Thursday, January 16, 2014

Convict Relics - Where are they now?

Using the resources of TROVE (online information service of the National Library of Australia) it is interesting to find newspaper articles relating to relics from the convict days of our history. In particular:

Copper Coins At Emu Plains
"There has come into my possession this week half a dozen copper coins which were ploughed up by the gardner in the orchard of Mr L Chapman, of Emu Plains, near the spot where the whipping-post once stood in the old penal station established by Governor Macquarie, west of the Nepean River............." 

Coin at Epping
"During excavations on the site of the new Catholic church-school at Epping, a relic of the old days was found in the shape of a coin dated 1799. In the early days a convict sawpit at this spot supplied timber to Sydney".

Stone at Curzon Hall, Marsfield

Curzon Hall as it stands today - January 2014
"Reminiscent of old medieval castles, it was entirely built from second-hand material, and such was the skill of the workmen that its turreted towers and wonderful carvings are the relics of bygone days. The main portion of stone is taken from old convict-built cottages.........."

Waverley House
"One of the most notable of the old landmarks of Sydney that are fast disappearing in order to make way for modern buildings, is Waverley House. For over three quarters of a century this relic of early days, which was erected as a mansion for Mr Barnet Levy in 1827 has occupied a commanding site on the Old South Head Road near the Bondi Junction. The house was constructed at a period when building was brisk, and when convict labour was largely availed of by the early residents  of Sydney........

The land having been recently sold in building allotments, the old landmark has been demolished. In the pulling down process several interesting relics of "convict" days were unearthed. These included portion of a prisoner's leg-irons and chain, a convict's chisel (with name stamped on), old coins, a gold brooch and other articles...."
Leg Irons at Lithgow

Example of Convict Leg-irons
"A pair of leg-irons, a relic of the convict days, has been found by the postmaster at Tarana. They had been lying so long in the roots of a tree that they had been worn with rust and exposure. They had evidently been discarded by a convict as they were filed through. The irons now weigh four pounds. It is suggested that the convict escaped from Glenroy, on Cox's River, where a stockade was built in the twenties of last century." 

"A relic of the convict days, portion of a leg-iron, has been found in the bush near Hassan Walls look-out. A stockade was maintained on the Great Western-road below Hassan Walls, and it is suggested that the leg-iron was cast off by an escapee. The discovery was made by Mr J Griffiths  who came upon the relic half-buried in the earth." 

"A leg-iron, rusted and broken, has been found on the ridge east of Hassan Walls Lookout. It is assumed that it was cast off by a runaway convict,one of a gang which constructed the road to Bathurst in 1832. One link is broken, and the ring round the ankle has been altered in shape to allow the convict to slip his foot through.

A pair of leg-irons, excellently preserved, is in the possession of Mr Charles Mathers, of Lithgow, whose son found them on the mountain-side near Hartley Vale. They were bound with calico, which crumbled at a touch."  
[Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 28 March 1938 page 6]

Convict Relics on the road over the Blue Mountains

"A relict of the days when convicts were constructing the road over the Blue Mountains - a round ball of iron attached to an iron bar, such as were used to fasten the legs of convicts to prevent them running away - was unearthed yesterday by the Blackheath postmaster (Mr. E.Kleist) in the yard of the Blackheath post office. The ball weighs 12 lb.

Another convict relic is a pair if leg-irons whihc are embedded in teh fork of a gum tree in Blackheath Municipal Gardens...."

"Councillor W. J. Lees of Mt. Victoria, makes a hobby of collecting relics of convict days. He has obtained a number of implements used in the construction of the Great Western Highway, including a rake employed to level the surface. He has a private museum, and adds to it as opportunity offers."
[Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 22 June 1936 page 7]

Convict Chains at West Maitland 
"Relief workers leveling the old banks at West Maitland have found several interesting relics of the early days. About a month ago a man dug up a set of old chains which were thought to be those of the convict days, This was followed by the discovery of a lock 15 feet below the surface, which West Maitland's Deputy Sheriff (Mr O.S. Morisset) identified as a lock of the type used to chain convicts to ring bolts. He said it might have been dropped when the man was released. It was at least 100 years old."

Convict Handcuffs
Example of convict handcuffs
"A workman's pick unearthed an old, rusty, pair of handcuffs on Wednesday, at the corner of Liverpool and Sussex streets, where the City Council excavation work is in progress. It is surmised that the handcuffs were part of the old military barracks and convict prison which occupied  an adjacent site in the early days of Sydney."

Leg Irons At Goulburn
"A few days ago a relic of the convict days, in the shape of a pair of leg-irons weighing 8lb., was unearthed near the soil by a man who was digging near Old Sydney road near the city.
There are the remains of an old stockade [Towrang] a short distance away."

Convict Stones at Parramatta
"Mr. W.Hulks, vice-president of the Parramatta sub-branch of the Returned Soldiers' League, said the building in Macquarie-street,Parramatta which is being remodelled for a soldiers' hall, was erected nearly 120 years ago. It was used as officers quarters for the regiments stationed at Parramatta. Subsequently it became a private school, known as Linden, and still later a laboratory for Meggitt's Ltd.

Beneath the building is a deep dungeon-like cellar, the walls of which are sandstone blocks two feet thick. This was evidently used as a prison, for the walls contain several scarcely legible markings............ 

Some of the stones bear the broad arrow marks of the convicts, denoting it was built  by prisoners, and the nails used throughout the building are of the old hand-made square variety........"

Leg Irons at West Dapto
"A relic of the days of old has been unearthed at West Dapto by Mr Percy Harvey. It consisted of rust-eaten leg-irons apparently 80 years old. ..............They were unearthed among the debris of the old West Dapto quarry. It was here in 1838-39 that the quarry near Mr Harris's was in operation, and it was here the stone was hewn by convicts for the foundation of the bridge ar Brownsville. In 1840 or 1842 Governor Gipps caused the prisoners to be removed, when the stockades at Brownsville, Unanderra then called Charcoal, Figtree and the Cross-roads were demolished."

Dripstone at Windsor
" The Fitzroy Hotel, at Windsor, has a quaint relic of the early days of New South Wales. It is a huge earthen bowl known as a dripstone. Encased in a cedar cabinet, a product of convict labour, as is the stone itself, the bowl is an object of curiosity to the many tourists who visit the hotel................... 
The stone was presented to Governor Macquarie, by a convict, 120 years ago."
Cooking Pot at Glenhaven
Convict Cooking Pot
SMH article 28 December 1940 {source TROVE}
"Tilling the land on his orchard and poultry farm at Glenhaven News South Wales, Mr S. Yarrow, a retired Boer War Veteran, unearthed a relic of Australia's early convict days-an iron cooking pot. Attached to the handle of the pot was an old rusted handcuff.

Apparently the hapless convict cook had been attached to the pot whilst performing his duties.....
[Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 28 December 1940, page 5] 

Underground Cells At Gosford
"Until a few years ago, the quaint building depicted below, standing on an old estate [Wyoming[ about half a mile from Gosford, was an object of great interest to visitors. It was originally owned by Francis Hely [Frederick Augustus Hely], a superintendent of convicts, who employed large numbers of prisoners on his estate.

Nearby an old building used for their accommodation is still standing, strongly built of stone quarried in the locality. What the real object of the former was remains uncertain, but an inspection by the writer some years ago revealed a number of cells below the ground which could have been used for only one purpose..............

The old building has vanished, the site being marked by a lofty Norfolk Island pine. "
[Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 20 January 1940].

Carlton Hotel Foundations
"The Old Carlton hotel, at the corner of Short-street and Carlton-parade, Carlton, is at present being converted into modern flats and shops. In the rebuilding operations it was found necessary to remove part of the foundations, and two stones were found with convict markings on them........

These newspaper articles are so interesting to read because:
  • they illustrate the geographic spread of convicts in the first decades of the Colony of New South Wales and how important their contribution actually was to the establishment of our settlements and infrastructure.  
  • having been written only one hundred or so years after the peak of convict activity in NSW, they reflect attitudes to the then convict heritage. The convict finds were obviously significant. 
The emphasis on the convicts as being "prisoners" with the descriptions of the leg-irons,  handcuffs and cells is interesting. It should be noted that at the turn of the twentieth century,  there were still some living convicts in Australia.

History Services NSW has extensive convict records for research purposes.
    If you are researching a convict ancestor, you should go to our website at:

    Blog prepared by Mary McGuinness

    I refer you to Trove's newspaper collection which includes digitised historic and modern newspapers which are accessible on line, as well as newspapers in microform and paper formats. Go to the website:


    1. Very interesting post and a fascinating read. Thank you for sharing this information. (I've never thought of using Trove for topic searching. I'm always on the hunt for ancestors there.)