Charles Smith was 16 years old when he fell foul of the law. In Scotland today he would be treated as a child for his crime. In the 19th century he was tried and sentenced to death, his crime? The theft of a letter containing a 1 pound note. Harsh as this may seem young Smith received a reprieve if he elected to commute his death sentence by electing to serve his sentence in a Penal Colony in Australia. I’m sure it was a bit of a no brainer for this young lad, who bade farewell to his family and set off on one of the Colony ships for Australia. The ‘Baring’ sailed with over 300 convicts and was 151 days at sea. This was no Princess of the Seas sister ship cruise, life was harsh on board, some of the men did not make it.
On arrival at Sydney Harbour they would find themselves in the heart of historic Sydney in an area called the Rocks, now a tourist destination, then a place of squalor; a slum filled with dingy dwellings, taverns and brothels. It was an area to be avoided, people were not safe and gangs patrolled it pouncing on the unsuspecting drunk or visitor to the brothels. Despite having some grand shipping buildings and businesses here with pretty historic cottages, the area fell into further disarray when the shipping industry moved to nearby Circular Quay. The area would have a certain appeal for many of the convicts but they were still incarcerated when they arrived and the intention was to put them to use in the development of Sydney.
Lachlan Macquarie, is synonymous with Sydney the way John Stuart is with the Northern Territories. Both were Scots. Macquarie was the fifth and final military autocratic governor of Sydney who had a leading role in the social, economic and architectural development of the City. He played a crucial role in the transformation of New South Wales from a penal colony to a free settlement. His fingerprints are still evident in the City and add splendour and grandeur worthy of its history and status in the early settlement days. His wife, stricken by homesickness, used to sit near the harbour on the rocks watching for the ships coming in and bringing news from home. Mrs Macquarie’s chair, a rock hewn into a chair, from where she observed the Harbour comings and goings, is the final piece of an area of private garden and passageway known as Mrs Macquaries Road. Her husband had this developed in 1816, principally for her to enjoy and now a tourist attraction as a lookout point separating the idyllic Farm Cove and grittier Woolloomooloo Bay.
Macquarie developed an area at the end of Macquarie Street known as Hyde Park a green space lying to the north of the Hyde Park Barracks, home to the colony’s convicts. The Barracks are now a living museum where we heard the story of Charles Smith and could see how he lived when he arrived here. The barracks contained up to 170 men at one time living cheek by jowl, sleeping in simple rope hammocks that they shared routinely with rats. The museum affords you an insight into life here with many relics recovered during its revitalisation, now on display. The voices of men and later the women incarcerated there tell a moving story, pieced together from historic records and linked to discoveries in the building and in the records maintained of the day. The men here contributed to the development of Macquaire’s vision for the City working as builders, roofers, cabinet makers and plumbers. The regal court building, St Mary’s Cathedral, the Sydney Hospital, National Mint, Parliament Building and the National Library among the buildings we took in are evidence of his vision realised.
However Macquarie and the convicts found living with the indigenous peoples of the area was not as harmonious as it might have been. Macquarie was responsible for authorising the massacre of the Gundungurra and Dharawal people. In the Barracks we heard of the massacre of aborigine families and of wars between the two factions locally as they tried to claim their land back or achieve superiority. With the military power associated with the regime it was evident there was only going to be one winner here. The tales within the Barracks shifted from convicts to a holding house for immigrants. Mostly women were housed here on arrival, many from Ireland, their lives packed neatly into little brown suitcases. Some of the fine linen and lace still on display in the Barracks, little rosary beads and hair clips evidence that these women arrived prepared to remain, with hope and anticipation in their journey and relived in the stories we listened to as we observed.
The Sydney Hospital adjacent to the Hyde Park Barracks was the first of Macquarie’s developments, now part of this grand building has become the Mint and Parliament building. Lined with flags of the commonwealth the Aboriginal Flag among them, evidence of a nation keen to make good the relationships damaged by colonial masters. There are two bronze statues along Macquarie street worthy of mention on our tour of historic Sydney; the statue of Matthew Flinders, you may recall we heard much about him in Adelaide, who mapped the island of Australia and the Il Porcellino a bronze copy of the lolling Florentine boar gifted to the City in 1968. Rubbing it’s nose is meant to bring luck and it glints against the sunlight with the number of people hoping to benefit from a rub of its nose.
The Rocks lay derelict, a carbuncle on the City, until the 1970’s when it was reinvigorated. The historic buildings saved from demolition, now prized residences in this dark, narrow and quaint little streets surrounding the Rocks. Play fair Street is home to welcoming pubs, restaurants with seating outside and a Market on weekends. The finest stores can be found within the old shop fronts, faced with iron lattice work now home to modern designers such as Louis Vuitton and Prada. When the City fathers wanted to destroy many of these historic buildings the foresight of a radical building workers union whose opposition to the demolition, was vocal enough to ensure the detail and history of these little buildings were retained. Sydney, among its high rise business district, its majestic harbour and bridge has history and integrity within its confines that adds weight to the principle city status in Australia. We still had much to explore and do in Sydney but understanding where it was and how it became one of the significant cities of the world was just as important as looking at its sights.