Performing Arts Centre Redevelopment Reveals Tasmania’s Convict Past

A photo of the uncovered convict building remains overlayed on the original plan of the buildings (photo courtesy of Brad Williams)

Launceston College opened its doors earlier this month to allow the community to experience newly installed interpretation which brings to life the story of the site’s hidden archaeological remains of the former Launceston Gaol.

The potential for works on the site to uncover remains of the earlier structures is well documented, including in the Tasmanian Heritage Register entry for the Launceston College. So when Launceston College proposed construction for a new storage facility for the performing arts centre, the opportunity to complete archaeological investigations was a necessary precursor.

Archaeologist Brad Williams’ investigations of the site uncovered the footprints of the condemned cells, privies and female yard; as well as a small number of artefacts including clay pipes, coins and broad-arrow stamped bricks.

Williams said that the discoveries, and the potential to incorporate them into the proposed development, were embraced by the Launceston College and the architect.

“The original project brief was to establish what remained of the Launceston Gaol and to try to minimise impacts on those remains,” said Williams. Instead, the finds lead to a revision of the original plans to incorporate the features into the development.

“Of the 50 square metres where archaeological remains were found, only 3-4 square metres have been impacted. That is a great outcome. It’s especially important because this investigation really only scratched the surface. It is likely that other archaeological remains exist deeper down, especially in the old cesspits uncovered in the area of the 1830 privies.”

The simple interpretation used on the site demonstrates a successful way to bring the past back to life. The concrete floor of the storage shed includes red outlines which mirror the footprints of the original buildings, while three trap doors are strategically placed to allow visual inspection of the remains. Outside, the use of gabion baskets as part of the landscape, replicate the original footprints of the Gate Lodge, Watch House and Gaoler’s residence.


“Launceston College’s new facility and surrounding landscape tells a deep story from Tasmania’s important convict past. The open day highlighted that people are interested in these stories, and are pleased to see heritage being brought to life.”

The Launceston Gaol was built on the corner of Paterson and Bathurst Streets just prior to 1823. An 1826 survey plan of Launceston shows two buildings on this corner, as well as a perimeter wall. From this small beginning, the need for additional facilities quickly grew, with major expansions in the 1830s (including the establishment of the adjacent Female Factory) and the 1870s. In the 1830s Government architect John Lee Archer's plans included a women’s ward and yard, a condemned yard, eight solitary cells and privies; and in 1840 a large chapel was erected. The major expansion in 1871, saw the development of a new cell block including 20 cells and four large yards enclosed by masonry dividing walls. Despite further proposed expansions, by 1913 the Examiner was reporting that the Government had decided to demolish the Gaol.

The Tasmanian Heritage Council congratulates Brad Williams, architect Adam Martin, the project’s contractors, and Launceston College for embracing the past and bringing it back to life through simple and effective interpretation.

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