If these walls could talk: Hyde Park Barracks Museum

One of the most significant convict sites in the world, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Hyde Park Barracks was converted into Sydney’s female Immigration Depot in 1848, temporarily housing an estimated 40,000 women during its 38-year history. The barracks holds evidence of these former occupants in its walls, floors and ceilings.

A life in a chest: Margaret Hurley

From Gort, County Galway, 17-year-old Margaret Hurley was one of 2253 orphan girls from Irish workhouses, victims of the Great Famine, who were among the first occupants of the new female Immigration Depot at Hyde Park Barracks, arriving 1848–50.

Hurley’s father, Thomas, had died, and her mother, Mary, was too poor to care for her. Leaving her homeland forever, Hurley and 193 other girls were bundled onto the Thomas Arbuthnot, moored at Plymouth, which set sail on 28 October 1849. During the voyage some of the girls would gather in circles to mourn the loss of their families and homeland with a crying lament (keening).

The ship sailed into Sydney Harbour on 3 February 1850, three-and-a-half months after leaving England. As the girls walked up the hill from Sydney Cove, their possessions were carried behind them on drays. Hurley’s simple wooden trunk contained everything she owned: clothing, a bible and a few small belongings. After staying just a few days at the depot, she travelled to Yass, where she was apprenticed as a house servant to Mr WH Broughton.

Margaret Hurley married Irish shepherd Joseph Patterson in 1852 and they had seven children. She died in Goobang, NSW, aged 90.

Her trunk passed on to her descendants, and in 2015, 164 years after she brought it to Sydney, the trunk returned to the Hyde Park Barracks to feature in a display about the Immigration Depot.

Portrait of Margaret Hurley. Courtesy of Patricia Williams

Plain scuffed dark brown wooden box with name 'Hurley' faintly visible on front.
Wooden box belonging to Margaret Hurley, made in Ireland, 1849. On loan from Rose Marie Perry. Photo © Jamie North, for Sydney Living Museums

Forgotten fabric: Alice Peacock

An assisted immigrant from London, Alice Peacock arrived in Sydney in 1879 with her parents, David and Elizabeth, on board the clipper ship Samuel Plimsoll. As she was 14, she was old enough to travel in the single women’s compartment rather than with her parents.

During the voyage typhoid fever and typhus took hold of some of the passengers, so on arrival in Sydney the ship was detained at the Quarantine Station at Sydney Harbour’s North Head. After a wait of 18 days, Peacock was forwarded to the female Immigration Depot at Hyde Park Barracks with 97 other young female passengers; her parents probably remained on board the ship until her father found work. She waited at the depot until her parents collected her.

Peacock left behind at the barracks a strip of linen on which she had written her name in black ink – perhaps it was used for tying up her possessions or as a label intended to be sewn onto her clothing. The strip was found by archaeologists beneath the floorboards in the centre of the stair hall on level 2. It’s possible the scrap was dropped by accident and then pulled under the boards by a rat making its nest.

Stained strip of fabric with 'Alice Peacock' written on in a cursive style.
A piece of fabric bearing the name Alice Peacock, found under the floorboards at Hyde Park Barracks. Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museums

About the author

Fiona seated in hammock in Hyde Park Barracks.

Dr Fiona Starr

Former curator

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

This article originally appeared in Unlocked: The Sydney Living Museums Gazette, our Members’ magazine.

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