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Sarah Island


Timber and Coal

On the 20th December 1815 Captain James Kelly set out to circumnavigate Tasmania in an open whaleboat. Hobart merchant and ship-owner Thomas Birch sponsored the trip, with the aim of locating resources for commercial exploitation.

Nine days after leaving Hobart, Kelly came upon Macquarie Harbour. The entrance was covered with thick smoke, indicating the presence of Aborigines. Kelly explored the harbour thoroughly and recorded an abundance of Huon pine on its shores. The following year, coal was also discovered on the harbour's eastern shore by Denis McCarty.

Further details of the European discovery of the Macquarie Harbour region are available here.

A Place of Banishment

Lieutenant Governor Sorell recommended that a small settlement be established at Macquarie Harbour to exploit the timber and coal, and as 'a place of banishment and security for the worst description of convicts' in the colony.

At present convict offenders, for felonies, are generally sent to Newcastle, New South Wales, by which much expense, inconvenience and evil is incurred. And as the convict population has so rapidly increased a place of security, for the restraint of the most incorrigible, is becoming daily more urgent...

Lt. Governor Sorell, 1820)

The rugged and remote setting was seen as particularly suited to a convict station.

Beginnings of Settlement

Dangerous shipping conditions, lack of supplies and poor soil plagued the settlement. The Prince Leopold, one of two brigs carrying the founding party, was forced back to Hobart due to bad weather. The other brig, the Sophia, arrived in January 1822 with Commandant Lt. Cuthbertson, his officials, a detachment of soldiers, and 66 male and 8 female convicts on board.

Vegetables for the settlement were grown at nearby Phillip Island

Convict worker on the farm and piggery
at Phillip Island, 1830 from Lempriere's
sketch book. (Allport Library and
Museum of Fine Arts)

The thickly-wooded Sarah Island was chosen as the site for the new settlement. On arrival, the ground had to be cleared and shelters erected even though the sawyers and necessary tools had been aboard the Prince Leopold. The women were, at first, held on nearby Grummet Island, but were removed after a few months due to 'moral' and disciplinary problems.

Shortages of food, clothing and tools reached crisis levels because the Sophia took three months to return.

The difficulties were compounded by episodes of convict unrest and attempted escapes. Nevertheless some progress was made. Weatherboarded cottages were built for the Commandant and his officers, and out stations for procuring timber, lime and coal, and cultivating vegetables were established.

Hive of industry

Under the administration of Commandant Capt. Butler (1825Ð1829), 'a daily improvement was visible in every branch of the service at Macquarie Harbour'. A brick gaol (1826), bakehouse (1828), and substantial brick and stone penitentiary (1828) were erected. Remains of these can still be seen today. Industries, including ship building, tanning, shoe-making and brick making were developed. Lempriere, the Commissariat Officer, later outlined the progress made at the island:

Save one venerable fern tree near the new sawpits and a few small trees, not a vestige remained of the dense forest which once covered its surface... Captain Butler had, after recovering a considerable area from the sea, formed a spacious dockyard, fronted... by substantial log-built quays, and protected from the north-west gales by a high lath fence.

David Hoy was employed as Master Shipwright from 1828Ð1832. Under his management the Sarah Island shipyards became a highly organised and productive industrial centre. Over 100 vessels were built during the life of the settlement, including a 226 tonne barque, 5 brigs, 3 cutters, 7 schooners and 24 sloops.

Today, at low tide, the remains of the extensive log wharves can still be seen along the shore.

Sarah Island, 1832
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Further details of the convict industry on Sarah Island are available here.

A Gloomy Place

The island and outlying stations housed up to 385 male convicts. A few women convicts were kept on the island to work as domestic servants for the officers and their wives. Backhouse and Walker wrote of the men's conditions:

...it was a gloomy place in the eyes of a prisoner, from the privations he suffered there, in being shut out from the rest of the world, and restricted to a limited quantity of food, which did not include fresh meat; from being kept under a military guard; from the hardship he endured... as well as from the liability to be flogged or subjected to solitary confinement, for small offences.

Backhouse and Walker, 1832

A system for classifying and organising the prisoners was developed and refined. The convicts were segregated into gangs of 12 to 20, each under the charge of one or two constables.

The lowest classes of convict suffered hard labour and severe deprivation. They were mostly employed in the lumber yard gang:

...their work [is] generally of the hardest description consistent with humanity, such as making wharfs, jetties, rolling logs of wood and other heavy work...

Commandant Briggs, 1829

About 60 of the more troublesome prisoners were incarcerated on Grummet Island at night for security. The tiny island was the scene of several murders.

Not all the convicts on Sarah Island were subject to such harsh conditions. Those who worked as skilled tradesmen or overseers were able to enjoy certain indulgences, such as tea, sugar, extra rations and private living quarters. Shipwrights, carpenters, blacksmiths and clerks formed part of a convict 'elite'.

Further details of the daily routine of the convicts are available here.


Obtaining contraband, refusing to work and absconding were some of the ways that convicts resisted the conditions imposed upon them. A black market in tobacco and spirits flourished at the settlement. The military and officials were often implicated in such activity.

Flogging was frequently used as a punishment for further offences in the early years of settlement. By the late 1820s sentences of up to 4 weeks of solitary confinement in the gaol had almost replaced the use of the lash. In 1823 over 200 floggings were carried out compared with an average of 56 a year in the period 1829Ð1831.

Over 180 escape attempts were made from Macquarie Harbour. Absconding was particularly prevalent in the early years of settlement. Legendary status has been bestowed on a few of these escapes, either due to their horrific nature or to the sheer daring and courage involved.

Matthew Brady

Portrait of Matthew Brady
(Archives Office of Tasmania)

In June 1824 Matthew Brady and 14 others seized a boat used by felling gangs at Kellys Basin. They made the boat crew row down the bay, carry the boat across the isthmus and launch it into the Harbour. After reaching the Derwent Estuary the gang then took to bushranging throughout the colony. After two years 'on the run' Brady was finally re-captured.

Alexander Pearce is renowned as 'the cannibal convict', after murdering and eating fellow escapees Ð on two occasions! In 1829 the Cyprus was seized by convicts en route to Macquarie Harbour. Seven of the prisoners made it as far as China. Four of the men, on returning to England, were identified. One was executed and the others returned to Macquarie Harbour.

In January 1834 the final ship built at Sarah Island was stolen by the ten convicts left there to complete her. They sailed the Frederick to Chile where they set up home. At first they were not bothered by local authorities, but a change of Governor forced six to escape and the remaining four were sent to gaol. The four were returned to Hobart for trial, but were spared from the gallows on a legal technicality.

Closure and Later Use

Continuing problems of access and security and the opening of the Port Arthur penal settlement in 1830 led to the closure of Macquarie Harbour in 1833.

In 1846Ð47, after a period of abandonment and neglect, Sarah Island was briefly taken up again as a convict probation station. In this period it housed a party of passholder convicts who had been sent to cut Huon pine. Economic and 'moral' problems forced its closure.

From the 1850s to the 1880s, and again in the 1930s and 1940s, Sarah Island became the base camp for piners working in the area. During the mining rushes to the west coast, looting occurred on the island and bricks and other building materials were removed. Only the ruins of the more substantial structures were left standing.


Towards the end of the nineteenth century the haunting ruins and natural beauty of Sarah Island became popular with tourists. The Union Steam Ship Co. held the lease over the island for a time. Their brochure, dated 1899, claimed:

Now Settlement Island, also called Sarah Island, is a favourite place for picnics, and its new associations are all of a holiday sort, connected with the bright and beautiful summer time.

In 1926 Sarah Island was gazetted by the Government as a tourist reserve. Sarah and Grummet Islands were declared an Historic Site in 1971. Today, they form part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

Further Information