Ceramic glazed bottle, two Porter type glass bottles, dark green bottle for alcohol, stoneware ginger beer bottle, two glass alcohol bottle lips and two glass alcohol bottle necks.
Hyde Park Barracks archaeology collection. Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museums

Tightening the grip

Tightening the grip

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Life in the Convict System

In 1825 new measures were introduced 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.

Click the images below to learn more about the objects on display at the Hyde Park Barracks.

Control

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Crowded and infested

Dessicated rat.

Rat carcass

Dessicated rat.
Hyde Park Barracks archaeology collection. Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museums

Rat carcass

This desiccated carcass of a large brown rat was found under the floorboards at the Hyde Park Barracks. Rather than decomposing, the rat has mummified, probably after ingesting arsenic, a once common method of fumigating rodents that caused the animals to dehydrate and die of thirst.

Other items on display

  • 140 bone buttons from convict uniforms, desiccated rat and mouse carcasses

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Work as punishment

Metal two-headed axe, head only.

Iron pick head

Metal two-headed axe, head only.
On loan from Ralph Hawkins. Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museums

All-purpose iron pick head

The most common tool in this new era of arduous, manual and unskilled work was the standard pick. Using this all-purpose implement, convicts at the Hyde Park Barracks broke rocks and earth, stumped trees, and dug drains and trenches. Punishment, not production, was now the aim of the convict system.

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Gaming and smoking

Various tokens and coins, square and round.

Gaming pieces, counters and coins

Various tokens and coins, square and round.
Hyde Park Barracks archaeology collection. Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museums

Gaming pieces, counters and coins

Counters and tokens in various shapes and sizes were often crafted from shards of broken china or scraps of lead. Games of skill or chance such as dice, dominoes and chequers were a common night-time distraction for the convicts, either for gambling or just to pass the time.

Other items on display

  • Clay tobacco pipe fragments, some repaired with twine
  • Burnt scraps of convict shirts used as lighters and tobacco plugs
  • Hand-carved bone, wood, lead and ceramic gaming tokens
  • Hand-carved domino
  • Spinning top
  • Die
  • Playing card fragment
  • Coins: cartwheel penny (1797), halfpennies (1799, 1806, 1826), shilling (1817), farthing (1826), holey dollar ‘dump’ (1813), Dutch East Indies half stuiver (1826)

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Degrees of freedom

Metal embossed stamp.

Brass stamp

Metal embossed stamp.
Gift of the Copland Foundation. Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museums

Brass hand stamp for Principal Superintendent of Convicts Office, 1810–40

Other items on display

  • Ticket of leave issued to convict Thomas Beaton in 1840
  • Conditional pardon issued to Luke Grant in 1835
  • Absolute pardon issued to John Onion in 1835
Fragmented paper certificate with metal tin to left.

Certificate of Freedom and tin case

Fragmented paper certificate with metal tin to left.
Hyde Park Barracks collection. Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museums

Certificate of Freedom and tin case

This Certificate of Freedom was issued in 1843 to ex-convict Thomas Harvey, who kept it in the pocket-sized tin case. To avoid being apprehended as a possible runaway convict, Harvey needed to have this document on hand at all times. A Certificate of Freedom was issued to all convicts at the end of their sentence, effectively restoring their rights as free people and allowing them to travel at will.

Other items on display

  • Ticket of leave issued to convict Thomas Beaton in 1840
  • Conditional pardon issued to Luke Grant in 1835
  • Absolute pardon issued to John Onion in 1835

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Music and drinking

Rusted metal mouth harp.

Mouth harp

Rusted metal mouth harp.
Hyde Park Barracks archaeology collection. Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museums

Mouth harp

This simple musical instrument is one of three mouth harps (or jaw harps) discovered by archaeologists at the Hyde Park Barracks. Small, portable and easy to conceal, the mouth harp was played with the narrow end placed between the player’s lips, resting against the teeth, and the instrument’s ‘tongue’ plucked with a finger to produce a ringing tone.

Other items on display

  • Alcohol bottles
  • Gin bottle necks and a ginger beer bottle made by convict potter Jonathan Leak
  • Mouth harp

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Mending and making do

Pair of cloth braces with button holes.

Improvised braces

Pair of cloth braces with button holes.
Hyde Park Barracks archaeology collection. Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museums

Improvised braces

This pair of makeshift braces uses material recycled from the linen side seams of convict trousers. The braces would have fitted a small man, or even a boy, around 160 centimetres (5 foot 3 inches) tall. They are a poignant example of handiwork designed to solve the practical problem of keeping up loose-fitting trousers.

Other items on display

  • Recycled and repaired convict cotton shirt and linen trouser scraps
  • Leather belt
  • Blade sheath
  • Leather roll
  • Plaited strips of palm leaves and measures for hat making
Wooden tool with metal teeth.

Cabbage-tree palm leaf shredder

Wooden tool with metal teeth.
Hyde Park Barracks archaeology collection. Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museums

Cabbage-tree palm leaf shredder

This handy tool with its eight little upright blades was used to slice palm leaves into narrow strips that could be plaited together into bands for making hats or baskets. It was found beneath the floorboards at the Hyde Park Barracks along with fragments of plaited cabbage-tree palm leaves, evidence that convicts were making wide-brimmed hats for protection when working in the harsh Australian sun.

Other items on display

  • Recycled and repaired convict cotton shirt and linen trouser scraps
  • Leather belt
  • Blade sheath
  • Leather roll
  • Plaited strips of palm leaves and measures for hat making

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Identification and control

Square striped cloth fragment with BA stamp.

Convict shirt scrap

Square striped cloth fragment with BA stamp.
Hyde Park Barracks archaeology collection. Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museums

Convict shirt scrap stamped with ‘BA’

The letters ‘BA’ stamped on this shirt scrap could refer to one of only three convicts from the Hyde Park Barracks known to have these initials. Remarkably, two of them were named Benjamin Abbott, the first arriving at the Hyde Park Barracks in 1822 and the other in 1837. It is also interesting that both men died, years apart, in the General Hospital on Macquarie Street.

Other items on display

  • Convict shirt scrap stamped in black ink with initial ‘A’