Australia's oldest existing colonial gaol at Richmond Tasmania Australia
Updated: Nov 22
Tasmania Australia has a rich convict history due to the demands of agriculture development. However, not all convicts were hard-working, well-behaved persons. England was sending a steady supply of convict labour between 1788 and 1853 to this new colony. Its own gaols were overflowing with people for crimes as simple as stealing a handkerchief all the way up to murder.
Today visitors can enter the Richmond Gaol, undertake a self-guided tour, and leave an hour or so later, unlike the occupants in the 1800s. I shuddered to think of the people who had been crammed inside these walls, cold and lonely, often afraid and uncomforted. Petty thieves mixed in with hardened criminals.
A local gaol was required for offence committers in the new colony of Van Diemen's Land, so the Richmond Gaol started to be built, using convict labour, in 1825.
Originally it was just one building, but as the years passed there was need for more accommodations. In 1833 more structures were built. The gaoler had to be housed along with his family, as did the guards. In 1835 buildings were constructed on the sides and included solitary cells. The complex was surrounded by a large sandstone wall.
As I walked through the various buildings here, I tried to imagine what the sounds, smells and sights would have been like when it was operational. Not at all pretty I feel. In the cookhouse, the wood-fired ovens would have been working hard to cook bread and food for the prisoners.
Information here states that each prisoner received 1/2-pound meat, 1/2-pound vegetables, 1 pound bread, 2 oz flour, 1/2 oz soap and 1/2 oz salt per day. My mind could not truly comprehend how awful this would have been.
In the solitary cells, which only measure 2m x 1m, visitors can close the door once inside. In the darkness, imagine being locked in here with only bread and water for nourishment. A bucket for a toilet and a blanket to try to keep warm were the only comforts offered. Prisoners had to remain silent the entire time they were in solitary. I could only stay in there less than a minute and pitied the poor souls who spent days this way.
The first Gaoler, W J Speed, should have been on the other side of the bars by the sound of things. He had twelve children and supposedly abandoned his wife after trying to have her committed to a lunatic asylum. He was removed from his office, at the ripe old age then of 70, after charged with keeping rations to himself!
Women convicts were usually occupied at the "female factories" around Tasmania. There they would be put to work producing cloth, crops, or hired out for labour. Often men would come to these female factories looking for a wife. At the Richmond Gaol, women were occasionally held for short times, and the solitary cells here are where they would have been housed, separated from the men. One can only imagine what the "insolence" was that poor Emma suffered 21 days solitary confinement for.
The posters give heartbreaking information about the severity of the punishment for the "crimes" these women were supposed to have committed. I had read that often women would commit a small infringement so that they would be locked up, to escape cruel punishment or unwanted attentions from their overseers. I guess we will never know.
Convict transportation ceased in 1853. Without a need for the gaol, it became a watch-house until 1928. Registered as an historical site from 1971, it is now privately leased.
It is always a good day when you can walk away from a prison! There is a fascination in visiting old gaols, to judge the atrocities of the past by our modern enlightened knowledge. A quote by Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana states "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." These words are inscribed on a plaque at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.
Let us hope that the conditions these poor persons endured may never be experienced again.
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