Rubbing my fingers along uneven, hand-made brick walls, I was drawn towards ethereal light at the end of a long, lonely corridor, floor boards protesting every step. Looking up to the casing that holds the tick of an old clock, it brought the remains of long gone convicts alive for me in the centre of Sydney this week.
Here I was on a cold and rainy afternoon at Hyde Park Barracks, built by convicts’ hard labour in 1817-1819. Outside along the handsomely made brick walls, past the guardhouses and towards St James’ Church, you see Australia’s oldest town square established in 1824. Bar a few modern conveniences, the scene is direct from the very start of modern European civilisation in Australia. After all, the First Fleet landed a short walk away just 29 years before Governor Macquarie laid the foundations.
This national treasure was only saved from demolition in 1939 by the start of the Second World War, and as late as 1979 was still being used as government offices. Today it’s home to memories and possessions of 50,000 convicts and as many immigrant women and girls, their artefacts now on display and housed by the walls where they were lost through cracks and crevices all those years ago.
There were 4,000 Irish orphan girls brought here in 1848-1850, which gives rise to Australia’s memorial to the Great Irish Famine along the compound wall. One can’t help but feel a connection. My great-great grandmother from County Roscommon was a survivor of the famine, she arrived in Australia as a seventeen year old aboard a bride ship.
Australia’s longest continually operating public clock with its 1819 face and 1830s upgraded mechanism, looks out over the courtyard. In the rough, colonial new world, this clock was the one constant reminder of home for the new inhabitants. With each strike of its bell, those around paused, even only for a moment, remembering friendlier, safer times.
A whirring buzz sprung into action. Inside the building on the top floor, I looked directly up towards where the noise was originating. The clock struck. I froze with the realisation that I was hearing a note unchanged for two centuries, the same sound that gave the convicts and masters their sense of civilisation.
Click here to listen to the Hyde Park Barracks clock strike three.