The Convict Era

Convict Life

The Port Arthur penal settlement began life as a small timber station in 1830. Originally designed as a replacement for the recently closed timber camp at Birches Bay, Port Arthur quickly grew in importance within the penal system of the colonies.

The initial decade of settlement saw a penal station hacked from the bush, and the first manufactories – such as ship building, shoemaking, smithing, timber and brick making – established. The 1840s witnessed a consolidation of the industrial and penal nature of the settlement as the convict population reached over 1100. In 1842 a huge flour mill and granary (later the Penitentiary) was begun, as well as the construction of a hospital.

1848 saw the first stone laid for the Separate Prison, the completion of which brought about a shift in punishment philosophy from physical to mental subjugation. Port Arthur also expanded geographically as the convicts pushed further into the encircling hills to extract the valuable timber.

Who Were The Convicts?

After the American War of Independence Britain could no longer send her convicts to America, so after 1788 they were transported to the Australian colonies. These men and women were convicted of crimes that seem trivial today, mostly stealing small articles or livestock, but they had been convicted at least once before and Britain’s policy was to treat such re-offenders harshly.

The convicts sent to Van Diemen’s Land were most likely to be poor young people from rural areas or from the slums of big cities. One in five was a woman. Numbers of children were also transported with their parents. Few returned home.

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Port Arthur – An Industrial Prison?

Of all the laborious occupations some convicts were forced to carry out during their time at Port Arthur, timber-getting was to be the most punishing, yet also the most profitable. From the very early days of settlement gangs of convicts cut timber from the bush surrounding the settlement. The saws of the convicts supplied a steady stream of building materials to fulfill the needs of works both on and off the peninsula.

The trees were enormous, much larger than the ones we find today. When felled, a sawpit was dug under or near the log, so that it could be cut up into smaller lengths of wood. Two convicts used a pitsaw to cut the wood. One convict (the ‘Top Dog’) stood on top the log, whilst the other (the ‘Bottom Dog’) worked in the pit at the other end of the saw. His job was extremely uncomfortable, as his eyes and ears filled with sawdust.

When the log was cut into a rough beam, a gang of up to 50 convicts, nicknamed the ‘centipede gang’, hefted the great weight upon their shoulders and carried the timber back to the main settlement. Here, in larger sawpits constructed near the water, the timber was cut up into the planks, beams, boards and spars needed for building.

In 1841 the old Assignment system was replaced by that of Probation. This saw the Tasman Peninsula settled with five new stations, each of which had up to 600 convicts working at agriculture or merely serving time. One probation station, Cascades, was settled with the primary focus of extracting timber from the north side of the peninsula. By 1846 Cascades had replaced Port Arthur as the main timber-producer on the peninsula.

In 1850 the erection of a steam-powered sawmill and the laying of iron tramways increased production to such an extent that, by 1856, the area around Cascades had been completely stripped of useful timber. With the closure of Cascades, operations reverted back to Port Arthur.

The sawmill and tramway rails were removed to Port Arthur and a great bank of covered sawpits built next to the Penitentiary. The tramways and log-slides (long log-lined channels which allowed timber to be slid down a hill) meant that the centipede gangs were no longer needed, enabling the convict gangs to cut timber further from the settlement.

Sawpits were dotted throughout the hillsides surrounding Port Arthur, cutting the logs into smaller pieces of timber, which were then sent back to the main settlement by the tramway. At the settlement the timber was further cut up in the noisy sawmill and sawpits.

The decade after 1856 was the busiest time for Port Arthur. However, the convicts were getting older and sicker. In the late 1860s they could no longer work as well in the bush as they had once been able. As at Cascades, the area had also been stripped of all its useful timber. Up until the closure of Port Arthur in 1877, the old convicts were used to cut firewood, but no longer did they cut down the massive trees to feed the sawmill.

From 1877 the area was given over to private interests, as individuals and companies began logging the area, often using the old convict tracks for transport. Today chainsaws have replaced the pitsaw, mechanical haulers the tram carts.