Background

Tasmania - then called Van Diemen's Land (VDL) - was originally settled by the British to thwart French annexation in 1803.  21 convicts were part of the first settlement on the Derwent River at Risdon Cove near present-day Hobart. It is therefore Australia's second oldest European-settled state after New South Wales.  It prospered primarily as a penal colony for transported British convicts for the first half of the 19th century until the abolition of transportaion of convicts to VDL in 1853.

Because convict transportation played such an important part in Australia's early history, the remaining historic evidence of that era has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.  Most of that historic evidence is located in Tasmania, with lesser remains in Sydney and Perth.

It is worthwhile to do a tour of Tasmania focussing on its convict-era history.  A suitable route would be from Hobart, to Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula, Maria Island on the east coast, Richmond, Oatlands, Ross, Evandale, Launceston, Strahan, and back to Hobart via New Norfolk.

 

Hobart

A good way to start a grand convict tour would be to take Louisa's Walk - the story of a convict woman and her tragic life in Hobart.  The tour is conducted daily at 2pm - starting at the Cascade Brewery in western Hobart and ending at the Cascades Female Factory.  The Female Factory was the main barracks accommodation for women convicts in the city.

The Penitentiary Chapel is also a mandatory stop.  It housed the main court house for Hobart and its gallows - still in place today.  Ghost tours are conducted nightly.

Hobart was the main military government and convict adminstration centre for VDL.  Little remains of the military administration other than place-names such as Battery Point.  At Kangaroo Bluff on the eastern shore of the Derwent is an intact colonial-era gun battery, albeit somewhat later in construction than the original convict-built battery on Battery Point.

From Hobart, head east to the Tasman Peninsula and Port Arthur.

Tasman Peninsula

Port Arthur is Tasmania's - and Australia's - foremost convict-era site. It was established in 1830 as a timber-getting camp, but became the main prison for incorrigible convicts.  It operated until 1853.  It retains major examples of buildings from  the British "Separate Prison System" - including an early Panopticon.  (Gotta go there to know.)  The prisoners even had solitary "cells" in the chapel.  The graveyard on the Isle of the Dead and the site of the boys' prison at  Point Puer are key aspects of the boat tour in the adjacent harbour.

The Tasman Peninsula was intended to be self-sufficient and isolated from Hobart.  It had it's own township facilities - including the nearby Coal Mines.

Prisoners were prevented from escaping the peninsula by guard-posts on the narrow sand  isthmus which joins the peninsula to the main island of Tasmania at Eaglehawk Neck.  A Dogline was placed across the isthmus in which vicious dogs were chained to interdict would-be escapees.  To facilitate communications with Hobart, a wooden tramway - powered by convict pushers - was constructed from Port Arthur to a a point beyond Eaglehawk within easy sailing distance of Hobart Town.  Remains of the dogline, the tramway and Officers' Brracks are at Eaglehawk Neck on the route to Port Arthur.

Most prisoners could not swim.  They were told that the surrounding waters were shark-infested.  One prisoner - Billy Hunt - disguised himself as a kangaroo using a real kangaroo's skin. He tried to hop across the Neck.  However, the hungry guards on duty tried to shoot him to supplement their meager rations. When he noticed them aiming at him, Billy Hunt threw off the kangaroo disguise and was re-arrested.  He received 150 lashes for his foolish efforts, hence the Australian expression, "You're a Billy Hunt"

Martin Cash, who had been sentenced to four year's hard labour at Port Arthur, was the first prisoner recorded to have escaped by swimming; however he was quickly recaptured.  On Boxing Day 1842 he made another attempt in company with George Jones and Lawrence Kavenagh while part of a work party. They made their way to the Neck and, with their clothes tied in bundles above their heads, swam around the guard point. Having lost their clothes, the naked trio robbed a road gang's hut for clothing and began a twenty month spree of bushranging and robbery. They became known as Cash and Co and their reputation grew. But in August 1843 Cash made his way to Hobart to murder the new partner of his girlfriend Bessie.  He was quickly spotted in Brisbane Street, Hobart and a gunfight ensued. Cash shot and killed a policeman, so was tried and convicted of murder, and sentenced to death by hanging.  However, a last minute reprieve saw him sentenced to transportation for life to the infamous Norfolk Island penal colony.  There he eventually became a trustee and later a constable. He married in 1854 and was granted his ticket of leave. Between 1854 and 1856 he was an overseer in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Hobart, subsequently travelled to Christchurch, New Zealand where he kept several brothels and became a free man in 1863.  He died in his bed in HJobart in 1877, becoming one of the few bushrangers to die of old age.

From Port Arthur, head back through Sorell then north along the east coast to Maria Island.  Maria Island is accessible by ferry from Triabunna.

Maria Island

Maria Island hosted convict settlements twice during its brief European history: once as a penal settlement from 1825 to 1832 and the second as a released-convict probation station from 1842 to 1851.

Three buildings remain in the Darlington area from the first period; namely,  the Commissariat Store built in 1825,  the convict penitentiary built in 1828 and the convict-built dam which still provides Darlington's water.

Among those held during the second era was the Irish Nationalist William O'Brien, exiled for his part in the Young Irelander Rebellion in 1848. His cottage still exists in the nearby former penal colony Port Arthur whence he was sent after his time on Maria Island. He was later transferred to New Norfolk.

From Maria Island, head south toward Sorell once more and take the turn-off to Richmond along the C351.

Richmond

Richmond was once on the main road from Hobart to Launceston and was an overnight stopping point for the convict marches.  So it had a military camp and convict barracks or gaol (jail).  The gaol is Australia's oldest (built in 1825) and is very well preserved.  It's a "must see". 

The beautiful convict-built bridge is Australia's oldest bridge still in use.

The village contains several other buildings built in the 1820s and 30s including the Court House and St John's and St Luke's churches.

The entire village bustles with activity and although there are many new buildings, most are built to harmonise with the older parts of the town.

Drive north frrom Richmond on the B31 to the Midland Highway (A1) and on to Oatlands.

Oatlands

The establishment of Oatlands as a military garrison for the management of convicts was ordered by Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1821.   Its Post Office opened in 1822.  It has the largest collection of sandstone houses of any town in Australia and a drive up the main street - especially on a cold winter's day - is a journey back through time.

The original military barracks were in Barrack Street off High Street, but the most convict-era buildings remaining are in parallel Campbell Street where the picturesque courthouse and gaol (now the walls of the town swimming pool) still stand.

Because Oatlands was half way between the largest towns in the colony - Hobart and Launceston - it became a major commercial centre.  Callington Mill, built in 1837 with convict labour, has recently been restored to working condition.

Oatlands was also the home of the ex-convict Solomon Blay, who was Tasmania's most feared hangman.

From Oatlands, head north again on the A1 to Ross.

Ross

Ross was another stopping point for convicts being marched between Hobart and the large farms of the Northern Midlands.  It has the largest intact Female Factory (female convict barracks) remaining in Tasmania.  Between 1848 and 1854 approximately 12,000 female convicts passed through the Ross Female Factory. 

Ross is also famed for its convict-built bridge.  It was built in 1836 on dry land adjacent to the river, then the river was diverted to run under the bridge once it was completed.  The bridge features beautiful stone carvings by two convict stonemasons - Daniel Herbert and James Colbeck .

Church Street is the main street. Next to the WWI-era Drill Hall in Church Street is an old cottage used as the first Army headquarters in the town in 1822. The Memorial Library and Recreation Room was also built by convicts in the 1830s and was the original headquarters for the Royal Ordnance Corps. It is still possible to see the corps crest - three cannons on a shield - carved above the door. It is rare to find such an insignia above any door in Australia.

The main crossroad at the intersection of Church and Bridge Streets is known as Temptation, Recreation, Salvation and Damnation. On one corner stood the Man-O-Ross Hotel (Temptation) , on another was the Catholic Church (Salvation), on the third corner was the Town Hall (Recreation) and on the fourth stood the Jail (Damnation). Damnation was once a convict ration-store and is now a residence. The big gun in the middle of the crossroads was used during the Boer War.

From Ross, head north on the A1 to Perth, then veer left on the B52 to Longford.

Longford

Woolmers was one of the major grain farms on the Northern Midlands manned by convict labour.  Much of its "village" remains intact and the homestead still contains convict-built furniture.  Woolmers was owned by one family - the Archers - for its entire productive life and is a "frozen" reminder of Tasmania's time of prosperity engendered by convict labour.

Nearby Brickendon is still owned by descendants of the Archers and is still managed as a productive family farm.  It too prospered through convict labour and - along with Woolmers - is now listed as part of the UNESCO World Heritage convict-era sites.

 From Longford, head back through Perth to Evandale.

Evandale

Evandale was also once on the main road south out of Launceston, but is now bypassed by several kilometres.  It was originally established as a military post in 1811, and was named in honour of Tasmania's first Surveyor-General, G.W. Evans. It has several noteworthy convict-era buildings.  St Andrews church in the High Street was built between 1834 aqnd 1837 with convict labour using bricks from the abandoned water supply tunnel to Launceston - also built by convicts. Other noteworthy buildings of this era include Blenheim (1832) in High Street, the Royal Oak (1840) and adjoining stables (now Evandale Antiques), Clarendon Arms Hotel (1847), Fallgrove (1826) in Russell Street and Solomon House (1836), and the saddler's shop (1840) at the intersection of Russell Street and High Street. 

John Batman - a famed re-capturer of escaped convicts and infamous hunter of aborigines - lived here before setting off in 1835 to found Melbourne.  John Kelly - father of Ned Kelly, Australia's most notorious bushranger - served time as a prisoner at Evandale.

A little south of Evandale is Clarendon House (now owned by the National Trust).  It was built using convict labour in 1838 and is one of Australia's finest Georgian mansions.

 From Evandale head north on the B41 and A1 to Launceston.

Launceston

A convict-era tour of Launceston should start with the guided Launceston historic walk which goes via one of the male convict barracks and features a warehouse which retains its convict-operated grain windlass. Walks are conducted six days a week and start at convict-era "1842" on the corner of Cimitiere and St john Streets.

While Hobart and Port Arthur were the main penal establishments, when a convict escaped custody he naturally gravitated toward Launceston where there was more money and less government oversight.  Once there, they sought gainful - if dishonest - employment as a bushranger.  Bushrangers were the Australian equivalent of the British highwaymen or American "road agents". 

Famous escapees-turned-bushranger included Locky Taylor, the "Gentleman Bushranger", who was captured by John Batman and hanged in 1826. 

13 convicts escaped from Macquarie Harbour in 1824 under the leadership of Matthew Brady.  They travelled east (probably around the coastline) to Launceston where they raided farms and held up travellers.  Brady's Lookout (now on the West Tamar Highway near Rosevears) overlooking the Tamar River was his favoured haunt.  In 1825 Batman captured Brady, resulting in an additional grant of land to Batman by the governor.  Brady was duly sentenced to death. Batman's techniques were effective but morally questionable, particularly in his capture and trading of the aborigines as slaves.  Tasmanian Governor George Arthur said that Batman "...had much slaughter to account for."  

Soldiers and police were assisted by male and female Aboriginal trackers in tracking down the escaped convicts.  One such tracker was Musquito: himself an Aboriginal convict from New South Wales. He was denied his promised reward of being allowed to return home, so formed his own band of Aboriginal bushrangers. Musquito was shot and captured by Tegg, a Tasmanian Aborigine, but Tegg was not given the boat promised him as a reward, so he too took to the bush and led a band of Aboriginal bushrangers. No action was taken against him when he came in, but Musquito was hanged.

The quickest way from Launceston to Strahan is via Devonport and Burnie, then south through Zeehan.  On the way to Devonport, you could detour through Hadspen to see the convict-era gaol beside the Red Feather Inn.  Westbury - settled predominantly by Irish, including Irish ex-convicts in the 1830s and 40s - is also worth a small detour.

Strahan

A convict settelement was established at Macquarie Harbour on the west coast in order to cut Huon Pine trees and to build boats from its rot-proof timber.  In its day, Sarah Island was the largest shipbuilding yard in Australia.  Arriving convicts passed through Hell's Gates - the headlands of the harbour - into Tasmania's harshest penal colony on Sarah Island, which was established in 1822.  (Strahan itself was established later and grew to prominence as the port for the copper mines at nearby Queenstown.)

Sarah Island was a harsh, winswept place becuse of its location in the centre of MacQuarie Harbour where it was ceaselessly battered by the winds of the Roaring Forties. Malnutrition, scurvy and dysentry were common among the convicts.  It was famed for the lengths to which convicts would go to escape the misery of the place.  Pacts were formed wherein one convict would murder another one, then to be tried and hanged himself, thus giving two men their "freedom" frpm misery!

Sarah Island was remote and isolated and the only means of getting there was by ship.  Nevertheless, men tried to escape.  The most infamous escapee was Alexander Pierce who managed to get away twice. On both occasions, he cannibalised his companions on the way through the almost-impemtrable bush toward civilisation in Launceston or Hobart.

The last ship built by convicts was the "Frederick".  11 of its builders stole it on completion and sailed it to South America - thus making the most successful escape from the place.  This escapade is celebrated in the daily theatre performance, "The Ship That Never Was", perfomed on the dockside at Strahan by the Round Earth Theatre Company

In addition to Sarah Island there are other convict era ruins around MacQuarie Harbour at:

  • Liberty Point Tidemark (1833), on the harbour shore immediately south of the fish farms,
  • Brickmakers Bay kiln, claymine, ironmine, tunnel and slag on the harbour shore west of Sarah Island,
  • Grummet Rock infirmary site with cave and road remains, north east of Sarah Island,
  • Halliday's Island, the settlement burial site, south of Sarah Island,
  • Coal Head coal seam on the harbour shore north of Sarah Island,
  • Pilinger, an abandoned village with brick kilns in Kelly Basin on the northern Harbour shore, accessible by the Bird River Track.

 From Strahan, head east toward Hobart on the Lyell Highway (through Queenstown) to New Norfolk.

New Norfolk

Willow Court barracks (1830) in New Norfolk pre dates the well known convict barracks site of Port Arthur. It takes its name from two willows planted by Lady Jane Franklin, the wife of Lieutenant-Governor John Franklin who governed Van Diemen's Land from 1836 to 1843.  The willows were reputed to be two cuttings from the grave of Napoleon on Saint Helena.

The barracks was initially constructed as an an invalid depot for convicts.  It remained under military administration until the official Government take-over in 1855.  It then became the state's insane asylum unitl care was de-institutionalised toward the end of the 20th century.

The original barracks is still intact but is sadly inaccessible to the public except on occasional open days.  it's hoped that better arrangements can be made.

Near New Norfolk at Plenty is Redlands Estate which features a convict-built bakery - which is still in use.

From New Norfolk, head west on the Lyell Highway to Hobart to complete your journey.

Conclusion. 

If you're tantalised by these little snippets from Tasmania's convict-era past, it would be worthwhile to read Marcus Clarke's book of 1874, "For the Term of His Natural Life", which chronicles the ripping yarn of Richard Dawes's life as a convict.  It is set primarily in Tasmania and has episodes placed in MacQuarie Harbour Penal Station, including Sarah Island and Hell's Gates, Hobart, Port Arthur including the Islae of the Dead and Eaglehawk Neck.