Monday, May 16, 2011

Victoria Barracks

I've passed it countless times riding a bus to and from central Sydney: a long sandstone wall extending for several hundred meters, interrupting the boutiques and cafes of Oxford Street. Behind this wall sits the Victoria Barracks, built in the 1840s to house British troops keeping the peace. The barracks are, remarkably, still in use, though their purpose has changed from troop housing to administrative offices for the army. That this huge complex sits in Paddington, a ritzy neighborhood where townhouses sell for $5 million plus, is all the more remarkable.

The one building you're allowed to photograph -- initally the main barracks and now administrative offices.
One way or another I found out there are tours of the Barracks on Thursdays and Sundays, so Sharon and I decided to go check it out this past Sunday. We arrived at noon and immediately found out the tours are now held only on Thursdays, which doesn't do much good for people with regular jobs. And except for the main building, photos were not allowed, lest someone have evil intentions. We were welcome to visit the museum, however, which only costs $2 per person.

We walked through the carefully groomed grounds to the museum, a large, single room with a number of display cases. This room had once been the exercise yard for convicts held in the barracks jail; a roof had only been added in the last few decades. The display cases guided us through the relatively short military history of Australia, starting with the British garrisons and finishing with World War II.

Photo of the original barracks. That's Oxford Street on the left.

Attached to this main room and also open to the public were a number of original jail cells, a toilet (just a small room where you'd bring a bucket), and a bath (another small room that had once been lined with lead to hold in the water -- not good for your health).

Original jail cell.
The museum also has a large collection of military medals, including a "Victoria Cross". This medal was created by Queen Victoria in 1856 to honor those who served with valor in the Crimean War and is considered the highest military honor achievable in the UK and Commonwealth countries. It's supposedly made from the metal of cannons captured from the Russians at Sebastopol during the war. It's still awarded -- a couple elite Australian soldiers serving in Afganistan have recently gotten the medal. We also learned that they are extremely popular with collectors: the record for a Victoria Cross at auction is 400,000 pounds.

Apparently this guy was a work horse; he's got tons of medals.

We ended up chatting with the two men staffing the museum. One told us about the Battle of Hamel -- a fight to capture a French town during World War I in which American troops served with Australian troops. The commander leading the attack was an Australian, marking the first time American troops served under a foreign leader. (And an American won the first Medal of Honor to be awarded during World War I: Corporal Thomas Pope rushed a machine gun nest with just a revolver, captured it, and held it until reinforcements arrived.)

In a "It's a small world" surprise, it turned out the other guy has a daughter who attended the same university I did. She graduated just about the same time I started.
Overall, it's probably not worth a special trip. But if you're in the area already it's not a bad way to spend 30 minutes. I'm sure war buffs would really enjoy it. If you would like to call to verify the tour schedule for Thursday, the number is (02) 8335 5330.

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