George Dodd, Days at the Factories, C. Knight and co., London, 1843, p 512 State Library of NSW
More than a kilometre of rope suspended the hammocks required to sleep 600 or more convicts in the Hyde Park Barracks dormitories between 1819 and 1848. 

So it is likely that some of the rope fragments found by archaeologists on level three of the building are remnants of the woven clews and lanyards from the convict hammocks.

The rope fragments also reveal links to the maritime history of Sydney as a port city, as well as convict work and the art of rope making. Convict rope makers like James Brown, transported to the colonies in 1827, and Michael Emmerson, transported to the colonies in 1829, worked in the government dockyards before being sent to the barracks for reassignment. Other convicts like George Lewis were employed on the harbour – he was a boatman assigned to work on the Phoenix hulk in Lavender Bay after staying at Hyde Park Barracks. Continuing his rope associations, Lewis was later discharged from the Phoenix for stealing rope along with fellow convict Robert Wilson.

To make rope from natural fibres such as hemp, sisal or manila, long clean strands were combed out of the raw material, before a series of twisting actions were applied to make one long piece of rope. A long, narrow building called a rope walk was needed, where the entire length of the rope could be stretched out. Sometimes the rope maker would wrap the strands around his body so it could be fed out and twisted as seen in the image from George Dodd’s Days at the Factories.

While rope was certainly part of everyday life for convicts at the barracks - swinging in the hammocks and listening to the creaking clews and lanyards - the material also had other associations during the later immigration depot period (1848- 1886) of the barracks’ history.

Some of the Irish orphan girls, who had originally been hired out as apprentices from the female Immigration Depot at the barracks, had their indentures cancelled and were returned to the barracks. An 1858 inquiry into Irish immigration revealed that these badly-behaved girls were made to ‘pick oakum’, in a ‘penitentiary’ (possibly in the southern range of buildings at Hyde Park Barracks).

Picking oakum, rough on the hands and monotonous, was used as a punishment in prisons and as a menial task assigned to workhouse inmates in England and Ireland and the Australian colonies.

The word oakum came from ‘off combings’ – the waste material left over in the manufacture of rope. Picking oakum involved laboriously pulling apart fragments of old and discarded rope. Images of workhouse inmates picking oakum show women seated and teasing apart ropes in their laps, beside large piles of the finished product. The oakum was then mixed with tar and used to seal the planks of wooden ships.

A temporary display of ropes found at the barracks - woven, spliced, clumped and matted - can currently be seen on level two of Hyde Park Barracks Museum.

About the Author

Portrait of man in open-necked white shirt.
Dr Carlin de Montfort
Assistant curator
Carlin de Montfort is an assistant curator in the House Museums portfolio. With a research background in Australian social and cultural history,...

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Hanging up the hammocks

Closeup of hammocks showing rope attachments to beam.
Hammocks, Level 3, Hyde Park Barracks Museum. Photo © Nicolas Watt for Sydney Living Museums

In May 2014, staff in the City Museums Portfolio all joined in to hang the hammocks, retiring the old well-worn versions to boxes. Now a few more generations of museum visitors can lie down and swing in a hammock to enjoy the convict dormitory experience.

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