Tasmania History and Heritage

Transported to colonial Van Diemen’s Land, Greg Clarke discovers a remote peninsula with a fascinating history.

A company of cockatoos scatter from under a hulking walnut tree. For a moment there’s all manner of shrieking, yet despite the histrionics the birds, white as clouds, don’t travel far. An effortless flutter of wings and they perch atop the nearby wall of a convict cellblock.

The convict ruin, on Tasmania’s south-east Tasman Peninsula, is a remnant from when Australia’s only island state was once Britain’s most remote penal colony.

Nowadays Tassie (the contraction is how most Australians refer to the island) is just an hour’s flight from mainland Australia. Nineteenth-century convicts, however, endured three months of seaborne hellishness during transportation to the colony once known as Van Diemen’s Land. For many, life was even more brutal on arrival.

The bricks on the walls of the cellblock can look rather comely now; their red much like the colour the sky turns in the evening before a hot and cloudless day. Manacled convicts though must surely have endlessly dreamed about fleeing their cells as effortlessly as those cockatoos.

Surrounding the cellblock are other tenements including former soldiers’ quarters, workshops and a mess hall. Many of the buildings including the one we stay in – the intriguingly named Rotten Row – have been converted to accommodation and are just a short walk from one edge of Norfolk Bay at Koonya, a place so superbly small it’s scarcely a village.

Koonya is barely an hour’s drive from Hobart, Tassie’s capital. The banks of its bay are forested with eucalypts and incredibly just a brace of distant buildings are visible. An intimate beach no larger than a tennis court is where locals learn to swim.

The ostensibly remote, former convict abodes are part of a 700-acre farm owned by Don Clark and his son, Marcus – cattle farmers who do a novel line in accommodation. Don is a fifth generation Tasmanian. ‘I was born here and I’ll probably die here I suppose,’ he says. Marcus’ CV includes working in a fireworks factory in York.

Rotten Row was once British officers’ quarters. For a time it held Italian POWs during World War Two, and now it’s a two bedroom, self-contained cottage. From the outside it still looks wonderfully dishevelled. Inside are period features including timber doors with cell numbers and black and white pictures of Don and his sisters with the POWs (These prisoners became family friends). The kitchen window looks to a bush thicker than grandma’s soup, home of Forester kangaroos and wombats.

We fetch up early one autumn evening, light the mountainous pile of wood our hosts have set in the fireplace, snuggle up to the fire and revel in near tangible charm. Marcus, 32, arrives in a diver’s wet suit. He’s going fishing for flounder but is unhurried and chats with bucolic warmth. The next morning he swings by again to drop off some of his catch and we go for a tramp about the property, his two dogs padding along.

‘This was a convict station from 1840 to 1858,’ says Marcus. As elsewhere in the fledgling colony the convicts were put to work. ‘Mostly they were cutting timber up in the rainforest. There’s a nice walk up to it. It follows the old hand-push railway line. We encourage people to get out and around,’ says Marcus strolling. ‘People are free to wander around.’

Marcus Clarke wrote For the Term of his Natural Life a nineteenth-century novel regarded as a significant account of life in an Australian penal colony. The main character, an innocent man sentenced to transportation for murder, is sent to Van Diemen’s Land. Rotten Row Marcus is no relation.

Marcus’ family has owned this land with the convict heritage since 1915. The first Clark to Tassie arrived from Kent in 1840. ‘Turfed out [of England],’ says Marcus of his not-so-distant relative. From 1915 the Clarks were apple growers – the buildings from the convict era were used as farm sheds – until Don set about renovating them in the 1980s after the crash of the apple market (Tassie’s sobriquet ‘Apple Isle’ refers to the large amount of the fruit it once produced, but the name seems to be losing its relevance).

The family’s accommodation is named Cascades after a waterfall that spills about a nearby rivulet. Cascades has won Australian tourism heritage awards. Don lives in the former hospital set beyond two great oaks.

For a significant part of the late 19th and early 20th centuries Tasmanians were happy to try and forget their convict links, perhaps a little embarrassed by the taint of penal past. Certainly the name change from Van Diemen’s Land to Tasmania (after the island’s discoverer, Dutchman Abel Tasman, in 1856) was part of the forgetting. But Tassie has long grown out of being ashamed of the parents. Indeed Marcus, sans wetsuit, and his father Don might be a part of the narrative of modern Tasmania’s appeal. Marcus minus the rubber suit might not be quite as sexy as Elle MacPherson or even Bondi but encounters with convivial characters tuned to their surrounds are a fetching part of unheralded Tassie’s appeal.

By Australian standards heart-shaped Tasmania is remarkably compact, just 200 miles north to south, but on the second day of our visit we don’t even leave the tiny Tasman Peninsula. In 1803 the British in Sydney – fearful of the colonial ambitions of the French and aware of the whaling and timber resources in the south – claimed Van Diemen’s Land for King George III. The first ship of inmates arrived from England in 1812. Around 162,000 convicts were transported to Australia. About 72,500 were sent to Van Diemen’s Land.

Port Arthur is the most recognised convict settlement in Australia and around 12 miles from Rotten Row. It’s an expansive mix of ruins and buildings – the site spreads over 309 acres and has more than 30 historic buildings. Some of the shingle-roofed buildings were destroyed in bushfires in 1897 and give the place an appropriately eerie countenance. Softening the notion are boulevards of towering oaks and English elms, and expanses of verdant lawns. For the Term of his Natural Life was made into a movie in the 1920s and filmed here.

Tom Purdon was a sailmaker and farmer. Now he’s an animated guide about Port Arthur. ‘For those convicts that didn’t toe the line Port Arthur was about brutality. Paradoxically William Smith O’Brien, a former member of the Irish House of Parliament, described Port Arthur as a romantic English village when he first viewed the penal colony from the somewhat detached perspective of a ship.

Port Arthur is set by a tranquil harbour surrounded by a hedge of forested hills. ‘Tourists can’t comprehend the dichotomy of the place,’ says Purdon. The beauty belies the stark reality. ‘This place housed so much misery during the convict era.’ Few convicts were hardened criminals. London born Peter Brannon, 13, was packed off to Tassie for stealing a handkerchief.

The infamous Dog Line gives considerable weight to Purdon’s words. Port Arthur is on the Tasman Peninsula. The road from Port Arthur to Hobart is linked by a sliver of land just 150 yards wide. Known as Eaglehawk Neck it separates Norfolk Bay from the Tasman Sea. A line of suitably vicious chained dogs terrorised over it. Plenty of convicts had a mind to escape. Few were adept at swimming, one of the few alternatives to tackling the dogs (There is a figurine of one of the dogs, fangs bared, here that’s intimidating enough). Still there were around 200 escape attempts, one convict reportedly disguised himself as a kangaroo. Just 10 convicts remain unaccounted for. Perhaps all found versions of freedom.

We spend an entire day wandering haphazardly about Port Arthur. Despite the barbarity (or perhaps because of it), a mélange of industry including shipbuilding flourished. A thousand loaves of bread were baked every day. Nails were hand made.

Helen Fitton is a Hobart resident but grew up in Derbyshire. The accent has not been entirely lost. ‘I think it is really well done,’ she says of Port Arthur. ‘They’ve done a beautiful job telling the breadth of history in this place.’

For many UK folk ‘Australian history’ can sound a little like an oxymoron. Hobart is the oldest Australian city after Sydney and in 2004 celebrated its 200th birthday. By world standards the city and Port Arthur might be pimply teenagers but Fitton brims with enthusiasm. ‘You don’t really hear about this in the UK,’ she says. ‘Because it [the convict story] was swept out the door. We always bring people here. It’s an extraordinary place.’

For more information see:

Port Arthur Historic Site

Port Arthur

Article: Greg Clarke and Tourism Tasmania


Port Arthur Accommodation