After our guided tour of the Rocks area, the heavens opened and the rains fell,
so we grabbed umbrellas and hastily altered our afternoon plans to an indoor location.
We chose Hyde Park Barracks.
The barracks were designed by that infamous ex-convict Francis Greenway
and were built to house male convicts who worked on government projects.
It is now a museum that must be seen when you visit Sydney.
It is set up to tell the different stories of the building and the people who once lived there.
It also does an good job of demonstrating how archaeologists dig into the past to locate those stories.
Amazingly, rats have also helped conserved the past for us.
Into their ratacombs in the building’s foundations, and down into their nests under the floor boards,
the rats dragged little bits and bobs stolen from the people who lived in the barracks over the years.
During conservation work, these ratty ‘treasures’ were uncovered
and a whole room of the museum is dedicated to the objects that were found.
Torn pieces of letters, writing nibs, sealing wax, matches, clay pipes, rosary beads, fabric, buttons and sewing equipment –
all were found under the floorboards telling the story of the women who once lived in the barracks.
You see, in 1848, the barracks were converted into a depot for free immigrant women.
The women resided in the barracks for short periods until family could collect them
or until they found suitable employment and accommodations.
Rooms on the second floor of the museum, tell the story of some of these women.
You could even test out the lodgings to see if they were to your desired level of comfort.
They weren’t. They were as comfortable as they look.
Speaking of accommodations, on the third floor of the museum, you could also experience convict accommodations.
On this floor, the rooms have been restored to show where the convicts slept at the barracks from 1819 to 1848.
Rows and rows of hammocks filled the space
and you are free to climb into a hammock and test it out for yourself.
They weren’t too bad actually.
Getting in and, especially, out was a challenge though.
Most of the barracks were devoted to telling the convict story
and it was that story that we were most interested to hear.
At the front desk, we collect our free audio tour guides
and spent three hours learning about early Sydney and its convict past.
(Guided tours or audio tours are must when you have children.
It helps them engage with the exhibits.
If the option is available, always pay for tours.
It’s well worth the money.)
And if that doesn’t keep the kiddos engaged,
then there’s always the leg irons
and the triangle with the cat-o-nine tails
to help with discipline.
(Yes, Ethan is having a little too much fun whipping his brother,
who was rather glad for the protection of his backpack.)
However, at this museum, the kids aren’t going to have much of a problem engaging.
Every room is vastly different and full of interactive opportunities,
from answering questions and finding images to dressing up and touching artifacts.
Oh, I should explain what the cat-o-nine tails was, (or, as it was commonly known, ‘the cat’).
It was a particularly cruel type of flogging implement used by the British.
It consisted of nine ‘tails’ or lengths of knotted cord,
which lacerated a man’s back in a pattern that resembled a vicious cat’s scratch,
hence the name.
It kind of look innocuous, doesn’t it.
However, one superintendent from the barracks said that it made 50 lashes feel like a 1000,
so it must have been hideous.
Floggings and the irons weren’t the only type of punishment in the colony though.
There was also ‘the wheel’.
The wheel was a human-powered treadmill, which was both a punishment and a device for grinding grains.
I’ve always said that exercise is some form of inhumane torture and this is proof!
There were also the humiliating forms of punishment,
like having to wear the parti-coloured punishment suit.
Men, who had to wear this ridiculous outfit, were called ‘canary men’.
They were also put in leg irons so the pants had buttons up the side of the legs
to enable the men to put on or remove their pants while still wearing their legs irons.
Here’s something you might not know; it’s certainly something I didn’t know.
I’d always assumed that the broad arrow meant something to do with convicts.
However, that is not so.
Items were marked with a broad arrow to indicate items belonging to the government.
Convict clothing was marked with a broad arrow because the clothing belonged to the government,
and not because it would be worn by convicts.
In fact, every segment of the clothing was marked with the broad arrow
to prevent the convicts from unpicking the clothes, remaking them and selling them on.
Many convict-made bricks also bore the broad arrow mark.
In fact, all bricks after 1819 were marked with the broad arrow.
(By the 1830s, the bricks were marked with playing card shapes,
to indicate the different brick makers, and also to help the mortar bind to the brick.)
It is estimated that 166 000 convicts were sent to Australian shores
between the years of 1788 and 1868.
For many of them, Australia provided a second chance at life and a potentially prosperous future.
We forget that a number of these convicts had death sentences commuted to transportation.
But it would have been a very difficult transition for all of them.
Most of them would never have seen their family or friends again.
An indication of this heartbreak can be seen in the love tokens
that the convicts made for their loved ones before they departed for the ends of the Earth.
These tokens were made by smoothing coins and engraving them with messages.
There was so much to see and learn at Hyde Park Barracks
as well as a gorgeous building to admire.
And it’s the place to go in Sydney if you want to learn more about our convict past.
We thoroughly ended our wet afternoon exploring the barracks
and would definitely recommend that others visit if they have the opportunity.