The Macquarie Harbour Penal Station was Tasmania’s earliest penal settlement. It had a reputation as one of the harshest prisons in the Australian colonies.

Originally, the Macquarie Harbour area was the territory of the Mimegin and the Lowreenne, two bands of the Toogee tribe.

In about 1815, James Kelly became the first European to visit Macquarie Harbour. He named Sarah Island after Sarah Birch, who was the wife of the merchant who had paid for the voyage. The island became the location of the main convict settlement (though there were many outlying stations).

The penal station was established in 1822, and eventually closed in 1833. Over 1,150 convicts served time at the settlement during this period, the majority of them men.

Convicts were sent to Macquarie Harbour for a wide range of reasons. About half had been sentenced to secondary transportation for theft, robbery, or fraud, committed while serving their original sentences in Tasmania. Nearly thirty percent were absconders, apprehended as far away as Bombay, Mauritius, and Britain. Others were sent directly from newly arrived transport ships. Some even came from the hulks in Bermuda for engaging in mutinous conduct.

The convicts were employed in a variety of industries, one of which was shipbuilding. The Macquarie Harbour shipyard was, at one point, the largest in all of the Australian colonies.


A painting of the Macquarie Harbour penal station.

Sarah Island was separated from the mainland by a treacherous sea, and was hundreds of miles away from other settled areas. The only way to get to it was through Hell’s Gates, a dangerous narrow sea channel with unpredictable conditions. Powerful currents resulted in the deaths of many convicts before they even reached the settlement owing to ships foundering in the narrow, rocky channel.

Food couldn’t be grown on Sarah Island because its soil was too poor, so supplies had to be sent frequently from Hobart via sea.

Thomas Lempriere, Philips Island from the Northwest extremity to the overseer’s hut, Macquarie Harbour (c. 1828). Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office.

Sarah Island’s closest neighbour, Grummet Island, was also used by the prison as a location for solitary confinement.

Malnutrition, dysentery, and scurvy were often rampant among the convict population.

Living conditions were particularly bad in the early years of the prison. The communal barracks were so crowded that convicts were not able to sleep on their backs.

It was because of all these factors, but mainly the supply difficulties, that the authorities decided to close the prison in 1833. Most of the remaining convicts were transferred to Port Arthur.

Punishment and escapes

Punishment at Macquarie Harbour included solitary confinement and regular floggings. 9,100 lashes were given in 1823.

A large number of convicts tried to escape the settlement. Only a handful of them were successful.

Matthew Brady successfully escaped in 1824 when he seized a boat and sailed it to Hobart with a group of other convicts.

The prison’s most infamous escapee was Alexander Pearce. He escaped twice, and cannibalised his fellow escapees on both occasions in order to survive. The film Van Diemen’s Land (trailer below) follows the story of his first escape.

Post-convict history

After the prison closed in 1833, Sarah Island continued to be used for pining purposes.

The ruins of the settlement now operate as an historic site. You can visit it as part a Gordon River Cruise.

The island has also served as an inspiration for a number of books and theatrical shows such as The Fatal Shore: a history of the transportation of convicts to Australia, 1787-1868, written by Robert Hughes, and many other works.

The Round Earth Theatre Company in Strahan, the nearest town to Sarah Island, tells the story of an escape attempt in the brig Frederick in the very popular play The Ship That Never Was, the longest-running play in Australia.

Convict ruins on Sarah Island.

Feature image courtesy Anne-Marie Steenburgen,  Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International.