The history of European settlement in Australia is founded on the convict experience which began with the landing of the First Fleet in Sydney in 1788.
Three sites in Tasmania, which was founded as a penal colony in 1803, illustrate the rigours and the remoteness of the places to which offenders were transported from Britain until as late as 1853.
Richmond Gaol is sufficiently intact to show the actual cramped conditions of the prisoners’ physical environment. Port Arthur, though ruined, is extensive and has sufficient remains to illustrate in breadth and detail how convicts and their guards lived and died.
Only vestiges remain of the Cascades Female Factory in suburban Hobart, yet its imaginative restoration and interpretation, using sculpture and live actors, makes the memories it carries evocative and easy to comprehend.
In the upside-down world of convict settlements down under, segregation created odd distinctions.
Female convicts were customarily sent to “factories”, effectively workhouses, for three reasons: either they were sheltered because of good behaviour on the voyage from Britain, or they were thought to be capable of reformation if removed from criminal influences, or they were so reprehensible that they needed containment away from the main prison system.
These categories were, at the insistence of the Lieutenant Governor, Sir George Arthur (1784-1854), “on no account to be suffered to communicate with each other”.
The factory at the Cascades was designed by the Colonial Engineer John Lee Archer (1791-1852), and was repeatedly extended. The first prisoners arrived from the overcrowded Hobart Gaol in December 1828, and further courtyards were added in 1832, 1842, 1850 and 1852.
From 1856 the site was redesignated as a prison, and female prisoners left the site completely in 1877.
Nearly all the buildings were subsequently demolished, apart from some of the substantial boundary walls. The only remaining historic building is the Matron’s Quarters of 1850.
This emptiness is put to remarkably good use. The archaeology has been investigated and reburied to conserve it, and the outlines are indicated by gravel paths and paving, walls of stone chippings in metal net cages and structures and sculptures in rust-coloured iron.
This apparently unpromising minimalist approach is surprisingly effective, because it challenges the visitor’s imagination, and those who like their history brought to life can follow actors in character around the site telling the stories of those who lived and worked here nearly two centuries ago.