Tasmania's Convict Sites
The probation and assignment systems resulted in convicts making roads, erecting buildings and bridges and working on farms in and around the first townships throughout the colonies. In Tasmania, much of what the convicts created during the transportation years (1818 to 1853) remains, and Tasmania now has the largest collection of convict buildings and infrastructure of all the states.
Sydney, NSW, experienced incredible growth as a result of the gold rush of the 1850s, and much of the early buildings and infrastructure built by convicts there was demolished and replaced years ago as a result of that growth. It must be remembered too that in New South Wales, the convict era was essentially over by the 1820s, which was the decade when regional Australia experienced its first (and in some places its only) major period of growth.
Much of the growth in Tasmania in the 1820s came about through the activities of its convict workforce. Most of of Tasmania's early settlements experienced only limited growth after the convict era, and so they remain today essentially the same as when the convicts and early settlers created them, except for the addition of the occasional newer building, modern signposts and tarmac on the roads. So wherever you go in Tasmania today and you see a building, road or bridge from the early colonial era, chances are that convicts had a hand in its construction, or lived or worked there.
World Heritage convict sites
Five of Tasmania's convict related sites have been given World Heritage status.
Port Arthur Historic Site
Port Arthur is home to the ruins of one of the most isolated and infamous penal establishments in the world, which operated between 1830 and 1877. The Penal Settlement at Port Arthur was established by Lieut. Gov. George Arthur to centralise the numerous penal settlements around Van Dieman's Land.
During its 47 years of operation, over 30,000 people passed through the institution and only a few managed to escape. The settlement included a boys reformatory at Puer Point which was abandoned in 1849. Tasmania's first railway operated between Port Arthur and Deep Bay. Trucks running on timber rails were hauled by convicts. The buildings of the settlement were sold off in 1878. The settlement was ravaged by a bush fire in 1897 that badly damaged the buildings. The ruins are today preserved as a museum.
Darlington Probation Station on Maria Island
For two periods during the first half of the 1800s, Maria Island hosted British convict settlements. Fifty convicts, most having committed only petty crimes, and some soldiers arrived in 1825. They established the settlement of Darlington, erecting brick and stone buildings and setting up sawmilling, blacksmithing, tanning, brick-making and cloth-making. There were never more than one hundred and sixty convicts on Maria Island during this time.
The settlement was closed in 1832 when Port Arthur was established and all prisoners were transferred there. Between 1832 and 1842, whaling, smuggling and some grazing continued to take place on the island. In 1842 Maria Island became a convict settlement again. This time it was for convicts on probation - ones who had nearly finished their sentence. Darlington was re-opened and by 1844 there were over 600 convicts on the island. They built more buildings and spent their days fishing or tending crops and sheep. Among those held during this period was the Irish nationalist leader William Smith O'Brien, exiled for his part in the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848. His cottage still exists in the former penal colony. Young was transferred to New Norfolk on the Derwent River upstream of Hobart in 1850 when the island's convict era came to an end.
Saltwater River convict out-station settlement ruins
Coal Mine Historic Site, Norfolk Bay
The coal mines at Saltwater River were established in 1833 to mine coal and to provide secondary punishment for re-offending convicts. The coal mines were an Out-station of the Port Arthur penal settlement and were intended to be the most severe form of punishment for re-offending convicts, short of capital punishment. The Coal Mines are the only surviving penal coal mines in Australia, they were the first commercials mine in Tasmania and one of the first in Australia, and they played a major role in the economic development of the new colony.
The mines contain the beds and footings of the winding and pumping machinery installed in 1845 which represent the earliest pit top workings in Australia. The site includes remnants of two mine shafts, extant prison complexes, wharves, farms, tramways, quarries, garden plots, constable stations, semaphore stations, cemeteries and other remains spread across the peninsula. Location: at the northern end of the Tasman Peninsula, approximately 112 kms by road south-east of Hobart.
Cascades Female Factory, South Hobart
Cascades Female Factory was a work factory which employed female convicts under sentence in the colony and housed them prior to the erection of the Campbell St Gaol. Operated between 1828 and 1856 on a site previously owned by Lowes Rum Distillery, the existing buildings were extended in 1827 to house the increasing numbers of female convicts under sentence in the colony.
Location: at the northern end of the Tasman Peninsula, approximately 112 kms by road south-east of Hobart.
Convict built settlement of Brickendon
Brickendon-Woolmers Estates near Longford
Prominent among the early settlers, the Archer family built a number of grand houses and estates in the area. They farmed and developed the land, and built a number of homesteads which are among the finest in northern Tasmania: Woolmers Estate, Brickendon Estate (both on the Australian National Heritage List), Panshanger, Northbury, Fairfield, Cheshunt, Woodside, Palmerston and Saundridge.
Brickendon Historic Farm and Convict Village was built in 1824; the village is still owned by his descendents. The complex affords the a rare chance to see a Georgian homestead, convict-built Gothic chapel, Dutch barns, chicken house, blacksmith shop and tool shed and stay in historic farm cottages. There is also a four hectare (10 acre) historic garden for you to explore.
The Farm Village, of which the chapel is an integral part, was the hub of Brickendon, a 465 hectare grant taken up by William Archer in 1824 on land opposite his brother at Woolmers, where he developed a new and innovative farming enterprise. William developed Brickendon into a mixed farm with cropping being a major focus, using a convict workforce of up to 50 people who lived in the tiny village he created. By the 1840's Brickendon was highly regarded as one of the best farms in the colony.
Woolmers Estate, near the village of Longford and overlooking the Macquarie River, is acknowledged as one of the most outstanding examples of 19th century rural settlements in Australia. Accurate and authentic in the minutest detail, it is not difficult to see why the estate has received a World Heritage listing. Location: Woolmers Lane, Longford. Tasmania
Other convict sites
Sarah Island Penal Settlement, Macquarie Harbour
The Penal Settlement at Macquarie Harbour was known in its time as an 'Earthly Hell', as it was located far away from any of the settled areas, and surrounded by forest on the west coast of Tasmania. The labour on which most of the 1,150 convicts were employed was exhausting (from dawn until dusk, six days a week), and use of the lash was frequent. Convicts stationed here lived upon Sarah and Grummet Islands, and worked around the harbour and up the Gordon River from 1822-1833. The main settlement was located on Sarah Island although newly arrived convicts and those sentenced to work in irons were housed in a miserable building on a detached and wind swept outcrop of rock.
An unusual stone bridge which is more like a causeway, Spiky Bridge was built in the period 1845-48 by convicts from the Rocky Hills probation station on the east coast of Tasmania. The structure is an edifice to convict craftmanship. Previously named La Farelles bridge, its present name derives from its distinctive parapets.
It took the cunning and ingenuity of an Irishman to ensure that a notoriously difficult road on Tasmania's east coast was improved. Edward Shaw was a friend of Major de Gillern, then superintendent of the Rocky Hills Probation station. Tired of his requests to improve the road traversing the steep gully south of Waterloo Point, some 7.5 kilometres south of Swansea, Edward took matters into his own hands. One night while driving the Major home he took the gully at full gallop making the journey somewhat uncomfortable for the Major. In no time a convict gang was assigned to build a bridge across the sharp dip.
This field stone bridge sppears to be dry stonework. Its side walls, being of random rubble, make it more a causeway with small arched culvert. It features stone buttresses on west side beside a central channel. The lower side of the west wall (sloping side) was strengthened during 1920's. The bridge parapets with large and small upright stones inspired the bridge's present name. It has been claimed that the spikes were designed to prevent cattle falling over the sides. The bridge is located on the Tasman Highway near Swansea.
Three Arch Bridge
7 kms further south of the Spiky Bridge is another interesting bridge, again named in a practical manner. Three Arch Bridge, also convict built, is actually underneath the existing east coast road, which has been constructed over the top. You can access the bridge by walking 40 metres along a track from the carpark and camping ground at Mayfield Beach.
Lisdillon salt works
This salt works were one of a number of small scale, speculative works established in Van Diemens Land to meet colonial needs. The Site is one of only two early salt manufacture works in eastern Australia where substantial remains can still be found (the other being at Norfolk Island). The ruins here form an intriguing and highly significant part of the industrial heritage of Tasmania and Australia. Although they operated only briefly in the late 1830s, the salt works established by James Radcliff at 'Lisdillon' were well-constructed and technologically innovative. Location: The Lisdillon Salt Works lies on the east coast of Tasmania, near the town of Little Swanport. They are situated on Saltworks Road which joins the Tasman Highway (A3) between Boomer Creek (to the south) and Lisdillon Rivulet (to the north), approximately 24 km south of Swansea, Tas.
Variety Bay Pilot Station, Bruny Island, Tas
One of the earliest Pilot Stations in Australia, being established in 1831 using convict labour. The site includes foundations of three discernable buildings; a bakers oven, a rock and brick lined cellar and a rock walled watch tower; and evidence of a garden in front of the homestead. A nearby kiln site is where the bricks used for the pilot station were made by convicts and fired on site. Remnants of three kiln foundations and clay pit remain. The last set of bricks fired in the 1850's were dismantled in the 1950's and transferred to Adventure Bay to build the Bligh Museum of Pacific Exploration. The museum was constructed to the same design as St Peters Church, Variety Bay. Location: Variety Bay, Bruny Island, Tas.
Highfield, Circular Head
This site can be regarded as the 'birthplace' of European settlement in Tasmania's north-west. It was built from 1832-35 as a residence for Edward Curr, chief agent of the Van Diemen's Land Company. The history of the north-west region of Tasmania is inextricably bound up with the story of the Van Diemen's Land Company; indeed, there are very few places in the region that have been unmarked by its presence. A small band of Van Diemen's Land Company personnel first arrived at Circular Head in October 1826 aboard the Tranmere, together with livestock, supplies and equipment. Indentured labourers brought out from Britain and 41 assigned convicts made up the bulk of the company's workforce. The Highfield Historic Site is open for public inspection from 10am - 4pm seven days a week during September to May, and from June to August the site is open Monday to Friday from 10am - 4pm, closed weekends. Location: Circular Head, Stanley, Tas.
Highfield Convict Ruins
Port Arthur, which constitutes the ruins of Australia's largest convict settlement, is the most well known but not the only convict related relic on Tasman Peninsula. Convict-built out-stations still stand at Saltwater River, Koonya, Premaydena and Taranna. Also at Saltwater River is the remains of another large convict station and a coal mine, with numerous buildings an a few mine shafts still intact. Interpretive signage details the story of the site, which is about a 25 minute drive from Port Arthur.
Norfolk Bay Convict Out-station
Taranna was the terminus for a human railway which ran between the jetty at Little Norfolk Bay and the prison. It was designed to carry passengers and supplies unloaded at Norfolk Bay and saved the ships the hazardous journey around Cape Raoul. It was the first railway in Australia and probably the only one using human horsepower along the seven kilometre line. Location: 90-minutes drive south-east 89 kilometres Hobart on the A9 Highway.
Eaglehawk Neck marks the beginning of the Tasman Peninsula which contains many attractions including Port Arthur Historic Site. In colonial times the isthmus was guarded by ferocious dogs intended to ensure no convicts escaped the Port Arthur penal settlement. While little remains of the Eaglehawk Neck historic site, the infamous dog line has been marked by a bronze dog sculpture, and there s a small museum in the former Officers Quarters.
Cascades Out-station, Koonya
Cascades was established as a convict Out-station in 1841 and by 1846 there were nearly 400 convicts working in the area. The Out-station was neat and compact. From it, convicts were employed in felling timber, which was believed to be the best on the peninsula. Most of it was used for shipbuilding in Hobart. The many buildings which are still standing were arranged on either side of a main street in an area between two streams. The old road has vanished without trace; the current road runs inland between the hospital and penetentiary. The waterfall after which the settlement was named can be seen where the present road crosses the western of the two streams.
Impression Bay Out-station, Premaydena
Known in convict times as Impression Bay, Premaydena was the most important Out-station on the peninsula after Port Arthur. It opened in 1841, initially growing vegetables, and by 1846, there were 445 convicts based at the station and four doctors were employed. A long tramway ran through the middle of the settlement to a jetty on Premaydena Bay.
The foundation logs of a trestle bridge that carried the railway across mud flats are still visible at low tide. Most buildings were situated on a hill on the north western side of the valley. A large brick and stone prison was set into the side of the hill. Only a handful of the buildings remain.
Flinders Bay Probation Station
Located on Forestier Peninsula facing Norfolk Bay, Flinders Bay (8 km north west of Eaglehawk Neck) was once the site of a convict Probation Station which was established in 1841. Probation Stations at Salt Water River, Slopen Island and Impression Bay opened that year. At that time, the Government stated no more convict assignments to settlers would be made; instead the Probation System was activated, whereby convicts were divided into gangs and sent to work in the under developed areas of the Colony.
Convict Era Villages of Tasmania
The largest concentrations of convict built structures can be found in the following villages:
Oatlands has the largest collection of sandstone buildings in a village setting in Australia. The town's authentic colonial character is reflected in 87 original sandstone buildings along the town's main street, many of which were built by probation convicts.
This pretty village, with its elm tree- lined streets, is included in the federal government's list of significant places of Australia as the "Most significant convict village in Australia". Its convict-built beridge is one of Australia's oldest and Tasmania's most iconic bridges.The bypassing of Ross by the Midland Highway has preserved the original, sleepy character of the town.
Ross Female Factory: a former Australian workhouse for female convicts. Operational between 1848 and 1854, the factory is now one of the 11 sites that collectively comprise the Australian Convict Sites, on the World Heritage List. Representing the female experience, the Ross Female Factory demonstrates how penal transportation was used to expand Britain s spheres of influence, as well as to punish and reform female convicts.
The Ross Female Factory opened in March 1848 and closed in November 1854. Transportation to Van Diemen's Land had ceased in 1853. The site served as a factory as well as a hiring depot, an overnight station for female convicts travelling between settlements, a lying-in hospital and a nursery. Female convicts were hired from the factory as probation passholders to local settlers, mainly to work as domestic servants. They could be sent back to the factory for punishment if they were charged with an offence by their master or mistress. Hundreds of female convicts passed through the Ross Female Factory during its six and half years of operation. Some of their stories appear in Convict Lives at the Ross Female Factory. Today the site has the remains of the assistant superintendant's and overseer's cottages which includes a scale model of what the site used to look like as well as other interpretive displays.
The convict built Ross bridge
Ross Bridge: Four years in construction and built of stone quarried locally by convicts and completed in 1836, it's unquestionably one of the most picturesque and unusual bridges in Australia. Its ornate carvings are the work of Englishman Daniel Herbert, who came to Van Diemen's Land a convicted highway robber. He died here a free man - he was buried in the local cemetery on a hill not far from the bridge - and he would have thanked Ross Bridge, for it was his work on its construction that gained him a pardon and his release from a chain gang. James Colbeck, another stonemason who worked alongside Herbert, also received a pardon for his work on the bridge.
Evandale is a National Trust classified Georgian village, popular with tourists for its unspoiled heritage buildings. The town is associated with several famous names. John Batman, lived here before setting off in 1835 to found Melbourne, while John Kelly, father of Ned Kelly; Australia's most notorious bushranger, was posted at Edandale as a convict.
The village of Longford near Launceston still has the bucolic air of a 19th century country village. Three early free-settler estates - Woolmers (1816), Panshangar (1821) and Brickendon (1824) - were developed by the dynastic Archer family using convict labour. The Archers arrived in 1813 and their descendants still farm the area today.