Celebrating the Convicts of Tasmania

When Tasmania, the island state in Australia, was first settled by Europeans it was established as a penal colony so that Britain could ease the overcrowding in its gaols. Tasmania, or Van Diemen’s Land as it was then known, was one of the toughest, most brutal penal colonies ever known and now five of those Tasmanian convict sites have been added to the UNESCO World Heritage list.

The convict sites on that list are:

Brickendon-Woolmers Estates (1820-50s)

Brickendon and Woolmers are two neighbouring estates located on the Macquarie River in northern Tasmania, 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.

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. 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 (1825-32; 1842-50)

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.

At its peak, the convict population reached 492 in 1846; however Darlington was closed in 1850,

Cascades Female Factory (1828-56)

The Cascades Female Factory 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.

Female factories were self contained, multifunctional, purpose-built institutions serving as places of incarceration, punishment, hospital care, work and reform of female convicts. 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.

Port Arthur Historic Site (1830-77)

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.

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.

Coal Mines Historic Site (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.

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.

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.

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