Doctored image of convicts mustering outside the Hyde Park Barracks. © Fiona Morris for Sydney Living Museums

A day in the life of a convict

Convict life in the New South Wales penal colony

Especially for Stage 3 students

A convict’s life depended on who they worked for, where they worked and the kind of skills they had to offer.

Between 1819 and 1848, convicts living at Hyde Park Barracks were employed mostly by the government and known as ‘government men’. Barracks convicts had a different life from those who were assigned to work for free settlers.

Rules and Routines

Men dressed as convicts being organised by man dressed as overseer.
Convicts gathering in courtyard. Re-enactment, Hyde Park Barracks Museum. Photo: © Fiona Morris.

Strict rules controlled the daily lives of convicts. Convicts living at Hyde Park Barracks had to obey the orders of the superintendent, convict constables and overseers. The ringing of the bell in the barracks yard told them when to get up in the morning, when to eat their meals and when to go to their hammocks each night. It also told them when to assemble in the courtyard for daily inspections before heading off to their worksites around the town.

  • Read below about William Prendergast, a convict employed to keep watch over the other prisoners.
  • Listen to what convict Charles Cozens said about inspections at Hyde Park Barracks and about the other prisoners he met there.


Line of men dressed as convicts with tools.
Convict work gang. Re-enactment, Hyde Park Barracks Museum. Photo: © Fiona Morris.

Convicts were sent to Australia to work. This was their punishment. Convicts were expected to work from sunrise to sunset. In hot weather they had an hour off in the middle of the day. Male convicts generally did hard physical labour such as making bricks, constructing buildings, gardening, and building roads. Female convicts often worked as household servants, cooking, cleaning and sometimes taking care of children. Some of the convicts had special skills and did work such as keeping records, printing, making pottery and keeping the town clocks.

  • Read below about convict James Gough, a joiner and builder who built the roof of the Supreme Courthouse and convict John Moreton, a potter who worked at the Government Pottery.
  • See some videos about convict trades such as:
    • blacksmith
    • shingle-maker
    • stonemason


Woman preparing food, dressed in convict costume.
Preparing food. Re-enactment at 'Redcoats & Convicts' 2009, Hyde Park Barracks Museum. Photo © Leo Rocker.

Food was scarce during the first few years of the colony. Crops did badly so people relied heavily on supplies shipped from England. But by the time Hyde Park Barracks was built in 1819, a lot of the food was grown locally. Convict rations varied from year to year.

For example, in 1820 convicts working in government service were given 3.1 kg of salt beef, 1.8 kg of salt pork, 3.1 kg of flour (to be baked into bread), 1.6 kg of maize (corn) meal (to be eaten as ‘hominy’ porridge for breakfast), 110 grams of tea, 450 grams of sugar and 220 grams of salt (when fresh meat was issued). At other times convicts were also given peas, rice, oatmeal and sometimes green vegetables such as cabbage, for their soup.

The greens probably came from the large vegetable garden near the Hyde Park Barracks, where some of the convicts worked. Female convicts were given fewer rations, as their work was considered less physically demanding. Convicts who worked for free settlers were expected to be fed by their masters.



Striped shirt.
Convict shirt, c1840. Blue and white striped Indian cotton shirt was excavated from under the floorboards on level three of the Hyde Park Barracks, apparently near the staircase during restoration in 1980. Hyde Park Barracks Archaeology Collection. Photo © Alex Kershaw for Sydney Living Museums

Convicts often looked ragged and untidy. Most arrived in Sydney wearing their own clothes and without a change of clothing. Men wore coarse cotton shirts and trousers, waistcoats and jackets.

According to regulations, each year every male convict was issued with:

  • 2 jackets
  • 1 waistcoat
  • 1 pair breeches
  • 2 shirts
  • 1 hat
  • 1 woollen cap
  • 2 pairs shoes and stockings

Each female convict received:

  • 1 jacket
  • 2 petticoats
  • 2 shifts (plain dresses)
  • 2 pairs shoes and stockings
  • 2 caps
  • 1 handkerchief
  • 1 hat

Every Saturday convicts were ordered to wash their clothes to be clean and ready for church the next day.


Shoes and socks

Brown leather shoe
A convict shoe found at Hyde Park Barracks. Hyde Park Barracks Archaeology Collection. Photo: Jamie North © Sydney Living Museums.

Convicts sent to Hyde Park Barracks weren’t always lucky enough to be issued with socks. And to make matters worse, their shoes weren’t made for the left or right foot, making them uncomfortable and painful. Some convicts at Hyde Park Barracks were shoemakers by trade and worked in a shoemaking and tailoring workshop.



Print from book.
'Tattoos of a criminal sailor' (detail) from L'uomo delinquent, Cesare Lambroso, 4th edn [1876], reproduced in Criminal man, Cesare Lombroso, translated and with a new introduction by Mary Gibson and Nicole Hahn Rafter, Duke University Press, 2006. Justice & Police Museum Library.

Around one in every four male convicts had tattoos on his body. Some tattoos were made to remember loved ones left behind, like the initials of a wife, parent, child, brother, sister or friend. Other tattoos were made to symbolise courage or strength, or to protect the wearer from danger or evil spirits. Convicts tattooed themselves to show that they belonged to a particular group or clan, like the Masonic Society or a specialist guild or even an underworld society. Common tattoos included mermaids, anchors, love hearts, stars, moon and sun, religious symbols, letters and numbers.

  • Read below about Charles ‘Bony’ Anderson, a convict who was covered in tattoos.


Domino game piece carved from bone showing double 4 dots on white background
Bone domino game piece, used by 19th century occupants of the Hyde Park Barracks and discovered under floorboards by archaeologists in the early 1980s. Photo Gary Crockett © Sydney Living Museums

Each night, convicts at Hyde Park Barracks had one hour of recreation in the yard before going to bed. Gambling was illegal but they played cards, marbles and other games of chance. Improvised musical instruments, storytelling, juggling and other pastimes probably relieved the boredom. A number of convict game tokens and marbles made out of bone and wood were discovered under the floorboards of Hyde Park Barracks. Convicts sometimes wove cabbage-tree hats to pass the time and to trade in town.




Bible on wooden table.
Bible of Thomas Bagnall. Photo © Alex Kershaw

Sunday was the only day convicts didn’t have work. Instead they went to church – as religion was considered very important.

  • Read below about convict Thomas Bagnall and see the prayer book he left behind at Hyde Park Barracks and about George Vigors, a convict who escaped on his way to church one Sunday.
  • Read about how some convicts (Trove website) switched from being Protestant to being Catholic so they only had to go to church once a week! 


Group of men dressed as convicts eating and drinking together.
Convicts talking over dinner in the mess room. Re-enactment 2010. Hyde Park Barracks Museum. Photo © Fiona Morris.

Convicts had their own slang words called the ‘flash’ language. They used these words to talk to each other so that the authorities couldn’t understand them.


Bad behaviour and punishment

Man flogging another man with cat-o-nine-tails.
Convict being flogged with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Re-enactment, Hyde Park Barracks Museum. Photo © Fiona Morris.

Some convicts just couldn’t stay out of trouble. Punishments were common for bad behaviour like swearing, laziness, being drunk, returning late from work and stealing small items. For this, convicts were whipped with the ‘cat-o’-nine-tails’ or kept in solitary confinement for several days, with only bread and water to eat.

Convicts who ran away from their work were often sentenced to wear heavy leg-irons for at least six months and up to three years. These leg-irons could be put on or taken off only by a blacksmith. Some convicts were even ordered to walk on a big wooden treadmill to grind the corn used to make their breakfast.

If a convict’s crime was really serious, they might be sent to a distant penal settlement like Port Macquarie, Newcastle, Norfolk Island or Port Arthur.

  • Read below about convict Samuel Frith, who lost almost two kilograms when he was made to walk on the treadmill and convict William Swallow who stole a ship and was caught and severely punished, and listen to a song written about the episode.
  • Read about the punishment convict Michael Coffee received (Trove website), after he returned drunk to Hyde Park Barracks one Sunday night.


Old document.
A ticket of leave, issued on 8 October 1840 and numbered 2079, permitting convict Thomas Beaton to work in the Yass district of New South Wales. Hyde Park Barracks Collection. Photo: Lucy Clay © Sydney Living Museums

Of course, there were many well-behaved convicts, and they could be rewarded with responsible job or allowed time away from the barracks. A well-behaved convict might be given a ‘ticket of leave’ that allowed them to work for money and own land but not to leave the colony. They could even receive a pardon. A ‘conditional pardon’ allowed them to live anywhere in the colony and an ‘absolute pardon’ allowed them to travel abroad, even back to England if they chose. Once a sentence had been served, a convict received a ‘certificate of freedom’.

  • Read below about Irish convict Dennis Dougherty, who served a sentence of 43 years before he got his ticket of leave.
  • Read about convict John Graham, and listen to what he said to the Governor when he pleaded for his sentence to be reduced as a reward for good behaviour.


Pair of orange-clad legs dangling above sandstone wall.
Convict escaping over wall at Hyde Park Barracks. Re-enactment by Darby Carr. Image: still from video © Sydney Living Museums.

Convicts were supposed to remain in the barracks all night. Some did not return after work, or climbed over the wall to go out at night. Others even escaped from the barracks for good.

  • Read about Lawrence Kavanagh who escaped from the Hyde Park Barracks and became a bushranger and James Hardy Vaux who escaped repeatedly from the colony, and was each time recaptured and sent back to New South Wales. He was transported three times.
  • Read about convict John Horton and his friends (Trove website) who climbed over the wall of Hyde Park Barracks.

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