Life at the Hyde Park Barracks

When Governor Macquarie’s convict barracks opened in 1819 it was remarkably the colony’s first facility to house convicts.

After 1815, as convict numbers grew, a shortage of housing resulted in many men being homeless. This caused disorder in the town. Macquarie established the barracks in order to control the living and working arrangements of the convicts.

By accommodating convicts together, Macquarie hoped to keep his workforce sober and well fed, to ensure they turned up for work on time and put in a full day’s labour.

Construction began in 1817. Designed to hold 600 men, at times it housed up to 1,300.

These re-enactment photos taken a the Hyde Park Barracks may help you imagine what life was like for a convict.

Image 1:

On arrival in the colony, new convicts, known as ‘new chums’, were assigned work according to their skills, physical strength and conduct during the voyage. Sydney’s sandstone bedrock meant miners were sought after for tunnelling, quarrying and digging wells. Convicts able to read and write became clerks, and military deserters could become constables. Skilled tradesmen, known as ‘mechanics’, were always in demand.

Convicts could earn good money doing private work, so many tried to conceal or deny their skills during the initial muster to avoid being assigned to government projects. Many convicts had only ‘thief’ noted as their profession.

Though many convicts come from poor backgrounds, they brought with them whatever meagre possessions they had. These might have been clothing or the tools of their trade, for example, shoemakers often brought their gear. Some prisoners even brought cash or valuables with them in a lockable trunk.

New convict outside Hyde Park Barracks with convict box of belongings

Images courtesy Historic Houses Trust ©Fiona Morris

Image 2:

A bell was rung at daybreak. After breakfast the convicts were mustered into gangs with their overseers and marched to worksites around town. The men typically worked from sunrise to sunset, with only two meal breaks and an hour free in the evening. Anyone caught outside the barracks after 9pm, when the doors were locked, was thrown in the watch house overnight.

Convict gang in line outside barracks

Images courtesy Historic Houses Trust ©Fiona Morris

Image 3:

Each barracks gang was assigned to a worksite or project. Skilled convict tradesmen were based at workshops at the lumberyard and dockyard.

At the lumberyard, the biggest worksite in town, 38 different trades were carried out including carpentry, blacksmithing, coopering, leatherwork, tailoring and shoe making.

Boat building, rope making, tanning and sail making were done at the dockyard.

The workshops were well organized and turned out a high volume of quality items. Training also took place with convict men and boys gaining valuable new skills.

Convict making rope

Images courtesy Historic Houses Trust ©Sian Morgan Hall

Image 4:

Gangs of unskilled convicts were put to work building, clearing land, ploughing, harvesting, gardening, fencing and cutting wood. Road and mining gangs built roads and bridges and quarried stone for them from nearby sites. The street gang gathered horse manure to fertilise the convict garden. Other gangs carted water and stores, loaded and unloaded ships, drove bullock teams and served as boatmen.

Convict work gang in courtyard of the barracks

Images courtesy Historic Houses Trust ©Fiona Morris

Image 5:

Barracks inmates ate just two meals a day. Breakfast was hominy, a porridge of maize meal and sugar. Dinner, served at 2pm, was bread and soup. The monotonous diet was high in salt and fat, with no fruit or dairy, but it provided enough energy for working men. As punishment, men could be put in solitary confinement on bread and water.

Governor Macquarie increased the male convicts’ ration by half when he opened the Hyde Park Barracks, as an incentive to stay and work a longer day.

There was no evening meal, but those with their own supplies could enjoy a cup of tea and a pipe.

Convicts eating a meal at the barracks.

Images courtesy Historic Houses Trust ©Fiona Morris

Image 6:

Flogging was one form of punishment — 7020 lashes were inflicted at the Hyde Park Barracks in 1821. However, severe floggings could leave men unable to work while their wounds were healing, or make them hostile towards their employers. Governor Macquarie reduced the number of lashes that could be inflicted. He favoured more 'humane' punishments, of a mental rather than physical nature. Solitary confinement and time marching on the treadmill were increasingly used to encourage convicts to mend their ways. Some convicts were even punished by being made to wear odd-coloured clothing. Being put in irons and sent to work in a chain gang, often in remote areas, was a punishment given for severe crimes or to repeat offenders.

Re-enactment of convict flogging

Images courtesy Historic Houses Trust ©Fiona Morris

Image 7:

Convicts in the barracks slept in close quarters in hammocks with no privacy.

Convicts in hammocks side by side

Images courtesy Historic Houses Trust ©Fiona Morris