Tasmania's Convict Past

Port Arthur church ruins
Port Arthur church ruins

The transportation of British convicts to Australia came about as a result of the poverty, social injustice, child labour, harsh and dirty living conditions and long working hours that were prevalent in 19th-century Britain. The Industrial Revolution saw an increase in petty crime due to the displacement of much of the population, leading to pressures on the government to find an alternative to confinement in overcrowded gaols. The situation in Britain was so dire in fact, that hulks left over from the Seven Years War were used as makeshift floating prisons.

Transportation of Britain's convicts to her colonies was adopted as the answer to the problem of overcrowded gaols. It became a common punishment handed out for both major and petty crimes in Britain from the seventeenth century until well into the nineteenth century. Around 60,000 convicts were transported to the British colonies in North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but when the American Revolutionary War brought an end to that means of disposal, the British Government was forced to look elsewhere.

They settled on New South Wales which James Cook had visited and claimed in the name of the British Empire in 1770. The first penal colony in New South Wales was established with the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788. Between 1787 and 1812, all British convicts who had been found guilty and sentenced to transportation overseas went to New South Wales.

Tasmania was the second colony to be established by the British, in 1803. At that time it was known as Van Diemens Land. By then the number of emancipists and free settlers in New South Wales far outnumbered the convicts and the idea of their home town continuing to be a convict dumping ground was no longer palatable.

convict ploughing team
A convict ploughing team breaking up new ground at a farm in Port Arthur

The first convicts arrived in Van diemen's Land in 1803 when Lieut-Gov Collins, dissatisfied with Port Phillip as a colony, transferred his group of 67 soldiers, 74 convicts and 40 free persons south to Van Diemen's Land.

Until 1812, all the convicts in Van Diemens Land had been re-shipped from New South Wales or Norfolk Island. The arrival of 200 convicts direct from Britain on the Indefatigable in 1812 was a solitary act and it was not until 1818 that the beginning of steady shipments from Britain began. In the intervening years, convicts from other parts of New South Wales kept arriving.

From 1818 until 1853, convict ships were sent direct to Van Diemens Land rather than stopping in Sydney. In the 41 years of transportation, about 67,000 convicts (64,206 of which arrived direct from Britiain), around 22% of whom were Irish, arrived on over 300 transport ships. Over 89 wrecks occured around the island of Tasmania during that half century, many involving the transport of convicts, In total, around 166,000 convicts were transported to Australia between 1788 and 1868.

Van Diemen's Land's first penal colony was established at Macquarie Harbour (Sarah Island) on the west coast of the island in 1822, specifically to house repeat offenders from New South Wales. Its reputation for cruelty and barbarism spread throughout the Empire.

Sarah Island
Ruins of the Macquarie Harbour penal settlement on Sarah Island

In 1825 the British Government separated Van Diemens Land from New South Wales. By then Macquarie Harbour had become too hard to control from Hobart, so it was closed down and a new settlement at Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula was established. Port Arthur quickly developed a similar reputation for its hardship and severity of punishments.

From 1825 to 1832, class 6 convicts, who were colony convicted men, sentenced to hard labour, were sent to Maria Island under rigid surveillance to work at a variety of occupations. When the settlement was closed down, the convicts were transferred to Port Arthur and the island was put under private farming lease.

Between 1830 and 1877, 12,500 convicts served their time at Port Arthur. It was seen as a good place for such bad criminals because it is connected to the rest of Tasmania only by Eaglehawk Neck - a strip of land less than 100m wide. The narrowest passage along the Eaglehawk Neck was lined by ferocious guard dogs and the waters around it were full of sharks so it wasn't easy to escape.

Initially the establishment of penal colonies to punish criminal offenders and deter crime in the home state was the immediate and long-term objective of transportation systems. A more enlightened view which gained momentum during the transportation years was its use by state powers to reform the criminal elements of humanity.

To assist the process of rehabilitation, the probation and assignment systems were introduced. Probation stations were established across Tasmania from which convicts were involved in public works and building infrastructure such as roads, bridges and public buildings. Other convicts were assigned to settlers to provide cheap labour for their farms. In payment for their labour, settlers were required to feed, close and house the convicts, and provide eduation and religious instruction.

Thus not all convicts went to Port Arthur as is generally believed. Only the worst of Australian convicts - the ones that, after having been sent to the colonies, continued committing crimes - were sent there. Nor were all convicts treated harshly. Except for isolated cases, severe punishment was reserved for habitual criminals in places like Port Athur.

Most offences which led to transportation, like stealing, were trivial, and were often committed because the person was homeless or unemployed and had to steal to stay alive or feed their families. To such people, transportation became a blessing as it promised a life to be envied by the English poor and a second chance that would never be offered them had they stayed in England. They could learn work skills while on probation or assignment, gain remissions of his sentence through diligence, and when freed, succeed in a new land of unlimited opportunities.

It was not uncommon for convicts working their way through the system to apply to have their families brought over from England to join them. There are even recorded cases where, when the spouse was refused passage, they deliberately broke the law and joined the penal system so they would be transported to Van Diemens Land and be reunited with their partner.

Cascades Female Factory, Hobart
Cascades Female Factory, Hobart

Female convicts were sent directly to the Female Factory, but iit was more of a work house than a factory as we know them. Some did not actually live in the factory, but nearby, and came in every day to work. Here, they learnt domestic skills. Many also remained only for a day or so before being sent to work for free settlers, or even convict settlers.

Many also married very soon after arrival. The idea was that any man wanting to marry one of the girls would apply. The girls were lined up at the Factory and the man would drop a scarf or handkerchief at the feet of the woman of his choice. If she picked it up, the marriage was virtually immediate.

Children of convict women either stayed with their mothers or were moved to an orphanage. Young convict girls were also employed in the Female Factory and young convict boys were sent to Point Puer, a special settlement established near Port Arthur in 1835 to house and rehabilitate the growing number of young male convicts.

In 1842, Norfolk Island was reopened as a penal settlement and the worst offenders began to be sent there. Salt Water River had been established a year earlier as first probation station on Tasman Peninsula. Flinders Bay, Slopen Island and Impression Bay probation stations also opened that year. In 1847 Impressions Bay reverted to an invalid depot and at the same time an immigrant ship "Persian" with over 300 souls aboard was afflicted with Typhoid fever and Impression Bay was used as a quarantine station.

As the number of convicts transported to New South Wales decreased, the number arriving in Van Diemens Land rose, peaking in 1846 when around 5,000 convicts arrived. From that year, the transportation system began to be wound down as the Britain government yielded to public pressure for a change in the way convicts were treated.

Flogging of convicts was banned in 1848, having declined in the mid 1830's when it was realised that it only made the victim embittered and brutalised both the victim and the man carrying out the flagellation. Solitary confinement with a diet of bread and water was used in preference. Paupers, invalids and less-afflicted "lunatics" were sent to probation stations, and later to Port Arthur's old prisoners' barracks.

Port Arthur
Port Arthur

Visiting 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.

Port Arthur
Port Arthur