​Alastair Bett
​Alastair Bett
Travel Tip

8 Ways To Uncover Tassie’s Convict Past

Kathryn Leahy
​It’s a dark and compelling journey into Tasmania’s convict past. As you move from convict site to convict site the plot is bound to thicken. The stories grow darker as you build a picture of the people transported to a little island at the world’s edge. Whatever your discovery, you’ll walk away richer for knowing the dark past and huge obstacles faced by Tasmania’s early settlers.

The convict story

It’s an important story in the early settlement of Australia, telling of European exploration and colonisation, long ocean voyages, harsh conditions and the settlement of a strange new country. It’s also a deeply personal story of the forced migration of over 70,000 men, women and children, separated from family, and transported to an obscure land on the other side of the world.

people walking through a historic site filled with ruins
Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority
Port Arthur Historic Site

The influx of transported convicts, penal administrators, and civil and military officers and their families, had a significant and lasting impact on the island. Their labour filled the Tasmanian landscape with sandstone streetscapes and grand country estates. Much of their work is still used today, from Australia’s oldest bridge, to small cottages, and public and private buildings.

historic church ruin at a convict site
Poon Wai Nang
Church - Port Arthur Historic Site

Few convicts shared the same experience and their paths were varied. Most of those transported to Australia worked hard, bided their time, won their freedom and helped establish the new colonies as fine and upstanding citizens. Others however spent their lives caught up in the criminal justice system. Convicts, and the free labour they provided, were vital to the economic success of the new colony and nation. The significance of this history led to five Tasmanian sites being included on the World Heritage list.

Port Arthur Historic Site and Ghost Tour

Port Arthur is a remarkably intact and extremely evocative convict prison, with ruins and complete buildings set in English gardens. Step into the past at this World Heritage listed historic site to learn of Port Arthur’s story and the hardships faced at this isolated prison at the end of the earth. Stand as convicts did in the darkness of the solitary cells and imagine their sufferings.

night time ghost tour through a convict site
Jonathan Wherrett
Port Arthur Historic Site: Paranormal Investigation Experience

Come nightfall, take a tour  and let your guide lead the way with a lantern telling chilling stories of the apparitions and strange occurrences across the settlement.

Coal Mines Historic Site

Less is known about the island’s first operational mine, the Coal Mines Historic Site, than its counterpart Port Arthur. Located near Saltwater River on the Tasman Peninsular, it served as a punishment station for men who had committed serious offences in the colony.  By the late 1830s these mines produced most of the coal used in Van Diemen’s Land. By the 1840s, almost 600 prisoners with officers and their families lived and worked at the mines.

couple learning about convict history
Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority
Coal Mines Historic Site

Woolmers and Brickendon Estates

Visiting Woolmers and its outbuildings in Longford is like walking through a door into the life of a successful early Australian settler, his family and the convicts who supported it all. The National Rose Garden within the grounds of Woolmers presents a comprehensive view of the history and development of the rose.

walking through the national rose garden
Simon Griffiths
The National Rose Garden, Woolmers

Woolmers Estate adjoins Brickendon Estate and you can wander across following a path lined with hedgerows. Now in its seventh generation of farming, Brickendon was once a place of Assignment, where convicts were placed under the control of a private landowner as a free labour force and given food and shelter while undergoing religious instruction.

old convict built historic farm
Heath Holden
Brickendon Estate

Cascades Female Factory

The Cascades Female Factory – the name is as chilling as the place where the ‘factory’ was built, near the base of kunanyi / Mount Wellington in Hobart. The stories of the women and children transported to Tasmania are often overwhelmed by the male convict narratives, but at this historic site they’re given a strong and poignant voice. Built in 1828, this self-contained, purpose-built institution was designed for the reformation of female convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land.

historic convict female factory
Jonathan Wherrett
Cascades Female Factory

Darlington Probation Station

Darlington Probation Station was built on Maria Island, a large island off Tasmania’s east coast. The island is a place of outstanding natural beauty and heritage with the peaks of Bishop and Clerk, and Mt Maria making Maria Island visible from many places along the coast. Life for a convict sent to Darlington was one of contradictions; the island’s sheer beauty betrays the hard work that took place here. Like many of the probation stations built in Tasmania, convicts were sent to Darlington to be reformed through work, education and religious instruction.

aerial of darlington probation station
Flow Mountain Bike
Darlington Bay Aerial

Make your Darlington convict experience complete by sleeping in the 1830s convict Penitentiary, preparing your meal in the Mess hall or hiking along one of the many convict roads. Maria is not only worth visiting for its outstanding convict heritage; the entire island is also a national park. There are no private vehicles and the wombats, Cape Barren geese and kangaroos run with far more freedom than the convicts ever did. The Painted Cliffs, Fossil Cliffs and stunning views, all near the settlement of Darlington, are another of the island’s highlights.

Sarah Island

Picturesque Sarah Island was the site of Tasmania’s oldest convict settlement and operated from 1822 to 1833. Its shipyards turned out more than 80 vessels, one of which was used for a daring escape. The island is located in the heart of Tasmania’s Wilderness World Heritage Area, near Strahan. Take a harbour tour to the island and learn of the brutal and thrilling history of one of the world’s severest penal settlements.

convict ruins on an island
Rob Burnett
Sarah Island

The Ship That Never Was theatre performance

Passionate local thespian Kiah Davey has spent the past 20 years performing in Australia’s longest running play. Originally written by her late father, Kiah proudly retells the story of The Ship That Never Was, at the Visitor Centre amphitheatre in the village of Strahan on Tasmania’s west coast. See the harrowing true account of the great convict escape from Sarah Island, brought to life in this humorous and engaging play. By day you can cruise up the stunning Gordon River and walk in the footsteps of these convicts on the very island where they lived, worked and escaped.

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