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Richmond Gaol


My conviction is that, if jails are erected in the several Districts with Solitary Cells, so that crimes may be at once examined and the Offenders punished on the spot by the resident Magistrate . . . Van Diemen’s Land may both advance as a Colony and be held up as a terror in England rather than an allurement to vice.

Gaol entrance

The gaol entrance, 1949

The 1825-7 Richmond Gaol was a cornerstone of the convict system devised by Governor Arthur after his arrival in the colony in 1824. Today, the village of Richmond offers visitors an unsurpassed insight into his system with the courthouse, gaol, church, bridge and sandstone mansions reflecting the intertwined elements of justice, punishment, salvation and public and private labour all intact within the village precincts.

Convicts were transported to the colony as an indentured workforce to build both public infrastructure and private wealth. They were disciplined through severe punishments such as floggings, solitary confinement and hard labour in chain gangs but offered remission of sentences for good behaviour and moral reform.

Enjoined by the British government to establish a ‘stricter surveillance and discipline’ over convicts Arthur created a highly centralised police state to ensure ‘the most minute attention and incessant watchfulness of the conduct of every convict’. Lay ‘gentleman’ magistrates who had previously dispensed justice were replaced by stipendiary magistrates under the control of the Chief Police Magistrate in Hobart. A largely convict police force enforced the laws on the ground. Under Arthur order was restored to the colony and a growing bushranger problem reined in.

Richmond’s stone gaol was erected by convicts in 1825-27. Together with the nearby courthouse the gaol represented Arthur’s first public works in the town, locating justice and punishment at the very heart of his vision for the colony.

The Gaol

The Gaol with the exception of my rooms consists of two rooms 15 feet by 13 feet one of which has hitherto been appropriated to the use of the Javelin men, the larger Cell 8’6” by 7’6” which since the formation of the Chain Gang has been since used as a store for their slops, and five small cells 8’6” by 3’6”. Thus there is at present only one room and five small cells that can be made use of for the confinement of prisoners. . . . When debtors are confined I am under the necessity of confining them with the general prisoners  . . . The extent of the yard in which the building is erected is 137ft long by 71 ft wide, the fence round which is so much out of repair that I am in continual fear of its being blown down.

Report of Gaoler Dodsworth, 1832

The gaol was built in several stages. The first wing, designed by David Lambe, consisted of four men’s cells, one women’s sleeping cell, a javelin’s room, lobby, prisoners’ room, keeper’s room with cellar beneath, passages and entrance hall. It was enclosed by a high paling fence. The javelins were convict warders at the gaol and not all were above reproach:

At Night the Party was called out of bed by a false alarm that the Prisoners were breaking out of the Gaol, it turned out that one of the Javelin Men in attempting improper freedoms with a Girl who was confined in prison was disturbed by hearing a Drunken Carpenter (who was also confined for being intoxicated) Gnashing his Teeth.

Gilbert Robertson, Chief District Constable, Richmond, 1829

The gaol was less substantial than Arthur had hoped and maintenance, exacerbated by constant overcrowding and frequent escapes, became a pressing issue. A gaolers house was erected in 1833 and two years later two new wings linked it to the original gaol. They contained a cookhouse with bread oven, a women’s room and four women’s solitary cells in the northern wing and twelve men’s solitary cells opposite. A 3.4m high stone wall erected around the gaol in 1840 enclosed an airing yard 24.4m by 19.5m. The former yard is now partially occupied by the Richmond police residence.

Many of the gaol’s prisoners remained unbowed by the system imposed upon them and escapes were frequent throughout its history. Convicts resorted to all manner of means to break out, including removing roof shingles, digging under the foundations and removing lintels over windows.

The Gaoled

Cell within the gaol

In theory Arthur’s district gaols confined debtors, civil offenders, convicts who were suspected of committing misdemeanours and felonies (including those awaiting trial and those awaiting further punishment after trial) and convicts being transferred between centres.

In practice they developed a wider role, reinforced in Richmond by the town’s rapid growth into the colony’s third largest settlement by 1834. Convict chain gangs engaged in public works (including constructing a road between Hobart and Arthur’s Coal River valley farm) were accommodated there in the 1830s sharing crowded cells and passageways with prisoners on far lesser charges.

Most prisoners were arraigned for minor breaches of convict regulations such as feigning sickness, absconding, refusing to work or drunkenness (the most common offence), brawling and the like. While history has concentrated on white male prisoners, Aborigines and women were also held there.

Aboriginal Prisoners

They consider every injury they can inflict upon white men as an act of duty and patriotic, and however they may dread the punishment which our laws inflict upon them, they consider the sufferers under these punishments as martyrs for their country having ideas of their natural rights which would astonish most of our European statesmen.

Gilbert Robertson

The district’s extensive hunting grounds were integral to the economy of the Oyster Bay tribe which clashed with the British invaders within months of the establishment of the colony in 1803-04. Poor relations between the races in the Coal valley were exacerbated by ‘a most barbarous and inhuman mode of proceeding acted upon towards them, viz., the robbery of their children’. Tensions escalated in the mid 1820s as waves of immigrants restricted access by fencing previously unenclosed land. Stock, isolated landholders and stockkeepers were speared and Aborigines killed in retaliation. Arthur declared martial law in 1828, creating roving parties charged with finding and capturing Aborigines. One such party was led by the Richmond Chief District Constable, Gilbert Robertson and between 1827 and 1830 the gaol became a depot for Aborigines captured by parties throughout the colony. One detainee was the feared warrior, Umarrah, who successfully escaped before being recaptured and returned to the gaol.

Women Prisoners

I have no place of confinement for women during the day except allowing them to remain with the Javelin Men in their room and at night they are confined in one of the small cells, but from the situation of these cells it is impossible to prevent men and women communicating with each other.

The 1835 wing built to accommodate women prisoners are the best preserved female convict structures extant in Tasmania. Most female convicts were placed in private service to provide domestic servants. Those subsequently convicted of minor offences or en route to Hobart’s Cascades Female Factory were held at the Richmond gaol.

While many women were returned to the factory by dissatisfied masters convict women exercised their own power by committing minor offences to escape unsatisfactory situations. Who then was the difficult party — Richmond Justice of the Peace, Cornthwaite Hector, or the eighteen female convicts he sent before the magistrate over the years? Ann Forest, for example, was given fourteen days solitary on bread and water for insolence and disobedience, a sentence twice repeated for refusing to return to her assignment and absenting herself without leave on her release. Finally Hector returned her to the Cascades.

Regulations and Punishment


Strict regulations and punishment regimes lie at the core of any penal system, none more so than Governor Arthur’s colony where ‘the exaction of severe labour from these men must be unremitting’. Arthur’s regulations included the power of summary justice by sentencing prisoners to up to a month’s solitary confinement and seven days bread and water for offences such as riotous and disorderly conduct, profane swearing or indecent language and behaviour. Although power lay ultimately with society and landowners who determined what constituted crime and appropriate behaviour, as with female convicts the recurring names of Richmond landholders sending male convicts to the magistrate might offer us more insight into their character than that of their assigned servants.

Specific regulations drafted for the Richmond Gaol in the 1830s aimed to maintain a constant vigil on the prisoners, prevent corrupt practices by gaolers and ensure adequate medical supervision. A surgeon was required to visit the gaol twice a week and to attend all floggings — a convict flogged to incapacity was of scant economic use to the colony.

Floggings remained frequent — in 1834, for example, one hundred and forty-two men received a total of 4425 lashes. Flagellators were usually convicts or ex-convicts themselves and were almost universally detested by the prisoners. The colonial hangman, Solomon Bleay, was also imprisoned at Richmond Gaol between 1842 and 1845, being escorted to and from Hobart and Launceston (the only places of execution), when necessary, to carry out his duties.

Magistrates could sentence convicts to eight categories of punishment. These included reprimand, the treadmill, hard labour by day and solitary by night, the lash, work in chain gang and transportation to a penal settlement. Solitary confinement, increasingly used during the 1820s and 1830s in lieu of flogging as a further punishment, deprived prisoners as far as possible of all human contact. Sixteen solitary cells were erected at Richmond gaol in 1835.

Together with punishment religion was pivotal. Although a chaplain was not appointed to Richmond gaol until 1835 convicts were required to attend Divine Service each Sunday. Thus encouraged to reflect on their ‘unhappy’ moral and physical situation before the risen Lord rapid reform was confidently predicted. The construction of St Luke’s Church at Richmond in 1838 completed the town’s convict trinity with the gaol physically located between justice (the courthouse) and salvation (St Luke’s).

Later History

Jurisdiction for the Richmond Gaol was transferred from the Sheriff’s Department to the police after the transportation of convicts ended in 1853. In June 1861, Richmond became Tasmania’s fourth municipality, and the gaol was taken over by the newly formed Municipal Police.

After the police force was centralised under colonial control following the 1898 Police Richmond Gaol continued to be used as a gaol until 1928. It was unsuccessfully offered for sale in 1929 then ceded to the State Government as a State Reserve under the Scenery Preservation Board in December 1945. It was subsequently gazetted as an Historic Site under the National Parks and Wildlife Act in 1970. It is currently leased.