Convict History

Tasmania and the lives of Tasmanians have been shaped by its relatively recent convict history and heritage. Back in the late 1990s and even around the turn of the 21st Century it was almost considered taboo to have convict blood. How a decade has changed this.  On 31 July 2010, five of Tasmania's convict sites received UNESCO World Heritage listing, bringing this dimension of Australia's island state under the spotlight. 

The Port Arthur Historic Site had for years been the number one tourist attraction with some justification, and thanks to the work of its dedicated team it continues to offer ever more riveting tours and insights into Australias biggest and most feared penal settlement.  But for those with a keen interest in Australia's penal history, the depth, extent and almost perfect preservation of convict life and records that are displayed at some of the others almost beggars belief.  Fortunately, most are easily visited and some, like the remarkable Brickendon and Woolmers Estates, also provide the most charming accommodation.


Brickendon-Woolmers Estates Tasmania (1820-50s)

Brickendon and Woolmers are two neighbouring estates located in Longford on the Macquarie River in Northern Tasmania, just outside Launceston, where convicts were assigned to ‘private masters’ to undertake agricultural work. The estates, which were owned by the Archer brothers, operated as large farming properties with convict labour from the early 1820s until the 1850s.

The assignment system was set up to provide labour to settlers in exchange for food and clothing for assigned convicts. Masters were also responsible for the physical and moral wellbeing of assigned convicts. Convicts were skilled and also quite young, with the average age being 23. Male convicts at the estates worked as blacksmiths, tanners, bricklayers, agricultural hands, gardeners and shepherds, while female convicts worked in domestic service. Male and female convicts were kept separate from each other, with female convicts housed in quarters in the main homesteads and male convicts accommodated in barracks on the farms. Convicts provided the labour and the skill necessary to establish and operate these prosperous agricultural estates. The assignment system also aimed to rehabilitate criminals through work and moral guidance and integrate them into the penal colony.

The landscape of Brickendon Estate is comprised of 20 timber and brick buildings set in 420 hectares of farming land and includes convict-built roadways. The estate is still owned and worked by the descendants of the Archer family, Louise and Richard, who are wondeful hosts and have charming accommodation on both the farm and in the grounds of the main house and gardens.

Woolmers Estate, also owned by the Archer family until 1994, is now owned by a private trust and comprises more than 18 buildings and structures in a rural setting of 13 hectares. Each estate includes homesteads, farming structures and fields built and worked by convict labour. This suite of structures represents the living and working conditions of assigned convicts, and the vast majority remain in their original form. The layout and architecture of these structures demonstrates the strong distinction between masters and convicts.  The records and museum that is on display for visitors to enjoy are nothing short of priceless.

With a combined annual convict population of over 100, Brickendon and Woolmers Estates formed the second largest pool of convict labour in private hands in Van Diemen’s Land behind the Van Diemen’s Land Company located in Tasmania’s north west. The assignment system was important in the economic development and expansion of the new colony. It helped to develop colonial infrastructure, reform convicts, assist settlers in establishing their estates and, in the case of Brickendon and Woolmers Estates, develop the foundations of successful pastoral properties.

Darlington Probation Station, Maria Island

Darlington Probation Station, located within the Maria Island National Park off Tasmania’s east coast, initially functioned as a convict station and later as a probation station for male convicts. The convict station operated at Darlington between 1825 and 1832 and was set up to relieve pressures on other penal settlements due to the increasing number of convicts. Following the closure of the earlier station in 1832, a probation station reoccupied the site from 1842. The location of Maria Island was ideal for a probation station, as it was located away from free settlements; boasted an abundance of natural resources that could be exploited through convict labour; and being an island, was a difficult place from which to escape.

Under the probation system, convicts progressed through separate classes which determined both their living and working conditions, including labour detail, sleeping and eating arrangements and privileges. Convicts could advance through the classes- ‘crime class’, ‘second class’ and ‘first class’ according to their behaviour- with unruly conduct being met with demotion to a lower class, or time in solitary confinement. The physical architecture of the buildings and their situation within the landscape clearly reflects the operation of the probation system including the varied living and working conditions for the three classes of convicts. A strict regime of surveillance and routine was also enforced with convicts mustered four times daily as well as work, meal, school and church hours being stringently enforced.

Unlike most penal stations, the accommodation for the civil and military officers was in close proximity to the convict compound where convicts lived and worked, reinforcing the focus on surveillance and rehabilitation. To emphasise this, the site was well lit and regular patrols took place.

Darlington is the most representative and intact example of a probation station in Australia with 14 convict buildings and substantial ruins in a layout that reflects the key features of the probation system in Van Diemen’s Land. The bushland setting of 361 hectares has remained relatively unchanged since the convict era. Most of the buildings are Old Colonial Georgian style and are simple and functional with plain, whitewashed brick walls and very little decoration.

At its peak, the convict population reached 492 in 1846; however Darlington was closed in 1850, following the cessation of the probation system in Van Diemen’s Land and the island opened up for public leasehold.

Cascades Female Factory Tasmania (1828-56)

The Cascades Female Factory,increasingly one of Hobart's most popular cultural attractions,  was built in a cold valley at the base of Mount Wellington in Hobart, southern Tasmania. It was separated and hidden from the main colony, yet played a pivotal role in the penal transportation system. Approximately 25,000 female convicts were transported to Australia, comprising only 15 to 17 per cent of the convict population. However, convict women made an important contribution to the development of the colonies through their labour and their vital role in family formation, ultimately leading to greater social cohesion. Concerns about the potentially corrupting influence of women led to the establishment of female factories to house, employ, manage, control and reform female convicts.

Female factories were self contained, multifunctional, purpose-built institutions serving as places of incarceration, punishment, hospital care, work and reform of female convicts. Upon arrival, girls and women were classified into three classes according to their behaviour. The third class (crime class) convicts required punishment and were given a meagre diet and had their clothes labelled with a large yellow ‘C’. Members of the second class (probation class) received a better diet and bore the letter ‘C’ on only one sleeve. Female convicts in the first class (assignable class) wore unmarked clothing and could be assigned to free settlers. There was also a hospital class and nursery class for convicts with babies. While in the factory women worked at sewing clothes, carding and spinning yarn and providing substantial needlework and laundry services. The labour of female convicts in Van Diemen’s Land was significant in offsetting the penal costs of the colony.

The Cascades Female Factory quickly became notorious for lack of industry, overcrowding, disease and high birth and mortality rates. By 1842 there were more than 500 women in the factory, which was originally designed for less than 250 women. By 1838 the infant mortality rate was estimated to be one in four, with a total of 900 infant deaths. The treatment of women and their infants was the subject of numerous inquiries.

The original infrastructure of the factory included a hospital, nursery, laundries, cook houses, offices, administrators’ apartments, separate convict apartments, solitary cells, assorted workshops, stores and a church. Yards were successively developed as the population of female convicts increased. Following the end of transportation of convicts to Tasmania, the Cascades Female factory was used as a prison from 1856 to 1877, and later as a depot for the poor and the insane. It was also used as a hospital and for assorted welfare activities.

Today, Cascades Female Factory comprise three of the original five yards, the matron’s cottage and substantial ruins of perimeter wall, and is one of the most intact surviving female convict sites in Australia.

The Cascades Female Factory is open seven days a week from 9.30 am to 4pm Monday to Friday, including public holidays, except for Christmas Day.

Port Arthur Historic Site Tasmanian (1830-1877)

The Port Arthur Historic Site, located on the south side of the Tasman Peninsula, began as a timber-getting station in 1830. The site then operated as a penal station for secondary offenders between 1833 and 1877. Lieutenant-Governor Arthur envisaged that Port Arthur would be ‘a place of terror’ that combined hard labour and unremitting surveillance. His aim was to produce both useful goods- such as timber and shoes- and useful citizens, as reformed men rejected their previous lives of crime and embraced a law-abiding future.

Convicts were employed in dangerous and arduous labour including timber felling and quarrying sandstone. This was part of the punishment regime imposed on convicts at Port Arthur but also part of the drive to economic self-sufficiency. As an incentive to reform, convicts were taught a trade, and to read and write as well as regularly exposed to moral and religious teaching. Until 1848 convicts would be punished with flogging but a shift in ideas about punishment of convicts occurred after 1848, and psychological coercion replaced corporal punishment. From 1849 to 1877 all new arrivals were confined for varying periods in the Separate Prison. Men who re-offended on the settlement would also be punished by incarceration here. Each man spent 23 hours each day alone in his cell and silence was enforced at all times; one hour’s exercise and Sunday religious service at the Chapel were the only respite. By the late 1850s, Port Arthur was also a welfare station, and the Asylum and the Paupers’ Depot were built to accommodate those broken in body and mind.

Across the bay from Port Arthur is Point Puer, the site where about 3,500 convict boys, aged nine to eighteen, were sent between 1834 and 1849. The boys were to be rehabilitated through religious and moral training, instruction in basic literacy and training for a trade. These included boat-building, tailoring, shoemaking, carpentry, blacksmithing, stone masonry and agricultural skills. Although the convict boys were younger than the male convicts, they often received similar punishments to adults, such as reduced rations, beatings, incarceration in separate solitary cells or hard labour including stone breaking or timber getting.

Many elements of the site reflect the operation of the penal station as a major industrial complex. Port Arthur today comprises more than 30 convict-built structures and substantial ruins in a picturesque landscape of 136 hectares. The extensive suite of structures and their layout reflect the importance of the penal station, its efforts towards self-sufficiency and the evolution of global and local penal practices over several decades. Port Arthur was eventually closed as a penal settlement in 1877, more than 24 years after transportation to Van Diemen’s Land ceased.

The Port Arthur Historic Site, which is around 90 minutes by car from Hobart, runs daily tours. Entrance also includes a boat trip around the Isle of the Dead. Interpretation is superb and the nightly ghost tours are a must. Those wanting to get right under the skin of Port Arthur should invest in a monthly Paranormal Tour conducted by a historian and a scientist (adults only, approximately 10 pm to 2 am).  For a really special experience it is possible to book a privately catered dinner in the actual building.

Coal Mines Historic Site Tasmania (1833-48)

The Coal Mines Historic Site, which operated as a penal colliery between 1833 and 1848, is located on the north side of the Tasman Peninsula, beside the tranquil waters of Little Norfolk Bay. The Coal Mines played an important role in the development of the colony of Van Diemen’s Land.

At its peak the Coal Mines held up to 500 convicts plus another 100 people including officers, guards and their families. In 1840, when the assignment system was abandoned, it was reorganised as one of several probation stations established on the Tasman Peninsula; it was designed to exploit natural resources and provide for the reform of convicts through hard labour in a secure and isolated environment. The site was considered to be a place of severe punishment and the records of floggings and additional punishments demonstrate the British government’s objective of punishing criminals as well as deterring crime in Britain. Men worked for eight-hour shifts day and night in the appalling conditions of the mines, while other convicts were engaged in the building of infrastructure and the operation of the station. These operations included quarrying sandstone for buildings, making and firing bricks from local clay, lime burning to provide lime for mortar and leather tanning.

During its operation the mines produced over 60,000 tonnes of coal, but the Coal Mines were officially closed as a probation station in 1848 on moral and economic grounds. The poor reputation of the Coal Mines contributed to the demise of the probation system, and was also used as an argument to sway British pubic opinion against the further transportation of convicts to Van Diemen’s Land.

The site comprises over 25 substantial buildings as well as the remains of coal mining activities in an undisturbed bushland setting of around 214 hectares. Different types of prisoner accommodations can be seen in the ruins: the barracks with dormitory accommodation and solitary cells, 18 solitary cells remaining from the original 36 built in 1845-46 to isolate convicts from contact with fellow prisoners, and the site of two blocks of separate convict apartments, built in 1847. The site is relatively intact and is a unique example of the important role that convicts played in the economic development of the colony.

Sarah Island

Sarah Island lies in the remote reaches of Macquarie Harbour, on Tasmania's west coast.

In 1822 this six-hectare (15-acre) island became Tasmania's first penal station. Its convicts laboured under the harshest conditions in nearby rainforest felling Huon pines for boat building. Of all the sites that might have been chosen, Macquarie Harbour would have been the most windswept and barren, but it was also the most secure.

Any convict trying to escape Sarah Island had not only to get across the harbour but to try and hack his way through the impenetrable rainforests of the west coast. In all, 112 convicts escaped, of whom 62 perished and nine were murdered by their fellow convicts. The remaining 41 were all eventually recaptured, four of them after spending some time in South America. Each man received an average of 40 lashes per year from the cat o' nine tails.

Today, the convict ruins give a chilling insight into the cruelties of convict life. A walking track links important sites. The best way to visit the site is on one of the cruises that operates out of Strahan on trips up the Gordon River.