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Australia’s First “Railway”

Dec 30, 2020Update

Did you know that Australia’s first reputed railway was powered by convicts? That’s right, in 1836 at the Tasmanian penal colony of Port Arthur, Captain Charles Booth had convict labour construct an 8-kilometre section of ‘track’ of rough-hewn timber rails to push government officials and goods from ship moored at Norfolk Bay (now Taranna) to the northern end of Port Arthur at Long Bay.

Sometimes called the first passenger railway; it was in reality a tramway with wooden rails where these ‘people powered’ carts were ‘driven’ by gangs of 4 convicts, some still in their leg-irons and chains who pushed the carts in relays back and forth along the track.

Why did they build it? Essentially it was a logistical tactic that allowed ships to easily unload their cargo and passengers in the sheltered Norfolk Bay and then onto the ‘railway’ rather than sailing further up the coast and being potentially held up for days in Storm Bay by the prevailing westerly winds and swells coming up from Antarctica.

As this painting shows, the track even had its own sidings.

Here is a link and footage from the movie, For the Term of his Natural Life (1927) that re-enacts the convict driven tramway pushing some passengers along the section. 

Here we see a surviving section of the track taken some years ago.

Approximately 50 convicts lived and were housed in barracks about halfway along the section of track. 

Some surviving evidence of the track includes; sections of low embankment, building remains and an original intact sleeper. One wonders if the ‘up’ or ‘down’ direction was the tougher shift?

In this picture it appears as though the rails were made of iron along the pier.

Here we see the convicts push the carts through the bush (without leg irons).

Thankfully, these days are long gone, however as this historical footnote demonstrates, the very first ‘train drivers’ had it very tough indeed in a rugged part of our country where tyrants ruled their every move. It would seem sometimes that although the redcoat marines are long gone, the tyrants remain, replacing their bayonets with lanyards!!

Port Arthur is now a UNESCO World Heritage site as part of the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage property and is one of Australia’s best-known historical sites.