Truth and conviction

Lee Atkinson discovers horror and beauty as she explores the country's World Heritage-listed convict sites.

ABOUT 165,000 men, women and children were sent to Australia as convicted felons between 1787 and 1868. Some ended up living and working on farms and grand estates, some endured forced labour in chain gangs, others reoffended and languished in prison.

You can imagine the fear of criminals past when you visit the haunting remains of convict settlements, factories and jails; close your eyes and you can almost hear the clanking of their chains.

According to UNESCO, these 11 convict sites, awarded World Heritage status last year, present "the best surviving examples of large-scale convict transportation and the colonial expansion of European powers through the presence and labour of convicts".

Kingston and Arthur's Vale Historic Area

NORFOLK ISLAND

Norfolk Island was the original hellhole. Established as a convict colony just six weeks after the First Fleet landed in Sydney, it was meant to be a place "of the extremist punishment, short of death" for the worst convicts from NSW and Van Diemen's Land.

Actually, it was a convict colony twice: the first was abandoned in 1814; then a second was established in 1825, until it, too, was abandoned in 1855. Today the beautiful stone buildings of Kingston, built during the convict era, are one of the best-preserved Georgian settlements in the southern hemisphere. Some are ruins, some museums and some have been commandeered, such as the Commissariat Store, now the All Saints Church and home to regular church services.

There are a range of tours, from spooky night-time ghost tours to cemetery tours and themed dinner and sound and light shows.

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norfolkisland.com.au.

Old Government House

PARRAMATTA

Sydney might have been the seat of power when the colony began but most of the decisions that were made about the administration and control of the colony and the management of convicts were made at Old Government House in Parramatta. It is Australia's oldest surviving public building and for the first 70 years of the colony it was the "country" residence of the governors, an escape from the dirty, crime-ridden streets of Sydney.

The National Trust runs guided tours that will take you straight back to 1821; the house is home to the largest collection of colonial furniture in Australia and it is faithfully refurnished to look just as it would have in Macquarie's time. nationaltrust.com.au.

Hyde Park Barracks

SYDNEY

Up to 50,000 convicts slept here (600 at any one time) but it was never a jail. The elegant 1819 sandstone building on Macquarie Street was designed by the convict architect Francis Greenway. It's now a museum and the permanent exhibition, Convict Sydney, is the place to go if you want to learn more about convict NSW.

It's a great place to take kids, who can dress up in convict garb, try on ankle irons or take time out in a re-created punishment box. Many of the artefacts on display were found in rats' nests in and under the building.

hht.net.au.

Old Great North Road

WISEMANS FERRY

Built between 1825 and 1836 by convict chain gangs, the 264-kilometre-long Great North Road linked Sydney with Newcastle and the Hunter Valley. But it wasn't a popular or even useful route, bypassing many of the existing settlements, and almost as soon as it was completed in 1836 it was abandoned in favour of coastal steamers, although a section of it was Sydney's motor route to Gosford until the 1930s.

Only 43 kilometres of the original road still exists, from Wisemans Ferry to Mount Manning, near Bucketty. It is closed to vehicles but you can walk or cycle it. Highlights include stone buttresses, culverts, bridges, 12-metre-high retaining walls and convict graffiti in roadside rock faces.

convicttrail.org.

Cockatoo Island

SYDNEY HARBOUR

The largest of the harbour islands, Cockatoo has seen service as an imperial prison, industrial school, reformatory and jail before being reborn as one of Australia's biggest shipyards, but it's the convict-built buildings and dry dock that earned it World Heritage status.

Convicts who fell foul of the law between 1839 and 1889 were usually sentenced to hard labour on Cockatoo Island, where they quarried out more than 16,420 cubic metres of rock, creating 14-metre-high cliffs as part of the dock construction.

Today you can take a self-guided tour of the former shipbuilding site, hire a kayak, or pitch a tent (you can hire camping equipment on the island) for a campsite with a million-dollar, if somewhat noisy, view.

cockatooisland.gov.au.

Cascades Female Factory

HOBART

Australia is one of the few places in the world where large numbers of women were sent as convicts and more than 5000 convicts spent time at the Female Factory on the outskirts of Hobart between 1828 and 1856, either serving a sentence, waiting to be assigned a workplace, or having a baby.

It might have got its World Heritage listing for being "the only remaining female factory with substantial visible fabric" but unless you take a tour you won't glean much about its past as there's not really much left of the original buildings.

femalefactory.com.au.

Darlington Probation Station

MARIA ISLAND

This beautiful island off the east coast of Tasmania became a penal colony in 1825 and you can wander around the extensive convict settlement ruins at Darlington.

By 1832, the convict settlement was abandoned in favour of Port Arthur to the south and, after a second incarnation as a convict probation station between 1842 and 1850, it was eventually taken over by a flamboyant Italian entrepreneur, Diego Bernacchi, who planted grapes, cultivated silkworms and established a cementworks.

Maria Island was declared a national park in 1972. There's a small museum in the rather grandly named Coffee Palace, a visitor centre in the convict-built stone Commissariat Store and you can wander inside most of the other intact buildings, or bunk down in the dorms of the island's penitentiaries.

parks.tas.gov.au/natparks/maria/index.html.

Port Arthur

TASMANIA

Australia's best-known convict site was also one of the most notorious. Established in 1833 as a "place of terror" for repeat offenders, it needs a minimum of half a day, preferably a full day or even longer (tickets are valid for two days) to explore the Port Arthur penal settlement.

More than just a jail, it was, at its height in the 1850s, an entire village. It was abandoned as a prison in 1877 then largely destroyed by bushfires in 1895 and 1897 and what remains is a mixture of intact buildings and atmospheric ruins.

The interpretation centre in the Visitors Centre is an interactive museum chronicling the life of many convicts. Buildings worth seeing include the Model Prison built in 1848, where prisoners were forced to endure solitary confinement and silence, the impressive ruined church, the Isle of the Dead cemetery tour and a cruise to Point Puer, the prison home to more than 3000 boys aged nine to 18, between 1834 and 1848.

Garden and archaeological tours are also available. One tour not to miss is the night-time ghost tour. Led by guides dressed in black and carrying glass lanterns, you learn about the most documented sightings and unexplained happenings. Almost all the guides insist they believe in ghosts and will enthral you with their on-site encounters with the supernatural.

portarthur.org.au.

Coal Mines Historic Site

TASMANIA

Just a few kilometres across the peninsula from Port Arthur, the Coal Mines were Tasmania's first operational mine, established both to limit the colony's dependence upon imported coal from NSW, as well as a place of punishment for the "worst class" of convicts from Port Arthur.

Here, on the belief that criminals could be reformed through hard labour, convicts were forced to work, and sometimes live, underground. It provides a very different experience to the sometimes-crowded Port Arthur site and you can wander freely among the evocative ruins with its cramped and gloomy underground cells. Go early and you'll more than likely have the site to yourself.

portarthur.org.au.

Brickendon and Woolmers Estates

LONGFORD

Whereas the other World Heritage-listed convict sites in Tasmania were primarily places of punishment, these two neighbouring farming estates near Launceston represent the assignment side of the convict system.

Between the two estates, which were owned by two brothers, more than 100 convicts lived and worked, the second-largest pool of convict labour in private hands in the colony. Kids love Brickendon's farm animals and the village, with its Gothic chapel, barns, blacksmith's shop and cottages, shows just how self-sufficient early settlers needed to be. Across the road is the Georgian homestead, where the family still live. The house is not open for tours but you can wander around the beautiful gardens.

Neighbouring Woolmers is one of the best-preserved colonial gentry houses in Australia, largely because succeeding Archer generations left the house exactly as it was. All the furniture is original and most dates from the 1850s.

The 45-minute tour is a must-do and the only way you can see inside the house. You can wander around the gardens and through the farm buildings on your own. Also here is the National Rose Garden.

brickendon.com.au; woolmers.com.au.

Fremantle Prison

WESTERN AUSTRALIA

Almost 10,000 prisoners were shipped to WA between 1850 and 1868. Unlike the colonies on the east coast that began as penal settlements, it was the free settlers who asked for the convicts as a free labour force – on condition that there be no women, political prisoners or convicts convicted of serious crimes among them, a condition that wasn't always met.

Built between 1851 and 1859, Fremantle Prison housed more than just convicts (it was a working jail right up until 1991) but it was built by convict labour and was considered a model prison of its time. There are a variety of tours, including a great escapes tour, tunnel tour and torchlight tour.

fremantleprison.com.au.

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