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Somewhere to Sleep

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

Student activities

Task no. 1


Look at the tent image below, this is an extract from a painting of Sydney Cove in 1788. 

A landscape with tents and buildings
Image 1: Detail from Opp. p. 84. `Sydney Cove, Port Jackson. 1788'

Read Lieutenant Ralph Clark’s description of sleeping in a tent in February 1788: 

… remarkably hott have nothing to Sleep but a Poor Tent and a little grass to Sleep on…in all the course of my life I never Sleept worse my dear wife than I did [last] night - what with the hard cold ground Spiders ants and every vermin that you can think of was crauling over me I was glad when the morning came. 

Read sailor Jacob Nagle’s comment about the Governor’s tent in February 1788: 

the govener had a frame Canvis house brought from England. 

Read what Captain James Campbell had to say about tents in July 1788: 

having but their Canvas Tents, now rotten, to keep them from the inclemency of the weather, and now, wet ground to lay themselves upon. 

Read Surgeon John White’s opinion of living in a tent in June 1788: 

This I well know, that living in tents, as the rainy season has commenced, is truly uncomfortable and likely to give a severe trial to the strongest and most robust constitution. 

Analyse good versus bad shelter in regard to tents.  

Answer these questions:  

  • Was a tent an adequate long-term shelter?  
  • What were the tents made of?  
  • Why were the tents rotten?  
  • Would there be any repercussions from sleeping in a wet canvas tent? 

Task no. 2


It was two years before most of the people who had arrived with the First Fleet had their ‘temporary’ tents replaced by something more substantial, and even then these were only basic shacks. The ‘wattle and daub’ method of building was basically wooden branches and clay. Building was slow, but the convicts’ huts were reminiscent of their modest simple rural homes back in Britain. 

Look at the images, below, of ‘wattle and daub’ huts. Once again, these are extracts from larger paintings of the colony, completed between 1793 – 1796.

A landscape with tents and buildings

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

A detail from a painting featuring many houses built using the wattle'n'daub building method

Image 3: Detail from View of Sydney Cove / painted by Thomas Watling

Read this female convict’s description of living in a hut in November 1788: 

 …the inconveniences since suffered for want of shelter, bedding, etc, are not to be imagined by any stranger. However, we have now two street, if four rows of the most miserable huts you can possibly conceive of deserve that name.  

Read what Judge David Collins in February 1789, referred to the huts as: 

miserable mud tenements, which were occupied by the convicts.  

He made further comments on the convict huts in November 1789: 

The huts which were got up on our first landing were slight and temporary; every shower of rain washed a portion of the clay from between the interstices of the cabbage-tree of which they were constructed; their covering was never tight, their size was necessarily small and inconvenient. 

During a storm in August 1788, he recorded: 

Some of the huts were so far injured, as to require nearly as much labour to repair them as to build them anew. 

Analyse good versus bad shelter in regard to ‘wattle and daub’ huts. 

Answer these questions:  

  • Was living in a hut better than living in a tent? Why? 
  • What do they provide protection from? (Don’t forget about what Ralph Clark talked about above!)  
  • What were the main problems with the construction methods for ‘wattle and daub’ huts?  
  • What adjectives have the commentators used to describe these buildings?   
  • How do you think people felt about living in these huts?  

Task no. 3

Brick houses

Look at the image of a brick house, below. Do you know who lived in this brick house? Yes, Governor Arthur Phillip! Convicts were making the bricks and building with them, but they did not live in houses made of brick themselves until much later on. Eventually, in the 19th century the most successful emancipated convicts built some of the biggest brick houses in the colony. 

A large house with fields in front

Image 4: Detail from View of Sydney Cove / painted by Thomas Watling

Define the term emancipated

Analyse good versus bad shelter in regard to brick houses.  

Answer these questions:  

  • How would life be different living in a brick house compared to a hut or a tent?  
  • What are the safety advantages of a brick house over a tent or hut? 

Task no. 4

Concluding Activity

Imagine you are a building inspector and have arrived at Christopher Bunbury’s house on the Cowpasture Road where he is renovating his house.  Look at the image, below, which shows the house and a partial extension to the left. [A list of building methods that a building inspector would know can be found in Additional Information.]

A house with woman hanging out washing

Image 5: Detail from Views of Sydney and Surrounding District / by Edward Mason


Answer these questions: 

  • Do you, as a building inspector, see any problems with the house or the half-built extension? If so, what are they? 
  • Do you think Mr Bunbury engaged a quality builder? 
  • What building materials have been used? Where do you think Mr Bunbury obtained the building materials? 
  • Would you approve the building as ‘habitable’? Define the word habitable

Your visit to Mr Bunbury’s house is finished. Hopefully you said hello to his wife Eleanor who was hanging out the washing!  

Analyse the close-up details from the photographs, below. [They were taken in the early 1870s, a MUCH later time in history, but demonstrate a similar construction method to the huts built by convicts nearly 100 years earlier.] You can see that the hut corners and chimneys have deteriorated, and elements of the building have been exposed, just as they would have been for convicts’ houses. 

Wall of an old timber and mud house

Image 6: Detail from Wattle and daub hut with bark roof, Hill End

Chimney of an old timber and mud house

Image 7: Detail from Women and boys outside a wattle and daub house with bark roof, Hill End

Answer these questions:  

  • What construction method has been used for the walls and chimney?  
  • What construction method has been used for the roof?  


Look at the images of different buildings in NSW between 1788 and 1809, below. These buildings are NOT all convict housing but chosen to reflect the variety of building practices. They are details taken from larger paintings. As you are a building inspector you need to update your qualifications and complete this test.

A house with man and cow in front

Image 8: Detail from Brickfield Hill, 1796

A house with thatched roof and people standing

Image 9: Detail from View of the Government Hut at Cowpastures / 1804

A large orange building

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

A collection of houses

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

A house on hill

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

Find the following things in the images: 

  • a ‘wattle and daub’ hut 
  • a brick building (Tip: bricks were made from a warm coloured clay) 
  • four different methods of roofing - thatch, bark with branches, grey timber shingles  and clay tiles.
  • a building with weatherboards (horizontal wooden planks) 
  • a chimney made of wood  
  • a chimney made of brick/stone 
  • a shelter that appears to have no windows  

As a building inspector, answer this question: 

  • Would you pass these buildings as safe?  

As a possible resident of these buildings, answer the following questions: 

  • Which one would you choose to live in? Why? 
  • How would you feel if the house you built was gradually washed away in the rain? 
  • Did these structures become homes (as opposed to just a building) to convicts? 
  • What is the difference between a house and a home?  
  • How does your family make a house a home? 
  • How would it feel to have no shelter to live in?