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Uncover Tasmania’s convict past

Uncover Tasmania’s convict past

The importance of Australia’s convict history has been recognised through the establishment of the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Property – a group of 11 sites around the country that collectively tell our complex convict story. Five of these sites are found in Tasmania.

Convict history is a significant part of Australia’s story, and is also important in the story of the modern world. Through convictism, we can learn about historical attitudes to punishment and reformation, settlement and colonialism, industrialisation, and the development of globalism. Convict stories also bring us deeply personal narratives of forced migration, family separation, hardship and redemption. Individual convict stories are fascinating, and each is unique.

Many convicts transported to Australia viewed their sentence as a chance at a fresh start in a new world, and worked hard to earn their freedom. These individuals went on to help establish the colonies and make a name for themselves as free citizens. Others never won their freedom and lived out their lives within the penal system, their labour vital in building the nation.

With so many World Heritage sites in one state, Tasmania is a wonderful place to immerse yourself in the many different stories of our convict past. Viewed as one ‘property’ by UNESCO, each of the following five convict sites (in no particular order) reveals a different part of the convict story. Here are two of the Apple Ise’s five sites that are must-visits for history buffs.

Port Arthur Historic Site

Perhaps the best-known historical attraction in Tasmania (if not Australia), Port Arthur has been capturing the public’s attention for more than a century thanks to its beauty and dark past. Now an expansive tourist attraction, Port Arthur Historic Site comprises ruins and buildings remaining from the various uses of the site over its history – from penal settlement to civilian town.

Port Arthur is an important part of the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Property because it reveals historical concepts about crime and reform. By 1842, the Pentonville Prison in the United Kingdom offered a popular model in which prisoners were separated by class. Prisoners were confined in silence for 22 hours a day, and conditions were shown to cause distress and mental health problems among inmates. Port Arthur was built after the Pentonville example, with separate cell blocks and wings radiating from a central area to provide constant surveillance.

The remains of the penitentiary reveal this design, and you can wander the rooms and imagine what it would have been like to be under constant watch. Within their cells, convicts were put to hard labour, making shoes, mats, brooms and clothes, or picking oakum – a tedious task in which old ship-rigging fibres would be teased apart, and old tar picked from the threads, for sale and re-use. Visitors today can see several of the cells made up to look as they might have done when occupied – with a small table, a stool, a night soil bucket, a bed roll and a corner shelf – and read some of the stories of individuals who spent time within their walls.

Cascades Female Factory

The Cascades Female Factory presents an opportunity to delve into the experiences of female convicts in colonial times. Here, the stories of forced migration, hardship and mistreatment of convict women and

girls are told, and visitors can gain an appreciation of their contribution to colonial Australia.

The Cascades Female Factory was built by Thomas Yardley Lowes as a distillery in 1823; however, a glut of newly opened distilleries at this time scuppered Lowes’s plans, and the building was sold to the government as a women’s prison just five years later. There was much debate about the location of the building – on the one hand, its position at the base of Mount Wellington was damp and dark, posing possible health risks; on the other, it was well isolated from the rest of the settlement, offering separation of inmates from the ‘disruptive elements’ of town and a chance to foster ‘proper feminine behaviour’. The latter argument won the day, and the first inmates arrived in 1828.

Women in the Cascades Female Factory laboured for up to 12 hours a day laundering, mending linen, spinning wool and working in the hospital. A superintendent, a matron, and an overseer and task mistress for the crime class were employed, along with a clerk, two constables and a porter.

Visitors can enjoy an exhibition and guided tours to learn about the women who once lived here. There is also an immersive, 40-minute, one-woman play that gives insight into what it was like to be punished here more than 200 years ago.

Pictured: Penitentiary, Port Arthur Historic Site. Image © Alastair Bett

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