During these final years of convicts at the Hyde Park Barracks, the newly designated city of Sydney gained its first outlying suburbs and industrial zones. Closer to the centre of town, a new gasworks, town water and street lighting served a fast-growing free population. As the 1840s wore on, waves of female immigrants started new colonial lives as servants, workers, wives and mothers.

Convicts in this period were now a fraction of the population, maligned and hidden from view. With the last transport ships to New South Wales arriving in 1840, those convicts still under sentence endured a system in decline. The Hyde Park Barracks, no longer a source of labour, became a dumping place for old hands and misfits. The building itself was poorly maintained, indifferently policed and limping towards its closure in 1848.

changing times

In 1837 a new clock mechanism was installed at the Hyde Park Barracks. While the original face and hands were kept in place, a powerful new ‘movement’ propelled it. Unlike before, this was a clock for the people of Sydney. Rather than measuring the daily work of convicts, its clanging chime, heard hourly across town, kept a free society on time.

As if symbolised by the new town clock, the tide of public opinion was also turning away from convicts. In New South Wales, animosity towards a system seen as both cruel and unjust – an experience ‘akin to slavery’ – was being fuelled by outspoken colonists like the journalist John Fairfax and leading members of the clergy.

Local arguments against convict transportation ranged from hysterical to reasonable. Some were convinced that a ceaseless flood of criminals would corrupt and degrade society and leave a moral stain. Others feared for their personal safety in a community thought to be ‘drowning’ in vice and evil. More legitimate were the concerns of free workers and local businesses, who found themselves competing with cheap convict labour which, in their opinion, reduced profits and hampered economic growth.

A day in the life of a convict

1844

Fraying at the edges, these were the Barracks’ darkest days with only the worst convicts remaining.

Enlightened views

For decades, progressive thinkers in Britain and western Europe had questioned the effectiveness of transportation. Rallying around theories drawn from the Enlightenment, anti-slavery groups, intellectuals, psychologists and penal reformers argued forcefully that a prison sentence should be based on rehabilitation and not punishment. Back in 1802, horrified at the conditions facing convicts departing to the colonies, prison designer Jeremy Bentham wondered ‘whether the world ever saw anything under the name of punishment bearing the least resemblance to it’.1

With the growth of the so-called ‘penology movement’ in the early decades of the 19th century came the modern penitentiary, a highly regulated institution in which ‘scientific’ methods of discipline were developed to alter and ‘correct’ prisoners’ minds, rather than brutalise their bodies. These included oppressive systems of surveillance, isolation, silence and mind-numbing routines. To the colonial administrators in Britain influenced by this new wave of thinking, the degrading experience of convict transportation was clearly out of step with the notion of treating wrongdoers in more humane and rational ways.

Certainly, in 1837 the criticisms of William Molesworth, whose Story: damning report drew attention to both the depravity of convict life and the system’s many failings, echoed these modern ideas on crime and punishment and signalled the end of transportation.

  • 1. Panopticon versus New South Wales, or The panopticonpenitentiary system and the penal colonization system compared. Sold by R Baldwin, 1812.
Etching showing a large group of convicts marching under an escort of soldiers

A chain gang, convicts going to work near Sidney [Sydney], New South Wales. Hamilton, Adams, 1843. Etching, part of Backhouse, Edward, 1794-1869. A narrative of a visit to the Australian colonies National Library of Australia

However, while convicts were no longer sailing into the colony, there were still more than 26,000 convicts at large, ‘doing time’ within an overall population of nearly 120,000. As sentences expired in coming years this figure dropped quickly. Tickets of leave and pardons saw large numbers of convicts become citizens. On the other hand, with the assignment system abolished, convicts still under sentence reverted to government work. In Sydney, of course, they lodged at the Hyde Park Barracks. Among their number now were Aboriginal prisoners, entangled in the convict system or swept up in widespread violence on and behind the colonial frontier. Records kept in the Colonial Secretary’s office reveal that during the year 1840, an average of 558 men slept at the barracks each night.

Rare glimpses

From the early 1840s, numerous first-hand depictions of the convict experience appeared in Sydney newspapers or were published in Britain as biographical narratives. More often lurid than truthful or objective, these accounts however provide rare glimpses of life in the Hyde Park Barracks as seen through the eyes of inmates rather than authorities.

Could your excellency be in any one of its wards five minutes without being covered in vermin of the filthiest nature?

Letter to Governor Sir George Gipps, 12 December 1842, complaining about the state of the Hyde Park Barracks and the treatment of convicts

In an open letter to Governor Gipps, published in The Australian newspaper in 1842, an ex-convict calling himself Humanitas described the barracks as a barbaric place where hapless convicts suffered in despair under a cruel and sadistic superintendent.

Pointing to the state of the dormitories, he asked, ‘is there one window with two whole squares of glass in it? Could your excellency be in any one of its wards five minutes without being covered in vermin of the filthiest nature?’ Elsewhere he describes the meagre clothing: ‘I have seen again and again the man who had a second shirt have it taken from him. He must go naked while he washed the solitary shirt allowed him … or else leave the garment uncleansed’.

Most hated of all was the barracks boss Timothy Lane, ‘a vampire revelling in human blood’. To see proof of his cruelty, according to Humanitas, ‘take your place … behind the scourging (flogging) yard when punishment is going on … watch his joy beaming countenance … your ears will be delightfully regaled by his exclamations of scourger do your duty and as the poor wretch writhes and moans under … the lash, a half inward heartfelt chuckling laugh And he feels it now. There tip him on the raw …’

A more comprehensive account is given by the convict Profile: Charles Cozens, who had several stints in the Hyde Park Barracks throughout the 1840s and published his memoirs in a rollicking book.

On his arrival, the barracks was ‘a large and gloomy-looking building surrounded with a high wall …’ and was crammed with 1300 inmates. Returning from work outside, the men marched through the gates in silence. Once inside the courtyard, they were now able to speak freely, as if ‘inmates of some gigantic Bedlam had actually broken loose’. For the bewildered Cozens, ‘the confused and confounding din of so many voices may well be imagined’. Most staggering of all was the diversity of characters, ‘a dense mass of moving forms, of every variety of face and figure … The barrack, indeed, at that period might truly have been assimilated to the box of Pandora, for it certainly contained every evil in human shape – a perfect accumulation of vice and infamy …’

Bust and boom

Having prospered through the late 1830s, and struggled through the depression of 1840, colonial life by the middle of the decade was once again full of promise. Now an official ‘city’, Sydney was ringed by newly established suburbs to the south and east. The cargo wharves of Pyrmont were crowded with pastoral exports, while on the opposite side of Darling Harbour, a new gasworks fed by coal from Newcastle supplied gas to surrounding homes and businesses. Street lighting, town water and sewerage systems were improving urban life, while factories, iron foundries, woollen mills and engineering works sprang up along the rapidly expanding waterfront from Pyrmont to Balmain and further south near Botany Bay.

Lining the city streets, along with the workaday Story: row houses, pubs, shops and offices, were stylish new townhouses for wealthy merchants and speculators, harbourside mansions such as Story: Elizabeth Bay House, and a crop of splendid villas on the ridges above Woolloomooloo. In 1845, the governor shifted into a grand new sandstone residence overlooking the harbour, while further east the new sandstone cell blocks of Darlinghurst Gaol were put to use.

Sydney’s roads were still filled with bullocks and horses, although a new railway was not far away. On the water, alongside coastal traders, whalers and clippers were steamers busily transporting people and goods between the city, the harbour’s northern shore and Parramatta.

Water colour, a lot of brown colours. Shows a convict gang in the middle distance walk toward the Hyde Park Barracks.

King Street looking east. Watercolour by Frederick Garling, c 1843. With the corner of York and King Streets in the foreground, a convict gang can be seen returning to the Hyde Park Barracks. It also appears the artist started the painting depicting the Hyde Park Barracks to the right of the top of the street but changed this to be St James' Church by adding the steeple. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

AN EMBARRASSMENT

With Sydney booming beyond its walls, the function of the barracks came increasingly into question. Poorly maintained, governed by disreputable guards and officials, and housing the most intractable and hardened felons, the Hyde Park Barracks had outlived its original purpose.

As early as 1843, Governor Gipps had described the place as ‘a nuisance’ and a problem that ‘must speedily abate’. Inhabited by men who ‘are in fact the refuse of the convict system … prisoners, who (for whatever reason) cannot be disposed of elsewhere’.

While efforts to repurpose the barracks, along with Aside: Cockatoo Island, as a common jail proved unsuccessful due to costs and inconvenience, a series of murders connected to barracks convicts in 1844 managed to stir widespread outrage. The barracks’ days were numbered, although it limped along for another few years, as an object of ridicule, an eyesore, and finally an embarrassment.

Views of the Hyde Park Barracks on the edge of town, showing it increasingly at odds with the liveliness and optimism of Sydney, officially designated a ‘city’ in 1843. Hyde Park in the 1840s was a recreational hub, hosting a range of leisure activities and sports, along with access to the town’s water supply.

Closing down

Faced with a spike in immigration, in particular boatloads of Irish orphans fleeing years of famine, the colonial government decided to empty the barracks of its last few convicts and refit its dormitories for the newly arrived waifs. Also needing short-term accommodation were unaccompanied female immigrants travelling under government assistance. In his illustrated travel guide Sydney in 1848, Joseph Fowles puts it simply: ‘In January, 1848, the prisoners were removed to Cockatoo Island and the Superintendent’s department, to offices in the Executive Council Chambers’.

Built three decades earlier to house a productive convict workforce, the barracks functioned for another four decades as temporary lodgings for immigrant women. Just as the immigration officials, agents and matrons replaced the convict administrators, clerks and overseers, so too did the colony’s need for female servants, wives and mothers erase the memory of convicts.

As one era ended, another opened. For many, the earlier chapter was best forgotten. As far as the old convict scribe Charles Cozens saw it, the ‘total abolition and extinction [of] that most disgraceful monument of iniquity, Hyde-Park barracks, will be an act of justice and judgement on the part of the citizens of Sidney. Until such is the case, they will form a barrier to freedom, and New South Wales can never plume itself on being an emancipated country’.

Almost overnight, it seemed, the chequered story of the Hyde Park Barracks, along with the experiences of some 50,000 convicts who occupied or passed through this place during the past 29 years, was wiped from the colony’s mind. Ironically, the local Aboriginal people whose lives had been so drastically impacted by half a century of convict settlement continued to visit the town after the barracks closed. Some were camped nearby at the Domain and passed by the barracks wall on their way into town or to visit the adjacent Hyde Park,2 while others came from other Aboriginal settlements around the harbour and Botany Bay.

  • 2. Paul Irish, Hidden in plain view, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, 2017, pp48, 62.

FADING REMNANTS

The penal colonies of Aside: Norfolk Island and Aside: Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) continued to receive transported convicts from Britain until 1853. The last convicts arrived in 1868 in Western Australia, marking the end of all transportation to Australia. Remnants and structures of the system remained in operation for several decades while convicts served out sentences. In some places, like Port Arthur, frail ‘old hands’ and ageing ex-convicts gave visitors chilling guided tours of their crumbling old grounds and quarters, signalling the beginnings of what became known as dark tourism. Mostly, however, the brutal history of convictism faded from view – for many a blot on the national landscape, a stain to be wiped clean.

WORLD HERITAGE

Fast forward to 2010 and the extraordinary story, and legacy, of Australia’s convict beginnings was fittingly acknowledged by an unusual ‘group listing’ of 11 Australian convict sites, including the Hyde Park Barracks, on Side note: UNESCO’s World Heritage register.

Here’s what makes this notable. The enormous task of dispatching over 160,000 British criminals, between 1788 and 1868, to establish and populate a far-flung colonial territory was, at that time, an unprecedented feat of ‘forced migration’. But more than that, the combination of penal systems (ways and means to punish, discipline, deploy and reform criminals) and the variety of institutions involved – ranging from private assignment to iron gangs, from town barracks to coalmining camps, and from penitentiaries and probation stations to faraway island hellholes – makes Australia’s convict story more complex than any other comparable undertaking.

In recognising this uniqueness – that so many convicts, transported over such a long period of time, experienced a wider range of systems of punishment and reform – UNESCO’s World Heritage listing marks a cataclysmic moment in modern human history.

And while many countries in the 18th and 19th centuries founded convict settlements to stake out lucrative new territories, exploit resources and extend their reach across the globe, Australia was the only colonial initiative that began as a convict camp and evolved into a relatively free and prosperous nation.

Convict Sydney, along with its fellow convict sites spread across the Australian continent, truly has an epic tale to tell.

Sweeping sepia toned panoramic view of Hyde Park Barracks in 1857 including Hyde Park and beyond.

The Hyde Park Barracks, College Street and Hyde Park, Sydney, photographed from the Mint on Macquarie Street by William Stanley Jevons, 1857. This is the first known photograph of the barracks. It shows the city growing towards the east, with construction work underway on St Mary’s Cathedral. The commanding Lyons Terrace can also be seen on the southern edge of Hyde Park on what is now Bathurst Street and the head of Oxford Street. Shown in the foreground are the shingle-domed corner pavilions, perched at either end of the barracks’ front wall. The southern pavilion was demolished in 1893 to allow for trams to pass on their approach into Queens Square. John Rylands University Library, The University of Manchester