The Worst Job in Colonial Sydney

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Beasts of burden such as horses and bullocks were in short supply in the early days of colonial Sydney. Convicts on the other hand were plentiful and it was they who were forced to pull ploughs, logs and loaded wagons.

Millstone in Parramatta Lakes Park
Millstone in Parramatta Lakes Park

One of the most arduous and feared jobs in early Sydney was to be assigned to the treadmill. It was so dreadful that being sent there was a form of punishment reserved for recalcitrant convicts.

For example in September 1831, Charles Holding was sent there for three days for “stealing a pair of inexpressibles belonging to a neighbour” and John Josiah Jones “received a bonus of 30 days working on the mill” for absconding from his job in Sydney.

The convicts would walk all day, day after day inside a huge wheel-shaped cage turning heavy millstones in order to grind grains of corn or wheat into flour.

Millstones must be heavy and strong enough not to wear down. Sydney sandstone was too soft and would very quickly turn back into sand. Therefore, millstones had to be imported from England. They became one of the most valuable pieces of equipment in the early days of colonial Sydney.

The treadmill was located in Carter’s Barracks now known as Belmore Park beside Central Railway Station.

Trevor Patrick is a local historian of the north-west of Sydney, Australia. His latest book, In Search of the Pennant Hills, recounts some of these stories (and others) in more detail.