Closing Hell's Gates: The Life and Death of a Convict Station

Closing Hell's Gates: The Life and Death of a Convict Station

by Hamish Maxwell-Stewart


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Closing Hell's Gates: The Life and Death of a Convict Station by Hamish Maxwell-Stewart

In October 1827, nine convicts who had endured years of unimaginable cruelty at the hands of the system opted for "state-assisted" escape. Five terrified witnesses—their hands and feet bound—were forced to watch as the chained convicts seized Constable George Rex and drowned him in the tannin-stained waters of the harbour. When the sentence of death was pronounced upon them, the condemned prisoners uttered just one word in reply: Amen.

For 12 long years between 1822 and 1834, Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour was the most feared place in Australia. Clinging to the shores of the wild west coast of Tasmania and hemmed in on all sides by rugged uncharted wilderness, the environment itself formed the prison walls that confined the unfortunate convict re-offenders who were sent there. But the conditions were so brutal that many went mad, or chose death or a very uncertain escape into the bush rather than spend their time in this notorious place. Based on detailed accounts from the time, Closing Hell's Gates contains dozens of personal stories of the harsh and unforgiving life that people were forced to lead, both as convict and overseer, and in so doing reveals some startling insights about human nature when it is pushed to extremes.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781741751499
Publisher: Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited
Publication date: 03/01/2008
Pages: 324
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Hamish Maxwell-Stewart is an academic expert on convict life in Australia who teaches at the University of Tasmania. He is the author of Chain Letters: Narrating Convict Lives with Lucy Frost for which they won the inaugural Kay Daniels award, and Pack of Thieves?: 52 Port Arthur Lives with Susan Hood. Closing Hell's Gates was the winner of The Margaret Scott Prize, Best Book by a Tasmanian Writer 2008, and was shortlisted for the 2008 Tasmania Book Prize.

Read an Excerpt

Closing Hell's Gates

The Death of a Convict Station

By Hamish Maxwell-Stewart

Allen & Unwin

Copyright © 2008 Hamish Maxwell-Stewart
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74176-165-8


'Pluto's land'

At the farthest corner of an island, at the very end of the world, lies a windswept shore that was once home to some of history's most isolated outcasts. Cut off by mountain ranges it served as a place of exile within a land of exile, a prison within a prison. Some of those who were sent there talked as though they had slipped below the crust of the earth to dwell in some terrible netherworld. They called this place 'Pluto's land', after the kingdom of the Roman god who ruled over the dead. Others knew the area as Macquarie Harbour, a vast body of water that interrupted the western coast of Van Diemen's Land. Although it may not technically have been an underworld, it was universally regarded as a sink — the rubbish pit of the British Empire.

From 1787 onwards the British transported convicted prisoners to Australia. They were sent first to New South Wales, but after the discovery that Van Diemen's Land was separated from the mainland by Bass Strait, increasing numbers of convicts were despatched there too. Although the first detachments were sent to secure the territory as a British possession, they later became the labour force that powered the process of colonisation. Between 1803 and 1853 around 73,500 were landed in Van Diemen's Land. They cleared timber, built houses, bridges, roads and wharves, and prepared the way for wider settlement. The work to which they were put ensured that their new environs would be far from gaol-like. Most of the convicts were not locked up at night and during the day almost all of them were set to work unencumbered by leg irons or other physical restraints. Those who encountered official wrath, however, could be transported for a second time. They were shipped to one of several penal stations of which Macquarie Harbour was perhaps the most notorious.

According to the nineteenth-century historian, John West, this far- flung region was a place 'sacred to the genius of torture', separated from the rest of the world by 'impenetrable forests, skirted with an impervious thicket'. It was the lowest reach of the British penal system, a forlorn outpost where 'every object wore the air of rigour, ferocity and sadness'. Writing nearly two decades after the Macquarie Harbour penal station had been abandoned, it was for West a place 'associated exclusively with remembrance of inexpressible depravity, degradation and woe', a nightmarish world where 'man lost the aspect, and the heart of man!'

Given the difficulties of getting to Macquarie Harbour it is incredible that any convicts were shipped there. It was a remote spot, beyond the pale of colonial society. A bleak anchorage located at the back of a wind-blasted, rain-soaked shore. But between January 1822 and December 1833 some 1136 male and sixteen female prisoners were battened down below decks and shipped to this isolated station. In August 1828, at the height of the settlement, 386 prisoners were secured there on two small islands surrounded by an expanse of water, which in turn was ringed by mountain ranges. The convicts themselves immortalised the terror of the place in 'The Cyprus Brig', a ballad considered to be so subversive that it was said to have been suppressed:

When we landed in this colony to different masters went,
For little trifling offences boys to Hobart Town gaol were sent,
Now the second sentence we received and ordered for to be,
Sent to Macquarie Harbour, that place of tyranny.

Despite its size, Macquarie Harbour had at first escaped European attention. Flinders sailed clean past the narrow entrance in 1798. Driven by high winds, he had left a warning of the dangers of that gale-ravaged coast for the benefit of future mariners. In his journal he wrote it is 'as dreary and as inhospitable a shore as has yet been discovered; and the great swell sufficiently announces, that the consequence of coming near it ... with a south westerly gale and a dull sailing vessel would be to be wrecked upon it'.

James Kelly encountered better weather during his circumnavigation of Van Diemen's Land in a five-oared whaleboat. After feasting on wild swan, turned into a three-decker 'sea pie', he pulled into the heads on 28 December 1815 and spent the next three days exploring the huge expanse of water. On his return to Hobart Town, Kelly provided the merchant T. W. Birch with some samples of timber. Birch, who had sponsored the expedition, was more than pleased with what he saw.

In order to understand why Macquarie Harbour was established as a penal station it is necessary to see the world through pre-industrial eyes. The settlement was the product of an age obsessed with timber. Late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Britons admired landscapes of trees because it was from their trunks and boughs that ships were wrought. Oak trees possessed of great curved limbs, or compass timber, from which the frames and knees of vessels could be fashioned, were described as the sinews of the nation. People drank toasts to them in creamware mugs emblazoned with patriotic verses like: 'May England's oak produce the bark to tan the hide of Bonaparte'. A single 74-gun ship could consume over 3000 mature trees, and so nurturing the nation's stock of timber was serious business. It is said that Admiral Collingwood carried a pocket full of acorns while on shore leave, which he would liberally distribute through the estates of his hosts. The ships that made colonisation possible — those that carried commodities like sugar, calico, tea and convicts — were made from oak.

It was thus inevitable that when Europeans surveyed Australian shores they searched for oak substitutes. In 1804, the crew of the whaler Alexander found pine logs stranded on bars at the mouth of the Huon River. Although it was clear that they had been in the water for many years, they showed little signs of rot. For men with nautical eyes it must have been an electric discovery. As the surveyor general John Oxley wrote: 'This wood is of a fine white yellow, close grained, extremely light, and of a strong aromatic smell, and, when bit, conveys a hot pungent taste not unlike cloves. This hot quality of the wood preserves it free from worms and all other insects.' As Kelly reported to Birch, the banks of the rivers and streams that flowed into Macquarie Harbour were full of Huon pine; it was not long before plans for future expeditions were put in place. In June 1816 the brig Sophia returned with the first commercially cut cargo of the stuff, which was soon selling in Hobart Town for the exorbitant price of sixpence a foot. The captain of the Sophia also reported that he had seen an immense stratum of coal exposed to a level of six feet at the base of a head on the northern shore of Macquarie Harbour.

Clearly Macquarie Harbour had advantages in natural resources. But its remoteness gave it an additional appeal — it was a perfect location to send dangerous recidivists. As early as 1818, Governor Macquarie had drawn up plans to turn the harbour that Kelly had named in his honour into a penal station, a place where absconders, thieves, forgers and other undesirables could be exiled to work cutting timber and mining coal until they had atoned for their crimes and indiscretions. As Macquarie confidently proclaimed, 'escape from thence would be next to impossible'. He concluded that, as a place where the 'worst description of convicts' could be safely banished to labour for the public good, 'I am inclined to think it would answer remarkably well'. Still, it was not until a further three years had elapsed that the plan was put into action. The difficulties of navigating the bar at the mouth of the harbour caused significant delays.

He instructed Lieutenant Governor William Sorell to construct a vessel of 60 to 70 tons, small enough to cross the bar at the mouth of the harbour, but of sufficient size to run supplies to a future settlement. In view of these plans, all other schemes to open up Macquarie Harbour to commercial exploitation were put on hold. When a pair of surveyors applied for permission to construct a water-powered timber mill there the application was turned down. Instead, one of them was hired to undertake a survey of Macquarie Harbour to assess its suitability as a place of punishment. Two further surveys were commissioned before the plan was finally sanctioned.

On 12 December 1821 the Sophia and the colonial brig Prince Leopold departed from the Derwent. On board was the Hobart Town harbour master, James Kelly — the man who had first navigated a whaleboat through the heads at Macquarie Harbour — and the deputy surveyor, G. W. Evans. It was their task to advise on navigation, to place marker buoys and to locate the best sources of timber and coal.

The settlement was to be commanded by Lieutenant John Cuthbertson of the 48th Regiment, a Peninsular War veteran who would also serve as magistrate. The immediate health of the small party was placed in the hands of Assistant Colonial Surgeon James Spence, a graduate of Edinburgh University, while James Lucas who had been born on Norfolk Island was appointed as pilot. The remainder of the military detachment consisted of Sergeant Waddy, an ardent Methodist who was placed in charge of the stores, and sixteen rank and file of the 48th Regiment.

The task of constructing and maintaining the new settlement would fall on 23 public works prisoners who had volunteered for the job on the promise that they would receive suitable indulgences for their services. The brute work of cutting timber and coal, hauling stone and collecting shells for lime would fall to the first contingent of secondarily transported convicts. Described as bad and incorrigible characters, there were 52 of them in all, 44 men and eight women.

On 30 December 1821 the Sophia arrived at the roadstead outside of the heads. The bulk of her stores were unloaded so she could slide safely over the bar unencumbered. Four days later she arrived at a little island fifteen miles inside the bar — the place that Evans had selected as the most suitable site for the future settlement. While it had been officially named Sarah Island after the wife of T. W. Birch, the financier of Kelly's first expedition to the harbour, for the life of the station it was generally known as Settlement or Headquarters Island.

Cuthbertson reported that in a few days all the stores were safely landed, notwithstanding the 'tempestuous and rainy weather'. Those who hoped that the bad weather was a phenomenon that would soon pass were to be severely disappointed — tempestuous and rainy conditions proved to be characteristic of this part of the coast.

Cuthbertson's immediate concern, however, was the fate of the Prince Leopold. The two vessels had parted company on 17 December and she had not been sighted since. In fact the Prince Leopold had overshot the harbour mouth and, rather than turn back in the bad weather, she ran for the northern settlement at George Town on the Tamar River. During the course of the voyage a seaman named Richard Rose was killed when he slipped from the foretop sailyard and fell on the anchor stock. The vessel, too, felt the full impact of the weather — her main boom was carried clean away, the mainsail split in two and the bulwark and one of her boats were stoved in by the force of the sea. It was an eventful first passage and the battered vessel did not arrive at Macquarie Harbour until 17 February 1822. There were to be many such voyages in the years to come.

In the meantime, Evans busied himself surveying the surrounding country. He reported that the hills were 'closely covered with heavy timber, and almost impenetrable vines and brush-wood'. In words that would have pleased Lieutenant Governor Sorell and Governor Macquarie, he described how 'the persons sent thither can have no communication with the eastern side of the island, for so completely shut in is this part by the surrounding rugged, closely wooded, and altogether impracticable country, that escape by land is next to impossible'. It was an observation that was about to be sorely tested.


Voyage through the gates of hell

The voyage to Macquarie Harbour was an oceanic rite of passage. To be transported for a second time was to be slipped once more over the horizon. All but one of Australia's penal stations were constructed on coasts (the exception was Wellington Valley in New South Wales). This time, however, the journey would take the convict beyond the boundary of society. The most senior member of the colonial administration ever to visit Macquarie Harbour during the life of the settlement was the colonial surveyor. No lieutenant governor ever saw its shores, nor did the colonial surgeon, or superintendent of convicts, or any architect.

It was, for the vast bulk of 'respectable' society, a place of mystery. Indeed, such was the extent to which it was terra incognita that elaborate drawings of the settlement had to be prepared for trials held in Hobart Town. They were necessary in order to inform the court of the geography of a landscape that its judge and jury would never see for themselves. As each secondarily convicted man and woman passed through the small hatchway in the deck they descended into a shadowy realm.

As the experience of the Prince Leopold had shown, a voyage to Macquarie Harbour was not a matter to be taken lightly. Average sailing time for a colonial vessel departing from Hobart Town was 27 days — nearly a month at sea to make a trip of less than 200 miles. By contrast, the return passage, in which the vessel had the weather in its favour, took on average just four days. Vessels sailing to Macquarie Harbour frequently had to shelter from bad weather in a series of bays and inlets before beating up the west coast with its dangerous lee shore.

The government brig Cyprus made many eventful trips to this remote posting. She may have been a pretty looking ship with a carved bust of a Highlander for a figurehead, imitation cabin windows and a yellow streak of paint on each side, but prettiness was no insurance against bad weather. She was ill-maintained as well and twice caught fire on the passage to Macquarie Harbour, a consequence of her cooking apparatus being 'broke and wore out'. The constant troubles with the galley stove meant that those on board were sometimes 'obliged to go without victuals daily'.

In November 1826 the Cyprus encountered such severe winds at the mouth of the Derwent after leaving Hobart Town that the master, Mr Kinghorn, decided to take her round by the east coast. She finally reached her destination after 53 days at sea, having lost an anchor at Kent's Bay off Cape Barren Island. Even inside the bar at Macquarie Harbour she was not safe. In a thunderstorm the brig was hit by lightning which 'shivered the top mast to pieces'. During another trip in July 1829, the Cyprus hit a heavy gale in Recherche Bay and once more lost her anchors and cables on a shoal as well as damaging her windlass. On this occasion she was forced to return to Hobart Town to be refitted. Other supply vessels were often delayed by bad weather and there were constant concerns that overdue ships had been wrecked. As many testified, the experience of sailing to this remote penal outpost could be truly terrifying.

For the convicts, battened down in the dark with nothing to sit on but heaving ballast and covered in spew and bilge water, the experience must have transcended terror. Their voyage to Macquarie Harbour started when they were removed from the gaol in Hobart Town and marched to the wharf in irons. Their legs encumbered by iron basils closed tight with rivets, each prisoner's step was restrained by the two feet of chain that linked the fetters on their legs. The only way to move was to lift the links off the ground — a task commonly achieved by attaching a scrap of rope or cord to the central ring of the chain. As the line of prisoners progressed the sound of their irons clanking in unison rang through the streets. It was a common refrain in Hobart Town — a cacophony that heralded the approach of the damned.

Once loaded onto a colonial transport, they were mustered on deck in two ranks and inspected, usually by a non-commissioned officer of the detachment that would guard them during the voyage. It was his duty to check that 'they were as clean as circumstances would permit' and that their irons were in order. Each prisoner was paraded in front of the senior official on board while their names were called and then one by one they were fed through a hatchway into the ship's prison. While this ritual took place the military detachment stood by with bayonets fixed. The routine was designed as much for psychological effect as for reasons of security.

The space that the prisoner descended into was a small section of the brig divided by bulwarks from the rest of the hold and the forecastle where the military detachment were quartered. The convicts were kept in irons for the whole of the voyage. The space in which they were confined was not high enough for them to stand upright, but they could stretch out on the deck of the hold, if there was one, huddled in the one blanket doled out to every prisoner. It would be small comfort on that terrible passage.


Excerpted from Closing Hell's Gates by Hamish Maxwell-Stewart. Copyright © 2008 Hamish Maxwell-Stewart. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 'Pluto's land',
2 Voyage through the gates of hell,
3 The 'crimes' of the damned,
4 The law of the sea (as applied on land),
5 The law of the lash,
6 Fifteen acres,
7 The mills of empire,
8 Mr Douglas's list,
9 'Come, O my guilty brethren, come',
10 And in duty bound will ever pray,
11 Under the rose,
Conversion table,

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