Australia has flourished into one of the most economically successful first world countries in the world. Australia reads more newspapers per capita than any other nation. It’s also roomy: the average world population density is 117 people per square mile, that of the United States 76. Australia’s is only 6. (This ratio does not apply to the beach or even Pitt Street Mall, where your personal space is rented out by the minute).
It’s often a running joke that the English banished their petty (and not so petty) thieves from the gloomy, wet and miserable motherland to the land down under – which, on the backs of the convicts hard work, has become one of the most desired destinations in the world and a place the modern day Brits choose to holiday in.
I took my first trip to the Hyde Park Barracks Museum a few weeks ago. These restructured barracks (a World Heritage site) were the architectural vision of Francis Greenway, a convict himself. They held around 50,000 male convicts from 1819 to 1848. State records show many were charged with property crimes and served either life terms, 7 or 14 years transportation. Can you imagine returning home after 14 years on the other side of the world, taken against your will for a crime as petty as stealing a loaf of bread? I’d storm into my lounge room, “Yo, that bread better have tasted good mofo’s cos from now on, your getting’ your own. I’m bloody knackered, innit.” I suspect I would not enjoy the simple things anymore – like carbohydrates. (Innit, mofo and knackered would all be around in 1848. My example convict was a linguistics pioneer as well as bread stealer)
Less than 20 years after the convicts left the barracks, the buildings became a government asylum for female immigrants; often used for destitute women and was known as “Hyde Park Asylum.” After the 50th Anniversary of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1887, the barracks became a public administration centre and were used by public servants and legal workers until the late 1970′s. Progressing from convict barracks to an asylum to a building for government workers isn’t such a huge transformation. I’m not shocked that the asylum sounds the most exciting of all three. Or that Queen Victoria’s name is sandwiched between it all.
I digress. Hyde Park Barracks, is today, a Museum dedicated to itself. From the outside it looks incredibly well maintained until you learn of its reconstruction on and around the original barracks. (Original walls and flooring are found inside and are preserved) It almost looks like an exclusive private school – the type you see in documentaries with a boy talking; his face blurred and voice muffled as a sex scandal is uncovered and investigated. The boy says something along the lines of not being able to sleep facing away from the door since 1927 and you become awkward watching it and leave the room even though you had nothing to do with it.
The museum itself covers a diverse and rich history of the convicts themselves through their own personal recollections and belongings. The museum showcases pictures, documents, artefacts, personal objects, tools, torn bibles, original uniforms and shoes, fabrics and utensils found in the historical evidence of an excavation of the area. (A good percentage were salvaged by rats. Good news! They do come in handy. Once in a century, or thereabouts).
I love history and I find this museum a quintessential must do in Sydney. It gives a deeper historical context to the Sydney CBD and Australian history in general as well as a greater understanding and appreciation of the lives that dwelled here. I find it disturbing that in our day and age someone can avoid prison for murder but a little boy as young as 10 years old paid for stealing a loaf of bread with a cross Atlantic deportation. And in honor of these people, and the lives that were lost, stolen, degraded, lashed, overworked or on the flip side; the convicts who worked their way to freedom and wealth, our country owes much to you. Just as we salute soldiers that fight in wars I often think we forget to thank the people who built the town in which we live and the vital infrastructure that sustains it. I would highly recommend this museum.
INFO: Hyde Park Barrack Museum is at….where its always been. Queens Square, Macquarie Street, Sydney, NSW 2000. Phone: 02 8239 2311 Admission: Adult $10 Child/Concession $5 Family $20. Hours: Daily 9.30am — 5.00pm | Closed Good Friday and Christmas Day.
Have you ever been to Hyde Park Barracks Museum? What did you think?