Macquarie Harbour Penal Station

The Macquarie Harbour Penal Station, a former British colonial penal settlement, established on Sarah Island, Macquarie Harbour, in the former colony of Van Diemen's Land, now Tasmania, operated between 1822 and 1833. The settlement housed mainly male convicts, with a small number of women. During its 11 years of operation, the penal colony achieved a reputation as one of the harshest penal settlements in the Australian colonies. The formal penal station is located on the eight-hectare (twenty-acre) Sarah Island that now operates as an historic site under the direction of the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service.[1]

Macquarie Harbour Penal Station
Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour
LocationMacquarie Harbour, Tasmania.
Coordinates42°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
Security classPenal Colony
Managed byBritish Government
GovernorLt-Governor William Sorell (1822-24)
Lt-governor George Arthur (1824-33)

Rationale for establishmentEdit

The penal station was established as a place of banishment within the Australian colonies. It took 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.[2] The only seaward access was through a treacherous narrow channel known as Hells Gates.

Strong tidal currents resulted in the deaths of many convicts before they even reached the settlement owing 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 Northeast, was used for solitary confinement.

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.[3] 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.


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. The settlement was 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.[citation needed]

In 1824 a prisoner named Trenham stabbed another convict in order to be executed rather than face further imprisonment at Macquarie Harbour Penal Station.[4]

It was finally closed in late 1833. Most of the remaining convicts were then relocated to Port Arthur.[2]


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. James Goodwin was pardoned after his 1828 escape and was subsequently employed to make official surveys of the wilderness he had passed through. Sarah Island's most infamous escapee was Alexander Pearce who managed to get away twice. On both occasions, he cannibalized his fellow escapees.

Just before the station was shut down, ten convicts were able to escape by seizing an unfinished brig called the Frederick and sailing it to Chile.

Later use and current conditionsEdit

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.

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 mediaEdit

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

Notable books include:

  • Clarke, Marcus (1892). For the Term of His Natural Life. London: R. Bentley and son. p. 472.
  • Flanagan, Richard (2001). Gould's Book of Fish: a novel in twelve fish (1st Australian ed.). Sydney: Pan Macmillan. p. 403. ISBN 0-330-36378-6.
  • Hughes, Robert (c. 1986). The Fatal Shore: a history of the transportation of convicts to Australia, 1787-1868 (hardback). London: Collins Harvill. p. 688. ISBN 0-00-217361-1.
  • Brennan, Craig. Bound to Sarah.

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 Frederick escape, 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.[5]

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

Known escapeesEdit

  • Mordecai Cohen, escaped in April 1823
  • George Hammersley and James Woodward, escaped on 4 May 1824
  • John Graham, John Germanston, and John McCarthy, escaped on 20 July 1825
  • Matthew Brady
  • Alexander Pearce
  • Ten convicts, notably former whaler James Porter, in the Frederick escape

3 September 1830 five men ran away from the settlement, Richard Hutchinson, William Coventry, Patrick Fagan, Mathew Macavoy, and Broughton, and that they were upwards of thirty days before the two 'survivors' surrendered themselves at Macguire's Marsh near Osterley.


See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Sarah Island: Visitor Services Site Plan 2006". Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service. 7 March 2006. p. 1. ISBN 0-7246-6381-9. Retrieved 4 July 2017.
  2. ^ a b Evans, Caroline (14 December 2006). "Macquarie Harbour Penal Station". State of the Environment, Tasmania 2003. Resource Planning Development Commission. Retrieved 29 April 2012.
  3. ^ Maxwell-Stewart , Hamish (2006). "Macquarie Harbour Penal Station". The Companion to Tasmania History. University of Tasmania: Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies. Retrieved 30 April 2012.
  4. ^ "Escapes from Macquarie Harbour penal settlement". Retrieved 20 February 2019.
  5. ^ ABC Radio National, Artworks, ABC Radio, 11 November 2007. Accessed 6 October 2008

Further readingEdit

  • Barnard, Simon, A-Z of Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2014. ISBN 9781922079343
  • Brand, Ian (1984). Sarah Island penal settlements, 1822-1833 and 1846-1847 (paperback) (reprint ed.). Launceston, Tas.: Regal. p. 77. ISBN 0-949457-31-0.
  • Butler, Richard (1975). The men that God forgot. Richmond, Vic.: Hutchinson of Australia. p. 255. ISBN 0-09-124500-1.
  • Collins, Paul (2002). Hell's gates: the terrible journey of Alexander Pearce, Van Dieman's Land cannibal (paperback). South Yarra, Vic.: Hardie Grant Books. p. 269. ISBN 1-74064-083-7.
  • Davey, Richard Innes (2002). The Sarah Island Conspiracies: being an account of twelve voyages made by one G.K. to Macquarie Harbour on the western coast of Van Diemens Land 1822-1833. Strahan, Tas.: Round Earth Co. p. 182. ISBN 0-9750051-0-3.
  • Julen, Hans (1976). The Penal Settlement of Macquarie Harbour, 1822-1833: an outline of its history. Launceston, Tas.: Mary Fisher Bookshop. p. 83. ISBN 0-9599207-3-0.
  • Lempriere, T. G. (1842). "Account of Macquarie Harbour". Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science (manuscript). 1: 39–49.
  • Maxwell-Stewart, Hamish (2008). Closing hell's gates: the death of a convict station (paperback) (1st ed.). Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. pp. 312. ISBN 978-1-74175-149-9.
  • Pearn, John (1995). "Sarah Island: The infamous prison island in Macquarie Harbour, Van Dieman's Land". In Pearn, John; Carter, Peggy (eds.). Islands of incarceration: convict and quarantine islands of the Australian coast (1st ed.). Brisbane, Qld.: Amphion Press for Australian Society of the History of Medicine. p. 122. ISBN 0-86776-599-2.
  • Pink, Kerry G (c. 1984). "Chapter 3: Macquarie Harbour: Convicts' Hell". Through Hells Gates: a history of Strahan and Macquarie Harbour. Burnie, Tas.: Advocate Newspaper. p. 90. ISBN 0-9590551-0-X.
  • Rees, Siân (2005). The Ship Thieves. Sydney: Hodder Headline Australia. p. 231. ISBN 0-7336-1914-2.
  • Whitham, Charles (1924). Western Tasmania: a land of riches and beauty. Queenstown, Tasmania: Mount Lyell Tourist Association. p. 168. ASIN B0008BM4XC. OCLC 35070001.

External linksEdit