Dec
05
2013

Exploring the rich history of Sarah Island

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Sarah Island is one of Tasmania's offshore treasures, and is located off the mainland's west coast in the Macquarie Harbour.

It's of particular interest to those fascinated with Tasmania's convict history, as the island served as Tasmania's first penal station. It was in operation from 1822 until 1833.

The conditions on this island were notoriously harsh and those imprisoned were made to work arduous jobs, including felling Huon pine trees used for boat building. The landscape was bleak, the island whipped by wind and the prospects of escape or freedom were grim.

Some desperate convicts, however, did try to swim across the perilous harbour to claim their liberty. Even if they happened to make it across the water, they were greeted by thick rainforest on the coast, adding to the fight for freedom and survival.

Amazingly, 112 convicts did escape but of these, 62 passed away during their escape, 9 were murdered by other convicts and the rest were eventually recaptured.

If you go to the island today, you can visit the remains of some of these eerie sights, which offer a fascinating insight into early Tasmanian history and the penal system.

Here are some of the locations on the island you might want to check out. Not much does remain still standing, but you can orient yourself around the island and imagine what would once have been standing in front of you. 

The officials' quarters

Explore these cottages, where the commandant, military officer and assistant surgeon held residence.

These eerie quarters housed the staff and soldiers posted to guard the facilities but many of them were corrupt themselves, supplying prohibited materials to prisoners.

The Chaplain's house

The first chaplain at the island, Reverend William Schofield, formed a school and choir, and worked to convert some of the prisoners to Christianity. Mandatory services were held for convicts each Sunday.

The 'gaol' itself

A grim facility, there were tiny cells without windows. Prisoners were sent here to serve out 'solitary confinement' as opposed to a labour sentence, and subsisted on only water and bread.

Some preferred being sent here rather than out to work, considering the harsh conditions a labour sentence entailed.

The Bakehouse

This is a great example of convict life in an early Tasmanian settlement, where prisoners weren't necessarily locked away for life but lived in a form of society. Convicts worked at the bakehouse and even slept there.

Considering Sarah Island was so remote and surrounded by rough seas, locked doors and bars weren't always mandatory.

Others lived at their place of work too, including at the hospital, signal stations, farms and work camps. There was, however, a penitentiary that housed many of the prisoners.

The hospital

This building had facilities for around 15 patients and four staff members. There were two wards and a dispensary, and eventually an additional ward was added and reserved for the military.

Sawpits and windbreak fence

Sawpits were where convicts worked at shipbuilding.

In addition, prisoners worked at building a fence around the island to protect it from fierce winds, but these were often blown down by sheer force.

These aren't the only structures or ruins to look out for on the island, however, as there are actually many more!

To get to the island, hop aboard a ferry or cruise tours that can transport you there and back, or head out in your own boat.

Even for local Tasmanians, this is a fascinating place to visit thanks to its rich and sometimes salacious past. Experience it for yourself, and with the island's troubled history, you just never know what kind of eerie sounds you might hear floating on the wind. There’s a lot of wind.

The haunting ruins of the dormitory on Sarah Island - a place to now walk and reflect. Image Credit: TrekEarth contributor  Jeannie Kingston

Sarah Island intepretation board - Image Credit: ABC open and Vera Rayson

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