This brick building sits in a compound in Hyde Park just across Saint Mary’s Cathedral. It was intended to house convict men and boys in the early 1800’s and was in fact designed by a convict architect by the name of Francis Greenway. Four visits to Sydney yet it’s just my first time to explore this gem. (Thank you Linda for this tip)
It’s just a 3-storey affair with front windows giving you a full view of St. James Anglican Church amidst modern structures including the iconic Sydney Tower. I was surprised that admission is only Au$10 including an audio guide. Spent an hour and a half here and learned much about Australia’s convict past.
Once a source of embarrassment, today’s Australians have come full circle and take pride in their convict past. Now “unchained”, they share this social and cultural legacy with the rest of the world and Barracks Museum offers a good start. The Museum walks you through much of this penal history starting with the transported labor and colonial expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet records show human cargo began earlier. Many European nations shipped convicted criminals to places where labor is needed as early as the 16th century. It was a practice that relieved these countries of “unwanted people” at a time when transport took 4-8 months of sailing. And Britain tops them all for sending as many as 166,000 convicts between 1788 and 1868. Nearly a thousand ships conveyed these convicts and landed them in Sydney or Hobart.
The Museum halls featured murals depicting convict life in Australia where convicts, free men and aborigines once roamed freely in Down Under. Museum visitors are encouraged to try their backs on the cots and hammocks on display where convicts slept a few inches from each other. There were also visual illustrations of the food served in this penal colony, their tools, leg chains, and odd paraphernalia. Sydney was a convict town where convicts and ex-convicts came to live and work. Some operated shops, pubs and other businesses. Others were assigned as slaves and lived with their masters and mistresses. Many trained in various trades. For many, “The Rocks” became their home as the barracks overflowed with the arrival and unloading of more human cargo from convict ships.
The stigma of convict ancestry was finally shaken off in the 70’s with the change in social values and a growing appreciation of one’s roots and history. Much of today’s agriculture, engineering and industries were founded by these convict ancestors. And today’s Australians have come to acknowledge their contributions to modern Australia and more open to claiming and understanding their convict ancestry. It’s a better world indeed when no one and nothing of historical, social and cultural significance is overlooked .