A convict’s breakfast

Cooking over the fire at 'Redcoats and Convicts' at the Hyde Park Barracks.

Cooking over the fire at 'Redcoats and Convicts' at the Hyde Park Barracks. Photo © Leo Rocker

Breakfast at the barracks

While Sydney’s ‘toffs’ tucked into a leisurely breakfast – anything from freshly laid eggs to kedgeree, smoked ham or cured tongue, sometimes as late as 11am, the convicts at the Hyde Park Barracks would have had to settle for a dish of dreaded hominy, a porridge made from maize, or corn meal, doled out in the mess halls just before dawn (see recipe below).

Already introduced to the harsh realities of convict life on Norfolk Island, John Knatchbull was aghast to find that conditions at the Hyde Park Barracks were far worse. He recalled his first morning at the barracks,

… The bell rang in the morning, a signal for daily labour. Before ’twas light out you must come… down into the yard we went and soon found out that if we required to break our fast we must repair to a messroom.

A dish containing hominy, the bottom of which was not covered, was set down for six men… I looked at the dish and then my messmates; asked if that was for six men, [less than] one man’s allowance at Norfolk; and being informed it was, I rose and went out. Breakfast, so called, being over, the gangs had to fall in for work.

The daily grind

One of the most arduous jobs assigned to the barrack’s convicts was the treadmill, which used man power to grind maize into meal or flour. Described as ‘a very useful piece of machinery for the purpose of correcting the tarnished morals of Botany Bay’ the treadmill was reserved for the worst-behaved convicts, and acted as a deterrent for bad conduct in others. Lined up in groups of ten, convicts would ‘climb’ the boards in unison to turn the mill – a bit like climbing a never ending stairway, or a vertical hamster wheel? The Sydney treadmill was located where Sydney’s Central Station is now. People could bring their whole grain to the treadmill and exchange it for ground corn for a small fee, which went to the government.

Illustration of a convict treadmill from 1822.

Convict treadmill, in ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’, 1822, Vol 92, Pt 2, pp 8-9. State Library of New South Wales: DS050/G338

Dangerous work

Visiting French naval officer Hyacinthe de Bougainville gave this account of the Sydney treadmill in 1825:

It is a large wheel whose horizontal blades are wide enough to allow a certain number of men to position themselves, each next to the other, on the outside… Holding on to a wooden crossbar that is separate from the wheel and attached at the height of the chin, they climb without stopping from one blade to the next… this labour continues for forty minutes without a break; the men rest for twenty minutes, then they start up again, and so on, for the whole day… It was difficult to imagine an activity more boring and tiring at the same time, by it’s monotony and the care necessary to apply to this task, in the fear of missing the blade and having your legs mutilated…

Swine food

While wheat was the premium grain for bread and other culinary uses, it was more difficult to grow than maize, which flourished in Sydney’s climate and soils. Wealthier households either grew or purchased maize to feed to their pigs, but poor households used maize in place of, or mixed in with, wheaten flour to make cheap bread. The convict’s bread was often made with one-third maize meal to stretch the more expensive wheat supply.

Sweet temptation

The convicts loathed maize meal, finding it grainy and coarse – not nearly as well milled as the meal we buy today as polenta. Their hominy was likely to be quite sweet, as sugar was added to make it more palatable. Skim milk, when available (the cream being reserved for butter making), would add protein and richness to hominy. For those who could afford it, currants could be added for extra sweetness and flavour. If the hominy was made properly, and not too watered down, it could be left to set in a cool place, and sliced up like a poor man’s fruit bread or pudding.

Sweet breakfast hominy

Ingredients

  • 170g (1 cup) coarse polenta
  • 250ml (1 cup) milk (optional)
  • 1 heaped tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 heaped tablespoon currants (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon butter (optional)

Note

A dish strongly associated with slaves in Africa, Jamaica and America, and Australian convicts, hominy is still eaten in many parts of the world, sometimes enriched and sweetened with condensed milk. Coarse polenta is easy to obtain and is perfect for hominy. The butter adds richness and a silky quality.

Serves 4

Directions

Put the polenta in a large saucepan with 1/4 teaspoon of salt and 500 ml (2 cups) of water. Cook over low heat, stirring for about 10 minutes, or until the polenta has thickened and starts to come away from the sides of the pan as you stir. Be careful – the mixture will bubble and pop as steam tries to come through the meal as it thickens.

Add the milk, if using, or 250 ml (1 cup) of water and stir for a few seconds to loosen up the mixture. Add the sugar and currants, if using, and stir for a few minutes until the sugar dissolves and the currants have softened. Taste, and add more salt or sugar to your liking. If using the butter, stir it through until it has melted. Serve hot.

Sources

Roderick, C. John Knatchbull, From quarterdeck to gallows. Angus & Robertson.

Rivière, Marc Serge (ed). Hyacinthe de Bougainville’s Account of Port Jackson, 1825.