In the early 1820s it was decided to build a gaol on Darlinghurst Hill, and Francis Greenway was commissioned to design a building that would overlook Sydney, as a constant reminder that Sydney was a convict town. The walls of the jail were built by convicts between 1822 and 1824. However, after an initial flurry of activity that saw the outer walls constructed, building languished for want of funds. It was only the pressure of extreme overcrowding in the existing gaol in The Rocks that forced the colonial administration to act, and in 1835 a further £35,000 was voted by the legislature to complete the building. Work recommenced in 1835 – but it took 50 years to finish.
Convicts sentenced to death in the colony for murder, acts of bushranging and other serious crimes were hanged on the gallows next to the jail in George Street, and after 1841, at Darlinghurst Gaol. Their bodies were carted back to the Rum Hospital, where the surgeons dissected and studied their corpses, and practised surgical techniques, in the dissecting room at the back of the south wing yard (now The Mint). We can only imagine the scene in the room.
Since 1752 in England, the Murder Act allowed the dissection of bodies of executed murderers for study, but the supply did not meet the demand from medical schools. A black market of corpses resulted, with 'body snatching', grave robbing and even murders committed in order to sell the bodies. Dissection was intended to be an additional deterrent to serious crimes like murder, but in the colony of New South Wales, there seems to have been no shortage of executions, and bodies for the surgeons. Between 1826 and 1838, there were 363 executions in the colony, most of them of convicts. The Anatomy Act of 1832 allowed for the legal procurement of corpses of bodies that remained unclaimed 48 hours after death, which meant that any convict who died in the Rum Hospital, without family to collect them and give them a proper burial, was available for dissection. The newspapers regularly reported on the executions and the sordid details of the crimes committed, providing a full list of the identities of individuals who underwent anatomisation here.