I THOUGHT I had a pretty good picture of Tasmania’s convict experience.
I had been to Port Arthur and done the ghost tour on a dark night, seen the graves on the Isle of the Dead, walked across Richmond Bridge, stood at Eaglehawk Neck, and talked to Judith Cornish who spent days at Hobart’s Female Factory playing a convict in her “strolling theatre’’ production Louisa’s Story.
But it wasn’t until I visited Brickendon, a working farm near Launceston with almost 200 years of history, that I discovered there was more to Tasmania’s penal history than the stories of cruelty and brutality told around Port Arthur.
For those convicts sent to Tasmania’s north in the early 1800s, to live and work on pioneering properties established by Australia’s first free settlers, life was more about opportunity and hard work to get a new start in a prosperous place.
“Convicts sent somewhere like Brickendon had a choice,” explained Louise Archer, who has owned the 465ha property with husband Richard since inheriting the land from her in-laws.
“Depending on how hard they worked and how well they behaved they could rise through the ranks and get their ticket (of freedom) early, but if they were troublemakers and kept behaving badly they were punished and often sent back to a place like Port Arthur.
“Around 80 per cent of convicts had the assignment experience, rather than going to places of secondary punishment like Port Arthur, but the stories most often told are about the grim and grisly things that happened in the south rather than the more positive tales here in northern Tasmania.”
Louise noted that Brickendon – which has been in her husband’s family since William Archer migrated to Australia in 1824 – and neighbouring Woolmers Estate were home to 1200 convicts making it the second-largest allocation of prisoners during the colonial assignment era.
“Back in the early days there was no prosperity because it was only soldiers and convicts living in Tasmania,” she said.
“The government set about establishing the colony by inviting free settlers to come and live here, promising those with a good work ethic better prospects in this new country, and enticing them with free land and free labour.
“That was the start of the assignment era, when free settlers were given convict labour to establish properties in the north of Tasmania, and there are so many substantial houses in this part of the state because it was a condition of that allocation to build a suitable dwelling.
“We also have a chapel on Brickendon, it was the last building to be constructed here by the convict labourers in the 1850s, because the land owner had the obligation to provide religious education to the convicts as well as food and clothing.”
Brickendon was divided into two areas, the grand Georgian homestead and formal garden on one side of Woolmers Lane and the workers’ village with cottages and farm buildings on the other, to separate the family from the convicts which was a convention of the time.
We started a tour in the village and, as we wandered between the quaint brick buildings that presented a picture of early agricultural practices, Louise told us about William Archer and his three brothers leaving Hertford in the early 1800s and settling around Launceston.
We see the cottage William occupied between 1824 and 1829, before moving into the stately homestead a kilometre across the fields, and pass Farm Cottage which was home to the estate’s overseer before venturing into a shed busy with activity as shearers gave the property’s lambs their first trim.
We watched as shearers collected the timid animals from pens, expertly wielded the clippers to snip the fleece, then pushed the lambs through a chute while another member of the team collected wool from the floor and threw it onto the table to be classed then pressed.
In the barn next door Louise showed us the giant white bales of wool which still feature William Archer’s initials as identification before we continued our informal tour by seeing the blacksmith’s shop which hasn’t been touched since the last smithy left, the dairy with modern displays detailing the convict experience, cookhouse, and chapel.
We saw the foundations of the barracks, with the primitive convict quarters destroyed last century to make it easier for cows to leave the dairy, and peered across the paddocks to Woolmers Estate which was established by William’s brother Thomas in 1817.
After finishing our exploration of the convict quarters we crossed Woolmers Lane for a stroll around the grounds flanking the elegant farm house, with Louise explaining the garden was a project of Richard’s parents Angela and Kerry who still lived at Brickendon after handing the land down many years ago.
“There are two sides to Brickendon, the convict history and the family history,” Louise noted as we wandered between flowerbeds chocked with colourful blooms.
“This land was settled by William Archer in 1924 – he was one of four Archer brothers who left England for farms around Launceston – and this land has been in my husband’s family ever since being used for sheep, cattle and cropping.
“Brickendon has been owned by a succession of Archer men, I’m married to the sixth generation and luckily produced the seventh with our son Will back on the farm after agricultural college, and we are all very conscious of that heritage and proud of its place in history.”
The writer was a guest of Launceston City Council.
Brickendon – the working farm with an historic convict village built in the 1820s and cottage gardens surrounding the Georgian homestead – is two minutes from Longford, 20 minutes from Launceston, and an hour from Devonport and the Spirit of Tasmania terminal.
The estate is open from 9.30am to 5pm Tuesday to Sunday, visitors can feed the farm animals at 10.15am, and a collection of historic cottages and farm buildings have been converted to accommodate those keen to extend their visit with an overnight stay at Brickendon. See brickendon.com.au
Nearby Woolmers Estate, which is also home to the National Rose Garden and the Servants Kitchen Cafe as well as a number of convict-built structures, is also open to the public with guided tours of Thomas Archer’s compound scheduled during the day. See www.woolmers.com.au
Those keen to include more convict-era stops during a stay in Launceston should visit in Evandale which is a Georgian village with National Trust classification, Clarendon House, and Franklin House.
For more information on Launceston and the Tamar Valley visit the destination’s tourism website. See www.visitlauncestontamar.com.au
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE COURIER MAIL ON AUGUST 9, 2014