Setting up camp

Students investigate the homes of both First Fleet convicts and Aboriginal people by conducting in-depth source analysis and practical experiments.
Key inquiry question #1: 
Why did Europeans settle in Australia?
Key inquiry question #2: 
What was the nature and consequence of contact between Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples and early traders, explorers and settlers?

Learning intentions

Students are learning to:

  • understand the daily life of First Fleet convicts
  • recognise the challenges of environment and materials in building shelter
  • interrogate primary and secondary sources of information

Success criteria

Students will be successful when they can:

  • describe the living conditions
  • evaluate materials used in building convict shelter
  • explain the impact of European development on Aboriginal people

Student Activities

Finding shelter

Students familiarise themselves with the map of the camp to get an overview of the settlement and its location. 

Number of set tasks: 1

A Roof Over Our Heads

Students investigate the building materials used by the colonists and explore the significance of the cabbage tree palm to Aboriginal people. 

Number of set tasks: 1

Somewhere to Sleep

Students analyse and compare the different types of shelter built by the First Fleet. 

Number of set tasks: 4

Aboriginal homes

Students interrogate the concept of terra nullius, examine Aboriginal homes and consider the impact of British settlement. 

Number of set tasks: 3

I've got a plan!

Students delve into the detail of living conditions in a convict hut. 

Number of set tasks: 1

Wish You Were Here!

Students envisage themselves as convicts in order to write a postcard ‘home’. 

Number of set tasks: 1

Spot the Difference

Students compare paintings of Sydney Cove over time and uncover the reason why Aboriginal people were included in these paintings. 

Number of set tasks: 1


A student:

HT2-3 describes people, events and actions related to world exploration and its effects

HT2-4 describes and explains effects of British colonisation in Australia

HT2-5 applies skills of historical inquiry and communication

Stories of the First Fleet, including reasons for the journey, who travelled to Australia, and their experiences following arrival (ACHHK079)


  • describe the establishment of the British colony at Port Jackson
  • using a range of sources, investigate the everyday life of ONE of the following who sailed on the First Fleet and lived in the early colony: a soldier, convict, ex-convict, official

The nature of contact between Aboriginal people and/or Torres Strait Islanders and others, for example, the Macassans and the Europeans, and the effects of these interactions on, for example, families and the environment (ACHHK080)


  • describe the nature of contact between Aboriginal people and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples and others, including Aboriginal resistance
  • explain the term terra nullius and describe how this affected the British attitude to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • use sources to identify different perspectives on the arrival of the British to Australia
  • outline the impact of early British colonisation on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' country

Comprehension: chronology, terms and concepts:

  • respond, read and write, to show understanding of historical matters
  • sequence familiar people and events
  • use historical terms

Analysis and use of sources:

  • locate relevant information from sources provided 

Perspectives and interpretations:

  • identify different points of view within an historical context

 Empathetic understanding:

  • explain how and why people in the past may have lived and behaved differently from today


  • pose a range of questions about the past
  • plan an historical inquiry

Explanation and communication:

  • develop texts, particularly narratives
  • use a range of communication forms (oral, graphic, written) and digital technologies

Continuity and change: changes and continuities due to British colonisation of Australia.

Cause and effect: reasons for a particular historical development

Perspectives: different points of view within an historical context

Empathetic understanding: how and why people in the past may have lived and behaved differently from today.

Significance: the importance and meaning of national commemorations and celebrations, and the importance of a person or event.

Contestability: historical events or issues may be interpreted differently by historians, eg British 'invasion' or 'settlement' of Australia.

Cross-curriculum priorities:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures


General capabilities:

  • Critical and creative thinking
  • Ethical understanding
  • Intercultural understanding
  • Literacy

Stories of the First Fleet, including reasons for the journey, who travelled to Australia, and their experiences following arrival (ACHASSK085)

  • investigating attitudes to the poor, the treatment of prisoners at that time, and the social standing of those who travelled to Australia on the First Fleet, including families, children and convict guards
  • investigating daily life in the Botany Bay penal settlement and challenges experienced by the people there and how they were managed.

The nature of contact between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and others, for example, the Macassans and the Europeans, and the effects of these interactions on, for example, people and environments (ACHASSK086) 

  • exploring the impact that British colonisation had on the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples (dispossession; dislocation; and the loss of lives through conflict, disease, loss of food sources and medicines)
  • considering whether the interactions between Europeans and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples had positive or negative effects
  • examining paintings and accounts (by observers such as Watkin Tench and David Collins) to determine the impact of early British colonisation on Aboriginal Peoples' Country.

Additional information

The following information supports the above activities. Read the activities first. 

General information about housing

The first huts built were not meant to be very homely, just a shelter to sleep in. These huts had attached gardens for growing food, in order to supplement the Government stores.

These very basic buildings were built with local clay, split fibrous cabbage-tree palm trunks and tree branches in a technique brought with the convicts from Europe that is known as ‘wattle and daub’. The ‘wattle’ was the trunks and twigs, the ‘daub’ was the clay, often mixed with other things like straw or hair or dung. The cottages were built with one or two rooms, the windows were made with woven twigs, roofs were thatched, with a fireplace at one end and when looking from the front had one doorway and a window opening on either side.

  • Did you know? The term wattling – to weave flexible twigs in a basket-like fashion – led to the Acacia tree being given the common name of wattle!

During storms mud, or ‘daub’, sometimes washed away. Poorly fired bricks could also dissolve in the rain and needed to be coated with pipe clay or lime, which was very hard to get in sufficient quantities before 1808.

These huts, and the stone and timber buildings that replaced them, eventually became homes to families. People were able to procure furniture and chests to store their few possessions. These family homes were technically still owned by the government and would also later provide lodgings for newly arrived convicts. They would sleep on a mattress on the floor. Remembering that the earliest settlement was a bit like camping, there were no bathrooms or toilets.

Sturdy brick cottages came much later for the convicts. The earliest brick structure with glass windows was built for the Governor, followed by houses for officials and public buildings like stores.

Other convict houses

Convicts also built bark huts as the materials were easy to come by especially outside of the town.

Convict houses for groups

By November 1790 Parramatta has been set up as an alternative site for the town and had 32 convict ‘barracks’ that held 10 to 14 men each. They were single storey and built in the wattle and daub method with a thatched roof measuring 7.3m by 3.6m. In Sydney in April 1792 larger brick barracks were being built to house convicts measuring 7.9m wide and 4.2m deep and housing 10 people.


In 1788 the European population of Sydney was probably between 1000 - 1500 people.  By 1793 it was 3514. Shelter was needed for all of these people.

Activity 3 Information

Summary of construction methods for convict mud huts

Walls: wooden planks, posts from cabbage-tree palm, wattle and daub (flexible branches from trees were woven together and filled with clay mixed with hay, straw, dung and horsehair.) As the animals were so scarce the convicts most likely did not use horsehair or dung.

  • Did you know? Human hair was used in the wattle and daub construction of huts on Norfolk Island in the 1830s!

Floors: tamped clay (compacted clay), and later some floors were made of brick or stone.

Roof: Mostly layers of thatched rushes (hollow stemmed plants growing near water, dried out), timber shingles (which fade to grey), or long strips of bark tied to the rafters held down on top with branches. Clay roof tiles were created after the timber ones proved to be inadequate. Roof shingles were held in place by wooden or ceramic pegs, often made by female convicts as a punishment.

Windows: woven wattle branches (no glass for convicts’ windows).

Doors: if you had one it could be a lattice of twigs attached to wall with vines or wooden planks nailed with leather strap hinges

Fireplace and chimney: if you had one, it was most likely a ‘smoke hood’ made with a timber frame and infilled with wattle and daub. Stone and brick chimneys came later when these owners had more money. Timber chimneys were cheaper to build but were a fire hazard.

Activity 4 Answers

Q: What has disappeared? What is the effect?

A: The thick wood, natural bushland and plants growing along the stream have disappeared. The trees (ancient inhabitants) were cut down to build the houses in the surrounding area. Once plants and trees are removed from the banks of a stream the banks can become unstable and collapse into the water. Run-off from surrounding land flowing into the stream increases. These changes can damage the complex eco-systems near and in the water.

Q: How could the introduced animals, like cows and pigs, impact the Tank Stream?

A: The introduced animals like cows, horses, sheep and pigs near streams can affect the waterway in many ways. They drink the water, their hard hooves trample the soil and their waste goes into the water. Along with the removal of plants and trees, animals can also damage the complex eco-systems near and in the water.

Q: What impact did the loss of access to this freshwater stream have on Aboriginal people?

A: The stream provided drinking water, a food supply in and around the stream, like fish and plant food, and the pebbles and sandstone were used for creating tools.  As land and connection to Country in the key link for all aspects of life for Aboriginal people being denied access to the stream and surrounding land was devastating.

Q: Guess how many years it took the colonists to destroy it?

A: About 12 years. In 1791 a fence was put up around the stream to protect it from wandering animals. In 1795 the deterioration of the stream was bad enough that it was forbidden to cut trees down or allow animals to graze within 15m of the stream. By 1800 it was considered an open sewer.

Activity 5 Information


During the day, all the European people in the colony used a pit toilet if they needed it. It was a hole dug in the ground (sometimes called a cesspit) that was shared by many people. Everyone would also use the woods.

With no roads and gutters and no sewerage system, when it rained a lot all the water, and all of the waste that was flooded out of the cesspits, ran through the mud huts.

  • Did you know? Toilet paper alternatives at this time in history in England were leaves, moss, scraps of paper but the upper echelons of society used scraps of cloths (cut from worn out clothes or bedlinen) which were then washed and reused. As those who settled in early Sydney had no scraps of paper and fabric was scarce, they probably used leaves and moss as toilet paper.

[For more information on toilets see Activity 1, Surviving the challenges, of the Challenges to survival Learning Activity.]

Activity 6 Information


  • Did you know?  England invented the postage stamp in 1840! Prior to this the person the letter was sent to had to pay when they received it.
  • Did you know?  Some letters were sent from Sydney in the ships from the First Fleet that returned to England in 1788, but no letters were received from ‘home’ (Britain) until the arrival of the ship Lady Juliana on 6 June 1790. As the First Fleet had departed England on 13 May 1787, it means the people who had arrived with the First Fleet had to wait over three years for news from their families and friends.!
Activity 7 Information

Spot the Difference

In the 1803 painting the long white building in the right foreground is the prefabricated portable hospital that arrived on the Second Fleet. You can see the panels quite clearly. In 1797 it was moved marginally to the west due to the widening of George St and added to over the years. This building was still standing in the 1880s!

Generally the buildings are focused towards the water and the jetty. This was a town reliant on ships and local waterways to travel to the other townships like Parramatta and Windsor.

Remember that these paintings were created for a British market so some details may be omitted or added, such as Aboriginal people conveniently sitting in the foreground. Details were added into paintings that weren’t necessarily there at the time. Sometimes this was to make the colony more appealing than it was. Sometimes it was to appeal to this particular British audience’s preconceived ideas of what the colony was like or appeal to their fascination of different cultures and as people as curiosities.

Source list for images details in student activities

Somewhere to Sleep 

Image 1: Artist unknown, Opp. p. 84. `Sydney Cove, Port Jackson. 1788', ca. 1802 

Image 2: Thomas Watling, North-West View taken from the Rocks above Sydney / in New-South-Wales, for John White, Esqr, 1793-1795 

Image 3: Thomas Watling, View of Sydney Cove / painted by Thomas Watling, 1794-1796? 

Image 4: Thomas Watling, View of Sydney Cove / painted by Thomas Watling, 1794-1796? 

Image 5: Edward Mason, Views of Sydney and Surrounding District / by Edward Mason, ca. 1821-1823 

Image 6: American & Australasian Photographic Company, Wattle and daub hut with bark roof, Hill End, 1870-1875 

Image 7: American & Australasian Photographic Company, Women and boys outside a wattle and daub house with bark roof, Hill End, 1870-1875 

Image 8: Artist unknown, Brickfield Hill, 1796, 1796 

Image 9: Artist unknown, View of the Government Hut at Cowpastures / 1804, 1804 

Image 10: Artist unknown, Sydney - Capital New South Wales, ca.1800 / artist unknown, ca.1800 

Image 11: John Eyre, [East view of Sydney in New South Wales, ca 1809] / drawn by John Eyre, ca. 1809 

Image 12: Artist unknown, West view of Sydney-Cove taken from the Rocks, at the rear of the General Hospital, [1789], 1789 

Aboriginal Homes 

Image 1: Artist unknown, Opp. p. 84. `Sydney Cove, Port Jackson. 1788', ca. 1802 

Image 2: Thomas Watling, View of Sydney Cove / painted by Thomas Watling, 1794-1796? 

Image 3: John William Lancashire, View of Sydney Port Jackson, New South Wales, taken from the Rocks on the western side of the Cove, ca. 1803 / drawn by John William Lancashire, ca. 1803