Early visitors to the island's shores
During his exploratory trip of 1642, Abel Tasman named 'Maria's Eylandt' in honour of the wife of Anthony Van Diemen, the Governor-General of the Dutch East India Company. Detailed observations of the island were made when the explorers John Cox (1789) and Nicholas Baudin (1802) landed small parties to examine and record its features. Both expeditions came into contact with the Tyreddeme band of the Oyster Bay tribe of Aborigines.
Francois-Auguste Peron, a zoologist in Baudin's party, was impressed by the abundance of dolphins and whales, and the 'innumerable legions' of seals in the island's waters. Commercial prospects for harvesting the seal skins and whale oil lured other parties to visit the locality, resulting in clashes with the indigenous inhabitants.
Sealing gangs were operating in Oyster Bay as early as 1805. Whalers, such as George Meredith and Thomas Lucas, came some years later Ð in the 1820s and 1830s. They set up temporary camps during the winter months. Whilst on a visit to Darlington in 1838, Lady Franklin noted:
The shores of the little settlement bay are strewed with whale blubber and bones... The smell of the whale blubber and the still worse smell of putridity from the sea-weed made our walk along the sands to and from the dwelling house anything but agreeable.
Today, scant remains of a whaling station can be found at Whalers Cove. They include the stone rubble foundations and brick chimney butts of workers' huts, and the trypot bases where the blubber was rendered down to make oil.
Darlington convict settlement
Darlington Convict Settlement c. 1830
(Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts)
Lt. Governor Arthur established a penal settlement at Darlington in 1825 for convicts who committed offences in the colony, but whose crimes were not 'so fragrant a nature' that they should be banished to Macquarie Harbour. A small party of soldiers under the command of Lt. Peter Murdoch and fifty male prisoners arrived at the island aboard the Prince Leopold in March.
Supplies being very short, the men were obliged to 'fish and fowl' for food. Many convicts became afflicted with scurvy, ulcers and boils. They were put to labour felling the timber and cultivating the ground:
...the trees are very heavy and difficult to eradicate and form admirable labour for those who are refractory...
(Murdoch, April 1825)
Prisoners and officials were, at first, housed in log and bark huts or tents. After the arrival of a new Commandant, Major Thomas Lord, in August, more permanent buildings were erected using bricks made on the island and sandstone excavated from the sea cliffs. The commissariat store (1825) and the penitentiary (1830) can still be seen today. Industries such as cloth, blanket and shoe-making, tanning, timber cutting, and pottery were fostered.
Frequent escape attempts, allegations of laxity of discipline and the opening of Port Arthur led to the decision to abandon the settlement in 1832.
Separate Apartment Cells, circa 1886.
(Archives Office of Tasmania)
A second period of convict settlement at Maria Island began in 1842. Under the probation system of the 1840s convicts were withdrawn from private service and congregated in government stations. Probation stations were established at Darlington (1842 - 1850) and Point Lesueur (1845 - 1850). Agricultural work largely kept the men busy, there being over 400 acres of crops needing attention.
To house the officials and 600 male convicts at Darlington, old structures were re-used and altered and new ones erected. Overcrowding and ill-adapted buildings were constant problems. The medical officer complained that his lodgings were:
...so pervious to the wind that frequently a candle cannot be made to burn in my sitting room.
Today, the messroom, miller's cottage, barn, hop kiln, chapel, and ruins of the religious instructor's house are amongst the structures still standing from this period of convict settlement. At Point Leseur lie the ruins of the old separate apartment cells.
The Irish exile William Smith O'Brien (Archives Office of Tasmania) was amongst a number of political prisoners held at Darlington in the 1840s:
I am not allowed to go beyond the limits of a very small garden attached to the house assigned to me. No human being...is to be allowed to speak to me (except an officer in the strict discharge of his duty).
World Heritage Listing of Darlington Probation Station
The significance of the convict probation era at Darlington was recognised in 2010 by World Heritage Listing as part of the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Property. The Tasmanian sites include the Cascades Female Factory, Port Arthur Historic Site, Coal Mines Historic Site, Brickendon and Woolmers Estates, and the Darlington Probation Station.
Darlington is the most representative and intact example of a probation station in Australia. Its 14 convict buildings and ruins are preserved in a layout that reflects the key features of the probation system in Van Diemen’s Land. The site has remained relatively unchanged since the convict era. The majority of the buildings are old colonial Georgian style and are simple and functional with plain, whitewashed brick walls and very little decoration.
At its peak, the convict population reached 492 in 1846; however Darlington was closed in 1850, following the cessation of the probation system in Van Diemen’s Land and the island was opened up for public leasehold.
More information on the Tasmanian World Heritage sites that are part of the Australian Convict Listing can be found at www.heritage.tas.gov.au/convict_sites.html.
'The Riviera of Australia'
Here may the invalid laze the hours away and, book in hand, become intoxicated with the splendour of the scenery and the sounds of the unceasing sea... Here may the sportsman roam and fill his bag, here may the angler bait his hooks with great results, here may the tourist contemplate the history of the centuries.
(Maria Island brochure, c.1890s)
Maria Island's potential for wine and silk production, fruit-growing and tourist development captured the imagination of Italian entrepreneur, Diego Bernacchi. In 1884, amidst a climate of public scepticism, Bernacchi secured a long term lease of the island. The 'Maria Island Company' was formed three years later. Darlington became known as 'San Diego', and soon had over 250 residents from a variety of different nationalities.
Cement works were set up in the late 1880s utilising the island's limestone deposits. By 1888 the Tasmanian Mail could report:
Things are on the move here... Signor Bernacchi's collection for the Melbourne Exhibition is a grand one, comprising marble, granite, and freestone... lime, cement, timber, bark, wine and brickwork... Buildings are going up everywhere.
The opening of the Grand Hotel in 1888, complete with dining, billiard and accommodation rooms, saw the promotion of the island as a pleasure resort and sanatorium.
Bernacchi's family and parliamentary visitors
on the verandah of their home, c.1886.
(Archives Office of Tasmania)
Also constructed in Bernacchi's time were the Coffee Palace, a row of workers' cottages known as the 'Twelve Apostles' and six terraced cottages (built using bricks from the demolished convict separate apartment cells). Some of the old convict buildings were re-modelled to house workers, managers and shops. Bernacchi's family resided in the old religious instructor's house for a time.
Despite Bernacchi's efforts, the Maria Island Company went into liquidation in 1892. Diego continued to promote the island's fledgling cement industry and formed a new company for that purpose. It was short-lived, and in 1896 Bernacchi and his family left for Melbourne, and thence to London.
After Bernacchi's departure, tourists continued to frequent the island where Mrs Adkins ran a boarding house (the old Coffee Palace). A small pastoral community also became established.
National Portland Cement Company works
Following the First World War Diego Bernacchi returned to Maria Island determined to exploit the limestone deposits for cement. The National Portland Cement Company Ltd was formed in 1920. The annual report for 1923 revealed that a new 620ft pier had been constructed and that buildings were in the course of erection, including a 200ft high chimney stack of reinforced concrete. A railway line conveyed limestone to the works. Machinery worth over £125,000 had been imported from Copenhagen and London.
At the present time there are some 170 men working on the job, and by using the old buildings they have all been given comfortable accommodationÉ When the plant has been erected electric light will be added.
The works were officially opened in February 1924. Community life prospered for the 500 or so residents. Social and sports clubs sprang up, dances were held and the old chapel was used as a cinema. A school was erected for the employees' children. The schoolmaster's house is now the Ranger's Office.
Unfortunately, production problems were experienced at the works from an early stage, and together with the effects of the Great Depression, caused the cessation of business in 1930.
Farming and Fishing
At various time since the 1830s and following the closure of the cement works in 1930, Maria Island was home to a small farming and fishing community. Thomas Dunbabin ran sheep and cattle on the island in the 1860s - 1870s. The family residence was at Point Lesueur. His son recalled:
He kept about 3,000 sheep on the island and reared 500 lambs each year. He grew as much as 3,600 bushels of grain a year... One of the troubles at Long Point was...the seals used to come up and roll in the wheat.
A small party of Chinese abalone fishermen was active during the 1870s at a place still known as Chinamans Bay. They also helped out on nearby farms.
Following the closure of the cement works the population of the island dwindled. Those left included the South African, John Robey (who ran sheep on a property on South Maria), the French and McRae families of Chinamans Bay and Point Lesueur, and the Howells' near Darlington. Ruby Hunt operated the pedal radio which was the only communication with the mainland. Fishing, particularly for crayfish, earned plentiful catches which some used for food and income.
Farmhouses, shearing sheds and pens, and old fences remain as evidence of the era of the island's history. The small fisherman's cottage of the Prero family still stands near the shore in Darlington Bay.
Maria Island National Park
The first moves were made towards forming a Fauna Reserve on Maria Island in the early 1960's. Rex Gatenby was appointed as ranger in 1968. Species considered to be under threat, such as Cape Barren geese, Forester Kangaroos and Flinders Island wombats, were imported to the island. Maria Island was officially declared a National Park in 1971. Further details can be found at our Visitor's Guide to Maria Island National Park.
A Marine Reserve was declared in 1991 protecting marine life in the waters surrounding the northern part of the island.