History with Conviction: Part One

Undated photograph, mid-to-late 19th century, of Port Arthur convict Thomas Jackson, sentenced to ten years

A big part of the appeal of going to Australia, and in particular Tasmania, was visiting the remnants of the country’s convict past. Not because I wanted to gloat (hey, the United States had its share of convict ships/ne’er-do-wells dispatched to the colonies. Really. Look it up.) but because I am fascinated by the concept of sending someone literally halfway around the world to serve time for real or alleged crimes during a period when most people didn’t venture far from the village where they were born.

William Robinson, another Port Arthur convict... and perhaps a distant relative of Pete Postlethwaite?

It’s astounding to think that people not only survived what must have been a horrific voyage, but often decades of imprisonment in conditions that defy our modern concept of humanity (well, most of us, anyway).

More Port Arthur convicts (I just found their faces so riveting). I'm not saying William Meaghers, the guy on the upper left deserved his fate, but James Martin, the one on the lower right, certainly reminds me of the Oliver! line "I'm a bad 'un and a bad 'un I shall stay."

I’m also interested in Australia’s “transportation” history (the term used for sentences that were decreed in Great Britain but served in Australia) because it’s a chance to focus on the experiences of individuals rather than, say, battlefield tactics in which the names and fates of soldiers are often neglected in favor of General So-and-So outflanking Field Marshall Such-and-Such.

I am not condoning his actions at all, but you've got to admit "intent to ravish" sounds somehow less repulsive than "attempted rape."

So, with a curiosity about the people who experienced it and the conditions they experienced, I made a point of visiting several different kinds of convict sites during my three weeks in Tasmania.

Hobart’s Cascades Female Factory–Where Women Were Broken, Not Made

My first stop was arguably the least interesting, largely because it’s been the most neglected over the years.

Main Yard of Cascades Female Factory, South Hobart

The Cascades Female Factory, or at least what remains of it, is stuck at the bottom of a ravine west of Hobart proper. The neighborhood these days is a dense pocket of single family homes that looked a bit scruffy and industrial businesses, but back in the mid-19th century it was a swampy hinterland. Women convicts were brought here theoretically to isolate them, even though many were sent into Hobart to work as servants during the day.

While there is evidence that some of the women sent out as maids helped themselves to the silverware, there is also evidence that some were sexually abused by their bosses. Many of the women became pregnant and gave birth at the factory–the infants were taken from their mothers when still just days old and many died.

It was a horrible place, without question, and what makes it even worse, at least in my mind, is that many of the women sent there from England and other parts of the British Empire were sentenced to “transportation” for offenses such as “stealing a scarf.”

Scant Informational Signage at Cascades... click to enlarge

Although it’s the only remaining female factory (there were a few at the height of “transportation” times), Cascades doesn’t seem to get the attention you’d think worthy of it, though it is a listed Australian Heritage site. The yards themselves are mostly intact, and there was a tented excavation area when I visited, but overall the place was quiet and the informational signage/self-guided tour somewhat wanting.

Kind of mirrors the way women convicts themselves were treated, I suppose.

Plaque in the main yard of the Female Factory... kind of says it all.

Sarah Island: Beyond Hell’s Gate

The second convict site I visited was the most remote and arguably the most notorious: Sarah Island. To get there, I had to book a spot on a tourist cruise ship that plyed the Macquarie Harbor and Gordon River route, the main draw for visitors to Tasmania’s west coast.

Sarah Island is in Macquarie Harbor, which is accessed from the wild Tasman Sea by a narrow, rocky channel called Hell’s Gate. I was ready for it… how evocative a name! And a woman staying in my hostel who’d done the cruise the day before me raved about the savagery of the seas! Oh, peril, sweet peril! And… yeah.

Hell's Gate. Wake me when it gets exciting.

Not the most hellish gates I’ve ever seen. I hate to sound like the jaded world traveler, but after fearing for my life in a small boat puttering across the angry black waters surrounding the Faroe Islands, after camping in a hurricane in Iceland, after living through Con1 storms in Antarctica, ah, I was just a little underwhelmed, especially since the old lady at the hostel had painted a picture of crashing surf and heaving seas and the devil, the very devil, possessing the waters!

That said, what I thought of when we glided through Hell’s Gate, briefly into the Tasman and then turned back toward the harbor, was wow, what did the men arriving to Sarah Island make of their new home? Sarah Island was a secondary offense site, a place where they sent convicts from other sites because they couldn’t behave. It was for “the worst of the worst,” but I still wonder what these hardened men thought after days, often weeks, of rough travel through the notoriously mean-spirited Tasman Sea as they passed the not-so-scary Hell’s Gate and saw nothing but impenetrable rainforest, distant gray mountains, low cloud and black water, and felt nothing but a cold, stinging wind.

Perhaps, as most of them originally were from England, they thought “oh, reminds me of home!”

Who knows? Maybe they didn’t care at that point, so inured were they to suffering.

Sarah Island (right foreground)

In any case, Sarah Island was smaller than I had figured, a mere blip of an island, much of which was landfill used to create a shipyard where convicts learned–and eventually mastered–how to build ships.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Ruins of the solitary confinement cells at Sarah Island. The guy on the right in the black pants was our tour guide. I wish I remembered his name. He was highly entertaining and possessed a great booming voice that was welcome, given the amount of mindless chatter among the other tourists.

Sarah Island was actually Tasmania’s first convict site and was in operation for a scant 11 years, beginning in 1822. For the first half of its existence, it was known mostly for its isolation and impressive number of floggings, but in 1828, David Hoy, a Master Shipwright, showed up and put the convicts to work learning a craft. Sarah Island became known for building some exceptional quality ships and the number of floggings fell by about 75%. Convicts moved into better housing and the conditions, while never grand, improved considerably.

The bakehouse at Sarah Island is nearly gone, but the oven still stands

Eventually abandoned because it was simply too remote and supplying it was too difficult, Sarah Island fell into ruin, but not before sprouting some of Australia’s wildest convict tales. One successful escape party spent two years terrorizing the countryside before being recaptured while another escapee, Alexander Pearce, could be considered the Hannibal Lechter of Tasmania. Because yes, he cleverly took his rations in the form of fellow escapees. No word on whether his meals also featured fava beans and Chianti, but I suspect not.

Perhaps most impressively, convicts stole the last ship built at Sarah Island and sailed it all the way to Chile in 1834. That’s some quality shipbuilding.

Mines, Why Is It Always Mines?

From the spice mines of Kessel in Star Wars to the unfortunately real prison mines of North Korea, ever notice how mining and slave/convict labor seem to go hand in hand? It speaks to the horribly grim and dangerous work that is mining, I suppose, but if I could I’d go back in time and change all the prison mines to something more along the lines of Puppies Behind Bars.

Anyway, when I visited Port Arthur (the largest and most famous by far of Tasmania’s convict history sites, and worthy of its own upcoming post), I learned that a few miles to the north of it on the Tasman Peninsula was another, less-visited site known simply as The Coal Mines Historic Site.

I cringed, already knowing it would be a grim place, but sallied forth anyway.

The Coal Mines site was, according to signage, “for the worst of the worst” (a phrase you’ll find in an awful lot of places on Tasmania’s historic Convict Trail, reminding me of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s response in True Lies when Jamie Lee Curtis asks him “did you kill people?” He says “Yeah, but they were all bad.” It’s as if we want to rationalize that these places existed by dehumanizing the people put there. I’m not saying they weren’t criminals, and excessively naughty ones at that (though there is also evidence that more than a few innocent folks got “transported”). I’m just noting that, whatever their crimes, they were still human.).

It was about a half hour drive from Port Arthur through what is now farmland, though back in the day it was all thick rainforest.

The Coal Mines Historic Site

There’s not much left of the site, and the mines themselves have been filled in, but when I visited on yet another gray and windy day, there was a palpable feeling of despair about the place. Walking down into the basement cells used for solitary confinement, I had to turn back. It was partly because it was so dark, and I was alone and without a flashlight, that I worried about stepping on a wild animal or hobo or other living creature that may or may not be pleased to see me (or simply wiping out on an ankle-breaking hole). But it was also because I could feel the misery seeped into the very bricks of the place.

The better-lit of two once-subterranean halls leading to solitary confinement cells at the Coal Mines site

Puppies Behind Bars, people. Puppies Behind Bars. It’s the way to go. (There are other similar programs out there where prisoners train dogs to be service animals or part of K9 units, but I happen to love the name of PBB.)

How Do You Say “Gaol,” Anyway?

I’ll admit it. “Gaol” is one of those words that always gives me pause. I know how it’s pronounced. Really. But every time I’m about to say it, I pause, flinch a little and end up grabbing a dictionary.

Yes, it’s essentially pronounced like “jail” but even as I type this I want to say “gowl.”

Anyway, the last convict site I visited in Tasmania, the day before I flew back to Melbourne, was Richmond Gaol.

Richmond is one of those impossibly attractive towns, like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia or York in England, where history sort of smacks you in the face around every corner and you are never more than 100 feet from a shop selling fudge (one day I will figure out why fudge and taffy shops are so prevalent around historic places). I even stayed in converted 18th century barracks that were adorable (at least in their converted state. I suspect, before the digital HDTV, free WiFi and kitchenette, ah, not so much).

My final two nights in Tasmania, after nearly a month of leech-infested tents and slacker-infested hostels, I splurged and stayed at the lovely Richmond Barracks

Richmond Bridge was famously built by convicts and is still in heavy use today, both by traffic through the town and as a photo opp.

Richmond Bridge, built 1823-1825 by convicts, is the oldest bridge in Australia still in use.

But what took my fancy most in the town was the small but fascinating Richmond Gaol. By the time I visited it, I had already had my curiosity peaked at Sarah Island, my imagination stirred at Port Arthur and my spirit crushed at both the Female Factory and the Coal Mines. Maybe because it was (finally) a sunny day, maybe because Richmond Gaol was more intact and tidier (the warden’s quarters are still used today, albeit as a private residence). Whatever the reason, I found the place to be fascinating.

Bailey of Richmond Gaol, with the warden's residence on the right and an almond tree on the left. I'm not saying it was all tea and crumpets, but at least on the day I visited it seemed a hell of a lot more appealing than being stuck in the coal mines.

The gaol was built in the 1820s, after Sarah Island but before Port Arthur, and housed both men and women. Here’s some signage giving examples of male convict’s offenses and punishments:

And here are the women’s:

I don’t know about you, but 21 days in solitary for “insolence” seems a bit harsh.

One of the rooms where prisoners were chained to the wall at Richmond Gaol.

The prison provided a handy source of labor for a number of public works projects around rapidly-expanding Richmond in the 1830s but was eventually eclipsed by the larger penal colony–penal city, really–at Port Arthur.

No, it is not an artist's easel. Flogging yard at Richmond Gaol. I knew right away what it was because I've watched every episode of Sharpe's Rifles. The English sure did love their flogging, didn't they?

As for Port Arthur itself, I spent an entire day there and could have gone back for more, but my time was limited and I had to squeeze in a couple more Tasmanian Devil sanctuaries. Still, Port Arthur will get its own post in the coming days, one featuring savage guard dogs, shark-infested waters, an asylum and the Isle of the Dead. Soon, I promise.


4 thoughts on “History with Conviction: Part One

    • When I am 12 year old with Claremont Primary School student from my class go to Richmond for a tour. When we go to visit Historical Richmond Gaol. When we go to visit at the there women from work at the history gaol talk to student about history. When women finish talk women say can go to look out inside men and women gaol but i feel scary because darkness in the men cell but not same women cell but some all student brave.

      Cheer (Damian Miller I am deaf)

  1. I really enjoyed this… it’s a dream of mine to one day visit Tasmania, and in particular I would like to go to Sarah Island. I have just written a post about David Hoy, and am working on the next one about this remarkable man. My g-g-grandfather bought one of the last ships David ever made, that is how I became interested in him.

    Great post, thanks, and great pics! (I did chuckle at your description of entering the Gates of Hell!)

    • Thanks, Lois. I too have wanted to go to Tasmania since I was a little girl. It did not disappoint. And what fascinating family history you’ve been able to discover! Thanks for reading!

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