Sarah Island

Speak of Australian history, and outside of Australia, about the only thing that comes to mind is “penal colony.” While it is true that the initial settlement of Australia was for this purpose, even on the first ships, more than half of the “settlers” were soldiers and officers. However, though this first step in settlement was to have an impact on the formation of the country, the current population and character of Australia were more solidly established by huge floods of immigrants during the big gold rushes of the 1800s and following the two World Wars. Today, less than one percent of the population can claim any convict heritage.

I especially roll my eyes when Americans jump on the “it was penal colony” thought. To this I respond, “Do you really think it’s just a coincidence that England started sending prisoners to Australia almost immediately following their loss of their colonies in North America?” Most folks respond with, “Oh, yeah. That’s right. Prisoners were sent here, too,” though some are stunned to find out that the Thirteen Colonies had acted as a dumping ground for Britain’s prisons long before Australia was charted by Captain James Cook.

Of course, back in those days, being poor or disagreeing with the government could land you in prison, so being a convict wasn’t always an indication of poor character. Lots of folks transported to North America and later to Australia were simply down on their luck, and they became useful citizens in the new colonies.

That said, some of those transported were thorough-going rotters. However, the folks who were mass murderers or criminally insane were not mixed in with the pickpockets and hard-luck cases. Really dangerous convicts were sent to remote prison facilities, usually on islands—such as Tasmania. Sarah Island—an island within an island, situated at the edge of Macquarie Harbor near the mouth of the Gordon River—was home to one such facility.

Fifteen-acre Sarah Island was the first penal facility in Tasmania. Established in 1821 and open for business in 1822, this settlement was for the worst criminals or for those who had escaped other facilities. The convicts worked in the surrounding forest, cutting trees for boat-building. Treatment was harsh and escape was nearly impossible.

The facility at Sarah Island only operated until 1833, at which time the convicts were transferred to the more progressive prison at Port Arthur. The island was then taken over and renamed Settlement Island by men known as piners, who were hunting for Tasmania’s valuable Huon Pine.

Today, all that is left are a few ruins of the structures built by the first convicts to arrive on the island.

Ruins on Sarah Island

Ruins on Sarah Island



Filed under Australia, Book, Geography, History, Travel

14 responses to “Sarah Island

  1. Great post. I believe I sailed around it on a cruise but that was 35 years ago. My how time flies.

    BTW I’m an Aussie who does have convict(s) among my ancestry.

  2. My Great Great Grandfather at the age of 15 was sent to Sarah Island from 1822 to 1825 even though free in 1825 on the 20th of Dec 1825 he was found Guilty of stealing a loaf of bread and sentenced to another seven years at Sarah Island in 1818 at the age of 12 he was sentence in Boston to 7 years transportation. he was discharged in 18 1832,

    • Amazing story. I know that only about one percent of Aussies today have links to those hard, early days. Not clear on the timeline, however. Boston wasn’t part of Britain in 1818, unless he was extradited as a British or Canadian citizen. Still, fascinating that he ended up in Tasmania’s first prison colony.

  3. John Henry Mawer

    He came from Boston Lincolshire England his real name was John Abraham Mawer son of George Mawer & Maria abraham at the age of 12 in 1818 he stole a quantity fish called sandlings and sentence to 7 years transportation to Van Diemen’s Land now Known as Tasmania he recieved his Certificate of leave March 1825 in Hobart but in December 1825 he was found quilty of stealing a loaf of bread in Hobart Town and sentenced to 7 years at Sarah Island for the second time on the 31 March 1831 John arrived at Port Arthur his record at Port Arthur states he was a hard man after 10 months he was discharged to Hobart Town and moved North to Launceston and changed his name to John Arnold Moore on the 18 February he married Maria Jessop a minor and in 1841 he purchsed 326 acres at Wesley Vale this he called Moorland John and Maria Had 14 Children 5 died young 8 married and 1 did not they all had large families my father was Victor Henry Mawer my Grandfather was Henry Wingett Mawer his father was Henry Wingate Mawer born 1839 Launceton Tasmania to John & Maria they are both buried on Moorlands that no longer exists i live about 4 miles from Moorlands at Port Sorell but i have his lifes history he is not the only convict in my family history tasmania was a convict settlement to begin with John Henry Mawer Tasmania is a Island State of Autralia south of Victoria cut off from the Mainland by Bass Strait

  4. John Mawer

    The British sent 76000 convicts to Van Diemen’s Land now Tasmania the Island State of Australia between 1804 – 1853,

    • Most books I’ve read say 73,000, but that was to Van Dieman’s Land/Tasmania as a whole, not to Sarah Island. They had been sending them all to North America before the colonies there revolted. In the 1700, about 53,000 convicts were shipped to the 13 Colonies, plus there were another 96,600 who came as indentured servants (virtually slaves, due to poverty). So shipping off the poor and undesirable had become something of a tradition by the time Australia was discovered.

  5. John Mawer

    Sarah Island is located in Macquarie Harbour on the West Coast of Tasmania placing it with in the band called the Roaring Forties and approximately half way up the West Coast of Tasmania the nearest land mass to the West is South America giving the wind and seas vast distances to build up size and strength it is part of the Southern Ocean the entrance to Macquarie Harbour is very narrow only 120 metres wide thus the name given to it by the convicts Hells Gates the Harbour Its self is a huge Inland Sea of about 100 square miles it was discovered in 1815 Sarah Island it self is just over 666 Yards long and 120 yards wide a Muster in `1828 was a total of 513 including 380 convicts 95 military 14 women and 27 children it opened about 1821 and closed in about 1832 when Port Arthur opened, their is not much left some ruins but they run Boat tours from the Port of Strahan its well worth it and a train trip from Strahan to the copper Town of Queenstown where I was born,

    • Yep — I cover much of that in the posts that come before and after this one, and some of it in the post above. And yes, the boat tour is worth it. Glorious scenery and fascinating history.

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