National Heritage List inscription date 1 August 2007
Hyde Park Barracks is Australia's first government-built convict barracks, and the only remaining barracks building and complex from the Macquarie era of convict administration. It marked a turning point in Australia's management of transported convicts from Britain. It is also significant because it was designed by Australia's first architect Francis Greenway, and is regarded as one of his best works. Visitors can explore the museum and join a guided tour.
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The construction of the Barracks enabled the more systematic control of government assigned male convicts and the work they undertook. Convicts were subject to greater surveillance and their freedom was restricted. As such, the Barracks demonstrated the penal philosophy that transportation was a punishment and that convicts should be subject to hard labour and strict control. Its construction also signalled that the colony of New South Wales was no longer a temporary penal outpost but a permanent settlement.
In the early days of the colony of New South Wales, convicts were assigned to government service or private masters, and while the master was responsible for providing rations, convicts were responsible for their own 'lodgings and fire' in private houses and hotels. In order to pay for this accommodation they were permitted to work for themselves after hours. Convict men and women and soldiers associated freely in public houses after working hours, often resulting in disorderly public behaviour and robberies, and leading to increasing demands for greater control of convict living arrangements.
An increasing convict population
From 1814, the number of convicts being transported increased greatly, with the yearly intake doubling over the next five years. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, Britain experienced deteriorating economic and social conditions, resulting in an increase in crime and more convicts subject to transportation. Between 1814 and 1820, 11,765 convicts arrived in the colony, presenting Governor Lachlan Macquarie with problems regarding control and social stability. The population of the colony during the majority of his governship almost trebled from over 10,096 in 1810 to 29,665 in 1820. Convicts and ex convicts made up over 73 percent of the population, peaking at 79.7 percent in 1820, at which time they represented 94.4 percent of the male workforce. It was because of the large supply of convict labour that Macquarie was able to implement many of the identified larger infrastructure needs of the colony.
A solution for controlling convicts after hours
As convicts had to find their own accommodation, there was little chance of controlling them during the hours they were not at work. Macquarie, the Governor of New South Wales from 1810-21, proposed the building of a barrack to house male convicts as a way of exerting government control and providing the foundation of their reformation. The increased control was meant to develop habits of industry while the increased restrictions meant there was less opportunity to commit further crime.
The construction of the first convict barrack in the colony marked a major change in the living and working conditions of male convicts in New South Wales, and the development of more systemised control over convicts. The barracks were intended to improve the degree of surveillance and control over government assigned male convicts working on Macquarie's ambitious public building program. Hyde Park Barracks restricted freedoms and in doing so served as a deterrent. Convicts would be subject to closer discipline, longer working hours and less freedom of association. It was designed to provide basic housing for a labour force of 600 male convicts (a third of the male convict population at that time). The barracks introduced some formality between convict and overseer and, it was hoped, would raise their productivity. The central barracks building was used as a dormitory where men slept in canvas hammocks strung from wooden rails in all 12 rooms. Convicts at the Barracks were on increased rations of food but lost some of the opportunities for private earnings, and were required to work longer hours for the government than previously. There was also some emphasis on self-sufficiency for the occupants within the overall framework of regulations and routines. This self-sufficiency was demonstrated by the presence on site of bakeries, kitchens, pantries, store rooms and garden plots all maintained by the resident convict.
A place of secondary punishment
After 1830, Hyde Park Barracks became a place of secondary punishment and a depot for reassignment and trial. The Office of the Principal Superintendent of Convicts was established on the site, overseeing the changes in convict treatment and work recommended by the Bigge Commission. After 1830, a Court of General Sessions established at Hyde Park Barracks administered punishments for barracks men and other government-employed convicts. Penalties included days in solitary confinement, working in gangs in irons, walking on the treadmill, or up to 150 lashes. The court could also extend convicts' sentences by up to three years with hard labour and transfer men to other penal settlements in the colony or Norfolk Island and Port Arthur. The Barracks was finally closed as convict accommodation in 1848, by which time 8000 convicts had passed through it.
Australia's first architect
Hyde Park Barracks is also significant because of its association with Francis Greenway. Greenway, as the first official government architect, is regarded by many as Australia's first architect, and was the designer of the Barracks complex. Hyde Park Barracks is regarded as one of his best works, and he was granted an absolute pardon at its opening in recognition of his contribution to the colony.
Beyond convict barracks
After its closure as a convict barracks in 1848, Hyde Park Barracks was used as a female asylum until 1887. To remedy a domestic labour shortage and gender imbalance in the colony, many single or orphaned young women emigrated from Britain and famine-racked Ireland for the opportunities for employment in the growing colony. When 200 orphan girls arrived on 6 October 1848 on the Earl Grey, the building started to be used as a reception and labour exchange for 'unprotected female' assisted immigrants. These young women resided in the lime washed brick dormitories. In 1848 the Barrack was especially adapted to accommodate them.
From 1887 to 1975 the Barracks was used as accommodation by various NSW government departments. It is now a museum administered by the Historic Houses Trust of NSW.