Victoria Barracks in Paddington stands as a physical reminder of colonial Sydney’s military history and the strategic positioning of the British Imperial army in Sydney’s early history. While it is now the home to units of the Australian Army, it was constructed to house those British regiments that were stationed in Sydney.
In 1841 work began on the construction of the new barracks. Prior to this, the military had been housed in a barracks complex on George Street, bounded by the modern streets of Barrack Street (which aligns to the southern boundary), George, Margaret and Clarence Street. The parade square aligned with what is now York Street and Wynyard Park covers part of this space. By the late 1830s, as Sydney was becoming increasingly confident as a commercial and trading hub, the land occupied by the barracks was needed for the growing CBD.
The site chosen (in 1836) was then on Sydney’s sandy and rocky eastern fringe, with almost no development, however when the site was confirmed, the first land subdivision sales took place, with developers banking on the business the new barracks would bring. Small houses were soon being built to house some of the tradesmen, stonemasons and quarry workers who were employed on the massive barracks projects. As part of the first workforce, over 150 convicts were put to work quarrying stone on the site, as well as over 50 free stone masons and builders and numerous contractors, many with their own convict workers. Amongst the convict stonemasons were some Canadian rebels, transported in the late 1830s and after which the suburb Canada Bay is named.
Although originally hoped to be finished in two and a half years, it was not until 1848 that the barracks was ready for occupation. The completed barracks was 225m long, making it one of the longest (if not the longest) sandstone building in the southern hemisphere, and at the time, the largest building in Sydney by a long way. The initial work had been carried out under the supervision of Lieutenant Colonel George Barney.
The first unit to be garrisoned there was the 11th North Devonshire Regiment, who were also responsible for building some of the external wall after they arrived. The 11th had arrived in Sydney in July and marched, with fife and drum four abreast from the docks at Circular Quay, through the city to the newly completed barracks on the 24th, 167 years ago today. There was to be no doubt in Sydneysiders mind that the Regiment was in town and were a serious force. All up five Imperial British regiments were stationed at the Barracks until the withdrawal of British forces from Sydney in 1870. At least two left from the barracks for active service in the Maori Wars in New Zealand and to fight in India, reinforcing the barracks role in Britain’s wider imperial strategies.
From 1870 the barracks were used first by NSW Colonial militia and military units, and after 1901, by the newly formed Australian Army. During the 1930s it was also home to the Royal Military College, then on a hiatus from Duntroon in Canberra.
Today the barracks remains as an active and busy army and defence site in Sydney, 167 years after it opened.