Posted by: Debra Kolkka | February 11, 2016

Hell’s Gates

Strahan, on the banks of Macquarie Harbour on the west coast of Tasmania is today a pretty tourist town offering boat cruises down the Gordon River and trips in the peaceful harbour to Sarah Island.


The tranquil setting belies its violent and miserable past. The first settlement in Macquarie Harbour was a prison established on Sarah Island. For 11 years from 1822 – 1833 recalcitrant prisoners were sent from other parts of Tasmania because of the isolation and extreme climate of the area. There was little chance of successful escape from this brutal prison. It was a place of physical and mental torture.

We took a guided tour of the island. Ruins of the settlement remain. Prisoners were forced to clear the island and build everything required to sustain life, miserable as it was. Food was scarce, so scurvy and other diseases were common.

The remains of a bakery, tannery, solitary confinement prison and lodgings for guards and officials are there to see.

Sarah Island

Sarah Island


In case Sarah Island wasn’t bad enough, tiny nearby Grummet Island provided a place for additional punishment. Prisoners were rowed across in chains and left alone for weeks at a time. There were a few women prisoners sent to Sarah Island and some worked for a time in a hospital, in a cave on Grummet Island.

Grummet Island

For a few years ships were built on the island by the prisoners. Chained men were sent into nearby forests to cut Huon pine, an excellent timber for boat building. Logs were floated down the river to the island. The slips, also built from Huon pine, are intact under the sand.

It was, at the time, the biggest ship building place in the Australian colonies. During this time the prisoners were treated a little better and there were fewer escapes and floggings.

Sarah Island

Sarah Island

All the trees on Sarah Island were cut down. This proved to be a mistake as the howling winds made life even worse. The prisoners erected a high timber wall to provide shelter from the Roaring Forties. Some evidence of the wall remains.

Sarah Island

Hell’s Gates is the name of the narrow entrance to Macquarie Harbour.

Hell's Gates

I suppose the prisoners knew they were entering hell on earth. There are hazardous currents which make it a dangerous place to be, but the coastline is very beautiful in a rugged kind of way. I wonder if the poor fellows imprisoned for years ever got to sit quietly and enjoy this beautiful place.

Macquarie Harbour



Macquarie Harbour

In 1824 a prisoner named Trenham killed another convict in order to be executed rather than face further imprisonment on Sarah Island. Another prisoner who escaped resorted to cannabalism to survive. He was recaptured, escaped, ate his fellow escapees, was recaptured and hanged.

Considering that most people were transported to the Australian penal colonies for relatively minor crimes, the cruelty inflicted on them doesn’t bear thinking about. There wasn’t much hope of rehabilitation, although many prisoners served their time and later became good citizens. I’m sure a little compassion would not have gone astray.

When Sarah Island was closed the prisoners were sent to Port Arthur, another hell on earth.

I am currently reading a book called “For the term of his natural life” by Marcus Clarke about the life of a man falsely accused of a crime and sent to Tasmania. It is a book of fiction, but it describes accurately the horror that these people endured.


  1. It is a beautiful part of the country

    • It is…with a very sad history.

  2. That was a nasty time in our history. Marcus Clarke’s novel captures the horror very well.

    • The book is great. It is difficult to believe how badly these people were treated. Those inflicting the punishments must have been affected too.

  3. There is such a contrast between the beauty and the cruelty. I have just read “The Fatal Shore” by Robert Hughes and the treatment of those poor convicts is unforgivable. “For the Term of His Natural Life” is an eye opener, too. Your photos are stunning….as usual.

    • I haven’t read The Fatal Shore, but I will.

  4. We stayed in Strahan for one night and I remember that it was lovely, but I didn’t know it’s history. I was reading For The Term of His Natural Life when we visited Port Arthur and that place remains vivid in my memory – although I also found that place quite beautiful. It takes such a long, long tome to breed out such brutality – it’s a work in progress isn’t it.

    • Port Arthur is beautiful, but the poor devils locked up there would not have seen that, just misery.

  5. The area around Strahan and the Gordon River is so lovely and pristine. It certainly is a place of natural beauty…but the history of brutality on the island for the early prisoners is shocking.

    • It is heartbreaking to read what they went through. They must have been tough to survive.

  6. I read the book years ago, Great reading, although a scary account of what convict life was all about. And I wonder how many innocents had to endure that. The place looks very peaceful and beautiful nowadays, but I would say that it is haunted…

    • I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a few ghosts on Sarah Island.

  7. I think there was also a tv series made from The term of his natural life. A timeless land was also a good read.

    Grim history and a reminder of what the British did to their own people as well as the Irish so no surprise that they treated Africans and Indians with equal cruelty.

    • There is no end to horrible treatment by those in power.

  8. Debra I visited this place with my sister some years ago. Very moving. My g.g.grandfather was a convict in Tasmania (served 14 yrs from the age of 17), married another convict, moved to Melbourne with the first settlers there, raised a family & became a successful property owner. Some of them ended up better off, but even if they did, it was an extremely difficult time until their freedom was granted. He is buried in Melbourne General Cemetery.

    • As I said before, they must have been tough to survive. My mofher’s ancestor was also a convict. He was a counterfeiter, who was transport to Australia. He was eventually pardoned and his wife and 3 children joined him. They went on to have another 11 children and were quite successful.

  9. What history! Incredible place.

    • The tour was very informative, I really recommend it.

  10. Fascinating and sad. You are a born historian Deb. I learn so much on the blog!

    • Macquarie Harbour is beautiful, but it must have been a dreadful place to be imprisoned.

  11. Will never forget out visit to Sarah Island, Debra. It made Port Arthur look like a 5 star resort.

    • I have been to Port Arthur too. Sarah Island would have made to prisoners give up all hope.

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