In 1848, no longer required for convicts, the Hyde Park Barracks became an immigration depot and hiring office for unaccompanied women newly arrived in Sydney. Many had emigrated under government schemes aimed to boost the number of women in the colony. From 1862, the building also served as a shelter for elderly or destitute women.
Immigration Depot, 1848–87
In the mid-19th century, New South Wales received an influx of immigrants, part of an enormous wave of 1.4 million English, Irish and Scots who left their homelands in search of a better life in Australia. Many were working-class people escaping desperate conditions. Numbers increased dramatically after gold was found in New South Wales in 1851.
New South Wales needed labour, and a range of British and colonial government schemes assisted immigrants by paying their passage to the distant colony. Starting in 1831, some of these schemes targeted poor British women aged between 14 and 35 to become domestic servants and wives in the male-dominated colony. Enticed by prospects of work, marriage opportunities and a fresh start, these women arrived in Sydney only to discover that no help was on hand to find employment or accommodation. Some ended up sleeping in Sydney’s streets or in the Domain.
I saw them land … a few days after I saw some of them crying in the streets, neither a penny in their pockets, nor a mouthful of meat to eat, nor any friends to look at them …’ Joseph Lingard, 1846
In response, in 1848 the colonial government converted the Hyde Park Barracks into a female immigration depot offering short-term accommodation and hiring services. Set up to shelter women assisted by government schemes, the Immigration Depot almost immediately took in all women arriving alone, including those whose passage had been paid by family and friends already in New South Wales. While many spent a night or two in the depot, a week at most, some stayed for several months. For the next 40 years, tens of thousands of women spent their first nights in the colony in the wards once occupied by convicts.
Hyde Park Asylum, 1862–86
In 1862, a new shelter for infirm and destitute women, known as the Hyde Park Asylum, opened on the top floor of the barracks. The women were part of a growing underclass struggling to survive in a booming, prosperous colony. With private charitable institutions overwhelmed by people in need, three government-run asylums were established – two for men, at Parramatta and Liverpool, and this one at Hyde Park for women. The Immigration Depot remained on the lower floors of the barracks, but immigrant and asylum women were strictly segregated.
The asylum housed and cared for elderly and destitute women. It also took in younger women and girls with terminal illnesses, chronic diseases and a range of physical afflictions. Some inmates had intellectual or physical disabilities, or neurological disorders such as epilepsy; others had tuberculosis or suffered the effects of alcoholism. Most had arrived in the colony as convicts or immigrants. Many were widows or had been deserted by their husbands. Women able to get ‘back on their feet’ were free to leave. But many, particularly physically disabled or terminally ill women without family support, chose to live out their days within the safety and security of the asylum.