Australia’s Convict Sites: Shared past, their present, our future?

Our recent trip to Australia for the Digital Panopticon conference was an invaluable opportunity for so many reasons. We were able to connect and learn from our colleagues across the globe, share our work and develop new ideas and, perhaps most rewarding of all, we had the opportunity to visit some of the remaining places and spaces of convict-era Australia.

Australia has a network of eleven convict sites, designated as UNESCO world heritage sites, in which the buildings and areas of land of Australia’s first penal system are preserved and open to the public. These sites are places of both education and tourism. Australia’s convict heritage sites achieve on a much larger scale the kinds of entertainment and education we can find at home in places like the Galleries of Justice, and Dartmoor Prison Museum. Yet Australia’s transformation from British colony to independent state has allowed it to own and present its convict history in a more frank and reflective way than many of our home grown sites of dark tourism. Australia had been able to separate the historic injustices of the system of transportation from the modern Australian state. Something which seems to inspire a readiness to display their convict past in a more open and critical way than perhaps we do for similar in the UK.

I was lucky enough to visit four of the eleven Australian UNESCO convict sites, which gave a great sense for how the convict past can be preserved and presented. Below I share a few thoughts – and pictures – for each of the sites.

Hyde Park Barracks

The old convict barracks at Hyde Park are one of the earliest of Australia’s Convict heritage sites. Opened in 1819 and used for convicts until 1848 the barracks housed the male convicts who arrived at Sydney Cove (very little remains of the first settlement at Botany Bay). While women were sent out to work for private persons, male convicts were required to undertake public works. Thus, during the day they would labour on the roads and building sites of Australia’s first European settlement and at night they would report back to lodgings at Hyde Park Barracks to be counted, fed, and sheltered.

Hyde Park BarracksThe front of Hyde Park Barracks – central Sydney

The barracks now operate as a ‘living history museum’ which members of the public can tour with or without a free audio guide. There are three levels of the building to visit. The first of which gives not only an overview of the history of convict transportation and the development of Sydney, but also insight into how conservation and interpretation work has been carried out. Two further floors explore the residence of Australia’s first convicts (and other uses to which the building was put in the post-convict era). The majority of the rooms inside the barracks are sparsely decorated and furnished. Boards provide information on the uses of each room, but visitors are left to take in the space and imagine how convicts used it.

HPB 3

One exception to this on the middle floor is the ‘bunk room’. A simple timber frame suspend dozens of tightly packed canvas hammocks, the likes of which early convicts would have slept on. Visitors have the option to try a hammock to get a sense of sleeping arrangements for early convicts.

Bunk room

As a museum, Hyde Park Barracks are probably the least atmospheric of the convict sites– and most familiar in format for UK visitors. However they still provided information of genuine interest and importance, and had used some really thoughtful interpretation to encourage visitors to engage with the space and the experiences of convicts who previously inhabited it.

Port Arthur

The beauty and serenity of Port Arthur’s grounds makes it difficult as a visitor to truly comprehend the brutality of life at Australia’s most famous ‘site of secondary punishment’. A place where the worst reoffending convicts were sent. The complex also includes several other sites such as the cemetery island, and Point Puer a site used for juveniles, both of which visitors are able to ‘cruise’ to.

PA ruins PA scenery

Port Arthur Historic Convict Site

For the main part, the buildings at Port Arthur are derelict. Shells of former buildings, in some cases little more than ruins. Surprisingly, this does not detract from the atmosphere or effect of the place, rather it enhances it. While visitors are free to take group tours or special more fun-focussed events like ‘ghost walks’, Port Arthur is also a place where visitors are free to walk round, explore the buildings, and reflect on the history of the site. Interpretation and reconstruction has been left to a minimum.

Port Arthur PennitentiaryPort Arthur Penitentiary from the outside

Port Arthur cell-space

The inside of the penitentiary showing the location of now absent cells

Port Arthur cellsPort Arthur Pennitentiary Cell

Remnants of penitentiary cells

Of all the buildings on Port Arthur, it is the visitor’s centre, and the separate prison which resemble most closely sites like the Hyde Park Barracks. Beneath the visitors centre a –soon to be reinterpreted- exhibition gives the feel for the story and process of transportation to Tasmania (and contains the odd familiar face too).Hamish Maxwell StewartThe DP’s Hamish Maxwell-Stewart was instrumental in the creation of Port Arthur’s current visitor centre exhibition.

The well-preserved separate prison provides corridors of cells for visitors to see and a separate and silent chapel to explore. With the audio and visual effects kept to a minimum, the eerie quietness of this site gives a fantastic sense for the isolation and tension prisoners must have lived with on a daily basis.

    Port Arthur Seperate Cell Port Arthur seperate cells corridoorThe separate cells
Port Arthur seperate Chapel

Port Arthur’s separate chapel

Cascades Female Factory

Cascades female factory (to the south and west of central Hobart) is one of the smaller of Australia’s convict sites. Much like the interpretation at Port Arthur, reconstruction has been kept to a minimum. Information is available but the ruins of the site are left to speak for themselves. The site at which female convicts were detained when they arrived in Tasmania before being sent out to work, for punishment of a secondary offence, or in case of pregnancy under sentence, sits unassuming and barely noticeable at the side of a road, with little outside signage to indicate the significance of its former years.

Cff front entranceThe outside of Cascades Female Factory

Very litter remains of the factory grounds – barely more than the outside walls. Again, like at Port Arthur, rather than chose reconstructive buildings that let visitors experience the space ‘as it would have been’, at Cascades Female Factory subtle markings and a few information boards tell the story while allowing visitors to take in the size of the plot, the oppressive presence of the steep hills to the rear, and the full force of the elements outside.

Cff yard plan Cff yard remains

The plan of the former yard, and the physical space

Wandering through the remains of three of the original five yards on a cold and drizzling day provided a sense of the bleak, claustrophobic, and isolated existence prisoners would have experienced at the factory.

Fremantle Prison:

The most recent of Australia’s convict sites, Fremantle prison is unique in that its penal history stretches from its convict origin in the 1850s until 1991 when it ceased to operate as a state prison. In that time the prison has become so much more than a convict site. Something reflected in how its heritage is presented to visitors.

FP wing outside Fremantle Prison main entrance

Visitors can only access Fremantle prison by one of three guided tours, only one of which is a general guide to the history of the prison, and not themed like the ‘‘great escapes’ tour. However, due to the nature of the site it is the most complete and ‘authentic’ experience of a convict-era prison as the majority of buildings have been preserved completely.

FP inner wing  FP wing division 2

Fremantle Prison’s ‘Division 2’ Wing

Built by Western Australian convicts in the 1850s and used to detain them until the last convicts to WA in 1868 were freed, the history of the convict experience is intermingled with the history of imprisonment. Distinctions between what facets of prison life belong to the convict era, and which developed later are not always clear. However, the prison provides a fantastic opportunity see original convict cells fitted with replica hammocks and furniture  next to larger, later, cells showing how conditions for prisoners improved in the post-transportation era.

FP condemned cell FP Convict cell 3 FP reconstructed convict cell

The condemned cell, and two examples of convict-era cells at Fremantle Prison

Some other elements including the chapel are also preserved as they would have been in the convict era.

FP convict chapel

Yet due to the prison’s use throughout the twentieth century – a later history still very much preoccupying former prison staff who now act as guides and in other roles around the site – modernisation of exercise yards, kitchens, bathrooms means that unlike other convict sites, Freemantle prison has inevitably lost some of its convict-era identity.

Australia’s convict sites provide some of the best preserved and most fascinating physical reminders of the transportation era. Ultimately, all of the sites are undertaking a difficult balancing act. First and foremost they preserve some of (white) Australia’s most important heritage, and educate visitors about the history of crime, punishment, and convicts in a surprisingly sympathetic way. Yet these sites also succeed in encouraging entertainment-driven tourism so important to funding heritage projects and future preservation.

A chance to see the buildings and surroundings, so important in the lives of the individuals we study, was a real privilege. Each visit was a moving – and thought provoking – experience, the likes of which are still largely out of reach in the U.K. What seems to make convict sites so unique is that, East, West, and South, Australia’s convict heritage is presented as an unpleasant feature of the British past – something modern Australia has come to terms with and learnt from while remaining wholly separate to– in terms of both justice and human experience. An important factor which hasn’t been fully achieved in many UK sites of crime and justice heritage. After all, while Australia is preserving its convict sites as places of history, heritage and education, some of the most famous remnants of our own convict era, prisons like Brixton, Pentonville, and Wormwood Scrubs, function not as tools for learning and reflection, but still in their original capacity.

3 thoughts on “Australia’s Convict Sites: Shared past, their present, our future?

  1. Ruth Mann

    A similar Female Factory in New South Wales at Parramatta is a much larger but neglected site under threat from developers. Submissions to put it on the National Heritage List have a deadline this week with a decision to be made next year. The identities and stories of most convicts were hidden by families and are only recently coming to light with descendants having better access to vast convict records.

    Reply
  2. Babette Smith

    Dear Lucy
    Very interesting indeed to read your thoughts about our convict sites – and for that matter how you feel we have digested our convict history. I think the latter process continues today. The next step will be to achieve a more nuanced and, most importantly, reconciled history that gives weight to what happened to both Aborigines and convicts. A history teacher said to me recently that she was interested in the revisionist version of Australian history. When I asked what she meant she said, ‘Aboriginal history’. After reflection lasting several days, I realised that I would not today describe Aboriginal history as ‘revisionist’. It was ‘revisionist’ in the 1970s but today I believe it’s ‘mainstream’. The case has been made and widely accepted by Australians. As the history teacher’s comments demonstrate however, that achievement has not yet been recognised.

    Convict history was also revisionist from 1979 onwards when historians began researching deep into primary archives for the first time. While the work done on convict history by historians is recognised now, the extent to which it, too, revised the European story is not.

    So, Australians have more to do…. hope I get the opportunity to do some of it. Good luck to you in your work.

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  3. Diane Solomon Westerhuis

    I watch this space with interest, in particular to link to some of the primary documents now available, in order to do some of the work Babette Smith mentions. In my case, writing a biography which entails intensive document research, so all access is welcomed.
    Dr Diane Solomon Westerhuis

    Reply

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