Tasmanian Convict System Information

Convict System Information gleaned from publications by David Hopkins

A Summary of Information Gleaned from:
The Convict Era - Penal Servitude in Chains
The Convict Era Port Arthur
The Convict Era - transported Beyond the Seas

All compiled by David Hopkins.

Notes - many verbatim:

Over 300 transport ships brought out to Van Diemen's Land 57,000 felons (see Editor's note at end). The "Canton" was built in 1825 as a slave ship. She also brought convicts to Australia several times and later was converted to deep sea whaling. On the ship "Neptune" 145 out of 499 convicts died. The last convict transport ship to come to Hobart Town was the 630 ton "St Vincent" in early 1853. "In the first 50 years of the young colony, 89 wrecks occured around the island of Tasmania, many involving the transport of convicts. In January 1835 the "Neva", a convict transport from Ireland, smashed into Navarine Reef, north of King Island, with 240 people on board including 150 female convicts with 33 of their offspring. Only 22 of those on board managed to scramble ashore on floating wreckage to suffer starvation and exposure leaving finally only 15 souls to be rescued". On 10 Apr 1835 the "George III, after 118 days at sea, grounded on unchartered rock, with a loss of 134 lives. 16 people had previously died and 60 had been down with scurvy.


Lieut-Gov Collins, dissatisfied with Port Phillip as a colony, transferred his group of settler convicts south to Van Diemen's Land. Lieut. John Bowen had earlier settled in 1803 at Risdon Cove, further up the Derwent River from the superior site Collins subsequently chose in 1804. Sullivan's Cove, directly under Mount Wellington, had a permanent water supply and a safe anchorage, and the small settlement flourished.

11 Nov 1804:
Lieut. Col. William Paterson formed a settlement on the Tamar where Georgetown is today, with 67 soldiers, 74 convicts and 40 free persons, but was shortly after transferred to York Town, on the opposite side of the river. This was abandoned in favour of the present site of Launceston during the year 1806. When Paterson's expedition was decided upon, the island was divided into two separate administrations. The dual administration continued until 1812.

30 Jun 1812:
The dual administration was abolished.

Feb 1813:
Major (later Colonel) Thomas Davey became first Lieut. Governor of the entire young colony of Van Diemen's Land.

Governor Lachlan Macquarie, 5th Governor of New South Wales, had plans drawn up for Hobart Town.

On arrival in VDL, convicts were classified into groups, then despatched out to various work parties.

The 2nd newspaper to be published in VDL was "Hobart Town Gazette", first published in 1816 by Andrew Bent, the father of the Tasmanian Press and journalism in Australia. Bent came to Sydney as a convict, transported for life, having been commuted from the death sentence for burglary. He arrived in Hobart Town in Feb 1812 and was granted a conditional pardon by Gov Macquarie in 1816, absolute in 1821.

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

Sarah Island Established to Maintain Discipline with the "incorrigibles".
Col Wm Sorell established the penal settlement at MacQuarie Harbour for convicts of the worst class, with the idea of harvesting the unique Huon pine of the area. A shipyard was established on Sarah Island and a number of vessels up to 130 tons were built there.

Governor Arthur ordered a female factory to be build at Cascade, or South Hobart. Female convicts were subject to sexual exploitation and many were assigned on arrival to domestic service. The female factories of Hobart and Launceston had 3 classes of convicts: those not yet assigned; those assigned who through misconduct were scheduled for punishment, and the unfortunate women who were pregnant or with small children and could not support themselves. Hand loom weaving of coarse prison cloth, other menial tasks and even a treadmill were undertaken in decrepit and damp conditions.

David Hoy appointed Master Shipwright at Macquarie Harbour. In 1836 he took charge at Port Arthur. Up until 1844 over 160 vessels were built at Port Arthur and more than one third were whaleboats.

Over 10,000 convicts were in VDL with approx 2,000 arriving annually. Most were housed in the prisoners' barracks penitentiary known then as "The Tench" located in Campbell St. Most convicts were taken out on daily work parties for road building and construction, while those with bad records toiled on the barracks treadmill grinding wheat, others carted and broke large rocks from the nearby quarry on the Domain into smaller stones to be used for roadworks.

Port Arthur established as a penal colony for class 6 and 7 convicts, those twice convicted men who needed severe discipline and hard labour, which numbered some 5% of the convict population in the mid 1830's. On the closure of penal settlements at Macquarie Harbour and Maria Island, this class of prisoner was transferred to Port Arthur.

Governor George Arthur divided the convicts under his control into 7 classes:

Class 1: Ticket of leave men working for wages. Their degree of freedom was gained through good conduct thus achieving a higher wage. About 10% of convicts were in this group.

Class 2: Assigned domestic servants working for chosen settlers who were responsible for feeding and clothing them, were about half of the convicts in the colony.

Class 3: Government employees on public works.

Class 4: Convicts on the road gangs who along with class 3 made up 20.

Class 5: Convicts sentenced to hard labour in chains made up 5.

Class 6: Colonially convicted convicts sentenced to hard labour under surveillance in a penal settlement.

Class 7: Those convicts from class 6 but they had to serve their sentence in chains.

The government set the convicts to work on extensive programs of civil construction: buildings, bridges and roads. But as the numbers of convicts grew, an assignment system was created for use by the free settlers.

Surveyors found coal on Norfolk Bay. Coal Mines Station was established and each miner was required to produce thirty wagon loads (or 5880 lbs) in each 24 hour period. Coal mining in the 1800's was dirty, tiring labour that was a severe punishment for convicts who hewed away at the narrow seam in filthy conditions.

Port Puer (Latin for boy) was established as one of the first juvenile prisons in the British Empire. Port Puer is on a narrow peninsula one mile across the bay from Port Arthur and adjacent to the Isle of the Dead. "Young incorrigibles" between 9-19 years of age were sent to learn trades. Approximately 3,500 boys passed through the station.

The British authorities broadened the categories of prisoners eligible to serve time at Port Arthur. These included those specially sentenced to penal settlements, those who committed offences on the journey out, those who committed crimes in VDL and educated convicts (the latter feared as potential insurrectionists).

Convict railway on Tasman Peninsula constructed to provide a safer and faster means of communication between Norfolk Bay and Port Arthur. Sweating convicts had to run alongside wagons. Braking was a shoe applied to the wheels, or a "drag" on the rails behind.

Separate transport ships were used to bring out boys from Britain on at least 8 occasions, the first being "Frances Charlotte" in 1837 with 140 boys on board.

[1840 - transportation of convicts to NSW stopped]

Salt Water River established as first probation station on Tasman's 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.

Government stated no more convict assignments to settlers would be made. A Probation System was activated, whereby convicts were divided into gangs and sent to work in the under developed areas of the Colony. Gangs of 250 to 300 men would have light to heavy labour, graded according to prisoner diligence and conduct. The gangs would build their own accommodation and then be employed on public works at stations. Tasmania, with over half its land mass covered in trees, still has timber as one of its primary resources. It is often quoted that "Melbourne was built with Tasmanian timber first developed by the penal system". Ship building was the main industry of Sarah Island and Port Arthur.

Probationary periods: 7-10 year sentence: 2 years' probation; 14-20 year sentence - 3 years; life sentence - 4 years. With good behaviour at the completion of the probationary period, a convict received a probation pass, then a ticket-of-leave, later graduating finally to a conditional or absolute pardon.

150 convicts sent back to Maria Island to re-occupy the old penitentiary and work started on new buildings. Cascade probation station, by a nearby waterfall was opened.

John Riles Price, Police Magistrate of Huan Valley, VDL was appointed Commandant at Norfolk Island, where his autocratic demeanour brought prisoners a reign of terror. Price left Norfolk in 1853 and later became Inspector-General of Penal Establishments for Victoria where he met a violent death at the hands of the prisoners in 1857.

VDL suffered an ailing economy and general depression. Many TOL convicts couldn't find employment and some 3,000 odd ex-prisoners became dependent on the government. The probation system collapsed.

Maria Island had accommodation for 730 men, a windmill and milling activities centred around 360 acres of cultivated ground for wheat and 2,500 grazing sheep. A second penal settlement commenced at Long Point.

Anti-Transportation League formed in Tasmania.

William Smith O'Brien took part in the "Young Ireland" uprising and in consequence was deported to VDL and served time at Port Arthur. Among non-criminal convicts to Tasmania were 143 Canadians and Americans apprehended during the civil uprising in Canada in 1837-8 and five Maori leaders in 1846, after the insurrection in NZ.

Flogging banned for convicts after this date. It 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.

Point Puer closed and prisoners were transferred to existing adult Probation Stations, mainly the Boys' Hiring Depot at the New Town Farm, to be enlisted in the colony's work force.

Hobart Town's population of 20,000 stagnated due to many convicts attaining freedom and chasing gold in Victoria, and the eventual winding down of the penal system.

Transportation declined, and Darlington & Long Point were abandoned.

No more convicts were transported from Britain. Paupers, invalids and less-afflicted "lunatics" were sent in the 1840's to probation stations, and by 1857 to Port Arthur's old prisoners' barracks.

[1853: Norfolk Island closed to convicts].

Convict Department staffing vastly reduced and the only stations open were Port Arthur, the Hobart Prisoners' Barracks and the Female Factory at the Cascades, near Hobart for convicts still serving sentences.

Port Arthur transferred from Imperial control of Britain to that of the colony of Tasmania. Author, Marcus Clarke, visited the settlement prior to its abandonment. His book For the Term of His Natural Life was published in serial form in the Australian Journal from March 1871. It was eventually to receive world wide recognition of its enshrining of the grim pathos and tragedy of life in the penal settlements in VDL.

Paupers transferred to Hobart, then back to Port Arthur.

Port Arthur closed. The "Cascades" female factory also housed men.

Bushfires swept through Port Arthur. Wishing to remove the shame of their forebears and the Transportation System from Tasmania, Port Arthur was renamed Carnarvon.

This article written and submitted by Gail Dodd.
Gail Dodd 2002. All rights reserved

Editor's Note: "Over a period of some 41 years more than 74,000 convicts were transported to our Island State."
Source: Eldershaw, P.R., Guide to the Public Records of Tasmania - Convict Department, Archives Office of Tasmania.

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Updated 02-Feb-2002