by Michaela Ann Cameron

Last year the Dictionary of Sydney released its debut historic walking tour Old Irish Sydney on the free Dictionary of Sydney Walks app. Using the Old Irish Sydney app got me excited about the way multimodal technology has the ability to put “history in the palm of your hand” and transform the everyday urban environment into an outdoor museum, so I approached the Dictionary about being involved in their next app project.

Given that I am an “Old Parramattan” myself with at least 7 convict ancestors and a huge passion for colonial history, it was decided that the next app would have a Parramatta theme. Eighteen months and eleven new Dictionary entries later, the walking tour Convict Parramatta is here and available to download for free on Google Play and the App Store. Thanks to the efforts of the Dictionary team, you will experience Convict Parramatta in all its multimedia glory, with historical imagery, a lively narration by actress Rebecca Havey, and an evocative colonial soundscape.

I was delighted to join Ellen Leabeater on 2SER this week to announce the official launch of the new walking tour, which has been a real labour of love for me, and to give listeners a little taste of what they can expect.

Convict Parramatta’s release this week has coincided with Parramatta City Council’s food and arts festival Parramatta Lanes. It seemed pertinent then to focus on the convict history of a major street the festival goers will be strolling down: George Street, Parramatta.

George Street Parramatta, from the gates of Government House, around 1804-5

George Street Parramatta, from the gates of Government House, around 1804-5 by GW Evans. Courtesy Sydney Living Museums (Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection 31758)

In 1788, George Street was little more than a track leading from the original landing place on the Parramatta River. However it was not long before that modest track became Australia’s first planned road and, according to Watkin Tench, a “great” and “very noble” one at that; stretching from the landing place (the Governor’s Wharf) to the governor’s house.

Convict huts, erected in 1790, lined both sides of George Street and extended right into present-day Parramatta Park.

The remains of convict huts were revealed in the Murray Gardens only two weeks ago during excavations conducted by GML Heritage for the Parramatta Park Trust. They had been lying beneath a surprisingly shallow layer of soil for 200 years!

A likely inhabitant of a convict hut that stood on the corner of George and Marsden Streets was John Hodges; an ex-con and sly-grog trader. It is thought Hodges even operated his “disorderly house” in that hut in the early 1800s before his £1000 winnings in a card game at the nearby Woolpack Inn enabled him to construct Brislington—a considerably grander abode—on the site of his old hut.

Brislington Medical and Nursing Museum, Parramatta March 2014, copyright Michaela Ann Cameron

Brislington, the house built by former convict John Hodges, copyright Michaela Ann Cameron 2014

The cashed-up Hodges remained a crim at heart though. Indeed, he and his convict servant Thomas Lynch were brazen purloiners! Rather conveniently for the opportunistic Hodges and Lynch, the convict hospitals (known as the General and Colonial Hospitals) were located directly behind Brislington, making it easy for the thieving duo to steal a marble slab intended for the hospital’s new mortuary. They subsequently installed it in Hodges’s kitchen fireplace. It was a crime that earned them both a twelve-month prison stay.

What made the theft of the marble slab particularly unpardonable was the fact that, from their inception, the poorly designed, woefully constructed, and malodorous convict hospitals had struggled with properly disposing of the dead. Colonial commentators complained bitterly of the deceased being piled up in hospital passageways or left in the same rooms as the living due to the absence of a mortuary. For this and so many other reasons, Richard Rouse claimed many convicts were “carried [to the hospital] often against their will” while the irate Reverend Samuel Marsden declared, “there was never such a place for want, for wretchedness, for debaucheries, and for every vice.” You will not see those convict hospitals on the tour; but you will see the Parramatta Justice Precinct’s Heritage Courtyard where the hospitals once stood. The Heritage Courtyard is literally an outdoor museum created by architects Bates Smart wherein artefacts recovered from the hospital site during archaeological excavations are displayed alongside images, primary source quotations, and historical information. You will even get to see the partially excavated remains of a colonial cesspit!

View of the colonial hospital in Parramatta c1822

View of the colonial hospital in Parramatta c1822, State Library of Victoria (Acc no: 30328102131561/12 (detail))

The sites and stories mentioned here are just a small section of the first leg of a one-hour walk through colonial Parramatta, which takes you from the Hanging Green (Prince Alfred Park) to God’s Acre (St John’s Cemetery: the oldest surviving European cemetery in Australia) and 11 other convict sites; the Parramatta Female Factory, Parramatta Gaol, Old Government House and the Dairy Precinct in the World Heritage listed Parramatta Park. The secret felonious pasts of even the most innocent and genteel-looking Georgian cottages are also exposed along the way.

Convict Parramatta is the latest but by no means the last Dictionary Walk. Stay tuned for the release of “Sydney Harbour Islands” and “Heritage Randwick” later this year. In the meantime you can download the free Dictionary of Sydney Walks app and tours to your mobile device on Google Play or the App Store.

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The Convict Parramatta project has been assisted by funds allocated to the Royal Australian Historical Society through the Heritage Branch of the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.

You can listen to a podcast of Michaela’s segment on 2SER Breakfast here and check out her fantastic entries on the Dictionary here.

Tune into 2SER again next week for more of Sydney’s history courtesy of the Dictionary of Sydney, on 107.3 at 8:20am. Don’t miss it!

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