Located in bushland on the northern promontory of Tasman Peninsula, beside the tranquil waters of Little Norfolk Bay, the Coal Mines Historic Site contains a collection of ruins and landscape modifications that tell the story of a convict establishment and penal colliery that operated from 1833-48. It is one of several probation stations established on Tasman Peninsula to exploit natural resources and provide for the reform of convicts through hard labour in a secure and isolated landscape. At its peak it held up to 500 convicts as well as officers, guards and their families.
Discovering coal - and economic independence
The Coal Mines Historic Site is an outstanding example of the economic value of convict labour. It played an important role in the early stages of the colony of Van Diemen's Land, which was required to start paying its own way as a means of transition from a penal colony to a free colony.
Coal was an essential fuel and an important prerequisite for a functioning economy and since only small quantities were found up to 1833, the discovery and subsequent exploitation of the Coal Mines was of considerable importance. Coal was in high demand as many of the officials administering convicts were entitled to an allowance of coal as part of their conditions of pay.
Before the discovery in 1833 of coal at Plunkett Point, the location of the Coal Mines Historic Site, the colony of Van Diemen's Land was required to import coal from NSW. High priority was given to locating deposits.
The mines commenced as adits (horizontal tunnels) into a two-metre thick coal seam exposed at the coast. In 1837 Dr John Lohtsky spent 3 months at the mine and charted the mine and coal seams. On his recommendation shafts were sunk and the operation expanded.
Expanding the infrastructure
By 1841 the operation was mechanised with a steam engine to pump water from the mine shafts. Machinery footings and the remains of a large boiler are evident beside the large shaft. The mines were worked by the method of leaving a column of coal to support the roof of the mine, known as the 'pillar and stall' method. Winding wheels brought up baskets of coal that were upturned into carts. A system of inclined tramways utilised the natural hills of the landscape to carry the coal from the shafts to the jetties and to the cargo vessels.
Transport to the site was by sea and extensive jetties were constructed to take the coal across the shallow waters of the bay to ships. By 1847 the main shaft was down over 300 feet and there were extensive tunnels and caverns. During its operation the mine produced 60,000 tonnes of coal.
Convict punishment and the probation system
The hard labour for convicts associated with the operation of the coal mine was considered a severe form of punishment. The number of solitary punishment cells, and records of floggings and solitary confinements, indicate a comparatively high record of additional punishment. It was made into a probation station in 1840 when the assignment system was abandoned.
Hard labour, religious instruction, and education
The probation system of convict management was unique to Van Diemen's Land and was based on the principle that punishment and reform could be achieved by hard labour, religious instruction, and education. It required a strict classification of prisoners, a separate prison for an initial period of confinement and a comprehensive program of religious and moral instruction. It was based on the concept of labour as punishment, but that this labour would be expended on public causes and the furthering of the development of the colony. Prisoners under probation, if they had mining experience, were sent to the mines. While this resulted in an increase in the skilled work force at the Coal Mines Probation Station, coal production did not increase proportionately.
Men worked for two eight-hour shifts a day in the low hot damp tunnels of the mines. Other convicts were employed in infrastructure development and the operation of the station. Quarries provided sandstone for buildings, and bricks from local clay were made and fired on site. A lime kiln, which still exists, provided lime for mortar. Shoes were made on site, and pits used for tanning leather are still evident.
Ruins that reveal the site layout
Today the site is a landscape of ruins that reveal the structure of the probation station with its different forms of prisoner accommodation, including dormitories and separate apartments. Solitary cells were used for punishment.
The importance of the church for reform and moral development of convicts is demonstrated in the ruins of the chapel and catechist's (clergyman) house. The layout and location of the prisoner accommodation, the officers' accommodation and the commanding officer's home all convey the hierarchy and operation of the station. Nearby hill locations were used for guard stations and semaphore locations. Messages were transmitted via the semaphores to and from Hobart and Port Arthur.
After 1846 when the probation system was considered a failure, Coal Mines again became a secondary punishment station.
Closure and the moral imperative
The Coal Mines is significant because of its important role in the anti-transportation debate. The Probation Station became infamous for its immoral activities. The colonial administration and Tasmanian community considered the place as among the worst penal station for homosexuality. Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen's Land, Charles La Trobe, visited the Coal Mines in October 1846 and reported that 'unnatural crime had been more that ordinarily prevalent for some time past'.
The reputation for homosexuality at the Coal Mines Station was a factor that contributed to the demise of the probation system, and was also used as a means of swaying British public opinion against the further transportation of convicts to Van Diemen's Land. The Coal Mines were officially closed as a probation station in 1848 on 'moral and financial grounds', although the mines continued to be worked privately until 1877.
Before you download
Some documents are available as PDF files. You will need a PDF reader to view PDF files.
List of PDF readers
If you are unable to access a publication, please contact us to organise a suitable alternative format.
Links to another web site
Opens a pop-up window