Sydney is a dazzling international tourist attraction, pulling in visitors in search of beaches, world-class restaurants and spectacular displays.

And it’s all thanks to a bunch of crooks.

White collar criminals

From the time of first settlement until transportation finished in 1868, around 166,000 convicts were shipped from England to Australia. These are the people who built Sydney, stone by stone. But who were they?

Dr Wayne Johnson, the archaeologist and curator of the Rocks Discovery Museum, says people get it wrong when they imagine that convicts were all thugs. He says the majority of convicts were transported for the equivalent of stealing the office stationery. “A dressmaker might be sent out for stealing a bolt of cloth from her employer, or a watchmaker might be tried for forgery of coins, because he had access to metal and used his skills to forge,” explains Johnson, adding that a very high percentage of convicts could read and write, which was unusual for the time. “They were tradespeople caught making a bit on the side.”

Conversely, some of the earliest ‘free settlers’ weren’t as free as they seemed. “Many of the nobility duelled, which was forbidden. The people who did it could either face a trial and be sent to Australia, or they could ‘volunteer’ to go, to escape the stain of being convicts.”

Unfortunately, this means that few of the convicts or settlers—or the soldiers charged with guarding them—had the right skills for the challenges they faced. “The First Fleet was a great place to get your watch fixed, but they were useless at creating a colony,” says Johnson. They didn’t know anything about farm animals, or how to plant crops. “They would cut down trees, but the wood was green and as it dried out it warped. Or the bricklayers would make a roof tile, but when it rained it absorbed its weight in water, because it wasn’t fired properly.”


Life in the early colony was harsh. There were food shortages, problems with shelter and public drunkenness for the early colonists to endure, plus severe punishments in store for convicts who failed to toe the line. One such was the cat o’ nine tails, a whip with nine separate woven tails that could take a man’s back off. For all that, historians say that early convict life – for the well behaved – wasn’t necessarily worse than life in England.

“Ultimately it was brutal, because you didn’t have your freedom, but in terms of the time, people in England lived in very cramped, closed quarters and didn’t have a great deal of control over their own lives,” says Gary Crockett, the curator of the Hyde Park Barracks Museum. “The colony was in some ways seen as an opportunity, particularly in the early years.”

Crockett explains that anyone who had sought-after skills had a privileged position, because the colony needed them so badly. After the convicts had served their time, they might even be granted land. And many convicts invested the money they’d brought with them in ventures such as whaling ships.

As a result, it wasn’t uncommon for smart ex-convicts to become wealthy. Johnson says that archaeological digs are always turning up evidence that, in the finest nouveau riche traditions, some ex-convicts used their new-found wealth to buy tasteless things. He says on one dig they found an expensive decanter, worth a week’s wages. A silver label engraved with “gin” came with it – which is a bit like buying an crystal decanter and using it for Coke.

As the overall colony became wealthier, convicts were put to work building grand new buildings, including the 1819 Hyde Park Barracks, “an awesome brick building perched on the skyline,” as Crockett says. Other prominent buildings of the period include the present-day NSW Parliament Building and the Mint, both on Macquarie Street. Sydney was on track to become an architecturally beautiful city.

Spanner in the works

Unfortunately, as life got better, word trickled back to England. People in Sydney began to receive letters from friends and relatives, asking for advice on what crimes to commit to get them transported. Worse, a book on the state of the colony made Australia sound like a holiday camp to the British authorities. In the 1820s, there was a general crackdown, which unfortunately ended the grand public works programme. Nevertheless, by the time transportation ended, Sydney was a flourishing city.

UNESCO awarded 11 convict buildings around Australia World Heritage status, including the Hyde Park Barracks. There has also been a concerted effort in Sydney over the past decade to showcase what’s left of our convict past. To immerse yourself in this fascinating world, begin at Circular Quay, where the 1788 landing took place. Come back at the end of your tour – you won’t see the Harbour the same way again.


Places to see:

Hyde Park Barracks

This brick building was designed by convict architect Francis Greenway and built by highly skilled artisans to house male convicts. It has a major exhibition called Convict Sydney, which looks at daily convict life, including food, clothing, skills, leisure and punishments.

Macquarie Street, Sydney

Cockatoo Island

Historian Crockett says that Cockatoo Island is Australia’s equivalent to Alcatraz. “It’s a rocky island,” he explains. “Convicts assigned there in 1830 built the island and there are remains of the old convict compounds: the underground cells and the massive dry docks.”

The Rocks Youth Hostel

Johnson calls this a “must see”, because it’s built over an archaeological excavation. “We’ve found a lot of evidence of convict occupation and preserved the site,” he says. “We gave it to the YHA to build their site over [the foundations], and conserve about 40 buildings. You can walk through the lanes through the hostel and also see artefacts in cases.”

These are only some of the convict remains that can be explored in Sydney.


For more insight into convicts:

The Museum of Sydney

Cnr of Bridge and Phillip Streets

The Rocks Discovery Museum

Kendall Lane


This article first appeared in Where magazine.

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