Another weekend staying local. We visited The Rocks – again. This time it was different. Although many places are now open for business (if they want to) the street markets were absent. This meant you could actually appreciate the streets, the views and the buildings. This is actually a great time to see The Rocks properly.
This is a follow up to an earlier post which you can see here. That post was written just before the coronavirus “lockdown” nonsense kicked in.
St. Mary’s Cathedral
First stop off the bus was Gothic-style Catholic Cathedral of St. Mary’s. First started in 1821 when the Governor Macquarie laid the first stone. The original church was destroyed by fire in 1865. The rebuilding was done between 1868 and 1882 – when it was open to the public despite being unfinished. It was officially opened in 1900. Work continued until the crypt refurbishment was complete in 1961. This must be one of the newest buildings of its kind.
Immediately opposite this ancient looking building – the other side of Hyde Park – is the modern downtown city of Sydney.
Hyde Park Barracks
At the same end of Hyde Park lies the Hyde Park Barracks. Originally built by convicts, for convicts. This place is now what they call a ‘living museum’. The main building is the convict barracks consisting of three floors.
Before you enter the barracks themselves there is a little history of why and how it was built. This includes examples of some convicts’ sorry tales. Don’t get me wrong. This old dad has never been one to deny a horrible villain his (or her) just deserts. I am no soft-touch. But the fact is that many convicts were sent to Australia having committed what would now be called ‘petty crimes’. Such as stealing handkerchiefs or stealing a letter from a mail box. Seriously. These days you would probably not even go to court for such ‘crimes’.
But it gets better than that. Many were also craftsmen. Skilled in the various building and allied trades. Many convicts were stonemasons, carpenters, brick-makers and blacksmiths. And I really don’t think that was by accident. More on this below…
Inside the barracks
The top floor shows how dormitories would have been, where the convicts slept in cramped conditions. There are also examples of whips and leg-irons that were used for punishments. Standard items really in those days.
The second floor showed what the convicts were used for. They not only built the barracks but they also built St.James church directly opposite. There were many other examples of how the convicts were used to construct much of the new colony.
Ont the ground floor the museum showed us that it was also used for more charitable causes. Once the convict era had passed this place was used to house newly arrived immigrants and also as an asylum for women. Government schemes aimed to increase the number of women in the colony but many were alone and needed help on arrival. The quality of the bedrooms had certainly improved by this time.
On to The Rocks (proper)
While the barracks are included in many organised tours of The Rocks they are the other side of the main quay. The old centre of The Rocks was much quieter than I had ever seen it. Great. We had a walk around and decided it was time to eat so went for a Devonshire Tea to a place called ‘The Tea Cosy’. I do love a scone with jam and cream washed down with a cup of tea.
The streets were free of the many market stalls that normally cover much of the main tourist streets in the area. I much prefer it like this.
No, not the shipping lane that links the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean. This is the infamous street in The Rocks where gang members would lie in wait in the narrow street for unsuspecting drunks. During the 19th century this place would have been a beacon for all sorts of unsavoury characters.
It is thought the name is a play on the words ‘sewers canal’ – the tiny street would flood whenever it rained. The sloping street certainly gets narrow towards the bottom where you could easily walk by and miss it.
Putting Convict Labour into Context
As mentioned above, the sweat of these convict artisan tradesmen built the city of Sydney (and no doubt other cities in Australia). If a convict was not a skilled man they were still used to chop down trees and clear the way for the builders. The convicts – some of whom were violent offenders but many were not – were used as a pool of slave labour to build the new colony. Which is all rather pertinent to events going on right now in different countries.
With so many in the USA – and other places – protesting about race relations and using slavery as a large part of their argument, it is worth considering that Africans were not the only ones being used as slaves at that point in history. Something struck me today. Many of those convicts were sent to the other side of the world for trivial ‘crimes’. Meanwhile some of these current protesters are committing far worse crimes than many of those early Australian convicts and not even being arrested.
Of course the situation here, for native Australians, was changed forever by the importing of convict slave labour and colonisers. That is another huge story altogether and remains a major issue in this country.