Who were the Hyde Park Barracks convicts?

Pick-pockets and pirates, confidence tricksters and conspirators, rebels and rascals – between 1819 and 1848, Hyde Park Barracks had them all.

While the stories of thousands of individuals have been lost or forgotten forever, some names keep reappearing in the official records, which is allowing us to piece together stories of some of the unfortunate individuals and colourful characters who spent time at the Barracks. Occasionally we can even look some of them in the eye, through incredibly rare photographs and artist’s portraits.

Why did they come to the Barracks?

About 80,000 convicts were sent to New South Wales between 1788 and 1849,[1] and we estimate that after Hyde Park Barracks was opened in 1819, at least 50,000 of these convicts passed through its gates. After being landed from the transport ships arriving in Sydney Cove, many convicts were marched up through the Governor’s Domain and mustered in the Barracks yard before being assigned to work for private employers, or held at the Barracks if they had skills the colonial government needed. Barracks convicts slept in the dormitories strung up with hammocks, and went out each day to work in gangs on government roads, docks, quarries or building projects. Other convict men and women came from around the colony to stand trial at the Barracks Bench, or Court of General Sessions. The unlucky ones also suffered brutal punishment in solitary confinement and on the flogging triangle behind the eastern compound wall.

Where did they come from?

The convicts were a motley crew, hailing from all parts of Britain and her colonies around the world. Of those convicts sent to NSW, about 60 per cent were English, 30 per cent Irish, and the other 10 per cent were Scottish, Welsh and from other parts of the British Empire.[2] We even know some convicts who came from places as exotic as South Africa, Jamaica, Canada, Portugal and Prince of Wales Island (now Malaysia).

Why were they transported to NSW?

The convicts who passed through the Barracks were transported for many different crimes, ranging from the most daring highway robbers and murderers to those born into extreme poverty, who committed petty crimes such as stealing food in order to stay alive. The vast majority of convicts were pickpockets, petty thieves, robbers and tricksters, but there were also political protesters and conspirators, machine breakers, notorious runaways, Greek pirates, rebellious Jamaican slaves, forgers, deserter soldiers, bank robbers, and murderers.

Were there some famous convicts?

A few convicts who came to Hyde Park Barracks were famous or notorious, even in their own time, including poet Francis Macnamara, bushrangers Lawrence Kavanagh and William Westwood, murderer John Knatchbull, Khoi chief David Stuurman, writer Charles Adolphus King, and hangman Alexander Green. Gentleman convict James Hardy Vaux became famous for being transported three times to New South Wales, and for writing a book of the slang ‘Flash’ language that the convicts spoke to undermine the authorities.

What skills did they have?

The convicts who stayed at the Barracks were selected to work for the government because they had special skills, trades or professions, and could provide the government with all the skills necessary to build the colony. There were bakers, brickmakers, boatbuilders, shoemakers, stonemasons, blacksmiths, weavers, carpenters, miners, potters and clerks, and just about any other trade you can name. Three quarters of the English convicts could read, or read and write, and the Irish convicts were on average less educated, but all convicts tended to better educated than the general working population in England.[3]

What happened to them?

In the colony, their lives unfolded for better or for worse. Most convicts were well-behaved and soon gained their freedom through hard work and obedience, but some convicts just couldn’t stay out of trouble. The records are full of names of individuals who committed repeat offences, who were thrown into solitary confinement, sentenced to walk on the treadmill, or to be flogged on the triangle outside the Barracks wall. Some even became notorious escapees, gamblers, swindlers, bushrangers and murderers. These convicts were banished from Hyde Park Barracks to more brutal places of secondary punishment, where they suffered the full range of severe punishments that the colonial government had to offer, some spending the rest of their lives in prison.


[1] See C. Bateson, The Convict Ships, 1787-1868, A.H. & A.W. Reed, Sydney, 1959, p9. and L.L. Robson, The Convict Settlers of Australia, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1965, p170.

[2] S. Nicholas and P. Shergold, ‘Convicts as Migrants’, in Nicholas, S. (ed) Convict Workers: Reinterpreting Australia’s Past, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p45.

[3] S. Nicholas and P. Shergold, ‘Convicts as Workers’, in Nicholas, S. (ed) Convict Workers: Reinterpreting Australia’s Past, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p63.

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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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Close up of a ceramic bottle. This item was featured in one of our virtual excursions.

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