Did convicts escape from the Barracks?

Painting of Hyde Park baracks from south western courner shortly after construction with two men in front. It looks dry and there are no trees.
'Convict Barrack Sydney N.S. Wales.' G W Evans (attrib), c1820. watercolour. State Library of New South Wales: PX*D 41
From June 1819, unmarried male convicts who were working for the government had to stay at the Hyde Park Barracks.

While it was not a prison, they were not allowed to leave without permission.

Before the Barracks was built, most convicts lived in town in their own homes. But now, under the watchful eye of the Superintendent, their work hours and whereabouts were strictly controlled.

Many of the men thought that being forced to live with hundreds of other convicts and obey so many rules and regulations was unfair. Convicts who were married or had set up their own businesses did not have to stay at the Barracks.

Rather than obey the rules, some men chose to escape.


In 1844, John Smith, whose job was to check the convicts at evening muster, was sent to Cockatoo Island for promising to give a man a false Object: ticket of leave.

After a convict escaped, his name would appear in the newspapers.

Because there were no photos of the convicts, the newspapers would also print as much descriptive information about them as possible, including:

  • full name
  • age
  • height
  • place of birth
  • hair and eye colour
  • the ship they had been transported on
  • any tattoos or distinguishing marks (like a scar or injury)

On 28 October 1824, The Sydney Gazette listed more than 100 convicts that were on the run or absent from work without permission. Four of them were from the Hyde Park Barracks:

  • Thomas Hunter, Asia, 22, Paisley, 5 feet 4 and 3 quarter inches, grey eyes, brown hair, dark ruddy complexion, Hyde Park Barracks
  • Robert Ward, Mangles I, 27, Edinburgh, 5 feet 10 and a half inches, hazel eyes, brown hair, sallow complexion, Hyde Park Barracks
  • Henry King, Countess Harcourt 3, 23, Cheltenham, 5 feet 3 and a half inches, grey eyes, flaxen hair, fair freckled complexion, Hyde Park Barracks
  • Thomas Prince, Countess Harcourt, 20, Dublin, 5 feet 8 inches, grey eyes, dark brown hair, very much pock-pitted [scarred], Hyde Park Barracks

When an escaped convict was caught he could be locked in the solitary confinement cells, made to wear leg-irons, flogged with a cat-of-nine-tails, or sent to a worse place, like Side note: Norfolk Island.

If a convict was late in returning to the Barracks, or escaped at night but returned the next day, the punishment was not as harsh. For example, they might have been made to work in the convict vegetable garden on the weekends, instead of having time off.

Pair of orange-clad legs dangling above sandstone wall.
Convict escaping over wall at Hyde Park Barracks. Re-enactment by Darby Carr. Image: still from video © Sydney Living Museums.

On the run

Every week, one or two convicts didn’t show up for the evening muster. Some men ran off while they were heading out to work. Others escaped on the way to church, or during the night when people were asleep.

The Barracks doors were locked at around 8.30pm, and at 9pm the main gates were locked as well. However, this did not stop men from climbing over the walls!

Some convicts bribed the night-watchman with a Object: few coins to let them out after ‘lights out’ so they could have a night out in the town. He would then let them back in before the muster in the morning.

Tracking escaped convicts

In the early 1800s, Aboriginal trackers were often used to help the British authorities track down convicts who had escaped.

Understanding the landscape and waterways has been an integral part of Aboriginal culture for tens of thousands of years and the British were quick to acknowledge and take advantage of these skills and knowledge.

However, not all Aboriginal people worked willingly as trackers. Some were kidnapped by the settlers and forced to work for them.

Aboriginal people were very observant and their knowledge of the bush, waterways and coastal areas meant they were often able to quickly track, and locate, the pathways or hiding places escaped convicts were using.

In 1822 a report about the NSW colony documented one of the methods used by some Aboriginal trackers:

‘(Aboriginal people) can trace to a great distance, with wonderful accuracy, the impressions of the human foot’.1

Aboriginal people were also familiar with the different people who lived in the local towns and farms. So they would have known if someone new had arrived in, or travelled through, a certain area.

  • 1. Bigge Report (1822), Part VI, Control of the convicts in the service of settlers.

Tales of escape

Some convicts actually did get away. For example, in December 1820, William Russell and William Atkins escaped from the Barracks, and left the colony in a boat.

Also in December 1820, George Napier ran away from his government work gang without permission. He was still on the run in January the following year.

Lawrence Kavanagh

Lawrence Kavanagh was from Dublin, Ireland, and had worked as a stonemason.

In 1828 he was convicted of burglary and sentenced to transportation for life. He arrived in Sydney in March 1829 on board the convict transport Ferguson.

Because of bad behaviour he was sent to Side note: Norfolk Island in 1831.

In January 1842 he escaped. But was recaptured, put in leg-irons and sent to the Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney.

Not long after, he managed to remove the leg-irons and escaped the Barracks on 19 January. He was caught, and returned to the Barracks, but then escaped once again (this time wearing leg-irons) on 27 January.

While Kavanagh was ‘on the run’ he was said to have returned to the Barracks with a pistol, planning to try to shoot the Superintendent.

He was finally caught in mid-February, after robbing people in nearby Rose Bay, and sent to the penal settlement in Side note: Port Arthur.

Kavanagh continued to escape, and turned to bushranging and mutiny. In 1846 he was caught for the last time and executed for his crimes.