What happened to sick or injured convicts?

Convicts were needed to do a lot of work around the colony, so it was important that they were kept healthy. However, the harsh and unhygienic conditions in which they lived and worked meant that convicts sometimes fell ill or suffered an injury.

Sick or injured convicts might be sent to the hospital, which was next to the Hyde Park Barracks. If they were unable to walk, carts and wheelbarrows were used to move them.

Landscape painting of a series of buildings from a distance, with a couple of figures in the wide open foreground.
The Barracks (building on the far right) and the hospital (second from right) were closely linked. J Ellis, early 1840s. Sydney Living Museums.

Convicts who needed medicine received it from the hospital stores. It would have been issued by nurses and wardsmen – many of whom were convicts assigned to work at the hospital.

The hospital had opened in 1816, three years before the Barracks. It was often overcrowded, with as many as 80 patients in rooms designed for no more than 20. In the early years, conditions were bad – the wards were dirty and stank and there were dirty bandages kicked under the beds.

Hand coloured front elevation of the south wing.
Plan and elevation of the South Wing of the Convict Hospital Sydney, 18 December 1854 (detail). SRNSW, plan 2342. State Records NSW.

However, rules introduced in 1819 meant that the hygiene and medical care improved. Food rations included tea, sugar and milk as well as meat, bread, broth and vegetables.

The hospital’s records tell us a lot about the different types of illnesses and injuries patients suffered. These included influenza, ulcers, tuberculosis, colds, dysentery, pneumonia, inflammation, bruises, skin rashes and back pain.

At work, convicts suffered broken bones, burns and cuts. They might also be injured in fights with other convicts or with Aboriginal people, or be injured, stung or bitten by animals.

Some men suffered from depression and loneliness as a result of being sent so far from their home and family, being made to do hard work and to live with so many other convicts.

Unfortunately, they were probably just made to go back to work, which is not how we deal with these issues today.

Injuries

Convicts also arrived at the hospital from worksites around Sydney after being injured doing their job.

For example, George Wright, while exploding rock to make a well in the Barracks yard in 1822, had pieces of rock blown into his body, and required urgent medical care. Another convict was struck in the head with a hammer while building a wharf in June 1827; he was taken to the hospital with a serious head injury.

Convicts wearing leg-irons had blisters and sores that needed to be dressed and men who had been flogged with the cat-o’-nine-tails might have needed to go to the hospital to have their wounds dressed. When a convict was flogged, a surgeon from the hospital also walked over to supervise, to make sure the convict was not in danger of dying.

Convict work was exhausting and hard as well, and some of the men pretended to be sick or injured just to try to get out of going to work.

Hand-coloured print of tired and unwell looking man in bed.
Man suffering from scurvy, Physiognomice Pathologica, 1859. The Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library, Stockholm

Scurvy

The journey from England to Sydney took several months, and conditions on the ship were harsh. Many convicts fell ill during the voyage with diseases such as typhus or scurvy.

Convicts who arrived in Sydney in need of medical care were sent to the hospital for treatment.

Scurvy was a common illness suffered by convicts during the voyage. It was caused by not having enough vitamin C (found in fresh fruit and vegetables) in their diet.

The symptoms included weakness, tiredness, bleeding gums, loose teeth, bad breath, diarrhoea, stiff joints and blackening of the skin.

When the convict transport ship Ocean arrived in Sydney in 1823, 40 convicts on board were suffering from scurvy and were admitted directly to the hospital. In the same year, there were 192 cases of scurvy on the Earl St Vincent convict ship, but only one convict died as a result.

In January 1829, the Australian newspaper reported that 16 convicts on a ship in the harbour had scurvy. They were brought on shore but were too weak to walk, so they were transported to the hospital in carts.

Thomas Lingard arrived in Sydney aboard the Prince George in 1837. He and many of the convicts on board were suffering from scurvy and he described his symptoms in a book published a few years later:

…most of us were suffering from the Black Scurvy, many [were] not able to walk …I was black from the foot to the hip, and all my teeth loose in my head.1

One year later, in 1838, there was a bad outbreak of scurvy on board the ship Lord Lyndoch, with more than 150 convicts affected. Eight convicts died at sea and 113 were taken to the hospital when the ship finally arrived in Sydney. Of these, 20 convicts died at the hospital.

Convicts who died at the hospital were buried either at the burial ground, now the site of the Sydney Town Hall, and after that, near the Brickfields, where Central Station is today.

However, with the care of the surgeons and hospital staff, and a more varied diet (including fruit and vegetables) available once convicts made it onto land, many would have recovered within weeks.

Other men were healthy when they arrived in Sydney but fell ill later on, because of the overcrowded and unhygienic conditions at the Barracks.

For example, in 1837 there was an outbreak of dysentery and 40 to 50 convicts were sent to the hospital each day!

  • 1. Starr, Fiona (2017) ‘The ‘Sidney Slaughter House’: Convict experience of medical care at the General ‘Rum’ Hospital, Sydney, 1816-1848’, Health & History 19 (2), (forthcoming).

Medical treatment

Medical treatment in the 19th century was very different from going to the doctor today.

Knowledge about disease and how to heal the body was not as advanced as it is today, so doctors relied on different methods to cure illnesses – using simple medicines (some of them we now know are poisonous), and draining the patient’s blood by opening a vein!

If a convict patient had to have an operation, like having a limb amputated, there was no anesthetic to dull the pain, or to put the patient to sleep.

Soon after arriving in NSW, European doctors began to experiment with local flora (flowers and plants) to use as medicines. For example, they learned that myrtle and red gum helped to treat people with diarrhoea, and sour-currant bush could be used to help treat convicts suffering scurvy.

They also would have learned remedies made from native plants, which were well known to the Gadigal, the Aboriginal people of the Sydney region.

For example, the goat’s foot plant (common along NSW’s sandy shoreline) could be used to soothe stings from stonefish or stingrays. The leaves were crushed and warmed, then placed directly on the sting to provide relief.