In the days of Empire Britain acquired, and used, Australia as a dumping ground for its undesirable and unwanted citizenry. By the late 18th century Britain’s prison system had reached its breaking point and Australia, at the other end of the world, provided the perfect solution to overcrowding in British gaols.
Those, like Mary Kelly, who committed such heinous crimes as the ‘theft of spoons, plates, pillowslips and napery’ could be packed into a ship, sent the antipodes and forgotten about in the certain knowledge that they wouldn’t be seen or heard off again in ‘old Blighty’.
In retrospect, though they would not have appreciated it at the time, these were the lucky criminals, particularly if they had a trade – escaping the hangman’s noose or life in a British prison. In Australia the convicts were not locked up (unless they re-offended) and were mostly soon pardoned and could begin life anew. Until pardoned they were indentured labourers.
The convicts from the First Fleet (1788) and later arrivals were directed to and settled on the then undesirable barren rocky outcrop jutting into the Harbour soon to be, and still, known as The Rocks. Here they initially lived in tents and huts constructed from wattle-and-daub, accessed from Sydney Cove by tracks and lane-ways cut into the rock.
Between 1788 and 1900 The Rocks area developed and the huts and tents gave way to permanent residences and businesses as the convicts and their offspring became more prosperous. Over time, however, the area became overcrowded and while piped water and sewage had been connected in the 1850s negligent landlords (in many cases former convict residents who had moved to posher parts of town) let these systems deteriorate and the housing in the area fall into disrepair.
By the time the bubonic plague arrived in Sydney in 1900 The Rocks had become known as a slum. As it turned out, only three people in The Rocks died from the plague but despite this the whole area was condemned to demolition and cleared in 1901.
While the majority of The Rocks area was subsequently rebuilt on, the small area between Cumberland Street and Gloucester Street saw only light development in the form bus and car parks which basically only required the area being covered in concrete paving. While the more substantial rebuilding in other parts of The Rocks saw the foundations, etc of former buildings being removed or otherwise destroyed, in this area the concrete paving actually protected the archaeological remains below.
In 1994 the “Big Dig” commenced and since then the foundations of 40 plus houses and shops and nearly a million artefacts have been uncovered by archaeologists and volunteers. While these remains do not rank with the discovery of the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu in Peru or Pompeii they have provided a very important insight into the living conditions and social history of late 18th century Sydney – or at least the less prosperous part thereof – at the time of Australia’s first European settlement.
Here at the The Big Dig Archaeology Education Centre the visitor can see some of the area’s earliest building foundations and wells from raised walkways and some of the recovered artifacts in display cases.
The earliest identified property uncovered in the Big Dig belonged to George Lagg who arrived on the First Fleet in 1788 and built a house here in 1795. Depicted in my first two pictures are the foundations of the 1805 house lived in, and most likely built, by convict stonemason Richard Byrne and his wife Mary Kelly. Byrne was an Irish rebel deported for his role in the 1798 Rebellion while, as referred to earlier, Kelly was deported for the theft of spoons, plates, pillowslips and napery.
One of the more interesting artefacts for me, among all sorts of children’s toys, jewellery, crockery, ceramics, an illegal still, etc uncovered is the small jar with scenes from the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaklava, depicted in picture 5 attached.
The wire animals on the site, some of which you can see in picture 3 attached, are Glenn Doyle creations added in June 2015 to let visitors see the types of animals that shared the area with early settlers.
Surrounding the exposed area and in fact built into and over it is Sydney Harbour YHA.
Address: 110 Cumberland Street, Sydney
Phone: 61 2 8272 0900