Convicts for the colonists

Colourful colonial-era stories from Sydney Living Museums properties give us a window into the central role the Hyde Park Barracks played in convicts’ lives.

The Hyde Park Barracks was so much more than a place for convicts in government employment to eat and sleep – it was the centre of the convicts’ world, a crossroads where they could find themselves taking a path to liberty or ruin. From his headquarters in the main building, the Principal Superintendent of Convicts kept a firm grip on the whereabouts of all the convicts around the colony, and the barracks court served out punishments to those who misbehaved. And with tens of thousands of ‘new hands’ arriving in the yard between 1826 and 1840 for inspection and distribution after landing, the barracks was the primary source of skilled labour for the colony’s households, farms and estates. The properties of prominent colonial families relied on convict labour; some of these estates are now cared for by SLM. The following stories demonstrate the barracks’ place at the heart of the convict system, and how convictism can be found in the story of many of our properties.

... on landing we were drafted to Hyde Park Barracks, which formed the general depot at that time for receiving prisoners. The assignment or hiring-out system had then come into operation, and myself together with eighteen or nineteen of my companions in misery, were forwarded to different masters ...

Convict Martin Cash, Martin Cash, the bushranger of Van Diemen’s Land, in 1843–4, a personal narrative of his exploits in the bush and his experiences at Port Arthur and Norfolk Island, J Walch & Sons, Hobart, 1870, p4.

This story originally appeared in Unlocked: The Sydney Living Museums’ Gazette, our quarterly members’ magazine.

Find out more about the magazine

About the author

Fiona seated in hammock in Hyde Park Barracks.

Dr Fiona Starr

Curator

Fiona claims her love of Australian history, genealogy and world history is hereditary – passed on by her mother and grandmother.