Unique adventure: A Fremantle Prison tunnel tour keeps alive some aspects of the convict history Image Credit: Supplied

The nice thing about Australians is that they don’t beat about the bush — they say it how it is. If your ancestors came to a country only because they were convicts in Great Britain between 1787 and 1868, despatched out there on a convict ship, would you boast about it?

Today’s Australians do. The country’s convict past has been of abiding curiosity to historians for decades, and now a new generation finds its convict heritage is something to celebrate — it’s what makes Australia unique.

As Dr David Andrew Roberts, teacher of history at the University of New England in Armidale, says, “We were proud to be the descendants of people who were kicked out of England by corrupt judges and aristocrats. The convicts came to a healthy climate, and many achieved a level of prosperity they couldn’t have dreamed of back home. The convicts were the lucky ones. To be descended from a convict now gives one a sense of being authentically Australian.”

Lauding this era are local tour operators who offer visitors tours to appreciate what the harsh early days of the convict era were all about. Around 166,000 usually poor, illiterate, unskilled or semi-skilled British and Irish men, women and children offenders were condemned by the British justice system to be transported to Australia. Among them were ex-soldiers charged with crimes such as mutiny or desertion; some were political prisoners or prisoners of war.

A single property consisting of 11 sites and known as the Australian Convicts Sites World Heritage Property was added to the Unesco World Heritage List in 2010. Many tours have sprung up at or around these sites, as well as others not on the list. These are among the thousands established by the British who needed to alleviate the pressure on their own over-crowded prisons. Ships went to New South Wales, Norfolk Island, Tasmania, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia.

Louisa’s Walk

Storytellers/actors in Hobart, Tasmania (then called Van Diemen’s Land) re-enact a short drama walk about Louisa Hogan, arrested and charged in London in 1841 for stealing a loaf of bread.

For her crime she was shipped out on The Rajah to South Hobart to join the workers at the Cascades Female Factory, now a World Heritage listed site. Visitors follow Louisa’s Walk and listen as the actors unravel her story.

 Women were detained at Cascades as punishment. Operators of Louisa’s walk, Judith and Chris Cornish, dressed in the costumes of the times, dramatically show visitors the plight of the poor in London and the harsh conditions prisoners faced on the voyage out — followed by afternoon tea with the visitors.

The drama attracts both national and international tourists. “Locals tend to bring their overseas or interstate visitors”, says Judith, and there has even been some interest from the Middle East region.

At the Port Arthur penitentiary, a lantern-lit ghost tour proves it’s a very different place after dark. Although a far cry from the days when savage dogs guarded the narrow causeway and the prison guards insisted that sharks infested the waters, visitors accompanied by sinister-looking black-cloaked tour guides also pass the old lunatic asylum and the 1,700 graves that fill the tiny Isle of the Dead Cemetery guarding the entrance.

To the west is the Old Fremantle Prison, built in the 1850s by convicts using local limestone and timbers. Decommissioned as a maximum security jail in 1991, the prison, with death row, solitary confinement cells and gallows, was used as a place of incarceration for almost 140 years.

Story-telling guides rekindle the past with a torchlight tour — apparently not for the faint-hearted and complete with hidden surprises along the way. A tunnel tour is not for the claustrophobic either — it winds through a labyrinth of underground tunnels from where prisoners used to pump out water by hand.

There’s an Escape from Fremantle Prison tour aimed at children aged 5 to 12 years — they are put inside and have one hour and 15 minutes to escape. Guides show the exact spots where genuine dramatic escapes occurred. Gift vouchers are available — perhaps an ideal Christmas present for the neighbour’s kids?

The UAE has not been a large market for them so far, but Amberlee Hong, Assistant Marketing and Events Manager, Fremantle Prison, says, “I would imagine that this may change as people become more aware of holiday opportunities in Western Australia and the World Heritage Status of Fremantle Prison. We are currently the only World Heritage Listed building in Western Australia.”

Spooky theatre

Tours of the Albany Convict Gaol, which was built in 1852, are run by private contractors on behalf of the Albany Historical Society. Keeping the convict skeletons out of the cupboards is John Elliot, consultant and guide with JJ Tours. “Our tour is a combination of history and ‘spookiness’,” says Elliot. “It combines the tour with theatre. Some people claim paranormal experiences as they move through it. The tour touches on, among other things, Albany’s only hanging and the cell that confined Australia’s first serial killer.”

The one hanging at the Old Gaol was that of Peter McKean, alias William McDonald, who was executed for murder in 1872. The two-hour tour finishes with some light relief of a “prison supper of damper (a thick, dense bread made without yeast typical of early settler days), cake and tea”, says Elliot.

Unique Sydney Tours and Cruises is keeping Sydney’s convict history alive by taking tourists on a harbour cruise, offering a good old Australian barbie and a walk in the footsteps of Australia’s early convicts on Goat Island.

There are convict-built buildings, a gunpowder store, military gun powder magazine, the headquarters of the Sydney Water Police who kept an eye out for smugglers and escaped convicts and even a stone carved ‘couch’ where notorious convict Charles Anderson was sentenced to be tied for two years.