A visit to Hyde Park Barracks Museum

Imagine this:

You are a girl of seventeen and both your parents are dead, as are all of your brothers and sisters.

Since their deaths you have been living in a crowded orphanage and have seen, heard and felt first hand the devastating effects of a national famine, which has killed and hurt many of those around you.

You have your faith, your health (God-willing) and a small number of material possessions, all of which you are required to pack up to accompany you on a long, rocky, uncertain journey to the other side of the world.

Such was the plight, fate and lives of thousands of Irish orphaned girls who from 1848 for many years were transported to Australia to effectively serve as "baby-makers" for the new Australian population, which was predominantly male convicts, though many gained employment as servants or worked in shops or wealthier households. Because these young girls were Catholic they were considered moral compasses for the convicts who were showing worrying disruptive behaviour as drinking, brawls and gambling became popular activities in a very young Sydney, Convict Sydney.I found out about these brave young women, an element of Australia's transportation history I was completely unaware of, in Hyde Park Barracks Museum.Originally built in 1819 with the intention of housing convict men, the impressive looking building has served many other purposes including more recently as courtrooms and government offices.However, it is its history the first Australian "home" for the convict men and then the orphaned immigrant women that gives Hyde Park Barracks its weightily important role in Sydney's and Australia's history and a real poignancy as a visitor with only a shameful little knowledge about this era.

As I walked through the building, I was incredibly impressed by how artistically well the museum had recreated, restored and re-captured history; at times it felt like a gallery, at other times it was very audiovisual and interactive and then down some corridors and in some rooms it felt almost like time had frozen back in the 1850s but everyone had left without a trace.As well as being lovingly restored (over many years in 1980s once it was decided to make the building a museum) I marvelled at more imaginative displays intended to capture the noises, activity and overwhelming presence of rats that convicts would have lived with in Hyde Park Barracks.It was the story of those poor Irish girls that stayed with me when I left the museum, especially because there was a special exhibit about current Sydney citizens who are descendants of those brave women. It's remarkable to think about where we all come from and the journeys of those who went before us.

There were other very real personal stories to read about like how the building itself was actually designed by a convict, albeit one who had trained as an architect back in UK. Once he arrived in Australia he managed to work his way into the grace and favour of the very famous Governor Macquarie, who was committed to making the growing population of convicts a civilised and respectable one and it was symbolic of course that he was chosen as Hyde Park Barracks' architect. There is also a perverse charm to be found in the fact that thanks to the thousands of rats who lived in, behind and above the walls, floors and ceilings with the convicts and immigrant women of Hyde Park Barracks numerous artefacts now on display in the museum (books, clothing, combs, scissors, coins) were preserved by their rotting corpses.Hyde Park Barracks is one of twelve New South Wales museums housed in historic buildings and looked after by the Historic Houses Trust. I sadly stumbled upon them a little too late in my visit so Hyde Park Barracks was the only one I spent far too long looking around. It costs $10.00 (AUD) for an Adult to visit, though a $30.00 ticket with Historic Houses Trust will gain you entry into all the Sydney museums over three months. This is well worth doing if you plan to fly to Sydney and stay for longer than a week or two.

Frances M. Thompson

Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before starting a family with her Australian partner. Frankie is the author of three short story collections, and is a freelance writer for travel and creative brands. In 2017, she launched WriteNOW Cards, affirmation cards for writers that help build a productive and positive writing practice. When not writing contemporary fiction, Frankie shops for vintage clothes, dances to 70s disco music and chases her two young sons around Amsterdam.
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