Parramatta’s Convict Huts

By Michaela Ann Cameron

3249e65a74275e5c847e4d65af6628e95ee22f63
View of Governor’s House, Rosehill, Parramatta c1798. A convict hut is on the left. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales [a928407 / DG SSV1B/3] (Dixson Galleries) via Dictionary of Sydney.

See the little hut there on the left of this watercolour image? It is one of the convict huts that, from 1790, lined both sides of High Street, Rose Hill, better known today as George Street, Parramatta. And on Saturday morning, I saw that convict hut with my very own eyes! That’s because I was one of a few very lucky Parra locals who scooped up tickets to one of five free tours the Parramatta Park Trust offered the community. The main purpose of these tours was to showcase the archaeological work currently being carried out for the Trust by GML Heritage at this World Heritage Australian Convict Site: “Old Government House and Domain.”

IMG_6739
Gates of the George Street “Tudor” Gatehouse, Parramatta Park. This is where the original track and “High Street” was originally. Photo: Michaela Ann Cameron, [2015].
Our tour began with a talk by Stephen Thompson—the Trust’s Principal Program Officer (Cultural Heritage)—at the George Street “Tudor” Gatehouse, where so much of Australia’s European history also began in a way.

As Stephen Thompson’s talk made clear, if this had been 1788 we would have been standing right in the middle of a track that led from the original landing place on the Parramatta River. However, it wasn’t long before that modest track became Australia’s first planned road. Indeed, by 1790, Governor Phillip had formally laid out a town plan for “High Street” and, by 2 December 1791, Watkin Tench was able to report that, “The great road from near the landing place [the Governor’s Wharf] to the governor’s house is finished, and a very noble one it is, being of great breadth [63 metres], and a mile long in a straight line.”

Try to visualise that historic streetscape of 1790. Position yourself on the corner of George and O’Connell Streets facing Parramatta Park (either in reality or on Google Maps).

IMG_2244
The George Street “Tudor” Gatehouse, Parramatta Park. Photo: Michaela Ann Cameron [2014]
Now mentally demolish the late nineteenth-century gatehouse and with your mind’s eye see the street extending right into the present-day park. Where you see Old Government House—that stunning example of Colonial Georgian architecture in its commanding position at the top of the hill in the distance—see instead the humbler 1790 cottage made of lath and plaster that served as Arthur Phillip’s Governor’s House (depicted at the centre of the c.1798 watercolour). To your left, where the “Murray Gardens” are now located, conjure up an image of some of the 32 convict huts that Tench stated had been built along High Street by November 1790.

IMG_2245
Murray Gardens, Parramatta Park, viewed from the George St. Gatehouse. Photo: Michaela Ann Cameron [April, 2014]

The convict huts were, according to botanist George Clay, “simple wretched huts” and, based on Tench’s description were “twenty-four feet by twelve feet each, on a ground floor only, built of wattles plastered with clay, and thatched.” The High Street huts were spaced 60 feet apart to prevent the spread of fire and each featured a garden, because self-sufficiency was crucial for the survival of the colony.[1] As Stephen Thompson reminded all of us during the tour, this was a period of great uncertainty when the colonial experiment could have failed entirely.

Fortunately, we also have some idea of what the convict huts were like inside. According to Tench, “Each house is divided into two rooms, in one of which is a fireplace and brick chimney. These houses are designed for men only; and ten is the number of inhabitants allotted to each; but,” Tench disclosed, “some of them now contain twelve or fourteen, for want of better accommodation.” An East Indiaman and gunner on the Royal Admiral named George Thompson observed similar convict habitation at nearby Toongabbie and painted a rather bleak picture of the convicts’ living conditions. Overcrowding was the norm there, too, with sometimes “eighteen together” in a single hut and “one woman whose duty it is to keep it clean and provide victuals for the men while at work.” The convicts were typically “without the comfort of either beds or blankets, unless they take them from the ship they come in, or are rich enough to purchase them when they come on shore. They have neither bowl, plate, spoon, or knife but what they make of the green wood of this country, only one small iron pot being allowed to dress their poor allowance of meat, rice, etc. in short, all the necessary conveniences of life they are strangers to and suffer everything they could dread in their sentence of transportation.”

Now you can picture them clearly in your mind, look at the remains of these convict structures that, until recently, were hiding for centuries beneath a shallow layer of soil.

IMG_6740
Stephen Thompson, Parramatta Park Trust Principal Program Officer (Cultural Heritage), standing in front of the excavated convict hut, 19 September 2015.

These test pits nearest George Street did not reveal a great deal of structural remains but, because this archaeological site is within parklands that have not been routinely disturbed or covered over by modern building projects, the archaeologists did not have to dig very far before hitting the Parramatta sand sheet. Thus, these shallow test pits yielded artefacts pertaining to convict and even pre-colonial aboriginal occupation. Such finds included coins, buttons made of bone, and the stem of a convict’s clay pipe. Stephen Thompson showed us this painting of convicts smoking clay pipes to give us an idea of where that pipe stem had likely been in its hey-day. Apparently convicts had a habit of deliberately removing a tooth in order to make room to deposit the pipe stem!

Painting by Augustus Earle on display at Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney. Photo by Michaela Ann Cameron.
Paintings of convicts smoking clay pipes on display at Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney. Photo by Michaela Ann Cameron [2013].
Though Tench had recorded that convict huts tended to have “a ground floor only,”[2] a second group of test pits revealed the remains of the convict hut floor as well as what appears to be the remnants of a fireplace.

Remains of a convict hut floor, Murray Gardens, Parramatta Park, (19 September 2015). Photo by John M. Cameron.
Remains of a convict hut floor, Murray Gardens, Parramatta Park. Photo by John M. Cameron [2015].
Immediately behind this area, archaeologist Anita Yousif from GML Heritage pointed out a smaller test pit containing the vestiges of an outer-building associated with the convict hut. Among the rubble you see here was one of the original roof shingles. Yousif explained that the remains of this site are indicative of the colonists’ practice of recycling their precious resources; dismantling older buildings like this and reusing materials for building projects elsewhere.

Archaeologist Anita Yousif from GML Heritage talks about the remains of the outer-building discovered behind the convict hut. Photo by Michaela Ann Cameron
Archaeologist Anita Yousif from GML Heritage talks about the remains of the outer-building discovered behind the convict hut. Photo by Michaela Ann Cameron [2015]
Everyone on the tour wanted to know whether these pieces of the old convict world, now revealed, would remain exposed. The best way to ensure they are preserved though, Yousif told us, is actually to rebury them once archaeological investigations are complete.[3]


A Little Further Up George (High) Street…

484e4265c012bd3a7b98dca01d3da7405e1738b2
George Street Parramatta, from the gates of Government House, around 1804-5. By Evans, George William. Contributed by Historic Houses Trust of NSW [31758] (Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection) via Dictionary of Sydney
As convict huts lined both sides of George (High) Street in 1790, the evidence of another one of those early convict huts was found on the corner of George and Marsden Streets during excavations in 2005 of the old Convict Hospital site, (General Hospital, established in 1789, and the Colonial Hospital).[4] The convict hut was the first European structure ever erected on that corner allotment. Brislington, the considerably grander abode of an ex-convict named John Hodges, replaced the humble 1790s convict hut around 1821 and still occupies its prime position on the corner.

Brislington now stands on the allotment (at the corner of George and Marsden streets) where one of the convict huts of 1790 once stood.
Brislington now stands on the allotment (at the corner of George and Marsden streets) where one of the convict huts of 1790 once stood. Photo: Michaela Ann Cameron (April 2014)

The stark contrast in the standard of living between these two homes is all the more noteworthy in light of recent historical research indicating that the ex-convict Hodges likely lived in both of them.[5] In addition to living in the old convict hut, Hodges might have even operated his ‘disorderly house’[6] in the hut until his luck changed in a card game at the nearby Woolpack Inn and his winnings financed the construction of the spacious two storey Georgian domicile.

Considering the heritage of the convict hospital site, architects Bates Smart—who were responsible for the Masterplan, the Justice Precinct Offices, and the centrally located courtyard[7]—needed to ‘historically contextualise and bring visual dynamism’ to the redevelopment by ‘creating an environment that balanced profound sentiment with a visually stimulating sensibility.’[8]

IMG_4346
Steps leading into the “Heritage Courtyard” at 160 Marsden Street; site of the old convict hospital, now the Parramatta Justice Precinct. Photo by Michaela Ann Cameron [2014]
IMG_4348
Some of the artefacts uncovered during archaeological excavations of the convict hospital site and surrounds on display in the outdoor museum. Heritage Courtyard, Parramatta Justice Precinct. Photo: Michaela Ann Cameron [2014]
IMG_4347
A primary source quotation relating to the Convict Hospital is featured on this glass wall in the Heritage Courtyard, Parramatta Justice Precinct. Photo: Michaela Ann Cameron [2014]

Clay pipes and other artefacts unearthed during excavations of the old Convict Hospital site in the Heritage Courtyard, Parramatta Justice Precinct.
Clay pipes and other artefacts unearthed during excavations of the old Convict Hospital site in the Heritage Courtyard, Parramatta Justice Precinct.

Bates Smart achieved this balance with their Heritage Courtyard, which essentially functions as an outdoor museum. The outdoor museum displays artefacts uncovered during excavations—which, as you can see in the image on the right, included more of those clay pipes the convicts were so fond of—historical facts, sketches, maps, and images.

A Slice of the Past

Bates Smart were also advised by art consultant Virginia Wilson to install three site specific works that adequately ‘celebrate the historic significance of the site and interpret the history to a broad audience, through landscape, archaeology and built interpretations.’[9] One of those three artworks was a public artwork called Landslide (2007) by Australian artist Mel O’Callaghan.

IMG_4447
Mel O’Callaghan’s “Landslide” (2007). Photo: Michaela Ann Cameron [2014]
O’Callaghan’s Landslide is located on a section of the Parramatta riverbank that runs from the Heritage Courtyard, adjacent to the Justice Offices building within the Parramatta Justice Precinct, George Street — not far from where those convict huts once dominated the 1790 landscape. Landslide, so named because it has purposely been given the appearance of sliding into the Parramatta River, ‘provides a metaphor for history as a transient phenomenon determined by perceptions.’[10] Primarily, though, the artwork serves as ‘an abstract representation of a convict hut’s wall’[11] and, thus, is to be read as ‘a slice of a past reality that has literally been covered with layers of history and memories.’[12]

For just a little while on Saturday morning in Parramatta Park’s Murray Gardens, a slice of that past convict reality, covered for centuries, was revealed once more.

IMG_6743
Excavated convict hut, Murray Gardens, Parramatta Park. Photo: Michaela Ann Cameron [19 September 2015]

Follow these social media accounts

Parramatta Park Trust on Twitter @ParraPark and Facebook.

GML Heritage on Instagram: @gmlheritage

Bates Smart on Instagram: @batessmart

The Old Parramattan on Instagram: @oldparramatta


FURTHER READING:

Michaela Ann Cameron, A Walk Through Convict Parramatta, Dictionary of Sydney, (2015)

Michaela Ann Cameron, Convict Parramatta Launch2ser Radio, (7 October 2015)


NOTES:

[1] Verena Mauldon, Shaping the Domain, (Parramatta: Parramatta Park Trust, 2012), p.2 http://www.parrapark.com.au/things-to-do/tours/tourguides/Parramatta%20Park%20World%20Heritage.pdf viewed 21 September 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] A number of small, shallow test pits were made elsewhere in the vicinity in order to try to find further evidence of pre-contact aboriginal occupation, but the archaeologists did not uncover much in the limited areas they were permitted to test for this project.

[4] Casey & Lowe Pty. Ltd., http://www.caseyandlowe.com.au/sitepjp.htm and http://www.caseyandlowe.com.au/reptpjp.htm viewed 20 March 2015

[5] The excavations were carried out by archaeology and heritage consultants Casey & Lowe before construction work commenced on buildings that have since centralised legal services in a new Justice Precinct. Casey & Lowe, http://www.caseyandlowe.com.au/pdf/pjp/pjpstage2cpart2.pdf p.55

[6] The ‘disorderly house’ was a legal way of referring to any place where individuals reside and behave in an unlawful manner. This covers prostitution, illegal gambling and/or the trade of illicit substances.

[7] Bates Smart, “Projects: Community and Culture: Courtyard Pavilions Parramatta Justice Precinct,” http://www.batessmart.com/bates-smart/projects/sectors/community-culture/courtyard-pavilions-parramatta-justice-precinct/ viewed 20 March 2015

[8] Gillian Serisier, “The Art of Space. The Space of Art,” Australian Design Review, (1 June 2009) http://www.australiandesignreview.com/features/588-the-art-of-space-the-space-of-art viewed 10 January 2015

[9] Bates Smart, “Projects: Community and Culture: Courtyard Pavilions Parramatta Justice Precinct,” http://www.batessmart.com/bates-smart/projects/sectors/community-culture/courtyard-pavilions-parramatta-justice-precinct/ viewed 20 March 2015

[10] Gillian Serisier, “The Art of Space. The Space of Art,” Australian Design Review, (1 June 2009) http://www.australiandesignreview.com/features/588-the-art-of-space-the-space-of-art viewed 10 January 2015

[11] The source for this description is a plaque associated with the artwork and located on site. Mel O’Callaghan, Landslide, Attorney General’s Department, The Justice Precinct, Parramatta, Sydney, Australia (2007)

[12] Ibid.

© Michaela Ann Cameron, 2015