Shell gangs

Huge amounts of lime mortar were needed for laying the bricks to build Sydney.

Shell was the main ingredient, and convicts working in gangs carried out the backbreaking task of hauling and crushing loads of shells, which were then burnt in pits or kilns to make lime. It was harsh work, reserved for ‘men of the worst character’, as their feet were cut on the shells as they collected them. Shells were initially sourced at Cockle Bay and from Aboriginal middens around Sydney Harbour, and by 1821 a 34-man shell gang was based at Iron Cove.

Water, sand and animal hair were mixed with the lime to make mortar. Sometimes human hair was mixed into mortar when animal hair was scarce. In 1832 a Sydney newspaper reported that 400 convicts on Norfolk Island had been shaved for this purpose.

The men dig for the oyster shells in the bed of the river … the labour is severe in itself, and it is frequently performed when they are up to their waists in water.

William Hutchinson, Principal Superintendent of Convicts, to Commissioner Bigge, 1821