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Cook Your Own Food

Students discover the ways the First Fleeters cooked their food rations in the camp kitchen.  

Student activities

Task no. 1

Cook Your Own Food

Analyse the detail of a map from Lieutenant William Bradley’s diary. Find any areas that indicate cooking.  

William Bradley - Charts from his journal ‘A Voyage to New South Wales’, 1802, December 1786-May 1792
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Did you find the ‘cooking place’, the ‘bakehouse’ and the ‘oven’?  Convicts had to cook their own food.  

Look at the close-up, below, of the location of the ‘cooking place’ from the map.

The handwritten words "Cooking place" next to a red dot within a circle
Image 1: Detail from William Bradley - Charts from his journal `A Voyage to New South Wales', 1802+

Look at the drawing of a typical British military camp kitchen, below. 

A circular trench dug out of the ground with a pile of dirt in the middle, eight spaces for fires placed regularly inside the trench below ground level and a man seated, with his legs in the trench, using one of the two lit fires to cook.

Image 2: Detail from Military antiquities : respecting a history of the English army from the conquest to the present time / by Francis Grose.

Notice the similarity of the round shapes viewed from above. A trench was dug in a circle with the dirt piled into the middle and spaces dug for the fires. There are no illustrations of the camp kitchens in the NSW colony. This illustration depicts the typical British military camp kitchen. We imagine the soldiers and the convicts would have created a similar camp kitchen in NSW and cooked their food over the fire using the cast iron pots they brought with them. 

At the bakehouse you could exchange your flour for baked bread (more like a biscuit!) of the same quantity and weight. To cook your own bread you could place it on an iron shovel on top of the fire but it was against the law!  Poor Mary Phillips received 25 lashes in February 1789 for doing just that! 

Answer these questions: [Suggested answers in Additional Information.] 

  • What advantages are there to cooking in this camp kitchen? Notice the person in the illustration. 
  • Why do think it was against the law to use a shovel for a cooking pan?  

Read this list of some of the cooking utensils, crockery and cutlery that was brought out on the First Fleet.  

  • tin saucepans 
  • iron pots 
  • camp kettles 
  • wooden bowls 
  • wooden platters 
  • tin plates 
  • clasp knives 
  • butchers’ knives 
  • wood canteens (drinking flask) 

Answer these questions: 

  • Which utensils are missing from the list that you would consider essential to prepare and eat your food?  
  • Who do you think in the colony had their own cooking and eating utensils and who had to share? 

Read what Judge David Collins wrote about some new cooking pots that arrived in 1792:   

We had now the mortification to find, that of the small supply of iron pots… a great part were either broken or cracked. 

Some convicts had no access to cooking utensils so had to either trade part of their food ration for the use of a cooking pot or eat their food uncooked. 

Read what George Thompson, a free settler, had to say in 1792 about convicts cooking and eating at the Toongabbie farms. 

At night they [the men] are placed in a hut, perhaps fourteen, sixteen, or eighteen together (with one woman, whose duty is to keep it clean and provide victuals for the men while at work). They have neither bowl, plate, spoon, or knife but what they make of the green wood of this country, only one small iron pot being allowed to dress their poor allowance of meat, rice, &c.  

Define the meaning of the words victuals and green wood

Answer these questions: 

  • What were they making out of the green wood? Why? 
  • What equipment did they use to cook their meal? 

The group in this hut would have pooled their rations together and the female hutkeeper would have cooked a one-pot stew or gruel. The water that the salted meat was boiled in for dinner was kept as a broth. It was thickend with oatmeal and pease to eat for breakfast the next day. It is likely that this practice was in use in 1788. 

Design your own crockery and cutlery. What materials will you use - bone china, clay, wood, metal or perhaps plastic? (Did the convicts have plastic items?) Which colours? What patterns?