- EducationDay in the life of a convict
- Part 1: 1788–1815The convicts’ colony
- Part 2: 1815–1822For the civic good
- Part 3: 1822–1826Back to business
- Part 4: 1826–1837A world of pain
- Part 5: 1837–1848The turning tide
The hot Sydney summer of 1826 ended with almost 1000 convicts living at the barracks, and the wards were just as overcrowded as ever.1 But the official plan was to move them out of Sydney, and the townspeople and farmers alike were relieved to hear it. In mid-August, most of the wards quickly emptied; only 350 convicts were left,2 but the government wanted them out too.
… hurried up the country carrying suspended from their shoulders, their only consolation a rug and a blanket, to be worked like oxen … under a burning sun… with no better encouragement than the threat of the lash.
Convict Edward Lilburn, 18403
Macquarie’s barracks were now seven years old, and their grandeur, order and cleanliness had begun to fade, while crime and corruption were slowly creeping in. That’s why a Side note: had just been drafted and ex-convict Deputy Superintendent Profile: was to see it put to use. Clerk Charles Lucas4 carried out his daily ritual of recording in the musty leather-bound ledger books in Connor’s office the particulars of every convict entering and exiting the barracks. Messengers handled the endless stream of correspondence, adding to the growing mountain of paperwork on Connor’s desk, overflowing with letters from settlers requesting that convicts be assigned to them.
About once a month now, the barracks’ gates were flung open for a couple of hundred newly landed convicts to flood through into the yard.5 In previous years, new arrivals had been inspected at the jail on George Street, under the shadow of the hangman’s gallows. Now, the convicts were marched up directly through the Government Domain to the barracks, where they were assembled in the yard and inspected by the Colonial Secretary.6 Then they waited, from a few hours to several weeks, to see what the game of chance had in store for them – private assignment as a servant or farmhand, or labouring in a government gang under the punishing sun.
The male prisoners ... were landed … and were then conducted to the Prisoners’ Barracks in Hyde Park. His Excellency the Governor in Chief inspected these men in the barrack-yard; and was pleased to hold out to them the prospect of every proper encouragement, on condition of exemplary good behaviour; after which they were distributed throughout the Country.
Sydney Gazette, 18267
For the rest, the daily grind continued. Woken by the bell at sunrise, they shuffled out of the wards, trudging down the stairs and into the mess hall. The convicts now started their day with a new sort of barracks breakfast – a bland porridge-like mush called ‘hominy’, made from corn meal boiled over the fire.
They breakfast on ’ominee, of which a quantity generally remains, principally from a natural dislike which the men … entertain towards this description of food.
Sydney Gazette, 18278
As usual, convicts grouped together in messes of six men, but only some of them were lucky enough to find seats in the mess rooms. Some had to stand at tables, and when there were no more tables, the rest sat on the ground to eat. Prisoners could not be trusted with cutlery, apparently not even spoons, so they fed themselves using two tins per six men, scooping the food from a large dish on each table, or the floor.9
… the issues of corn meal without a spoon to use it with … presents a scene as disgusting as it is degrading.
The Monitor, 182610
The rations were wholesome, but some men were probably left hungry. A convict named Condon escaped the barracks in August; after being captured, he blamed his bushranging on the lack of food at the barracks.11
After the gangs were assembled, the gates were thrown open and constable James McDonnell and gatekeeper John Gould conducted their usual inspections. More and more government property was going missing, and the convicts were to blame. It must have been a cold morning when Martin Kelly tried to leave the barracks with a Object: wrapped around him, without even trying to hide it.12 Earlier in the year, Patrick Hennegan had also stolen a barracks blanket, and both he and Kelly were banished to a worse penal establishment.13
The men marched out reluctantly in their gangs for work, some of the worst characters shuffling along with their feet shackled together by a gang chain. Some of the men had leather cuffs hidden beneath their trousers, to protect their ankles from the chafing metal. Occasionally, there was one who had deviously hammered his leg-iron rings into ovals, so he could remove them when not being watched. Those working outdoors could look forward to an hour of rest from 8am to 9am, thanks to Connor’s new rule book.14
As they passed along, the chains clanking about their heels... the downcast countenances – and the whole appearance of the men, exhibited a truly painful picture.
Roger Therry, remembering the 1830s15
- 12. The Australian, 2 September 1826, p3.
- 13. SG, 12 January 1826, p3.
- 14. Instructions for the Guidance of the Superintendent and Subordinate Officers, of the Establishment of Convicts in Hyde Park Barracks, R Howe, Government Printer, Sydney, 1825, p4.
- 15. Roger Therry, Reminiscences of thirty years’ residence in New South Wales and Victoria, Sampson Low, Son and Co, London, 1863, 2nd edn, pp41–2.
Most of the convicts had left for the day, but there was also plenty to do around the barracks. This year, a new shoemaking and tailoring establishment was opened at the barracks, where 23 skilled leatherworkers made sturdy Object: , and 26 needleworkers churned out suits of convict slop clothing and police uniforms.16 The clock keeper wound the barracks’ timepiece with an enormous Object: , but despite his best efforts, it still wouldn’t keep good time.17 The elderly and frail raked the gravel yard, swept out the wards, opened the windows, shook out the dusty blankets and folded each one to display the government Object: and the number that matched the hammock to which it belonged.18 But the sleeping wards and hammocks were beginning to show their age. While new supplies arrived from time to time, the barracks’ blankets would have been ripe with the odour of sweaty bodies. They were only washed twice a year.19
Now, twice a year, barracks convicts were issued with two shirts, a jacket, a pair of trousers and a pair of shoes, all marked with the broad arrow.20 With their soap rations, the convicts washed their clothes in the washhouse along the eastern wall with water from the barracks’ well, ‘as frequently as is necessary’.21 For those who didn’t like doing the laundry, that probably meant not at all. And they washed their bodies just once a week, if at all.
Returning around midday for dinner (lunch), the convicts joined their messmates at the tables again. The usual greasy stew was on the menu, but it was not as salty as it used to be, now made with fresh beef or mutton, not the dried-up salted meat morsels of previous years.22 As usual, the barracks’ bakers had been at work all day, baking loaves in the ovens in the northern buildings. But with so many mouths to feed, they couldn’t keep up, and more bread had to be baked elsewhere and delivered.23 A large communal loaf was placed on each table in the mess hall but, left on the shelf too long, it was likely already rock hard. In February, convict Thomas Haynes refused the stale bread, and convinced his mates to do the same. He was ordered to receive 50 lashes of the Object: In recent years, some of the convicts had taken to gambling their rations, and the cooks sometimes kept some for themselves.25 Connor thought his new rules would put a stop to all that.
Come Saturday, convicts had a chance to find their own work, and pocket any coins they earned. Some found the odd job, but there were usually more than a few hanging about with nothing to do. By the afternoon, where were they to go? Connor’s new rule book said no spirits were to be brought into the barracks, but that didn’t stop them heading out to where all the action was, in the public houses (pubs) at The Rocks and around the town. Convict Michael Coffee learned the hard way that arriving late to the barracks when drunk and disorderly would result in being locked in a solitary cell to sober up, for a week or more. At least one other convict simply ignored the rules, and was discovered with a Object: stashed away in his hammock.
If any men arrived late after the sunset muster, or were found on the town, their punishment was now more severe – solitary confinement, flogging, or wearing leg-irons. After having their names ticked off the list, the men broke off into groups and milled about the yard, smoking, chatting, maybe comparing tattoos and scars. Some huddled in the shadowy corners of the compound for a quick game of Object: or ‘pitch and toss’36 before the overseers did their rounds – Connor’s new rules forbade any form of gambling.
- 36. SG, 24 February 1835, p2.
When the bell sounded at 8pm, the convicts trudged wearily off to the wards, ready for the final muster in their hammocks at 8.30pm.39 The wards of the upper floors were always filled up first, to allow the overseers to keep a closer eye on the men.40
Then the doors were locked and at 9pm the main gates were slammed shut and locked. But the convicts got out all the same. Some just headed out for some fun, ‘tipping’ (bribing) the constables and gatehouse keepers to let them out through the gates. Others preferred to scale the wall, like William Bird and John Horton and his mates, who went out this way one night in February, but were found later out on the town.41 Some planned to be gone for good – four men who scaled the wall only a few days after arriving on their transport ship Sir Godfrey Webster were caught and flogged.42
In the wards
It was close quarters as usual in the wards, with every hammock occupied and the remaining convicts left with no choice but to sleep on a blanket on the cold, hard floorboards. Young and old, streetwise or ‘square’ (honest), they were all crammed into the wards together, despite the Superintendent’s instructions to separate them to protect the innocent.43
In the sleeping wards, many are provided with bad hammocks; but many are without them, sleeping on the ground – a custom far removed from cleanliness and destructive of health!
The Monitor, 182644
In the hammocks, stashed away under shirts or in pockets, or secreted beneath the floorboards, the convicts secured their meagre belongings such as tobacco pipes. But these could easily disappear overnight – some of the men were mates, but most of the rest were thieves, and couldn’t be trusted.
On Sunday morning, wearing clean shirts and with shaved faces, the convicts gathered for the mandatory church muster, the usual rowdy rabble reduced to silence for Divine Service at St James’ Church across the road.45 With the remainder of the day free, convicts scattered in all directions about the town. But their day of leisure was short, the bell calling them back for muster at 6pm to prevent loitering, theft and gambling on street corners into the evening.46