Visit Sarah Island

Visitors to Sarah Island are left with no doubt as to the harsh conditions the convicts suffered, but are also left in awe of the contribution they made to the history of Tasmania.

On a recent weekend I had the pleasure of visiting Sarah Island.  I hope this short travelogue entices you to also make Sarah Island on your list of places to visit on the west coast.

The only way to get to Sarah Island is by boat, and the two options out of Strahan are luxury options. The sail around Macquarie Harbour and out to Hells Gates is spectacular. For the poor convicts, however, transportation to Sarah Island was by a difficult sea journey from Hobart through Hells Gates and into Maquarie Harbour. I was fortunate to have calm seas on the day and alighting at Sarah Island was relatively easy.

 Remains of the Penitentiary

Our group was met by our tour guide who took us on a 1 hour guided tour of Sarah Island. Explaining the mysteries of the island, we were enthralled with stories of the daily life on Sarah Island, the colourful characters including Alexander Pearce (the cannibal convict) and Matthew Brady (the bushranger) as well as the many military and church people who lived on the island during its time as a penal colony.

Sarah Island was established in 1822. The island, along with the smaller neighbouring Grummet, Philips and Hallidays Island and sites along the coast made up the Macquarie Harbour Penal Settlement. The Settlement predates Port Arthur and until its closure in 1833, some 1150 convicts served time there. It was intended to provide raw, harsh punishment to the worst convicts. The rugged and remote setting was seen as particularly suited to a penal station.

The convicts sent there were mostly male and were usually those who had committed further crimes while serving their original sentences. Eight women were sent to the smaller island, Grummet Rock, where they were housed in a tidal cave.

 Remains of a slipyard at the site of shipbuilding on Sarah Island

Dangerous shipping conditions, lack of supplies and poor soil plagued the settlement at Sarah Island from the start, but from 1825 the settlement underwent a period of growth and industries including ship building and brick making were developed. Despite the harsh conditions that convicts endured on Sarah Island a thriving shipbuilding industry was grown. Huon pine grew along the Gordon River and “piners” felled the trees and floated them down the Gordon River to Sarah Island.  By 1828 Sarah Island was the most productive shipbuilding yard in Australia.

The guided tour, the interpretative signs and the ability to spend time alone wandering and contemplating the life of the convicts generates strong emotions, making the visit well worthwhile.

Thank you to Jakki Crellin for this article.


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