The convict diet

Historical reenactors assemble outside Hyde Park Barracks. Photo © Fiona Morris for Sydney Living Museums

According to Francois-Maurice Lepailleur, a convict living at the Hyde Park barracks in 1840, “You don’t starve but you’re always hungry.” So what did convicts eat at Hyde Park barracks in the when it was home to over 600 male convict workers at any one time?

Convict rights

Convict workers were entitled to basic food each week to a standard that was set by the government. Private landowners or businesses that employed convicts would have to provide their workers with a regular food allowance, and sometimes added little extras like tea and sugar as an incentive for good behaviour or working standards. Convicts employed by government for public works, like building roads, making bricks, carting supplies or unloading ships, were issued with food supplied from the government ‘ration’.[1]

Convict workers outside Hyde park barracks. ‘A government jail gang N.S. Wales’, Augustus Earle, 1830. National Library of Australia

The weekly ‘ration’

The convicts were allocated a weekly food allowance, or ‘ration’ which was set by the government [1]. The ration components altered from time to time, but records show that the convicts living at the Hyde Park barracks between 1819 and 1848 generally received for one week:

7 pounds (3.1 kg) of flour
7 pounds (3.1 kg) beef OR 4 pounds (1.8kg) pork *
3.5 pounds (1.6 kg) maize (corn meal)#
1/2 pound (225 g) of salt
1 pound (455 g) of sugar
1/4 pound (110 g) tea

The daily diet

The superintendent would divide this up so that each day the convicts were given 450 g bread, 450 g meat, a cup of maize (corn meal), a couple of tablespoons of salt, 1/4 cup of sugar, and 15 g tea. The convicts were given two meals a day – breakfast at daybreak, before marching off to wherever they had to work, returning for dinner, which was taken in the middle of the day. The meals were cooked in the barrack’s kitchens, located in the middle of the ‘mess’ halls, or dining rooms.

  • The flour was baked into bread, made by convict bakers at the barracks own bakery, on the northern side of the barrack’s compound.
  • Because there was no refrigeration when fresh meat was available it had to be cooked very quickly or it would spoil.  Alternatively the meat was salted – like today’s corned beef or pickled pork. Pork, which was richer and fattier was issued at a lesser rate of 4 pounds (1.8 kg) per week.  The meat was cooked into soupy stews with whatever vegetables were available.
  • Maize is made from corn, which grew in abundance in the early colony and was very cheap. The convicts ground the corn on the dreaded treadmill to make it into cornmeal, a bit like polenta. It was made into ‘hominy’, a type of porridge or gruel for breakfast, with sugar and salt added to make it palatable. If wheat flour was in short supply it was used for bread.
  • When compared to a 2 g tea bag today, 15 grams would make almost 2 litres of tea! It would be served black, with some of the days allocation of sugar.
  • The ration was supplemented with vegetables that were grown by the convicts in their kitchen garden or could be bought cheaply at the market – generally cabbage, turnips and onions.

Laurie and Garion Wood sampling the cooks food at Redcoats and Convicts, Hyde Park Barracks Museum © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

Well fed or fed up?

Official reports said that the food was ‘nutritive and not insufficient to dispel “the quirks and chotchets” of a moderate appetite‘ (Sydney Gazette, June 6, 1827). Depending how many vegetables they had, and if they had access to fresh milk, the ration provided enough kilo-joules or calories for a labouring man (almost 14,000 Kj), but may not have been nutritionally sound. However there were lots of complaints about the quality of the food.
Convicts ‘abhorred’ hominy and bread made with cornmeal, but according to Peter Cunningham in 1827, ‘being a wholesome, cheap and nutritious food, [it] is on all accounts well suited to them.’

George Cozens described the meals the convicts were given at the barracks in 1840:

‘With regard to the rations served out to so many men they consisted of hominy breakfast, a thick substance they say is made from maize meal, well boiled in water, which when cool, forms a substantial food, one pound of brown bread, and half a pound of animal food; this formed the daily allowance to each person, if I might except the liquor termed soup, in which the fresh meat is boiled, with a slight sprinkling of cabbage leaf.’
George Cozens, Adventures of a guardsman, 1848

Bread as heavy as lead

Another convict, Joseph Lindgard complained about the the bread that was given in 1837, saying it was ‘sour as a crab, as thodden as clay, and the very colour of a new born brick‘. Rations flour was of a coarse grade of flour which was cheaper than the fine white flour that wealthy people enjoyed. When wheat wasn’t in good supply, maize was used instead, giving the bread a gritty texture.

Despite their bread being darker coloured and heavy, it would actually have been more nutritious than the more refined white bread, but obviously it wasn’t very pleasant to eat. It was common for people to put their bread in their soup or stew if their bread was heavy or tough and stale. This would make the stew more satisfying to eat too.

Hyde park barracks tableau by Wayne Haag. © Sydney Living Museums

The convicts’ mess

The convicts ate their meals in a large ‘mess hall’ which was built along the southern side of the barracks compound, opposite Hyde Park. Their food was cooked for them in central kitchens, and they didn’t get any choice about what they were given to eat. They ate in ‘mess groups’ of six men. One man would collect the food for their group, and then ladle it out to each man, so that everyone could see that they were getting their share.

‘Six pounds of fresh beef, boiled into soup, with a proportion of vegetable, and served up in a kid or small tub, six hungry men may manage to make a meal upon, with the addition of a slice of bread each, cut from the large loaf which garnishes each table.’
The Sydney Gazette, June 6, 1827

If it wasn’t practical to return to the barracks, food was taken to the work-sites on carts. Convicts working beyond the town limits were ‘victualled’ by local suppliers who were contracted by the government.

Hyde Park barracks showing southern mess halls and kitchen wing (right of main building) c1820.  The kitchens were located in the middle of the two halls (note its chimney). G.W. Evans ‘Convict barrack, Sydney’ State Library of New South Wales. PX*D 41.

The kitchens

Convicts were assigned to the kitchens each day to make sure the cooks didn’t cheat them by keeping a portion of the rations aside to sell for his own gain. According to the Superintendent’s Instructions from 1825:

 ‘He is to be particularly attentive to see that the provisions are properly cooked, that they are clean and wholesome, that a due proportion is allotted for each meal, and that no part of them is wasted, purloined, or improperly withheld by the cooks or other persons employed in their details’.

Hidden extras

Archaeological remains found during the building’s restoration in the 1980s revealed that the convicts diet wasn’t limited to the official food supply. Under the floors were oyster shells and peach, apricot and cherry stones.

Sources, Links and further reading

[1] For example, rations set by Governor Macquarie, 1820: The Sydney Gazette, September 23, 1820 and October 7, 1820.

[2] State Archives New South Wales NRS 938 4-5783-p471
Copies of letters sent and received, mainly within the Colony or “Document Books Nos. 1-3”, c.1817 – October 1827 p. 471

Hyde Park barracks, Sydney: a short history.

A day in the life of a convict at Hyde Park barracks.

Instructions for the guidance of the superintendent and Subordinate Offices of the Establishment of Convicts in Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney 1825.

Francois-Maurice Lepailleur, Land of a thousand sorrows, The Australian Prison Journal 1840-1842, of the Exiled Canadien Patriote. translated and edited by F. Murray Greenwood. University of British Columbia Press, 1980.

Peter Cunningham, Two years in New South Wales. Henry Colburn, London 1827

Charles Cozens, Adventures of a guardsman. London : Richard Bentley, 1848.

First Fleet and early convict diet: First Fleet Fare; Food and Fetters; Escapee Tea.