands of scraps of plain and printed cotton, mainly clothing offcuts and unfinished projects. Whole garments were also found, such as bodices, scarves, gloves, aprons and socks.
Time for a smoke
Time for a smoke
On any given day, between 150 and 300 asylum inmates congregated in quiet groups throughout the wards and common rooms, or outside in the laundry, kitchen or drying yards. Separated from the world outside, the women passed their time reading prayer books, pamphlets and newspapers, sewing, playing cards, and smoking their ever-popular tobacco pipes.
From immigrant to inmate
The Hyde Park Asylum sheltered some women who had previously passed through its door as immigrants. Honora Keilly was 16 when she sailed to Australia in 1850 as part of an Irish orphan emigration scheme. In Sydney she lodged at the Hyde Park Barracks before finding work as a servant on an estate south of town. There she met William Irwin, whom she married in 1861. In the coming years, Honora and their five young children were repeatedly abandoned by William, who eventually died in a destitute men’s asylum, in 1877. Honora herself faced multiple charges of vagrancy, theft, obscene language, drunkenness, and finally prostitution, while her children were shunted through charitable institutions and reformatories. In the early 1880s, Honora returned to the Hyde Park Barracks as an inmate of the women’s asylum. She died there in 1885, of tuberculosis, aged 51.
Sixteen-year-old Sarah Wood, from Staffordshire, England, came to New South Wales in 1861 to join her older sister. Sarah was one of 75 single women and teenage girls on board the Queen Bee. Her passage was paid by her brother-in-law, who then took three months to collect her from the Hyde Park Barracks; it was an unusually long time to spend in the depot. Together they travelled to Tenterfield, almost 700 kilometres north of Sydney, to be reunited with Sarah’s sister. Sarah was one of the wealthier immigrants who passed through the depot. Before leaving, she found her luggage had been broken into while in storage. Her missing possessions included a riding habit, three dresses, a silver brooch, petticoats, a gentleman’s scarf, a parasol, stockings, nightdresses, china plates, a china mug and a glass jug. In Tenterfield, Sarah married Erasmus Styles. She died in 1868, aged only 23, soon after giving birth to her second son.
Between 1862 and 1886, the Hyde Park Asylum provided housing and care for around 6000 women, but over the years it became overcrowded and poorly maintained. In February 1886 the last 300 inmates, some bedridden, were transferred to the newly built Newington Asylum, near Parramatta. For one of the women, Newington was a welcome change from the ‘regular pig-stye’ of the Hyde Park Barracks. Another, however, felt too far from town: ‘I would rather be in Hyde Park … because I had my friends to come and see me there’.
Immigration Depot, 1848–87
In the mid-19th century, New South Wales received an influx of immigrants, part of an enormous wave of 1.4 million English, Irish and Scots who left their homelands in search of a better life in Australia. Many were working-class people escaping desperate conditions. Numbers increased dramatically after gold was found in New South Wales in 1851.
New South Wales needed labour, and a range of British and colonial government schemes assisted immigrants by paying their passage to the distant colony. Starting in 1831, some of these schemes targeted poor British women aged between 14 and 35 to become domestic servants and wives in the male-dominated colony. Enticed by prospects of work, marriage opportunities and a fresh start, these women arrived in Sydney only to discover that no help was on hand to find employment or accommodation. Some ended up sleeping in Sydney’s streets or in the Domain.
‘I saw them land … a few days after I saw some of them crying in the streets, neither a penny in their pockets, nor a mouthful of meat to eat, nor any friends to look at them …’ JOSEPH LINGARD, 1846
In response, in 1848 the colonial government converted the Hyde Park Barracks into a female immigration depot offering short-term accommodation and hiring services. Set up to shelter women assisted by government schemes, the Immigration Depot almost immediately took in all women arriving alone, including those whose passage had been paid by family and friends already in New South Wales. While many spent a night or two in the depot, a week at most, some stayed for several months. For the next 40 years, tens of thousands of women spent their first nights in the colony in the wards once occupied by convicts.
Hyde Park Asylum, 1862–86
In 1862, a new shelter for infirm and destitute women, known as the Hyde Park Asylum, opened on the top floor of the barracks. The women were part of a growing underclass struggling to survive in a booming, prosperous colony. With private charitable institutions overwhelmed by people in need, three government-run asylums were established – two for men, at Parramatta and Liverpool, and this one at Hyde Park for women. The Immigration Depot remained on the lower floors of the barracks, but immigrant and asylum women were strictly segregated.
The asylum housed and cared for elderly and destitute women. It also took in younger women and girls with terminal illnesses, chronic diseases and a range of physical afflictions. Some inmates had intellectual or physical disabilities, or neurological disorders such as epilepsy; others had tuberculosis or suffered the effects of alcoholism. Most had arrived in the colony as convicts or immigrants. Many were widows or had been deserted by their husbands. Women able to get ‘back on their feet’ were free to leave. But many, particularly physically disabled or terminally ill women without family support, chose to live out their days within the safety and security of the asylum.