Jacks of all trades

Convicts did every type of task, from skilled trades to labouring. Each convict was assigned to work for either a government gang or a private master or mistress. They loaded ships and carted cargo, repaired tools and boats, cut and rolled logs, built dwellings and made clothing. They were the colony’s farm labourers, bakers, blacksmiths, barbers, printers, stonemasons and domestic servants. Even clerks, constables and gang overseers had to be drawn from convict ranks because the military refused to be involved in managing prisoners.

‘Government men’ housed at the Hyde Park Barracks were organised into labour gangs who worked in the dockyards, stores, gardens, quarries, brickfields, lumberyards, mines, waterworks and military barracks. They were also employed on public building projects, bridge and road construction, and land clearing, and others were assigned to work on lighter tasks such as broom making or nursing at the General Hospital.

It is no uncommon matter to see a jeweller, a clerk, or a tailor, with a reaping-hook in his hand cutting grain, or with an axe falling a tree. Hard work and hard fare is generally the lot of a settler’s man, but I am fortunate and remain in Sydney ...

Convict John Slater, A description of Sydney, Parramatta and settlements in New South Wales, 1819, p7