Macquarie Harbour Penal Station: wrongly considered escape-proof

Nikola Petrovski

Macquarie Harbour Penal Station, located on Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour, Australia, was operational from 1822 to 1833. Access to this British colonial prison was possible only by passing through Hell’s Gates, a narrow channel with perilous currents and unusual tides that forms the entrance to this shallow inlet on Tasmania’s West Coast.

This penal colony was where the worst of the worst were locked, convicts who were hard to keep in one place. The island of Sarah was the perfect place for them as it was surrounded by deep water and featured high mountains and unforgiving wilderness.

And on top of it all, the nearest settled area is hundreds of miles away. Sarah Island’s closest neighbor, Grummet Island, was also used by the prison, for this is where the solitary cells were located.

The ruins of the solitary cells. Author: Scott Davis – CC BY 2.5

The ruins of the solitary cells. Author: Scott Davis – CC BY 2.5

Over the years many convicts who tried their luck at crossing the channel failed to survive in the treacherous water currents.

But despite everything, there were a number of prisoners that were astute enough to successfully escape from Macquarie Harbour Penal Station. One of these men was the bushranger Matthew Brady. “Gentleman Brady,” as he was sometimes referred to, managed to get to Hobart, the capital of Tasmania. It was 1824 when he did so, immobilizing the overseer and stealing a boat.

A painting of Macquarie Harbour Penal Station. Author: State Library of New South Wales – CC BY-SA 3.0 au

A painting of Macquarie Harbour Penal Station. Author: State Library of New South Wales – CC BY-SA 3.0 au

Another successful escapee was a man by the name of James Goodwin. He managed to get off the island in 1828 but was later recaptured, though surprisingly he wasn’t locked up again. Instead, he was employed as an official surveyor of the area that he so masterfully managed to get through.

The lonely ruins on Sarah Island. Author: Scott Davis – CC BY 2.5

The lonely ruins on Sarah Island. Author: Scott Davis – CC BY 2.5

The most notorious among the escapees was Alexander Pearce. He managed to escape twice from the island of Sarah and both times he literally made a meal out of those that went with him. Pearce solved the problem of finding himself something to eat by eating his fellows.

Prisoners who remained on the island were employed in the industry of shipbuilding. They felled the Huon Pine woodland on the island and floated it downriver to the shipyard, which at one point was the largest in all of the Australian colonies.

Part of the prison walls. Author: Dr Rocks – CC BY 2.0

Part of the prison walls. Author: Dr Rocks – CC BY 2.0

The living conditions on the island were dreadful. The inmates had no way to produce food and for this reason, malnutrition, scurvy, and dysentery were common. The only way the prisoners could get food and supplies was by sea.

And if that wasn’t enough, the prison barracks were overcrowded, so much so that the prisoners had to lie on their side to fit them all inside. Flagellation was a common way of punishing the convicts. In 1823 alone, around 9,000 whippings were conducted.

Sarah Island. Author: M. Murphy

Sarah Island. Author: M. Murphy

The conditions of the island were so dreadful that a convict named Trenham killed another prisoner so that he would be executed rather than spend any more in the Sarah Island prison. The end of this penal community came in 1833. Upon its closure, all of the convicts were relocated to another convict settlement called Port Arthur.

Only ten convicts were left behind and tasked with construction of a brig. Cunningly, these men used that same brig to escape to freedom. Their daring escape has remained forever known in history as the Frederick Escape. Four of the convicts were recaptured and locked up again.

The dock at Sarah Island. Author: PelionClimber – GFDL

The dock at Sarah Island. Author: PelionClimber – GFDL

Today, the island of Sarah remains abandoned, home to the ruins of this once dreadful penal colony. Sarah Island Historic Site is managed by the British Government and the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service, as part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. The island has also served as an inspiration for a number of books and theatrical shows such as The Fatal Shore: a history of the transportation of convicts to Australia, 1787-1868, written by Robert Hughes, and many other works.