Tasmania’s Convict Past: Visiting Sarah Island

Tasmania’s Convict Past: Visiting Sarah Island

Visiting Sarah Island

Visiting Sarah Island has been something I have wanted to do since reading the book Van Diemen’s Land (book 6 of my 52 books challenge) by James Boyce. The book discussed in detail the early life of the settlers on the island of Van Diemen’s Land, which is now known as present day Tasmania.

Along with New South Wales, Tasmania has a strong history in Australia’s convict past. Due to Sarah Island’s mountainous wilderness and distance from Hobart Town, it was chosen as the site of Macquarie Harbour Penal Station.

As a former British colonial penal settlement, it was reportedly one of the harshest penal settlements in the Australia at the time. Tasmania in the early 1800’s was an interesting place to live, especially if you were sent here as a convict.

Tasmania’s Convict Past: Visiting Sarah Island

Sarah Island – home to Macquarie Harbour Penal Station

Getting There

Apart from the odd town, the West Coast of Tassie isn’t known for being highly developed. Those visiting Sarah Island usually find themselves doing a road trip from one of Tasmania’s transit hubs connected to the mainland, such as Devonport, Launceston or Hobart.

As Sarah Island is on the Gordon River, the easiest way to get there is via the river, after driving to the town of Strahan.

While Strahan is a small town, there are a few cafes to eat at, River Kayaking and plenty of accommodation options. We stayed at the Strahan Holiday Retreat, which had full cooking facilities and a cosy cabin feel.

The day after arriving we boarded the Gordon River Cruise and enjoyed views of Hell’s Gates, salmon farms, historic timber sites and Australia’s temperate rain forests. The final stop is visiting Sarah Island.

Tasmania’s Convict Past: Visiting Sarah Island

Once the catamaran docked at the former site of Macquarie Harbour Penal Station, the tour guides were waiting to give a historical circuit of the Island. There’s also the option wander around at your own pace.

It doesn’t cost any extra to take the guided tour. We chose this option as I was interested to find out more about Sarah Island and the convicts who lived here.

It turns out that Sarah Island played a significant part in Tasmania’s early history.

Visiting Sarah Island

Catamaran docked at the Island

History of the Island

On the 20th December 1815, Captain James Kelly left Hobart Town to circle Tasmania in an open whaleboat. Nine days after leaving Hobart, Kelly found Macquarie Harbour. Thick smoke covered the entrance to the harbour which meant there were Aborigines in the area.

A few years later Lieutenant Governor Sorell later recommended that a small settlement should be established at Macquarie Harbour. The settlement should be used gather the coal and timber, and as ‘a place of banishment and security for the worst description of convicts’ in the colony.

Macquarie Harbour had the advantage of being almost impossible to escape from. With later attempts mostly ending with the convicts either drowning, dying of starvation in the bush. Or on at least two occasions turning on each other and resorting to cannibalism.

Visiting Sarah Island

Convicts view from Sarah Island

New Settlement

Treacherous shipping conditions, the absence of provisions and poor soil caused problems from the start. One of first two ships carrying the original party was forced to turn back to Hobart because of rough weather. The remaining ship arrived in January 1822 with Commandant Lt. Cuthbertson, his officials, a detachment of soldiers, and 66 male and eight female convicts on board.

The main site for the new settlement was Sarah Island.

On arrival, preparations were made to clear the ground and construct shelters even though all the essential tools had been on the ship now sailing back to Hobart. The women were at first, held on nearby Grummet Island. It was then decided to remove them after a few months due to ‘moral’ and disciplinary problems.

A lack of food, clothing and tools soon became a problem. It took three months until the next supply came. The difficulties were made worse by disturbances and attempted escapes.

Tasmania’s Convict Past: Visiting Sarah Island

Visiting Sarah Island


In June 1824 Matthew Brady and 14 other prisoners took a boat used by tree chopping gangs at Kellys Basin. However, after two years as a bushranger, Brady was finally re-captured.

Alexander Pearce was also a famous for escaping twice and eating fellow escapees for food.

Tasmania’s Convict Past: Visiting Sarah Island

In 1829 the Cyprus was taken by convicts while it was on route to Macquarie Harbour. Seven of the prisoners made it as far as China, but some of the men returned to England and later recaptured. One was executed and the others returned to Macquarie Harbour.

In January 1834 the final ship built at Sarah Island was taken by the ten convicts left there to complete her. They sailed the Frederick to Chile where they held up for a while. At first, the local authorities didn’t get involved. However, a later change of Governor forced six to escape, and the remaining four were then returned to Hobart, via England for trial. At Hobart, they were then sentenced and sent to Norfolk Island.

Tasmania’s Convict Past: Visiting Sarah Island

The Gordon River

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. 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 rush, looting was common on the island and bricks and other building materials were taken.

Only the ruins of the more substantial structures seen in the photos are standing today.

Tasmania’s Convict Past: Visiting Sarah Island

Only ruins remain on the Island

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Tasmania’s Convict Past: Visiting Sarah Island

Tasmania’s Convict Past: Visiting Sarah Island images take by Tools of Travel.

Barry Sproston
Barry is an English traveller and expat who spends most of his time between Asia and Australia. In addition to travelling, he has a passion for business as well as learning new things. He enjoys a decluttered lifestyle and currently reads 52 books a year.
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31 thoughts on “Tasmania’s Convict Past: Visiting Sarah Island

  1. Ray

    Fascinating history about Tasmania, Australia and Sarah Island. I’m familiar about Australia being used as a land to banish the worst criminals from England, but not with the exact details of their penal colony system. This is really intriguing!

  2. ThriftyTrails

    Ohh I love learning about this side of history! A lot sure did happen in those 11 years of operation. Seems like not much foresight and planning took place when deciding to use the island to build a small settlement – growing food is an important factor I would think which was difficult with the poor soil. I imagined that these criminals would all be murderers but the cannibal, Pearce, was convicted for stealing 6 pairs of shoes. Seems a bit harsh to send him to ‘a place of banishment and security for the worst description of convicts’.

    1. Barry SprostonBarry Sproston Post author

      Totally agree – history can be fascinating. Most of the convicts sent to Tasmania were originally sent there for petty crimes because England would those hang those who committed murder. From what I can understand Sarah Island was used for those who reoffended once they were released in Australia. The remote location was attractive at the start, but certainly caused difficulties, and was more than likely what lead to the new location at Port Arthur being built.

  3. SamH Travels

    I have never heard of Sarah Island, but the history is fascinating and such a pretty place too! I have pinned this in the hope I will be able to visit someday 🙂

  4. Sina

    Thanks for sharing – this is the first time I’m hearing about this place and it was very interesting to read about the history. A beautiful island with a dark past!

  5. David

    Only been to Port Arthur as a kid when it comes to Tasmania’s convict sites. Sarah Island seems like a beautiful spot in a part of the island I’ve yet to see. Really enjoying your Tassie posts!

  6. Stefinia

    Love places that are remote and have wilderness, history to it. It’s also great that Tasmania is on the Gordon River, that is so cool going on river cruises and having opputunities do do some kayaking there.

  7. Stephanie (1AdventureTraveler)

    Very interesting history on Sarah Island. I have never heard of the island and was fascinated by it. Such dark history that plagued this island in the past. Curious how it affected the original settlers the aborigines. Great photos and thanks for sharing 🙂

  8. Angie (FeetDoTravel)Angie (FeetDoTravel)

    I don’t know a lot about Tassie as I didn’t get a chance to visit, so anything I learn is interesting. I love the Aussie history as well so thoroughly enjoyed reading the convict history of Sarah Island, pinned for future reference and thanks for sharing! #feetdotravel

  9. Shona @ paraphernalia.co

    Interesting, I was only aware of Port Arthur, I had no idea bout Sarah Island. Either I was away that day or it wasn’t part of history at school. Thanks for teaching me something. Tassie is such a beautiful state with, sadly, a really dark past. Maybe that’s why it’s so appealing.

  10. Travel Lexx

    Never heard of this place! Looks like a very interesting place to visit with plenty of history – I love places that are able to tell a story, especially if there is a dark element to them! Definitely one to consider when I visit the region. Would love to explore some of these ruins!

  11. amy

    i was there too! not only the story given my the tour of gorden river cruise fascinating but also the whole tour on the boat. the view was just magnificent.

  12. Annalise

    It’s crazy to think that some beautiful locations have such a dark past. I don’t think we’ll ever know the full extent of the horrors that occurred here but we can be glad that it’s in the past! I’m so glad I read this and learned something!

    1. Barry SprostonBarry Sproston Post author

      Agreed Annalise. I’m sure the guides said there were several murders on the Island, which considering the prison was only operational for eleven years, is quite a lot.

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