On this day: an ‘excellent institution’ opens

 

On Friday 4 June 1819, the Hyde Park Barracks officially went into operation. 

A total of 600 men were needed to fill it, so orders were posted around town: ‘convicts … in the immediate service of government at Sydney’ were to head directly to the barracks after work, where ‘they will be admitted, under their respective overseers, and furnished with their rations’.

That evening, 589 convicts assembled in the mess halls across the courtyard from the barracks for an uncommonly generous serving of beef, plum pudding and punch. The governor briefly visited, along with his wife and son and numerous other officials, and as he noted in his diary, the convicts ‘appeared very happy and contented, and gave us three cheers …’i

A glowing review in the Sydney Gazette on 17 July echoed the governor’s optimism. It 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’.

Perhaps some of the barracks convicts saw advantages to their new situation: free lodging, regular rations, clean clothes, and company. But few would have welcomed the cheerless dormitories with only hammocks, oil lamps and wooden latrine buckets. Worse still were the constant surveillance and loss of free time. Under Macquarie’s ‘New System’, working hours were now sunrise to sunset during the week. The men had free time on Saturday afternoons and all day Sunday, apart from mandatory church service attendance. A strictly enforced nightly curfew shut the barracks convicts away from friends and Sydney’s night-time pleasures. The previously commonplace freedom of living independently in town was now an indulgence granted only to well-behaved men and those soon to complete their sentences, or those with families to support.

Read about SLM's 200th anniversary re-enactment of the opening of the Barracks.

  • i. Lachlan Macquarie diary, 4 June 1819, ML A774, p47.

About the Author

Woman dressed in blue standing in room filled with hammocks.
Beth Hise
Head of Content, Strategic Projects
Beth is the Head of Content, Strategic Projects at Sydney Living Museums.

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