The fascinating tale of the British Empire's most riotous, debauched and inept prison

When they were not escaping, inmates spent their time brewing beer or enjoying gay love affairs
When they were not escaping, inmates spent their time brewing beer or enjoying gay love affairs Credit: GETTY

There was a time when the name Van Diemen’s Land struck terror into anyone hauled before a British court, but transportation to this remote Gothic outpost was not all flogging and leg irons.

Convicts lucky enough to end up on Maria Island, a dreamy speck of land just off Tasmania’s east coast, found themselves in the empire’s most riotous, debauched and inept penitentiary.

So lax was security that many prisoners escaped by simply paddling rafts or bark canoes across the narrow channel that separates Maria (pronounced ‘Mari-ah’) Island from Tasmania proper.

When they were not escaping, inmates spent their time brewing beer with Mrs Brownell, the wife of the island magistrate, or enjoying gay love affairs. Indeed, convicts held at other Tasmanian prisons often committed minor offences in the hope of being relocated to this tiny island – once a popular haunt of Aboriginal people from Oyster Bay who came to harvest scallops, abalone and rock lobster.

Fraternising between guards and inmates was common, but often blossomed into something more intimate – a liaison between William Smith O’Brien, an Irish political prisoner, and Frances Lapham, daughter of the Superintendent, scandalised the colony.

The setting is idyllic, and escape was surprisingly easy Credit: GETTY

While still spartan, and sometimes violent, the Darlington penitentiary was also progressive by Victorian standards. But attempts to rehabilitate the inmates soon descended into farce; Maria Island was more like an anarchic English holiday camp than a fearsome prison such as Pentonville or Dartmoor.

Smith O’Brien, who had narrowly escaped the gallows in Dublin, was struck by the irony of being transported to somewhere so remote and unspoilt. “To find a gaol in one of the loveliest spots formed by nature in one of her loneliest solitudes creates a revulsion of feeling I cannot describe,” he wrote.

But it was the widespread sexual liasons among the convicts that eventually brought about the closure of the Darlington probation station in 1850.

James Boyd, appointed Senior Assistant Superintendent in May 1845, was outraged when he walked into a dormitory and found that eight men had pushed their beds together for a romp.

“I have been perfectly shocked at the horrible depravity exhibited by the convicts,” he wrote.

Many of the prison buildings survive Credit: GETTY

The superintendent sent a long, detailed and vitriolic report to his superiors in England – but the lurid details of the island’s nocturnal activities were erased from the Parliamentary Paper.

In fact, Boyd was hard pressed to record a complete list of offences committed by prisoners on this bucolic little island. Apart from insolence, idleness, swearing and theft, convicts were guilty of attempted murder, sheep stealing, housebreaking and trying to take the station boat. 

The last remaining inmates, including Smith O’Brien, were relocated to Port Arthur, a much grander facility near Hobart, on August 21, 1850, and Maria Island soon faded from public view.

Over the next century Maria Island, named after Maria van Diemen (wife of a Dutch colonial administrator), attracted a myriad of adventurers, ex-convicts and others. They tried to make a living by sealing, whaling, limestone quarrying, sheep-farming and even wine-making, but by the 1970s the island was largely under the control of the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service.

Maria Island remains a place of ravishing beauty and quiet contemplation Credit: getty

Thanks, in part, to the failure of these various enterprises, much of the original convict infrastructure remains intact. Apart from the penitentiary building you can visit the Oast House, part of Mrs Brownell’s brewing venture, the Commissariat Store and Smith O’Brien’s modest cottage; upper class convicts enjoyed many privileges, such as the use of knives and forks.

While Port Arthur, immortalised in the 1874 novel For The Term of His Natural Life, remains one of Tasmania’s major tourist destinations only a trickle of hikers, mountain bikers and nature-lovers cross the Mercury Passage to Maria Island each year – although visitor numbers increased after a faster ferry was introduced and the celebrity of the island’s bare-nosed wombats grew. After several decades of careful management Maria Island is now teeming with native fauna, including kangaroos, wallabies, possum, echidnas and Cape Barren Geese.

A typically idyllic coastal spot Credit: GETTY

Unlike the sombre, oppressive atmosphere of Port Arthur, with its ruined convict buildings, bleak detention cells and blood-curdling tales, Maria Island remains a place of ravishing beauty and quiet contemplation. If there are ghosts, they seem to be friendly ones – you can almost hear the companionable snoring of 292 convicts packed “like bottles in a bin” into their hammocks.

Away from the convict precinct, Maria Island offers pristine white beaches, untamed eucalypt forest and a dramatic limestone formation known as the Painted Cliffs. There are plenty of gentle walking tracks on the island, but for something a little more challenging climb to the summit of Mount Maria (711 metres) which commands sweeping views across to Mount Wellington on the mainland.

Before leaving, spend a few minutes in the clifftop cemetery, which contains the graves of Hohepa te Umuroa, a Maori chief captured during the land wars in New Zealand, and Charles Henry Lapham, son of the Superintendent, who died in June 1848 aged one year and one day.

The Painted Cliffs Credit: GETTY

Getting there

Australia has closed its borders to tourism until at least 2021. Read our guide for more advice on when travel to the country might resume.

The Maria Island ferry operates five times a day (high season) from Triabunna on Tasmania’s east coast. Driving time from Hobart to Triabunna is about 80 minutes but visitors must purchase a national park pass (£6.55 for 24 hours) before they board the ferry. Social distancing and Covid measures are in place for visitors.

Staying there

Accommodation on the island is limited, so book well advance if you plan to stay overnight in the old penitentiary (a cell for two costs £24) in Darlington. Alternatively pitch a tent in the nearby camping site. Camping is also available at French’s Farm and Encampment Cove. Bring your own supplies.

Maria Island walk

This guided four-day walk is one of Tasmania’s premier experiences, combining pristine scenery, abundant native wildlife, gourmet meals and luxury tented accommodation. Tariffs start at £1,364 (October to December) and include private transfers from Hobart, all food, premium wines and some basic hiking gear. www.mariaislandwalk.com.au

More information

www.discovertasmania.com.au