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Tas That Was – The Coal Mines Historic Site

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Learn all about Tasmania’s first operational mine!


During the early years of its existence, Van Diemen’s Land had to import coal from New South Wales at great expense.

Some of the underground cells at the coal mine (1892).

When coal was discovered at Saltwater River in 1833, the government wasted no time in establishing a mine there. It was designed to save money and serve as a place of punishment for the worst class of convicts.

A small group of convict labourers commenced work at the site in 1833. The first shipment of coal left the mine on 5 June 1834.

In 1839, Thomas Lempriere, the Commissariat Officer at Port Arthur, reported that 150 convicts were working the mine under the watchful eye of 29 soldiers. Large stone barracks that could accommodate 170 prisoners had been erected. A chapel, bakehouse, store, and four underground cells had also been built. Comfortable quarters for several officials were located on the hillside above. Coal was transported by cart to nearby jetties to be loaded onto ships for export.

In 1839, the Probation System was introduced in Van Diemen’s Land. Instead of being assigned to private settlers upon arrival in the colony, convicts would be sent to new government work stations to serve “a period of confinement and labour in gangs”. The coal mine were chosen as one of these new stations.

Between 1839 and 1848, 600 convicts served time at the settlement. They were crowded together, and officials became concerned that they would learn from each other’s vices. One official wrote in 1846:

I have seen congregated at the mines, men of every class, age and station, whether he had been a thief, burglar, deserter, poacher or forger, whether convicted of manslaughter, rape, bigamy, embezzlement, or highway robbery. All were then mixed together, each perhaps an adept in the particular crime for which he was transported from this country, but ignorant of many others, however, after a short period spent amongst such a variety of fellow prisoners, locked up together at night in the huts, listening to their talk and stories of exploit, daring and low cunning and relating deeds of his own past life he soon became identified with them and acquired a knowledge and insight of each different variety of crime.

Incidents of homosexuality among the convicts at the coal mine also became frequent. In order to stop these ‘unnatural acts’ from occurring, officials arranged for additional lighting to be installed in the shafts and tunnels. Eyeholes were also built into the doors and shutters of the sleeping wards, which were inspected by constables at irregular intervals during the night. Over a hundred individual cells were built as well to keep prisoners segregated at night. But all this did not work: homosexual acts still took place. In 1848, the Comptroller-General of Convicts, John Hampton, reported:

…the Coal Mines always has been in this respect, the least satisfactory of all the stations.

The coal mines were closed by the government in 1848 on ‘moral and financial grounds’. The convicts were transferred elsewhere, and the site was leased to private operators. It continued to be worked up until 1877, albeit with limited success.

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By 1880, the site was being used to run sheep.

During the 1920s, stones, bricks, and timbers were extracted from the buildings and were re-used in the construction of local sheds and farmhouses.

A view of the coal mine ruins from Mount Lepus (1890).

Quality of the coal

Coal from the mine was used for heating in households and government offices. People quickly discovered that it was of poor quality. Thomas Lempriere wrote in 1839:

The most disagreeable feature attending Port Arthur coals is that when at first lighted they crack and throw out small pieces in great quantities, to the detriment of carpets, furniture, ladies’ gowns etc.

Despite this, coal continued to be exported from the mine.

Working at the coal mines

Dark, damp, and confined: this is what the shafts were like at the coal mine.

In 1842, a visitor was lowered into one of the shafts. He later wrote:

The winch was manned by convicts under punishment. One stroke of the knife might sunder the rope…however, it has never been tried, deeds of ferocity being very infrequent. A gang on the surface worked the main pump and another below worked a horizontal or slightly-inclined draw-pump which threw water into the chief well…The seam has been excavated 110 yards from the shaft, having also several chambers diverging right and left. The mines are esteemed the most irksome punishment the convict encounters, because he is not a practised miner, and because he labours night and day, eight hours on a spell.

Convicts were required to extract 25 tonnes of coal by the end of each shift.

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It would get so hot in the shafts and tunnels that the men would sweat profusely and work “without any other clothing than their trousers”.

Water was removed by men with buckets until a pump was installed in 1841.

Bill Thompson, pictured here, was one of the many convicts who served time at the coal mine.


In 1971, the coal mine was proclaimed a historic site under the National Parks & Wildlife Act of 1970. Conservation and archaeology have been ongoing at the site ever since.

It was placed on the World Heritage list in 2010.


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Source: Tasmanian Times

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