Aussie convict hotspots

David Wilson
Step back into Australia's creepy history at Norfolk Island. Image: Thinkstock
"Designed to break hard cases' spirit, the gaol featured underground 'dumb cells' that allowed no light or sound. The dungeon deprivation drove inmates mad and cemented the sense of dread created by sadistic commandants."
David Wilson

Australia's glitzy Pacific paradise image belies its low-rent past. Amid the Australia Day sizzling of fireworks and barbies remember that the nation began as a dumping ground for British eurotrash.

The shipped-in bogans — various thugs, thieves and scumbags — convicted of everything from stealing snuff to murder, were forced into labour. They slaved away in the heat until their sentences — typically seven years each — ended, or they dropped in the dust.

Either way, they left some solid, imposing traces destined to win recognition. On 31 July 2010, 11 convict landmarks were added to the World Heritage List.

In light of that success, here's a loving long-weekend look at some key listed landmarks that laid the nation's foundations. Advance Australia!

1. Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney, NSW

A stroll from Circular Quay, Hyde Park Barracks was built to house up to 600 riffraff from Georgian Britain by convict-architect Francis Greenway. Established in 1819, the landmark is Australia's oldest institutional building and one of the British empire's most complete convict barracks.

Now it serves as a museum of Sydney's social and architectural history. Plus, it moonlights as a venue for banquets and wedding ceremonies.

2. Cockatoo Island, Sydney, NSW

Sydney Harbour's biggest island, Cockatoo, sits at the junction between the Parramatta and Lane Cove rivers. Established as a prison in 1839, it was manned by British Redcoat troops, who made the inmates quarry sandstone, build their own gaol, even — imagine — forge their own prison bars.

Much of the prisoners' handiwork survives. So does the memory of legendary Cockatoo Island prisoner, bushranger (or highwayman) Captain Thunderbolt, who did two stints there. In 1863, with the help of his squeeze Mary Ann Bugg, who swam to the island, Captain Thunderbolt escaped. Ashore, he embarked on a murderous crime spree.

Catch a ferry to his old haunt and you can do a tour and visit a designer bar housed in recycled shipping containers. If you really want to soak up the atmosphere, camp overnight under the cranes and chimneys.

3. Old Great North Road, Country NSW

Completed in 1836, Old Great North Road owes its existence to legions of prisoners. Over 700 — some in chains — toiled on the 300km road linking Sydney to the Hunter Valley.

Less dour than it sounds, the road, which cuts through unspoilt bush surroundings, features spectacular buttresses, culverts (AKA fancy drains) and bridges: all built for nothing. By the time the convicts downed tools, people preferred to travel on coastal steamers.

Run down, the folly is closed to vehicles. Still, you can walk it within three days or bike it in one.

4. Fremantle Prison, Perth, WA

Until 1991, Fremantle Prison served as Perth's maximum-security prison. The limestone hulk on a hill was built during the 1850s to house a thousand inmates by convicts who doubtless often wound up inside.

The 75-minute Fremantle Prison tours "Doing Time" and "Great Escapes" highlight haunting sights like the "escape-proof" stone cell built for a bushranger and a gallows. The twice-weekly 90-minute torchlight tour offers a similar formula but with surprises — if you have a weak heart, don't go.

5. Cascades Female Factory, Hobart, Tasmania

One in four convicts sent to Van Diemen's Land — as they once called Tasi — was female. Bad girls wound up locked inside a swampland Hobart factory called Cascades, which was built in 1828.

The inmates did chores like spinning and sewing. Midwifery skills might have come in handy because 17 out of 20 children born in the workhouse died soon after birth. Women who died were tossed into an unmarked mass grave.

Clearly, Cascades, which did a stint as a madhouse, was a hellhole. Its bare-bones ruins include a matron's cottage — the sole remaining original building — and a memorial garden containing a water tank that the inmates pumped.

6. Kingston, Norfolk Island

One of Australia's harshest penal colonies stood at Kingston, Norfolk Island: a speck of land between Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia.

Kingston's now-ruined pink-stoned gaol was completed in 1847. Inside, everyday convicts from across the British Empire mingled with stubborn second-offenders from New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land.

Designed to break hard cases' spirit, the gaol featured underground 'dumb cells' that allowed no light or sound. The dungeon deprivation drove inmates mad and cemented the sense of dread created by sadistic commandants. Outside, shackled wretches built roads and broke rocks.

Click here for more info on Australian convict sites.

Where are your favourite convict sites? Tell us in the comments form below!

Next: Underbelly holidays: Bad boys' Australia.

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User comments
Gee David I find your words a little harsh, I am a descendant of James Bradley 1st Fleeter Convict, I don't consider him to be a bogan as you put it. We don't know how things were back in those days, he was convicted of stealing a hankerchief and got 7 years for it and now because of that I now live in the best country in the world and I thank him for it. Happy Australia Day, James Bradley and also Jane Poole, and James Mcmanus, Thank you.
It is strange that you included the Cascade Female Factory but not Port Arthur.
Not all were thugs , thieves and scumbags. Many were educated people with good jobs and many were starving people trying to feed themselves or their families. Punishment did not fit the crime back then and we should all be grateful to a lot of our convicts, as they built the country.
Port Arthur is my favorite.Excellent guides who are all very interested in their jobs & do their own investigations into the people that where housed there.The trip to the Isle of the Dead is excellent ,guides again with all sorts of tales about the people buried there.You can do lots of walking or travel around in little cars.Most of the houses are now opened up to walk through.I have been 4 times over the years & it has improved every time I go.
seems as though the Germans wern't the only decendants who belived "work will set you free"
The suburb of Toongabbie(Syd,NSW),was a penial colony,its the 3rd settlement of Australia!! 1st-Botany Bay,2nd-Parramatta,3rd-Toonie!! Haaaarrararraraaaarrrr!!!!
The medievil BUT still in use the infamous Parramatta Jail
The medievil But still in use Parramatta Jail