Sydney’s Convict History

Sydney's convict history is fascinating. My favorite story was about the ship, The Juliana, which transported female prostitutes. They would go on to become wives, mothers, and respected women.

Day 454

I checked out of my Airbnb in Sydney and drove to the meeting location for a walking tour. I couldn’t find parking, so I ended up parking at the Sydney Opera House parking garage, which cost $44 for three hours. One of the worst things about cities is their expense and the difficulty finding parking.

Our tour guide was a woman in her late 20’s to early 30s named April. She was thin and had her hair pulled back in a ponytail. April was a history major and told stories with such passion that I was extremely entertained for the whole tour! She carried a book with laminated pictures, and she showed us various ones as we stopped along the route. 

There were just a handful of people on the tour, making it easy to hear all of the stories. As we walked through the older parts of the city, April told us about Sydney’s convict history. 

James Cook first landed in Botany Bay in 1770. He was going to call it Stingray Harbour, but he called it Botany Bay after he saw the number of plants. In 1788, the Navy arrived to set up the first convict settlement and deemed Botany Bay unsuitable. They moved five miles north and started the settlement there, which would become Sydney.

It was rough at the beginning because they were dependent on supplies coming from England. At one point, the governor sent a letter to England asking for more distinguished clothes because his clothes were deteriorating. He wondered how he was supposed to command a group of convicts while wearing torn clothes and shoes. 

The convicts wore regular clothes and lived in mixed housing with non-convicts, making it difficult to know who the convicts were.  The convicts built government buildings and roads. They quickly realized that they could use their skills as bargaining chips. April called it the “horse and carrot” situation. For example, if they worked on a farm, they would say, “I’ll work on your farm for eight hours, but I want the other two hours to myself.” Other times, they would negotiate extra pay to do a better job building the streets and buildings. 

Original bricks from the convicts

This tactic enabled convicts to earn extra money, which they’d spend on nicer clothes and then houses. When new convicts arrived, the Australian government told them that they could end up as respectable people with a house and a family if they worked hard for seven to fourteen years. 

One government official would show incoming convicts a beautiful house built by a former convict who was also an architect. The official would paint a picture of how great life could be if they worked hard during their time there. 

Word got back to England, and people started to intentionally commit small crimes so they would be sent to Australia. In England, they had no chance of improving their standing and weren’t able to buy land. But in Australia, they could own land and start their own business. England quickly put a stop to glamorizing Australia. 

It wasn’t all glamorous in Australia. One of the ships full of convicts en route to Australia was outsourced to a private company that promised a low price, and they received their payment upfront. Many men died on that ship because the conditions were atrocious. They were locked underneath, had limited food, and unsanitary conditions. That journey was so disastrous that England decided that payments would be made once Australia confirmed a safe arrival and fair treatment of the convicts. 

April told us some fascinating history about the area, like how George Barrington was a convict turned police chief. He was a pretty famous pickpocket from Ireland who used his acting skills and polished look to steal from wealthy people. After being sent to Australia, Barrington convinced them not to assign him hard labor but to be part of the guard unit. Once he served seven years, he was actually made police chief. 

We continued walking through old areas of the city. At one point, April took us to a section of old, tiny homes on the side of a rock mountain. It was sort of like small apartments built into the rock. Most of it was destroyed, but the city tried to refurbish it, even placing tables and chairs to see what it would have looked like to live there. This is where some of the poorest people lived. 

Unlike Melbourne, Sydney was designed and built by convicts. April said, “Sydney was never supposed to work out. Not much thought was put into it.” Once gold was discovered in 1851, England started to build cities. Melbourne has more of a modern grid because England sent engineers to build it, while Sydney still has a bit of an unorganized layout from convicts. 

One way they built such beautiful structures was using one convict’s architectural abilities. Francis Greenway was convicted of forging a financial document and sent to Australia. He was encouraged to plead guilty, and they still don’t know why that was the case. They made use of Greenway’s skills, and he designed any of the buildings in Sydney. His work was admired by many. 

The last story that April told us was my favorite. There was a ship called, The Juliana. The government officials realized that there were too many men in Australia, and they didn’t want them to “turn gay.” They also need to populate the area. 

England gathered up all of the prostitutes and sent them to Australia on The Juliana. The captain quickly realized that all of the convicts were women, while the entire crew was men. To stop fights from breaking out, he told the men they could each pick one woman, which was their woman for the whole journey. 

The women realized they were providing a service, and they get paid for their services. The ships would always stop in Brazil and South Africa on their way to Australia to pick up supplies. The women convinced the crew to stay in the Caribbean and South Africa, where the men bought the women silk dresses and other items. 

They all had a great time with the rum in the Caribbean. The ship took several extra months to arrive and broke the record for the slowest ship. It’s rumored that when they arrived in Sydney, the women stood on the deck in silk dresses and hats, waving to the men. They later would become wives, mothers, and respected women. 

We finished the tour at a café, and April recommended eating there if we were hungry. I stayed to eat with Fiona and her dad, Robert, from the tour. Fiona lived in Sydney with her husband and children. Robert lived in Perth and was visiting Fiona. 

Fiona had short, blonde hair, and she carried herself like a businesswoman. She was surprised at how much she learned from the tour but said she hadn’t gotten around to doing many tours there because she worked a lot. 

I was having a great time with Robert and Fiona as we talked about my favorite parts of Australia. We also talked about the U.S. I ate my food really fast because I knew my parking ticket was about to expire. I said my goodbyes and rushed off. 

I ran through the city on the sidewalk that runs along the harbor. People looked at me like I was a weirdo, but I didn’t care. I didn’t want to pay even more for parking. I arrived at the parking garage and inserted my ticket to pay (you have 15 minutes to leave the garage once you pay). I was ten seconds late, and my $44 ticket went up to $59.

I hit the intercom button and told the man that I was ten seconds late and asked if he could please change my ticket back to $44. I was out of breath, and thankfully, the man reduced it to $44. 

I drove away from Sydney, feeling satisfied that I was able to learn about the history, climb the bridge, visit the Opera House, and experience the nightlife. It felt strange to be heading towards Melbourne because my loop around the country was almost complete. But I was also happy to be leaving behind a crowded and expensive city. 

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9 Responses

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  2. Very Cool. Down in Tasmania, there is the Port Arthur prison that was where some of the original convicts went as well. Now they operate ghost tours out of it. That’s really cool too.

    1. I went to Port Arthur after Sydney and got to see some of those original buildings, but I didn’t get to do the ghost tour. That would have been so cool!

      1. I went during the day and it sounds familiar that a night tour was offered. I love doing ghost tours! I did a couple in prisons in Perth and the east coast. Too bad I missed the one at Port Arthur! Was there anything really exciting that stood out to you there?

      2. The fog would really add a nice element! That’s definitely a good place to do a ghost tour. Lots of crazy stuff went on there.

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