Macquarie Harbour Penal Station

Macquarie Harbour Penal Station
Macquarie Harbour Penal Station
Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour
Location Macquarie Harbour, Tasmania, Australia.
Coordinates 42°23′16″S 145°26′55″E / 42.387889°S 145.448611°E / -42.387889; 145.448611Coordinates: 42°23′16″S 145°26′55″E / 42.387889°S 145.448611°E / -42.387889; 145.448611
Status Abandoned
Security class Penal Colony
Opened 1822
Closed 1833
Managed by British Government
Governor Lt-Governor William Sorell (1822-24)
Lt-governor George Arthur (1824-33)

The Macquarie Harbour Penal Station was a notorious British penal settlement established on Sarah Island in the southern portion of Macquarie Harbour in what was Van Diemen's Land in (Tasmania), Australia.

It was built in 1822 to house for mainly male convicts, although some women were also sent to the island. The penal colony was closed in 1833. Even though it only operated for 11 years, it achieved a reputation as one of harshest penal settlements in the Australian colonies.


Rationale for establishment

Part of Sarah Island, including ruins of the "new penitentiary"
Ruins of the large domed oven in the bakehouse on Sarah Island.

The penal station was established as a place of banishment within the Australian colonies. It would take the worst convicts and those who had escaped from other settlements. The isolated land was ideally suited for its purpose. It was separated from the mainland by treacherous seas, surrounded by a mountainous wilderness and was hundreds of miles away from the colony's other settled areas. The only seaward access was through a treacherous narrow channel known as Hell's Gates.

Strong tidal currents resulted in the deaths of many convicts before they even reached the settlement due to ships foundering in the narrow rocky channel. The surveyor who mapped Sarah Island concluded that the chances of escape were "next to impossible". Neighbouring Grummet Island, a small island to the North west, was used for solitary confinement.

Despite its isolated location, a considerable number of convicts attempted to escape from the island. Bushranger Matthew Brady was among a party that successfully escaped to Hobart in 1824 after tying up their overseer and seizing a boat. Sarah Island's most infamous escapee was Alexander Pearce who managed to get away twice. On both occasions, he cannabalised his fellow escapees.

Lieutenant-Governor William Sorell wanted the new penal colony to be economically viable. It could then reimburse the British government for the expense of its establishment. Convicts were employed in the shipbuilding industry. For a short period, it was the largest shipbuilding operation in the Australian colonies. Chained convicts had the task of cutting down Huon Pine trees and rafting the logs down the river. Eventually the heavily-forested island was cleared by the convicts. A tall wall was then built along the windward side of the island to provide shelter for the shipyards from the roaring forties blowing up the harbour.


Remains of the solitary cells, which were completely dark inside and barely large enough to lie down in.

As Sarah Island could not produce food, malnutrition, dysentery, and scurvy were often rampant among the convict population. The penal colony had to be supplied by sea. Living conditions were particularly bad in the early years of the settlement. Conditions were so crowded, convicts were unable to sleep on their backs in the communal barracks. Punishment involved solitary confinement and regular floggings - 9,100 lashes were given in 1823.

Ergot was deliberately added in the bakehouse, so that the bread would quickly become mouldy and inedible[citation needed]. This prevented convicts from saving their rations for escape. In 1824 a prisoner killed another convict in order to be executed rather than face further imprisonment at Macquarie Harbour Penal Station.

It was finally closed in late 1833. Most of the remaining convicts were then relocated to Port Arthur.

Later use

The island was later used for pining purposes, and was known by the piners as Settlement Island, rather than Sarah Island, though it has since reverted to its original name.

Current conditions

The ruins of the settlement remain today as the Sarah Island Historic Site —part of the larger Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area—though they are not as well preserved as those at better-known Port Arthur.

The island is accessible via ferries and charter boats operating out of the town of Strahan.

In the media

Sarah Island has been frequently featured in Australian literature and theatre, often representing the worst excesses of the British convict system.

Books include:

In Strahan, the main port and town on the shores of Macquarie Harbour today Australia's longest running play The Ship that Never Was by Tasmanian author Richard Davey dramatises the last escape from the island. His book The Sarah Island Conspiracies - Being an account of twelve voyages to Macquarie Harbour and Sarah Island furthers understanding of the history and the recent archaeological work on the island.[1]

The films The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce and Van Diemen's Land deal with one of the more notorious escapees.

Known escapees

  • Mordecai Cohen April 1823
  • George Hammersley and James Woodward 4 May 1824
  • John Graham, John Germanston, and John McCarthy 20 July 1825
  • Matthew Brady
  • Mark Jefferies
  • Alexander Pearce
  • Ten shipwrights who stole the Frederick and sailed to Chile.[2]

See also

Looking south east from Sarah Island towards Grummet Island (on left) and Frenchmans Cap on the skyline


  1. ^ ABC Radio National, Artworks, ABC Radio, 11 November, 2007. Accessed October 6, 2008
  2. ^ Lists attempts on page 12 of The People Ships and Shipwrights - A guided Tour - Strahan n.d. The Round Earth Company - a summary states one attempt in five of the 180 serious escapes between 1822 and 1833 was successful in leaving the island.

Further reading

  • Butler, Richard. The Men That God Forgot. London,1977 ISBN 0-552-10469-8
  • Brand, Ian. Sarah Island Penal Settlements 1822-1833 and 1846-1847. Launceston,1984. ISBN 0-949457-31-0
  • Collins, Paul. Hell's Gates/ The terrible journey of Alexander Pearce, Van Dieman's Land cannibal. South Yarra, 2002. ISBN 1-74064-083-7
  • Davey, Richard Innes. The Sarah Island Conspiracies. Hobart, 2002. ISBN 0-9750051-0-3
  • Flanagan, Richard. Gould's Book of Fish Sydney, 2001. ISBN 0-330-36378-6
  • Julen, Hans. The Penal Settlement of Macquarie Harbour Launceston, 1976. ISBN 0-9599207-3-0
  • Pearn, John. Sarah Island/The infamous prison island in Macquarie Harbour, Van Dieman's Land. Chapter 1 of:
    • Pearn, John and Carter, Peggy. Editors. Islands of Incarceration/ Convict and Quarantine Islands of the Australian Coast by Seven Authors. Brisbane, 1995. ISBN 0-86776-599-2
  • Pink, Kerry.G. Through Hells Gates/ A History of Strahan and Macquarie Harbour. Strahan, 1984. ISBN 0-646-36665-3 Chapter 3: Macquarie Harbour: Convicts' Hell
  • Rees, Siân. The Ship Thieves. London: Aurum Press. 2006. ISBN 1845131401
  • Whitham, Charles. Western Tasmania: A Land of Riches and Beauty.
2003 edition - Queenstown: Municipality of Queenstown.
1949 edition - Hobart: Davies Brothers. OCLC 48825404
1924 edition - Queenstown: Mount Lyell Tourist Association. OCLC 35070001
    • notably the 'Account of Macquarie Harbour' by T.G. Lempriere from the Tasmanian Journal of natural Science of 1842-6 on pages 39–46)

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