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Convict artefacts

View the artefacts and read about each one. Some of the artefacts that you see are the 'real thing' and others are reproductions. Through the use of primary sources we are able to visualise accurately what an object from the past looked like and then make replicas that closely resemble the original. Studying replicas today means that we get a very good idea about these objects and how they were used in the past.

carving of Frst Fleet ships on whale tooth with words 'Australia Bound 1787'

Scrimshaw is the name given to the craft of carving or engraving drawings or decoration onto the teeth or bones of whales.

A sharp point or blade was used to create the drawing. The engraving was rubbed with tobacco juice, ink, a mixture of oil and lamp soot, or even blood, to highlight the image.

Sailors practised this craft during long sea voyages to overcome boredom and while away the time.

Convict wooden brick mould with a heart carved on it

The shaped indent on a brick is called a frog. It serves to identify the brick maker and enables the mortar to bind more effectively onto the brick.

After 1819 all government-made bricks were marked with a broad arrow, and by the 1830s shapes from playing cards, such as hearts, diamonds and spades, were commonly used to ‘frog’ bricks. Thousands of bricks had to be moulded, fired and delivered to public worksites daily.

oyster shells and three convict bricks

Large amounts of lime were needed to make mortar for bricklaying.

Shell gangs carried out the backbreaking task of hauling and crushing loads of shells, which were then burnt in pits or kilns for several days to make lime. Water, sand and animal hair were then mixed in to make mortar.

The work was harsh and reserved for 'men of the worst character'.

'The men dig for the oyster shells in the bed of the river…the labour is severe in itself, and it is frequently performed when they are up to their waists in water.'

William Hutchinson, Principal Superintendent of Convicts to Commissioner Bigge, 1821.

Sometimes human hair was mixed into shell mortar when animal hair was scarce. In 1832 a Sydney newspaper reported that 400 convicts on Norfolk Island had been shorn for this purpose.

a musical instrument -squeezebox

Convicts at Hyde Park Barracks had about one hour of free time each day.

They might play games, smoke pipes or play music on instruments like this squeezebox.

a metal tube called a tin whistle with 6 holes at intervals.

A tin whistle is another musical instrument that could have been used by convicts in their spare time.

White clay balls used as marbles on leather bag

Convicts would make marbles from clay that they scratched from the yard at the Barracks.

They would form the clay into balls and leave them in the sunshine to dry or place them in the baker’s oven where they baked bread.

Cloth hammocks strung with rope

Convicts slept in hammocks. Rope was braided (in much the same way that girls plait their hair) and the braided ring from which the hammock was suspended was called a ‘grommet’.

The wards where the convicts slept were very overcrowded and so it is possible that some of the convicts might have slept on the floor under the hammocks.

small wooden bucket with rope handle

Convicts used a night bucket as a toilet. They would have to use it in the ward where they slept. There was no privacy. Can you imagine the smell? Scraps of sail material might be used as toilet paper.

On the convict ships coming over to Australia night buckets would spill over in rough seas sending human waste every where in the hull where the convicts were held.

cloth trousers with buttons down side of each leg

These trousers were buttoned up both sides of each leg from the top of the hip down to the ankle so that they could be put on and taken off over leg irons.

They are called 'punishment trousers'.