For the civic good

With the Napoleonic Wars over in 1815 and Britain crowded with returned soldiers, poverty and crime, part two finds the colony swamped with incoming convicts.

In this period Sydney was transformed. With a massive intake of new convict labour, ambitious building plans took shape. A looming skyline of schools, hospitals and churches symbolised progress, while solemn courts and convict barracks signalled law and order.

Convicts, particularly those working for the government, saw their earlier freedoms vanish, although those with education and skills enjoyed a short period of favour. Many found themselves lodged at the ‘handsome’ Hyde Park Barracks.

In 1815, when ended, the aftershock was felt far away in Sydney. As soldiers headed home from the battlefields – to British towns and cities already racked with hardship and poverty – a rapid spike in social unrest, unemployment and, in turn, rising crime pushed courts and prisons to the brink. To relieve the pressure on lockups and jails, and serve as a dire warning to would-be criminals, it was decided to increase the flow of convict workers to the distant settlements of New South Wales.

For Sydney, this sudden influx was both unsettling and energising. Back in 1809, when Lachlan Macquarie took control, New South Wales was home to around 10,000 men, women and children, and numbers increased only gradually as the decade wore on. In the few years after 1815, thanks to the surge in new arrivals, the population more than doubled, reaching nearly 30,000 by the early 1820s. Having struggled for years with a shortage of convict labour, the colony was now faced with a glut.


Almost overnight, townsfolk, both free and unfree, saw their streets and communities fill with strangers – far more bodies than the communal huts and rude shelters of Sydney could handle. As historian Grace Karskens writes, ‘the older inhabitants must have wondered what was happening to their town’. The governor, eager to keep the peace and despairing of immorality, had to contend with a rising tide of lawlessness and mischief and a pressing need for more convict housing.

On the bright side, with the convict labour force growing, the governor’s long-awaited plans and urban improvements could now be set in motion. It was time to get building.


Emboldened by an invigorated workforce and stubbornly ignoring orders from London to keep expenditure down, Governor Macquarie – aided by his discerning wife Elizabeth – edged forward on a wide range of architectural and civic improvements.

Just as timely for both the colony and the governor’s vision was the recent arrival of

Profile: Francis Greenway, a convict and architect from Bristol, transported to Sydney on a 14-year sentence for forgery. Gruff and opinionated, Greenway’s rise from lowly convict to influential advisor was rapid. Having stepped ashore in 1814, bearing a helpful letter of recommendation from the colony’s first governor, Arthur Phillip, and quickly impressing the Macquaries with a handful of private commissions, Greenway became civil architect in 1816.

From the start, his reputation as a tactless snob shone through. Casting a critical eye over the newly built

Story: ‘Rum’ Hospital, Greenway was quick to list its many structural and stylistic failings. Given the governor’s own influence on the hospital’s design, such criticism might well have cast doubts on the architect’s future in the colony. Instead, Greenway’s first major work, the splendid ‘Macquarie lighthouse’ built on South Head in 1818, earned him a conditional pardon.

During the next few years, kept busy under the Macquaries’ enthusiastic patronage, Greenway transformed the Sydney skyline. The buildings were typically praised at the time for their form though less for their function. There were whimsical, eye-catching edifices, medieval forts and stables, handsome villas, classical churches and courthouse and, crowning Macquarie Street itself, the solemn but stylish Hyde Park Barracks – a building in which the ‘leading object of security has been sacrificed to that of exhibiting with advantage and effect [its] regular proportion’.1

Building the barracks

The site selected for the barracks was an uncleared patch of ground on the prominent ridge dividing Sydney Cove (Warrane) and Farm Cove (Woccanmagully). On one side was the newly finished wall of the hospital; on the other was the town common of Hyde Park. Aboriginal people continued to camp in, traverse and occupy this area, visiting the town and conducting ‘payback’ ceremonies in open view.

In April 1817 Governor Macquarie laid the commencing stone in this elevated patch of scrubby bush, while workers set about pegging out stringlines and digging trenches according to Greenway’s orderly design. Yet another piece of Sydney was excised from Aboriginal people.

With Macquarie’s building boom in full swing, not only had the government workforce increased, but the demand for raw materials had skyrocketed. A scarcity of timber, stone, bricks and mortar prompted the establishment of timber-cutting camps and quarries closer to town, while

Story: shell-gathering gangs combed the Parramatta River for oysters, to be cooked into lime.

Brickmakers at the nearby brickfields stepped up production while the lumberyard on Bridge Street, Sydney’s main manufacturing workshop, was fully upgraded.

Throughout 1818, scaffolding rose quickly around the central three-storey edifice and the surrounding offices and corner pavilions also took shape. Stonecutters, bricklayers, carpenters and sawyers along with teams of labourers worked steadily under the directions of the chief engineer, Major George Druitt, and demanding convict architect Francis Greenway.

In fact, shortly after its completion Greenway boasted that the cost of building the barracks – which he put at £10,000 – paled in comparison to identical projects in England where expenses soared to £600,000 or more. With materials found locally, and labour provided entirely by convicts, here was a building delivered solely for the price of feeding and clothing the men.

Curbing freedoms

Raising the standards of design and building quality throughout the colony, Macquarie’s public works mimicked the tasteful streetscapes of the great Regency towns of Bath, Edinburgh and Bristol. This was an architecture of confidence and social progress. But, as Grace Karskens reminds us, it was also an architecture of social exclusion – forging and reinforcing distinctions between those with power and those without. In the colony, as townsfolk at all levels were soon to discover, this was the distinction between the free and unfree.

Even today, Greenway’s buildings are revered for their simplicity, harmony and grace. Yet, for Karskens, this is an illusion. Macquarie’s urban landscape ‘was not above messy, profane reality at all, nor innocent of political purpose’.2 For Macquarie, acutely aware of the colony’s inherent social and moral failings and the need to keep trouble in check, architecture was power.










On Friday 4 June 1819, Lachlan Macquarie’s instructions were clear: ‘all those convicts who are in the immediate service of government at Sydney’ were to head directly to the newly completed Hyde Park Barracks, where ‘they will be admitted, under their respective overseers, and furnished with their rations, ready dressed, at the usual hours of striking off work’.3

The plan was simple, as far as Macquarie was concerned. Fewer convicts causing a nuisance in town; a more skilled, reliable and better-fed workforce to employ on government projects; more discipline to encourage values of industry and diligence; and more scrutiny and supervision to reward those who conformed. The barracks would bring peace and security to the town and provide convicts with a path to reform.

Macquarie’s commanding barracks complex – with its clock, perimeter wall and classical features – symbolised civic progress and gave Sydney a new way of controlling its convict labourers.

For the convicts it wasn’t so straightforward. For some, the barracks had its benefits: free lodging, regular rations, clean clothes and company. But others chafed at the new routines. For them it felt like punishment.

No more mischief

For skilled brickmaker this was indeed a dramatic turn of events. Although he’d been assigned to work in the government’s brickfields, his life after hours was unsupervised and relatively carefree. Having stepped ashore at Sydney Cove in 1818 and had his ‘ship chains’ struck off, Smith was told – according to Commissioner Bigge – to ‘go and provide lodgings where [he] could for the remainder of the day, and to come to work in the morning’.

It’s almost certain that Smith followed his fellow transportees to the nefarious enclave of The Rocks, to search for a place to bunk and acquaint himself with his new surroundings. In its twisting streets and rowdy amusements, he’d also discover a world of temptation and mischief.

Up until June 1819, like the other government mechanics and labourers in Sydney, Smith could spend money earned in his free time to feed, dress and entertain himself, or perhaps add to his savings in the new convict bank. For Smith and the rest of Sydney’s so-called ‘government men’ – around 1500 convicts at large – the barracks and all it stood for marked a major upheaval.

Large and Austere

When it opened in 1819, the Hyde Park Barracks was the colony’s principal convict depot. It still stands at the head of Macquarie Street, a solid and strangely serious-looking brick building with a broad shingled roof, huddled inside a sparse gravel courtyard, ringed by a low stone wall and a series of perimeter buildings.

High up on the face of the three-storey barracks is an elaborate town clock, and the proud inscription L MACQUARIE ESQ GOVERNOR 1817, commemorating the time-conscious autocrat who ordered its construction. On each corner of the compound were stylishly domed pavilions, echoing the slightly smaller domes on the sentry lodges guarding the barracks’ gates.


While the barracks wasn’t a prison, it is likely that many of the 600 convicts who shuffled into the courtyard that afternoon in June 1819 felt as though they’d entered one. After the festivities, treats and toasts of the opening night dinner, the barracks reverted to a place of confinement and control. There were increased rations and clean clothes to make up for the extra hours of work each day, but the rigid rules and clockwork routines were new and unpleasant – and the constant surveillance was stifling.

Although Macquarie praised the barracks for its comforts and conveniences, he also wielded its fearsome reputation as a powerful tool of punishment. With more than 600 government convicts allowed to remain in their own homes throughout town, the threat of being ordered into the barracks encouraged convicts to behave themselves. In fact, the freedom of living outside the barracks was granted as an indulgence, ‘to the best conducted men, to those who are married and have families, and to those who cohabit with female convicts and children to support’.4

While convicts were given a day to themselves on Saturdays as ‘a special Indulgence and for the purpose of working for their own benefit’, Macquarie also instructed his police to ‘apprehend and lodge in the Prisoners’ Barracks any of the Convicts in the employ of Government that may be found Gambling, quarrelling, rioting, intoxicated or idling and loitering about the Streets of Sydney’. So much for comfort and convenience.

Inducement for reform

While he was authoritarian, Macquarie saw his colony not as a prison but as a sanctuary for convicts. Through reform and rehabilitation, through enterprise and education, and the rewarding of good behaviour, convicts could re-enter civil society with the unsullied rights of free men and women.

Forward-thinking and enlightened for his time, Macquarie’s radical measures drew widespread opposition, both in the colony and in Britain. Elevating emancipists (partly freed convicts) and ex-convicts (expirees and pardoned convicts) to positions of authority, showing compassion in the reduction of sentences and the infliction of corporal punishment, and encouraging good behaviour with grants of land gave hope to many in the fledgling settlement. But it challenged the image of Australia as a distant ‘tool of terror’ and its original aim to deter crime in Britain.

Macquarie’s fatherly devotion to the colony and his vision of a civil and tolerant colony sowed the seeds for his own undoing. His contempt for its ruthless and land-hungry settlers was the final straw.

Before he even left the colony, his regime was under scrutiny. But ultimately, it was his lenience towards emancipists, his costly urban improvements and his defiant, unyielding manner that led to his demise. In a few short years, to the satisfaction of his critics and the colony’s landowners and wealthy elite, Macquarie’s colony would revert to being a place that British criminals regarded with dread.

  1. J S Kerr, Design for convicts, Library of Australian History, 1984, p40.
  2. Grace Karskens, The colony, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2010, p210.
  3. Karskens, The colony, p204.
  4. Report of the Commissioner of Inquiry into the State of the Colony of New South Wales and its Government, Management of Convicts, their Character and Habits. 5th August 1822. Q991/B Mitchell Library. Part 111, p21.
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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.

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