Sarah Island Macquarie Harbour, historic
Sarah Island - Macquarie Harbour Historic Site (photograph: Craig Vertigan)
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Sarah Island

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Sarah Island is Tasmania's oldest convict settlement and reputedly one of the severest penal establishments in the history of transportation to Australia. Flogging was frequently used as a punishment and more than 180 escape attempts were made.

Despite its isolation and grim function, Sarah Island was for a time the largest shipbuilding yard in the colonies. Convicts were also put to work in the thriving pining trade. 

Towards the end of the 19th century the haunting ruins and natural beauty of Sarah Island became popular with tourists. The island was gazetted as a tourist reserve in 1926 and nearly 50 years later as an historic site. Today it is part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area and Macquarie Harbour Historic Site. Visitors can use a map to navigate among the many ruins to locate the 'new' penitentiary, the commandant's slipway, the bakehouse and tannery.

​Sarah Island has a notorious past. Once a thickly wooded outcrop in Macquarie Harbour lashed by the Roaring Forties, it was selected as a place of ‘banishment and security’ because of its isolation. It was a bleak place reserved for the worst of British felons. 

With the opening of the Port Arthur penal settlement in 1830, use of Sarah Island was phased out. It operated for a year as a convict probation station when it housed a party of convicts sent to cut Huon pine. Economic and 'moral' problems forced its closure.

From the 1850s to the 1880s, and again in the 1930s and 1940s, Sarah Island became the base camp for piners working in the area. 

During the mining rushes to the west coast, looting occurred on the island and bricks and other building materials were removed. Only the ruins of the more substantial structures were left standing.

Since the introduction of cruises from Strahan to the Gordon River in the 1980s, Sarah has become a popular tourist destination, primarily to view the ruins of the penal settlement. Guided tours are operated on the island daily. The guides also present evening performances in Strahan of ‘The Ship that Never Was’, a play that tells the tru​e story of an escape from the  Sarah Island penal colony.