Dig a little deeper
I’ve been interested in archaeology since I was young. My grandmother had several shelves of National Geographic magazines that she had been collecting since the 1940s, and I’d often flip through them to find the archaeology articles about World Heritage sites such as Pompeii.
I now work as the curator of the World Heritage listed Hyde Park Barracks Museum and The Mint, where no two days are the same. I’m usually working on at least one special project – at themoment it’s the experiential exhibition about the female Immigration Depot, which was housed at the barracks between 1848 and 1886. We estimate that at least 40,000 young women, newly arrived off the ships, passed through the depot.
We’re inviting visitors to discover some of the fascinating stories of the depot – they can lift the lids of trunks filled with artefacts, read the personal profiles of the women and experience what it feels like to nap on an iron dormitory bed.
The exhibition is for all our visitors to enjoy, but we also want to connect with the descendants of the women who once stayed at the barracks – we know they’re out there.
During excavations of Hyde Park Barracks’ underfloor cavities in 1979–81, archaeologists uncovered over 100,000 artefacts, many of which were left behind by the women of the Immigration Depot. These included incredibly personal items such as clothes, keepsakes, thimbles, jewellery, medicine bottles, toothbrushes and even soap. You find yourself wondering which of these were hidden and which just fell through the floorboards. Curiously, rats and mice saved many of the artefacts, pulling them under the boards for their nests – the barracks was infested with rodents throughout most of its history.
A lot of the artefacts are obviously fragmented and dirty, so it’s important to look at where they were found and what they were found with. That’s what gives them meaning and reveals the personal stories that lie beneath.
For me, the fascination of historical archaeology is seeing how the artefacts correspond with documentation we have about the era. Official ration records say the depot women were given beef, vegetables and bread, but there were also plenty of fruit seeds found in the underfloor spaces. Records are unclear on the location of the depot’s dining hall, but there was a high concentration of fruit seeds, tableware and animal bones found under the southern room on level 2 of the building, so it’s likely the women ate there at some time.
The properties of Sydney Living Museums are such rich sources of stories that it can be hard to know what to explore next. If I had the chance to meet someone from the history of our places, it would be Governor Lachlan Macquarie, whose plan to civilise Sydney resulted in the construction of Hyde Park Barracks and the Rum Hospital (The Mint). More personally though, it would be my great-great-great-grandfather James Gough.
He was a convict builder who was overseer of carpenters at the lumberyard and worked on the re-roofing of the Supreme Courthouse and extensions to Old Government House, Parramatta. He was sent to Cockatoo Island in 1841 – suspected of stealing a cow – but was let off and transferred to Hyde Park Barracks. He received his absolute pardon on 8 March 1842.
Recently added stories
Washed away: the story of Meroogal's clock
In the hallway at Meroogal is a grandfather clock with the most wonderful and eventful history. It first arrived from Scotland with the McKenzie family and was with them when they moved to a small village called Terara, on the banks of the Shoalhaven River. There the McKenzie family and their clock might have stayed if not for a catastrophe that struck in 1860.
The battle of Broken Hill
On New Year’s Day 1915, a mass shooting in which four people were killed and seven injured occurred in the mining town of Broken Hill. The attackers, two men variously described in the press as Hindoos, Indians or Turks, were later killed in a gun battle with local rifle-club members, civilians and police. The act of violence made headlines around Australia: ‘Dreadful affair’, ‘Two foreigners run amok’, ‘War in Broken Hill’, ‘War in Australia’, ‘Holy War at Broken Hill’. The story of that day in Broken Hill is complex and emotionally charged. The actions of the two shooters, Mullah Abdullah and Gool Badsha Mahommed, have been variously understood as the violent eruption of two unhappy and disenfranchised men or as an act of war on Australian territory.
Driver Robert James Macgregor Barnet
Robert James Macgregor Barnet was a great-nephew of the Thorburn sisters of Meroogal. He was the eldest son of Jessie Macgregor (1869–1946) and her husband, the Reverend Donald McKay Barnet (1869–1940). Barnet was a keen amateur photographer, developing and printing his own photographs and carefully storing and listing the negatives in a special Kodak negative album. The pictures he took in the months leading up to the outbreak of World War I and in the period before he embarked for war service overseas provide a poignant record of a young man at the beginning of his adult life.
Oliver Richard Whiting
When the World War I honour roll was unveiled at the Sydney Branch of the Royal Mint in October 1920, just one of the seven names on the board was followed by the fateful words ‘killed in action’. The surname was one that had been associated with the Sydney Mint since its establishment in 1854.
Arthur McPhail Kilgour
Arthur McPhail Kilgour enlisted in the First Australian Imperial Force in October 1915, at the age of 19 years and eight months. Being under 21 meant he should have required his parents’ permission. However, he falsified his age on his attestation papers, giving it as 22 years and eight months. Perhaps his parents did not endorse their eldest son going to war but felt the decision was his to make and so did not inform the authorities.
Heritage in the City’s Future
No one wants a city that is indistinct from other global cities. The specific identity of a city, its sense of character and place stems from its heritage—places, buildings, whole streets and quarters of the city that embody past eras and encourage people to consider their place in time.