1801 - Day in the life of a convict

In this young colony, with its humble government buildings and village of huts, there was no prisoners’ barracks – the bush and sea were the walls of the convicts’ prison. They were exiled from their homelands, far from family and friends, but for convicts living in Sydney in 1801, their daily lives allowed some liberties, after their work had been done.

In February of 1801 the transport ship Anne made its way up the harbour towards Sydney Cove, carrying a fresh load of rebellious Irish convicts. They had attempted mutiny off the coast of Brazil, and were the first of 700 new convicts to arrive in the colony in this year.1 Brought up on deck for muster, they may have been surprised by the flocks of cockatoos and parrots in the eucalyptus trees, framed against bright blue skies and the unforgiving summer sun. On the shores and in canoes on the water, the Gadigal people went about their daily business, by now accustomed to the sight of new ships arriving.

...We had now got to the End of a Long & Painfull tedious Voyage where Every Distress was to be meet with... witch Created in us poor Convicts filth Verming & all kind of Diseases…

Convict William Noah, 17982


After six months at sea, the convicts were landed on unsteady legs onto the rickety Hospital Wharf that jutted out into Sydney Cove. Those who were ill with scurvy or infectious and contagious diseases stumbled along or were carried directly into the nearby hospital. In November of the previous year, the overcrowded transport ship Royal Admiral had unloaded most of its convict cargo into the wards, reporting that 43 had already died of ‘gaol fever’ (typhus) during the voyage.3 Some convicts would find themselves back here later too, suffering from various ailments like work injuries, snake bites and dysentery. Any who died in the hospital would be interred at the burial ground, to the south of the town, still covered by thick bushland.


From their homes, mostly in a disorderly little village of about 250 houses4 on the rocky shore of the western side of Sydney Cove, the convicts served out their sentences and got on with their lives. Known as ‘The Rocks’, the village consisted of newish rough timber and stone shacks and older wattle and daub huts. They were quite comfortable two- or three-room homes, where men and women lived together in shared households or as families with children.5 They sat at their tables and chairs or benches, ate their meals with silver cutlery from ceramic tableware, slept on beds with mattresses, stored food in earthenware jars, kept their clothing in chests, and washed their clothes with buckets and washboards.6 They cooked their meals over the fireplaces, tended to their chickens, pigs and other animals in the yards, grew a few vegetables, and hung their washing on the line.

...the Town Dayly Increases in Wealth & in a few Year more it will be inhabited by a Vast number of individual.

Convict William Noah, 17997

Aboriginal people moved in and out of town, making temporary camps, selling their fish and trading with the convicts, and bringing news about activities up and down the coast.8 On the muddy banks of the Tank Stream that flowed into Sydney Cove, convicts washed their laundry. By this time, the water was no good for drinking – the once clear stream was now polluted with effluent from privies (toilets) and waste from tanneries, breweries and slaughterhouses.9

Town work

Home life may have been relatively free, but convicts were here to be punished through isolation and hard work. At sunrise each day, the men went out to begin work at 7am in their government gangs, working outdoors or in the lumberyard workshops, or serving private masters. At 8am they took a break, then continued their work from 9am – cutting trees, sawing timber, pulling carts, splitting shingles, making bricks, tools and nails, making wheels, doors, windows and furniture, making rope, forging tools and leg-irons, tailoring and shoemaking, quarrying sandstone and building. From the government dockyard, the sounds of sawing and hammering carried over the water, as carpenters, caulkers and shipwrights repaired ships and built boats, and labourers set up storehouses and unloaded supplies from ships.10 A few educated convicts, like James Hardy Vaux, were given enviable government desk jobs.

At 2.30pm the bell rang, and the convicts stopped work.11 Many convicts didn’t mind the government ‘task work’ system, because if they worked hard they could complete their jobs early and get on with doing extra work to put a few coins in their pockets. On Saturday they began government work early, but after 8am had the rest of the day for themselves. From private workshops at their homes in The Rocks, many convicts used their trades for their own profit. The smell of smoke and baking bread probably wafted over the village, as bakers and blacksmiths stoked their ovens and fires - baking bread and forging tools. They were joined by the butchers, barbers, cobblers and tailors who touted their trades in Sydney’s lively convict community.

Convict women were virtually free, and lived and found work where they pleased.12 Some did government work, but many were assigned to work for families as cooks, dairy maids and nurses. From the front rooms of their houses, women did a good trade in food, clothing and sly grog (illegally made alcohol). Washerwomen and seamstresses took in laundry and sewing, while teachers, midwives, nurses and prostitutes also found customers.13 Ann Marsh was running a ferry boat service up the river to Parramatta, a business that brought her wealth and status, and helped to support her young children.

We are much better off than we expected, and have as much liberty as our unhappy situation possibly allows.

Convict Mary Talbot, 179114

Bullock-drawn carts rattled along over the rough, rutted Parramatta Road to the south, towards the Brickfields – another disorderly village of convict huts, just out of town. Here, convict brickmakers and potters worked the sticky colonial clay into bricks, roof tiles, tableware, storage jars and tobacco pipes. Convict potter Thomas Ball established his pottery here in this year, producing earthenware vessels for use around the colony. Below in Cockle Bay, convict women were collecting shells from age-old middens left behind by Aboriginal people, to be crushed and burned to make lime mortar for building.

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Convict Sydney

Earthenware Vessel

This lead-glazed earthenware vessel probably once contained medicines or ointments for treating convict patients

Farm work

Convicts with skills and motivation often found themselves assigned in town, where they could also establish a small business, but those without skills or ambition were sent out of town, assigned to work for private settlers or at the new government farm at Castle Hill, tending animals or crops.15 There, at the frontiers, Aboriginal people would have seen the convicts at work – with axes, chopping trees, or with saws, cutting timber. They would have seen clouds of smoke and smelled the burning eucalyptus leaves, as the convicts cleared Aboriginal country for farming. For some convicts, the dense bush was a tempting refuge from the prisoner’s existence – in this year, John Lewis escaped into the bush and stayed out there for three months.

Many a time have I been yoked like a bullock with twenty or thirty others to drag along timber…

Convict Joseph ‘Smasher’ Smith, 184516


Many convicts had been transported in tattered, smelly rags, but now, dressed in their government-issue ‘slop’ clothing, the convicts resembled smart working people back home. Cotton shirts, blue woollen jackets and waistcoats, white ‘duck’ (canvas) or ‘gurrah’ (coarse muslin) trousers, stockings and shoes, were topped off with a woollen cap or hat. The women wore jackets, shifts (with a petticoat underneath), stockings, shoes, and a cap on their heads.17 But these were prisoners’ clothes, and the convicts craved luxury goods. On the weekends they set aside their slops and strutted about the town dressed up in the latest fashions of fancy shoes, hats, and tailor-made dresses and coats that they had bought with their savings.18


Although supplies had improved on the ‘starvation rations’ of earlier years, convicts still didn’t have a lot to eat, and complained about the small quantities and poor quality of the rations. Each day, convicts who lived ‘on the stores’ collected their rations from the government stores. Convicts who earned money for extra work preferred to live ‘off the stores’ – buying and growing their own food.19

...sary Barker hav to spin for the Govment and she is up on the stors But she Can Git har work don By 12 or 1 a clock if she work hard at it.

Convict Margaret Catchpole, 180220

Each day the men had 1lb (about 450 grams) of salt beef or pork, which was coarse, lean and bony, and sometimes rotten from being in the damp ships’ holds and then stored for several years. They also had about 1lb of maize (corn, some of it on the cob), and 1lb of wheat ground in the government mills and baked into loaves each day by the government bakers. But colonial wheat crops in the Hawkesbury region were destroyed by floods,21 and 500 bushels of wheat were stolen on a ship taken by 15 convicts attempting escape,22 so by midyear the rations had to be cut to two-thirds of the full ration.23 Women and teenagers must have been especially hungry – they already received only two-thirds of the men’s ration.

...i niver hav knowen anething of punishment sinces i hav bin hear. onely that I cannot git no tea

Convict Margaret Catchpole, 180224

In communal cast-iron pots hanging over their home fires, the convicts could boil up pea and ham soup, using their ration of dried lentils or peas. They also cooked salt-beef stew, or toasted the meat on a fork in the fire, catching any fat on a piece of bread. Those who didn’t have pots cooked on their work spades and shovels. Some convicts trawled the harbour foreshores for oysters and other shellfish to add to their meals. Sometimes the convicts employed to catch fish for the government sold their catch, or ate it themselves.





Bad Behaviour

There was no church for the convicts to attend, although this year convict stonemasons were at work laying the foundations of a new church.25 Not being a very spiritual lot, two years earlier the convicts had burned down the original rough wattle and daub church when they had been ordered to attend divine services there. In the gangs, convict workers were frequently resistant and deserted their work sites – heavy rain was the perfect excuse to knock off work and go home or to work for themselves. In their houses at The Rocks, convicts illegally distilled their own ‘sly’ grog, hid stolen goods, carried out dodgy business deals, and ran brothels. Sometimes escaped convicts hid here too, before stowing away on a ship, and making their way to Tahiti, China, India or beyond.26


Convicts who worked hard could earn one of Governor King’s new tickets of leave, which allowed well-behaved convicts to work for themselves before the end of their sentences. But for those who fell back into their criminal habits, the governor had ways to keep them in line. One winter’s day, the new ‘Union Jack’ flag was hoisted at Dawes Point to mark the unification of England and Ireland,27 which probably horrified the Irish rebel convicts who had been transported to the colony by the hundreds. Their growing unrest had the colony on edge this year. The year before, an Irish uprising had failed, and the ringleaders were sentenced to 500 lashes with the cat-o’-nine-tails, the lesser suspects, 100.28 Either dose was enough to kill a man. Other convicts caught stealing or running off into the bush were also punished by flogging. Those who were more difficult to tame were banished to Norfolk Island, or north to Newcastle, where a new penal settlement had just been established to mine the recently discovered coal.29 The worst offenders were hanged in public, on gallows near the Brickfield Hill.30

Free time

With its lively village atmosphere and bustling port, convicts generally preferred Sydney to the bush. They had greater access to food, consumer goods like tea, tobacco and fancy clothes, and work opportunities. In town, convicts could make friends and drop into each other’s houses for a chat or to eat, drink, and do deals. They spent the weekends at the grog shops and public houses (pubs) – drinking, singing songs, dancing, and playing cards and gambling. They could even pay a shilling, or exchange their meat or flour rations, to see performances at the convict theatre.33 For many years convicts had been paid in kind with rum,34 but Governor King had now introduced a currency of coins, which many convicts spent on rum anyway, rolling about the streets drunk on the weekends. In the lanes and squares convicts also gambled with these coins, betting them on arranged fights between dogs, roosters, and other convicts.

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Convict Sydney

Cartwheel penny

This 1797 'Cartwheel Penny' was found by archaeologists beneath the floors of the convict sleeping wards of Hyde Park Barracks

Convict Sydney

Alcohol Bottle

Recovered from beneath the ground floor of Hyde Park Barracks, glass bottle suggests that, despite the rules, convicts smuggled alcohol into the Barracks


1. Charles Bateson, The convict ships, 1787-1868, A H & A W Reed, Sydney, 1969, pp177 and 381.

2. William Noah, ‘A Voyage to Sydney in New South Wales in 1798 & 1799’, SLNSW, SAFE/DLMS 32, https://digital.sl.nsw.gov.au

3. Bateson, The convict ships, pp169–70.

4. Alan Atkinson, ‘Taking possession: Sydney’s first householders’, in Graeme Aplin (ed), A difficult infant: Sydney before Macquarie, University of New South Wales Press, Kensington, NSW, 1988, p78.

5. Grace Karskens, The colony: a history of early Sydney, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2009, pp179, 312.

6. Karskens, The colony, p312.

7. Noah, ‘A voyage to Sydney’.

8. Paul Irish, Hidden in plain view: the Aboriginal people of coastal Sydney, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, 2017.

9. Karskens, The colony, p181.

10. Return of Labour during 1800, 31 December 1800, Historical Records of New South Wales (HRNSW), vol 4, p280.

11. Government and General Order, 15 May 1801, HRNSW, vol 4, p368.

12. Karskens, The colony, p323.

13. Grace Karskens, The Rocks: life in early Sydney, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, VIC, 1997, p19.

14. Mary Talbot, Letter to her patron, 1791, HRNSW, vol 2, p780.

15. King to Portland, 21 August 1801, HRNSW, vol 4, p462.

16. Quoted in Samuel Sidney, The three colonies of Australia: New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia; their pastures, copper mines and gold fields, Ingram, Cooke & Co, London, 1852, gutenberg.net

17. Government and General Orders, 10 September 1801, HRNSW, vol 4, p518.

18. Jane Elliot, ‘Was there a convict dandy? Convict consumer interests in Sydney, 1788–1815’, Australian Historical Studies, vol 26, no 104, 1995, pp373–92.

19. Karskens, The colony, p329.

20. Laurie Chater Forth, Margaret Catchpole: her life and her letters, Laurie Chater Forth, Richmond, NSW, 2012, p79.

21. Grimes to King, 7 March 1801, HRNSW, vol 4, p309.

22. King to Portland, 10 March 1801, HRNSW, vol 4, p324.

23. Government and General Order, 12 June 1801, HRNSW, vol 4, p404.

24. Forth, p116.

25. King to Portland, HRNSW, vol 4, p360.

26. King to Portland, 10 March 1801; King to Scott, 20 May 180, HRNSW, vol 4, pp317, 370.

27. Lynette Ramsay Silver, The Battle of Vinegar Hill, 1804: Australia’s Irish Rebellion, The Watermark Press, Sydney, 2002, pp75–6.

28. Silver, p50.

29. Lieut. Colonel Paterson’s Journal and Discoveries at Hunter River, June 1801, HRNSW, vol 4, pp448–53.

30. See Lesueur, ‘Plan of the Town of Sydney, Capital of the English Settlements in the Antipodes’, September 1802, Mitchell Library, SLNSW.

31. Karskens, The colony, p175.

32. Karskens, The colony, p180.

33. David Collins, Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, T Cadell Jun and W Davies, London, 1798, gutenberg.net

34. S J Butlin, Foundations of the Australian monetary system, 1788–1851, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1953, p22.

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Dr Fiona Starr

Dr Fiona Starr

Former curator

Fiona claims her love of history is hereditary – passed on by her mother and grandmother, each interested in Australian history, genealogy and world history, with a passion for visiting and learning about heritage sites around the world. Her interest took root with degrees in historical archaeology and museum studies, and through internships at the Museum of London and the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Paris. Work on archaeological digs, with museum collections and on numerous exhibition and site interpretation projects inspired her PhD research into encouraging the private sector to help conserve cultural heritage sites. As curator of the Hyde Park Barracks Museum and The Mint (Macquarie Street Portfolio), Fiona combines her curiosity for colonial and convict history with expertise in managing and interpreting archaeology to help bring the fascinating stories of these sites to life for visitors.

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