Back to business

In the early 1820s, Sydney saw a glimpse of itself as a civil society. For ex-convicts there was a free press, trial by jury and hints of equality. For free settlers, boundless lands beyond the mountains promised wealth and status, especially for those with capital. For Aboriginal people this abrupt wave of pastoral expansion, often achieved with convict labour, relied on the violent appropriation of their tribal lands.

With the colony looking inland – over the mountains to the north, south and west – most convicts now found themselves far from town. Gone were the pleasures of Sydney; in their place was the relentless toil of clearing land and farm work. Only the hardened and troublesome convicts remained at the Hyde Park Barracks, living under increasingly harsh rules and restrictions.

Up until now, the liveliness and energy of waterfront Sydney, with its emerging business and playful distractions, had suited the locals fine. The British government, however, saw two problems with this. Firstly, it still needed a penal colony – a fearsome and terrible fate for would-be law-breakers. And secondly, there were too many convicts in town, with their labour wasted on costly building projects. Sharing the desires of the local gentry, Britain looked to the endless pastures beyond the Blue Mountains where the colony’s future lay.

The cost of this expansion was sporadic frontier conflict as each new tribal territory was entered. In its wake, Aboriginal survivors sought to remain on their lands, needing to find new ways to live in a rapidly changing colonial world. The aftershocks of these traumatic events are still felt by Aboriginal people today.

Farewell Macquarie

On 15 February 1822, Sydneysiders lined the streets or headed to lookouts above Sydney Cove to bid a fond farewell to and their seven-year-old son, also Lachlan. As the old transport ship Surry pitched and rolled slovenly down the harbour, before rounding South Head and tacking for deeper water, the throngs of onlookers, both friend and foe, must have been taking stock of the governor’s tumultuous legacy and his bittersweet fall from grace.

For Macquarie, the colony receding across the water was unlike the one he came to in 1809. In 12 years, the population had trebled to over 37,000. In the past five years alone, more than 14,000 convicts had been added to a thriving and free-spirited community, populated mostly by emancipists, ex-convicts and their families.





Among Macquarie’s failings, at least in the eyes of his opponents, was a fondness for unnecessary architecture and costly public works, and a tendency to keep the best and most useful convicts in government service, and in town, instead of assigning them to private ventures. The rapidly changing social mix also raised concerns. Not only did the building boom leave Sydney crowded with convicts, but a large community of emancipists, brimming with so-called ‘currency’ children, was also starting to call the place home.

Taking care of business

During the last two years of Macquarie’s term, the British government sent a diligent but priggish lawyer, John Thomas Bigge, to New South Wales on a mission tinged with malice.

For several years, members of the local gentry like the pugnacious ex-soldier had waged a mischievous campaign from his in Parramatta against Macquarie, sending news back to London of his ‘compassion for convicts’. In their opinion, Macquarie’s faith in common folk and humble farmers, most of whom were former convicts, revealed a misguided benevolence at odds with the character of a penal town. Commissioner Bigge arrived in 1819 to address these concerns and to weigh up the colony’s future.

Getting personal

Bigge’s job, simply put, was to investigate the state of the colony, although it was soon clear the odds were stacked against Macquarie himself. Drawn to the influence of wealthy free settlers – the exclusives – who stood to gain from the governor’s demise, Bigge found much to criticise.

… the constant disapprobation he expressed of my system of government, of the general management of the convicts, & of the public buildings I had erected, indicated, as it appeared to me, that the principal object of his investigation was to affix to me, if possible, neglect and mismanagement as governor of the colony…

Macquarie on Bigge, 1823

Firstly, there were the costly public works which Bigge condemned as ‘extravagant’ given the settlement’s original aims. And secondly, there were several emancipists in positions of importance, like the ex-convict and gifted surgeon

Profile: William Redfern whom Macquarie had made a magistrate, and the prickly architect Profile: Francis Greenway who designed a number of prominent buildings.

Above all, it was clear to Bigge that Britain’s original vision of the colony – the reason it was founded – had shifted. As Grace Karskens writes, ‘Instead of a place of dread which would deter crime, the colony bore a certain degree of laxity and liberty, most obviously seen in the pleasures and freedoms of the town’.1

The took 18 months. Having consulted colonists from all walks of life, Bigge compiled his findings into a multi-volume report. Its weighty recommendations, not surprisingly, reflected the interests, desires and hopes of the landed gentry. Only free settlers with substantial capital should be granted land. Government costs should be reduced by assigning the majority of convicts to private masters, who in turn would be made to subsidise the cost of opening up further pasturelands. Costly developments in urban areas should be curbed and convicts redeployed far from town, on clearing parties, road gangs and farm work. ‘My conviction’, wrote Bigge, ‘[is] that the accumulation of convict labourers in the town of Sydney is so great an evil and their diffusion throughout the colony so great a benefit, that their retention in the employ of government can only be justified by reasons of greatest necessity’.

A new Govenor

To retain in the service of Government those convicts only whose character is the worst and employ them in a species of labour more irksome and more fatiguing than the labour of the convicts in the service of the settlers is my sole desire and it has been gratified not a little by the establishment of these gangs.

Brisbane to Bathurst, 23 April 1823, Historical Records of Australia, vol XI, p79.

Under the orders of , the new governor, convicts faced a new world of toil and discipline, while free settlers banked on pastoral expansion. As a result, Sydney saw its streets, wharves and social hubs quickly cleared of convicts.

Skilled artisans and mechanics, no longer needed in the specialist workshops like the Government Lumberyard and Kings Wharf Dockyard, were quickly reassigned to the estates of large landowners. The once familiar sight of weary quarrymen, sawyers, shinglers, bricklayers, shell gatherers and boatmen, or the more cocky teams of blacksmiths, masons and glaziers, tramping about in surly mobs, soon vanished. Only the hardened and troublesome convicts remained, working in lowly government gangs, shuffling listlessly about the town.

The abrupt shift to private assignments and the changing makeup of town gangs also altered the social mix of convicts held at the Hyde Park Barracks. Gone were the skilled and diligent workers of the previous few years. The dormitory wards were now filled with men fresh from the ships, awaiting assignment to a distant private employer. There were also workers who had been returned for punishment, while others were awaiting reassignment to a new destination. The barracks became a place full of strangers with uncertain lives, in transit.

It’s also likely that old hands swapped tall tales of the frontier, forming attitudes and fuelling apprehension among new convicts towards Aboriginal people long before they ever encountered them.

Striking a balance

For the British government, this was a time of nervous observation of the costs of running a distant, and restless, penal settlement. Conversely, on London streets, rumours were spreading that convict life in New South Wales was far from an awful fate. It was obvious to the authorities that the colony needed to both pay its way and once again strike fear into the masses as a dreaded place of exile. Bigge’s recommendations therefore advocated a more acceptable penal colony, where ‘constant work and vigilant superintendence’ would make convict life hellish and dreadful. For convicts, rewards and opportunities were now few and independent living had become unknown.

In this way, Bigge’s recommendations can be seen as a correction rather than a rejection of previous government plans. As much as it pained Macquarie to admit it, the so-called ‘rising severity’ of convict life after Bigge, the grim reversion to a place of ‘terror and dread’, helped to underpin the colony’s rising fortunes.

The restless years

In the colony, it was all about expansion. Convicts were still pouring into Sydney, but from the early 1820s they were steered towards a very different place. The new normal for the colony’s 20,000 convicts was country not town, farming not building, muscle not skills.

The so-called ‘assignment’ system, though not a new idea, took on a more central role in connecting convict labour to the needs of private ‘masters’ on the colony’s pastoral fringes. An expanding network of roads, settlements, paddocks and fields was an added bonus, helping to access the colony’s untapped potential – particularly for free immigrants eyeing the new country.

Convicts remaining in government service – those who were troublesome, lame or unhirable – were lodged in the barracks to join an ever-decreasing number of town gangs or workshop teams. Others toiled miserably on country roads, which were spreading like tentacles across the colonial landscape.

A violent legacy

Convicts in work gangs and on pastoral properties were at the vanguard of the rapid expansion of the colony in this period. They were involved in the bloody Bathurst Wars that erupted in 1823 as Wiradjuri people, led by the warrior Windradyne, pushed back against the taking of their lands, resulting in the declaration of martial law the following year. They were also implicated in the massacres of Aboriginal people, such as at Myall Creek, west of Inverell, in 1838, when 11 convict and ex-convict stockmen, led by squatter John Fleming, massacred at least 28 unsuspecting Aboriginal men, women and children.

Many other massacres and violent conflicts went undocumented and unpunished. Behind the frontier, though, convicts were also the people who were most likely to work, trade and form relationships with the surviving Aboriginal people, creating a complex and often interwoven historical legacy.

New horizons

Another of Bigge’s recommendations was to establish a fearsome clutch of secondary punishment stations. Until now, convicts charged with serious crimes in the colony could be sent away to the hellish Coal River settlement (now Newcastle) 160 kilometres to the north, to face the cruel work of crushing and burning limestone and loading the valuable lime dust onto coastal ships. Other work involved quarrying and loading coal in equally punishing conditions.

As colonial farms spread outwards and more land was cleared, new roads made communication and travel easier. And since an overland route into the Hunter Valley had recently been opened, the usefulness of the nearby Coal River waned. This meant new ‘hellholes’ of secondary punishment needed to be found, far enough away to make escape unlikely. Of course, these new locations pushed into the lands of yet more Aboriginal groups, continuing the spectre of violence and dispossession even further.

The recently established penal outpost in Port Macquarie was a further 160 kilometres north up the coast. Its reputation as a place of exile, however, was far from horrible, compared to the Moreton Bay settlement (a further 1000 kilometres north of Sydney), which was truly an ‘earthly hell’, ruled by the sadistic Captain Logan, who met his fate when the local Aboriginal people he’d displaced and treated harshly, ambushed and murdered him.

Nowhere was more feared, however, than the notorious Norfolk Island. Originally occupied a few weeks after the first British ships arrived in Port Jackson in 1788, this tiny and remote Pacific island was abandoned by Macquarie in 1813 and its buildings demolished. In 1825 it was re-established as an inescapable island hellhole and remained in operation until 1856, when its prisoners were shipped to Tasmania.

Elsewhere, tribal lands to the south-east of Sydney were being appropriated. In 1824, an intrepid but ill-matched pair of adventurers – a currency lad called Hamilton Hume and a surly sea captain, William Hovell – crossed the Murray River and squabbled and trekked all the way to the southern shores of the continent, to pitch a camp on Port Phillip Bay.

Convict Sydney

Norfolk Island

A hellish prison outpost was established in two phases on Norfolk Island between 1788 and 1855.

Far from town

Most convicts were now living far from town and working for private ‘masters’. Free time was rare and they were no longer paid wages. Discipline and hard work became the norm, with the prospect of fewer rewards or indulgences. Tickets of leave and pardons were less common and, to make matters worse, the practice of granting land to ex-convicts was abolished.

Side note: Brisbane’s aim was to divide society into a landowning class of free immigrants who would increase the colony’s wealth, and a subordinate class of convicts and ex-convicts, who would labour for them. This, to some extent, had been achieved. And, as Britain hoped, fewer stories of ex-convicts gaining wealth and status and more stories of suffering helped authorities to recast transportation as a hellish fate to be dreaded.


  1. Grace Karskens, The colony, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2010, p227.
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Gary Crockett

Gary Crockett

Former curator

It was the dog-eared world of Rouse Hill House, back in 1991, that inspired Gary Crockett to become a curator. Gary produced exhibitions on convict, immigration and legal history at the Hyde Park Barracks, studied spatial history at the Museum of Sydney, collaborated with artists and tenants at Susannah Place, architects and engineers at Elizabeth Farm, designers at Rose Seidler House, curated Surf City, an ode to Sydney surf culture, along with a string of video, audioguide and interactive museum projects.

The Convict Sydney story

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Part one starts in 1788 with Sydney established as a British convict colony on the clan lands of the Gadigal people

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