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.
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.
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: 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.
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.
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
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: , 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: , pubs, shops and offices, were stylish new townhouses for wealthy merchants and speculators, harbourside mansions such as Story: , 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.
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: , 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.
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.
The penal colonies of Aside: and Aside: (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.
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: .
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.