- 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
- A day in the life1836
- Side noteBigge Inquiry
- Side noteLimits of location
- Side noteMolesworth report
- Part 5: 1837–1848The turning tide
By 1836, two-thirds of the convicts in the colony were out working for private masters, and government convicts made up only a small group. But in some way, the barracks controlled them all – it had become much more than just a place to eat and sleep for ‘government men’. For convicts arriving on the transport ships, working for the government or on private farms, for those who fell back into crime, feared secondary punishment, or dreamed of freedom, the Hyde Park Barracks was the centre of their world. It was a crossroads, where the convicts could find themselves taking a path to liberty or ruin.
With tens of thousands of wayward lives passing through the barracks’ gates, dark shadows had begun to fall. Convict numbers had reached an all-time high, with the enormous total of almost 1700 sleepers elbowing for personal space within the wards each night.1 Hordes arriving from the transport ships were being inspected in the yard too, by Colonial Secretary Alexander Macleay.
- 1. Convict Joseph Lingard noted there were 1700 sleeping at the barracks in May 1837: Joseph Lingard, Narrative of a journey to and from New South Wales, Chapel-en-le-Frith: s.n., 1846, p24.
In August, the transport ship Moffatt unloaded a record convict cargo of 396 men, who flooded the barracks’ yard for inspection and assignment.3
… on landing we were drafted to Hyde Park Barracks, which formed the general depot at that time for receiving prisoners … myself, together with eighteen or nineteen of my companions in misery, were forwarded to different masters in Richmond …
Convict Martin Cash, remembering 18284
For most convicts, life at the barracks under Lane’s tyranny was a miserable existence, and the temptation of freedom was tantalising. So many convicts ‘bolted’ (ran away) from the barracks and worksites that a trusted man named Driscoll was sent to New Zealand to see if he could find any of them there.9 The most devious type of runaway convict was the bushranger, like Irish convict Jack Donohoe, the ‘Wild Colonial Boy’, killed in a gunfight by a group including former barracks convict Object: .
- 9. Sydney Herald, 7 November 1831, p4.
At the gates during regular morning and evening inspections, the constables and gatekeepers accepted coins to turn a blind eye to contraband entering the gates, or handed out false passes for men to be out late.10 There were still some honest men among them, though – after reporting on a case of corruption, overseer Podmore feared for his life and begged to be removed from the ward where the men had threatened him.11
In the northern buildings, a Police Office and Court of General Sessions had been fitted out to conduct trials for secondary crimes,12 because some convicts just couldn’t stay out of trouble. Hauled in on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays,13 these secondary offenders faced a stern panel of prominent colonial gentlemen appointed as magistrates, including Samuel Augustus Perry, James Busby and Captain William Dumaresq.14 A few hundred cases were heard every month, for bad behaviour like swearing, laziness, disobedience, drunkenness, returning late from work and theft.15 Side note: attended this court too – Scottish woman Profile: was called to the court 14 times!
On Monday mornings the barracks bench was busy dealing with those who’d been found drunk and rolling about the streets over the weekend. Convicts didn’t just drink out on the streets, though; they also managed to bring beer, wine and spirits into the sleeping wards. So much for the rules about no alcohol in the barracks.16
- 10. SG, 12 December 1827, p2.
- 11. SG, 8 March 1834, p2.
- 12. SG, 3 August 1830, p3.
- 13. Letter of 8 January 1835 written by Principal Superintendent Frederick Hely, quoted in James Mudie, The felonry of New South Wales, Whaley and Company, London, 1837, p131.
- 14. Copies of letters sent by magistrates, HPB, 3 Jul 1830-31 Jan 1848, CGS 12874, SRNSW 2/670, reel 2650; 4/5721, reel 2651.
- 15. Copies of letters sent by magistrates, HPB, 3 Jul 1830-31 Jan 1848, CGS 12874, SRNSW 2/670, reel 2650; 4/5721, reel 2651.
- 16. 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, p9.
... my heart sunk within me on my arrival here, for almost the first thing I saw was a gang of my fellow unfortunates, chained together working like horses, I was completely horror struck …
Convict Edward Lilburn, describing the mid-1830s18
- 18. Edward Lilburn, A complete exposure of the convict system, Thomas Colmer, Lincoln, Herts, 1840, p4.
... the cry was given, flogger stand by, and as he came up he called who is the first; I think I was the fourth that was called, and was soon strapped to the triangle, and felt the cat on the flesh, and heard the constables count one, two, three, four, mingling with the flogger’s hiss ...
Convict Charles Dolphus (later known as Charles Adolphus King), remembering 183621
- 21. King, p26.
After being untied from the triangle and staggering away, the flogged convicts were left in the sleeping wards to wallow in their misery and pain, ordered back out to work, or carried to the Rum Hospital, where they received Side note: , of sorts. The lucky ones might have been given medicine to relieve the pain. Convicts who died at the hospital, like Profile: , were usually buried at the burial ground near the Brickfields (now Haymarket).
Arriving in the mess halls for breakfast, hungry convicts now enjoyed half a pound (227 grams) of maize meal hominy, but at least it was made more edible with 1 ounce (28 grams) of sugar for each man,22 mixed into the mush as it bubbled away in the pot. Those unlucky men who had done time walking the treadmill, which ground the corn for the hominy, might have appreciated their breakfast more than the others. Any convict who had acquired tea leaves, and had a penny to spare, could pay the barracks’ cook to boil some water to make tea, a penny being the cost of the extra coal for the fire.23
Dinner (lunch) was the usual fatty, salty stew, made with 1 pound (454 grams) of fresh beef and a quarter of an ounce (7 grams) of salt for each man, and a few vegetables.25 There was plenty of bread to go around, and in January one convict found a good use for his bread ration, hiding £63 in it26 – maybe his winnings from a recent game of cards. The convicts would probably have been suspicious of the cooks, bakers and storemen, who were known to take some of the prisoners’ beef, sugar and soap for their own use.27 Each day, all of these rations were carted into the barracks, and the storekeeper stacked the sacks and crates onto the shelves in his store in the northern buildings. He was also kept busy, day and night, protecting the stores from hordes of rats. Once, the storekeeper reported he had killed 352 rats in one month!28
Fed up and worn out, the Side note: marched out as usual every morning after the bell called them to muster. For most, the work continued to be dreary, back-breaking and hazardous. With no incentive to work hard, some of the gangs got a reputation for being lazy and useless.
Allow me to direct your attention to the gang of Hyde Park Barrack Convicts, at present employed in trenching ground at the south Domain gate ... A more complete burlesque of labor, or a more shameful waste of time, I should think it difficult to parallel.
Sydney Herald, 183629
- 29. Sydney Herald, 21 April 1836, p2.
By winter, many of the gang workers’ Object: were almost destroyed, or they had worn out totally. This was blamed on the bad weather and poor state of the roads. The government now gave convicts three pairs of shoes a year, but some convicts wanted more. Once, a stolen shoe was found concealed inside a man’s shirt – he was sentenced to three months’ work in an iron gang.31 Another man, Calvin Sampson, who stole a pair of shoes, got 50 lashes of the cat-o’-nine-tails.32
Side note: continued to be handed out, now with a more generous issue of three shirts per year. Convicts were allowed to keep their old clothing,33 stashing it away for use as extra layers in winter or for patching and mending. Sloppy by name and nature, the clothing was not a good fit for many of the men, so they improvised ways to keep their pants up, by recycling materials to make belts and braces. Also, convicts didn’t get socks, so they invented ways to keep their toes comfortable.