Maria Island, TAS: Deep History, Convicts and Wildlife

Accessible only by ferry, the island National Park, Maria Island, is located off Tasmania's East Coast. 

There are no cars here, only historical buildings and ruins, white sandy beaches, rugged cliffs and wildlife. There are many trails and walks to explore as you absorb the complex and fascinating history of Maria Island, where the most intact example of a convict probation station in Australia can be found.

The Tyreddeme Band of The Oyster Bay People

The palawa kani name for Maria Island is wukaluwikiwayna. (Palawa kani is a constructed language)

The Oyster Bay People consisted of about 10-15 clans, made up of several family groups. Each clan occupied a specific area of land. Maria Island is believed to be part of the territory of the Tyreddeme clan.

It is believed that the Tyreddeme Aboriginal people travelled by canoes, constructed from rushes, between mainland Tasmania and Maria Island, but did not occupy the island permanently.

Aboriginal people first arrived in Tasmania about 40,000 years ago when Tasmania was a peninsula of mainland Australia.
Portrait de Bara-Ourou dans l'atlas du Voyage de découvertes aux terres australes, Charles Alexandre Lesueur et Nicolas-Martin Petit — Bibliothèque nationale de France, Création : 1 janvier 1811
Aboriginal Tasmanians became isolated from the Australian mainland by rising sea levels about 10,000 years ago. Entirely isolated from the rest of humanity and other mainland Aboriginal people for thousands of years until European contact, led to interactions between people with very different world views, practices and beliefs.

Before European contact, there were approximately three to five thousand Aboriginal people living in nine distinct tribes spread across the island of Tasmania. 

The "Black War" was a period of violent conflict between the British and Aboriginal Australians in Tasmania from the mid-1820s to 1832.

George Augustus Robinson was appointed by Colonial authorities as a conciliator and later “protector” of the Aborigines. Accompanied by Aboriginal woman Truganini, Robinson was successful in obtaining an agreement with the Big River and Oyster Bay peoples, to bring an end to the conflict. By the end of 1835, nearly all the Aboriginal people had been relocated to the new settlement.

The Flinders Island Aboriginal settlement was a failure and in 1856, the remaining Aboriginal people were relocated to Oyster Cove station.

Truganini (c. 1812 – 8 May 1876) often believed to have been the last "full-blood" Aboriginal Tasmanian by European colonists died in 1876.

However, many Aboriginal (Palawa) Tasmanians descend from the multicultural sealer communities of Bass Strait. (see here)


Abel Janzoon Tasman in 1642, is believed to be the first European to sight Maria Island. Tasman sailed along the east coast of the island and named it Maria, in honour of the wife of Anthony Van Dieman, the Governor-General of Batavia.

Marion de Fresne, a French privateer and explorer sighted Maria Island in 1772, on his voyage of discovery to find the hypothetical Terra Australis (Southern Land). He was the first European to encounter the Aboriginal Tasmanians. In June 1772, du Fresne and 26 of his crew were killed by Māori people.

During James Cook's second voyage to the Pacific, Tobias Furneaux's ship became separated from Cook's vessel. Cook sailed to New Zealand and Furneaux travelled further north and sighted a group of islands off the south-west cape of Tasmania on 9 March 1773.

On 8 July 1789, Captain Cox and Lieutenant George Mortimer made the first European landing on the island, along with a few crew members, looking for wood and water. Cox named the bay, Oyster Bay. They found trees hollowed out by fire and heaps of shells and rough bark shelters. 

The next day, Cox's party came upon a group of Aboriginal men, and the third mate made overtures of friendship. The Aboriginal people mimicked his actions exactly and laughed heartily. 

Mortimer wrote that all were entirely naked "except one " man, who had a necklace of small shells, and some of the "women, who had a kind of cloak or bag thrown over "their shoulders." Several were observed to be scarred, and their bodies daubed with reddish earth. Read here

In February 1802, the French navigator Nicolas Baudin, along with zoologist Francois Péron, undertook a three-day navigation of Maria Island. Nicolas-Martin Petit, an artist trained by Napoleon's portrait painter, made sketches of Tasmanian Aboriginal people, but this task was difficult and often they became angry. On Maria Island, Peron had a long hatpin stuck in his leg and one of his earrings torn from his ear.
Géographe and the Naturaliste, from the drawing in Freycinet's Atlas of 1807
Aquatint by Pillement and Duparc after Lesueur, of a European looking at funerary memorials constructed by Aboriginals on Maria Island, Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania). Illustration from part of 'Voyage de decouvertes aux terres Australes, execute par ordre de S M l'empereur et roi', compiled by naturalist Francois Peron (1775-1810) and published in Paris in 1815
An Aboriginal man wanting Peron’s jacket became aggressive. Peron wrote of him “directing the point of his sagaie towards me”, and he seemed to say, “Give it to me, or I will kill you.”

By the beginning of the 19th-century whalers and sealers had arrived on Maria Island. A whaling station was operating at Whalers Cove in 1825.
 The barque Aladdin spent nearly 40 years as a whaler out of Hobart for a succession of owners, Aladdin arrived at Hobart from her final voyage on 15 April 1885 News (Hobart, Tas. : 1924 - 1925)

The First Convict Period: 1825-1832

Governor Arthur directed that a penal settlement be established on the northern part of Maria Island, due to the isolation of the island being a deterrent to convict escape. It wasn't, as on one occasion, six men left the island on a rough bark raft. 

In 1825, fifty convicts were brought to the island by English soldiers. 

Darlington was chosen as a suitable site. Sandstone was quarried to the south of the Painted Cliffs and a Penitentiary and factory complex built. The Commandant, Major T. D. Lord, had his residence built on a hillside to the west of Darlington. Only the footings are visible today. Other brick and stone buildings were erected.

Brick making, lime making and sandstone quarrying and cultivation of crops commenced, including hops. Sawmilling, blacksmithing, tanning, and cloth-making were also conducted. There were never more than one hundred and sixty convicts on Maria Island during this time.


Due mainly to frequent escape attempts, the convict settlement closed in 1832 but would re-open again 10 years later. In the interim, the land and buildings were used for pastoral and whaling activities.

In 1832 a woollen factory was the main industry of the island.

Wauba Debar was an Aboriginal woman who saved the life of two European men. She drowned off Maria Island in about 1832 (there are variations of the story). Local settlers raised funds in 1855 to erect a headstone on her grave at Bicheno.
Advertiser (Hobart, Tas. : 1837 - 1840), Tuesday 29 October 1839


By the beginning of the 1840s, some buildings had gone or were very rundown.

The Second Convict Period: 1842-1850

The Convict Station at Darlington was reopened in 1842, for convicts on probation: those who had nearly finished their sentence. The remaining buildings were repaired and reused and more buildings constructed. The buildings were for military, punishment, educational, domestic, industrial and agricultural uses.

Convicts were divided into classes and allocated different jobs, accomodation, food and privileges. Moral and religious instruction was a strong focus. Well behaved convicts lived in dormitories while those judged to be the worst class lived in dwellings separate from others. 

The northern end of the island was used for farming.

The Barn and the windmill with its attendant Miller's Cottage were built on the hillside overlooking the farmland.

In 1845, the Oast House was built to the south of Darlington. 

By 1844 there were over 600 convicts on the island.

Smith O'Brien, an Irish political prisoner who would not accept a ticket-of-leave, was a convict at Darlington, in December 1846. 
Contemporary portrait of William Smith O'Brien, Irish political activist and politician.
Five Maori political prisoners from New Zealand, involved in rebellion, were sent to the island. One of the Maori people died on the island. His gravestone states:
The house where William Smith O'Brien was confined on Maria Island, TAS, Freeman's Journal (Sydney, NSW : 1850 - 1932
Here lie the remains of

A native of Wanganui, New Zealand, who died July 9th, 1847.

A native of Wanganui, New Zealand, who died July 9th, 1847. Maria Island, TAS
The main buildings' at Darlington that accommodated the convicts consisted of six large rooms housing 66 men each, 20 huts of various sizes, for 3 to 24 men in each and about 100 separate apartments.
Hobart Town Advertiser (Tas. : 1839 - 1861), Tuesday 20 April 1847


Maria Island was abandoned as a convict probation station by 1850.

First industrial era 1888–96


Darlington Probation Station, Maria Island, taken around 1870 (collected by E. R. Pretyman)


In the 1880s, Diego Bernacchi, an Italian businessman leased the land at Maria Island with ambitious plans to grow fruit and make wine and silk. Bernacchi re-purposed many buildings and constructed new ones.
 Diego Bernacchi, Launceston Examiner (Tas. : 1842 - 1899), Saturday 18 January 1896
By Oct 1886 thousands of grapevines were planted. One story about Bernacchi that may or may not be true claims that he tied bunches of grapes on the vines to impress visiting dignitaries.

At its peak, the island had a population of 500. Bernacchi renamed the island San Diego in 1888. He also started work on a tourist resort which included a hotel and the Coffee Palace restaurant.

The island had a school, shops, butcher, baker, blacksmith, shoemaker and post office at this time.


In Nov 1896 all the business failed and the Bernacchi family departed for London.


In the early 1900s, Ruby Hunt’s house was built high on the hill overlooking Darlington Bay. 
Interior of prisoners' barracks, Maria Island, Tasmania ca 1900 [picture] / J.W.Beattie, NLA
The Bishop & Clerks [Maria Island, Tasmania]] 1912?, NLA
S.S. Mongana, Maria Island, Easter 1912 [Tasmania] NLA
Field naturalists at Maria Island, 1912 [Tasmania] NLA
Fossil Cliffs [Maria Island, Tasmania] 1912? NLA
Old flour mill, Darlington Pt [Maria Island, Tasmania] 1912? NLA
Hop kilns, Haria Island, TAS, Australasian (Melbourne, Vic. : 1864 - 1946), Saturday 15 June 1918
The commissariat store was built in 1825 to serve the convict settlement of Darlington, Maria Island, TAS, Australasian (Melbourne, Vic. : 1864 - 1946), Saturday 15 June 1918
Remains of old windmill, Darlington, Maria Island  TAS, Australasian (Melbourne, Vic. : 1864 - 1946), Saturday 15 June 1918


In 1924 Diego Bernacchi returned and opened a cement works with its own mini-railroad. Initially, the concrete enterprise was very successful, and the residents formed sports clubs, had dances and even a had a cinema in the old chapel. However, Bernacchi became ill and died.
Maria Island - settlement of Darlington - view from hill (c1924), Tasmanian Archives and State Library (Commons)
The State School at Darlington, Maria Island, opened in 1925. The building was later removed and re-erected at Triabunna, TAS, Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 - 1954)
National Portland Cement Company works, Maria Island, Tasmania, ca. 1927, NLA
Cement works, Maria Island, TAS
Cement works on Maria Island, TAS. LINC NS479_1_108

Farming era 1930–72


Concrete operations ceased in the 1930s, and most of Darlington’s residents left. The concrete silos adjacent to the jetty remain as a reminder of the islands commercial past.

Farming families continued living and working on Maria Island, including the Adkins, French, Howell, Robey, Hunt and Haigh families.
Maria Island Hotel, Darlington, Maria Island, TAS, 1935


Viv and Hilda Robey met in London during World War I, when Viv, a wounded South African soldier, was nursed by Hilda Saunders an English nurse. The couple moved to Maria Island and lived on a sheep farm near the bottom of the island.
Loaded with 501b. packs, Misses Theo Rennie, Daphne Parsons, and Yvonne Weymouth returned to Hobart aboard the George Bass yesterday after a week's hiking on Maria Island. The girls, who live in Hobart, are endeavouring to arrange transport to Lake St. Clair, where they intend to spend the remaining week of their holiday. Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 - 1954), Saturday 7 February 1948


In the 1950s, Ruby Hunt operated a pedal wireless. If someone on the island wanted to send a message they would put it in a bottle outside Ruby Hunt’s door. After sending the message, Ruby Hunt would leave the answer in the bottle outside for collection.

Apparently, Ruby would also hang a lantern in her cottage window at night to guide the ship that collected and delivered the mail.
An Easter holiday on Maria Island and an unusual way of getting there! Beverley Binns (left) and Pam Matheson before taking off from Cambridge on Thursday in a plane piloted by Noel Hatton, Aero Club instructor. Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 - 1954), Saturday 4 April 1953
Mr Robey of Maria Island, TAS, Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 - 1954), Saturday 17 January 1953


Ruby Hunt was one of the last people to leave Maria island in 1968 before it became a National Park.

From the late 1960s, some wildlife species were released onto the island, including mammals and birds such as Cape Barren geese and emus. 


The island was declared a National Park in 1972. The island's first ranger was Rex Gatenby.


The Robeys Farm, located on the west side of the south island, was still intact in the early 1980s, but there has been some vandalism.


Archaeologist Steve Brown in 1991 conducted a heritage survey of Maria Island and found Aboriginal shell middens and one stone arrangement.


In 2007 the 55m former hopper barge the Troy D was scuttled in Mercury Passage, just 1km off Maria Island, to create a diving wreck.

In 2012 four healthy Tasmanian devils, the first group of Tasmanian devils born and raised on mainland Australia, were released onto Maria Island. Maria Island is a haven from the deadly facial tumour disease that has killed so many devils,

The island has populations of wombats, pademelons, wallabies and Cape Barren Goose.
Maria Island, wombats, TAS

There are no cars on the island so you must walk or take bikes (possible to rent).

Around Maria Island
Bernacchi’s Terraces, Darlington, Maria Island, TAS, built 1886
Ruby Hunt's house, Maria Island, TAS
Cemetery near Darlington, Maria Island, Tasmania, in use from 1825 to 1942
Engine House, brick & Lime Kiln, Maria Island, TAS
Shearing shed at French’s Farm campsite, Maria Island, TAS
Maria Island wombat, near Coffee Palace at Darlington, TAS
The Robey farmhouse, Maria Island, TAS
Darlington, (the former penitentiary) Maria Island, TAS
The Convict barn in the Darlington Historic Precinct, Maria Island, TAS
Darlington, (the former penitentiary) Maria Island, TAS
Commissariat building, Maria Island, TAS, erected in 1825. Today an information centre, with scattered whale bones about
Bernacchi House; a rare, heritage listed housedating back to 1880, Maria Island, TAS
The remains of the Grand Hotel, Maria Island, TAS. Established 1887 by Angelo Diego Bernacchi
Built during the second convict period, this house was the chaplain's house. Diego Bernacchi lived here when he first moved to Maria Island in 1884, adding the verandah and kitchen, Maria Island, TAS
Located 10km south of Maria Island’s Darlington Township, on Maria Island, Point Lesueur Probation Station, TAS. Used as a probation station in 1845 these red-brick ruins once housed up to 336 men

Coffee Palace at Darlington, Maria Island, TAS, built 1888, built by Bernacch
Concrete silos adjacent to the jetty, Maria Island, TAS
The patterns on the Painted Cliffs at Maria Island, TAS, are caused by ground water percolating down through the sandstone and staining the rock. Waves and sea spray have added to the erosion, resulting in the interesting patterns and textures
The patterns on the Painted Cliffs at Maria Island, TAS, are caused by ground water percolating down through the sandstone and staining the rock. Waves and sea spray have added to the erosion, resulting in the interesting patterns and textures
Fossil Cliffs, Maria Island, TAS

Things To and Places To Go


Maria Island is off the east coast of Tasmania and can be reached by way of a 30-minute ferry ride. The ferry dock is 1.5 hours drive from Hobart and 2.5 hours from Launceston.

Walk or bike along the road from the ferry jetty for 500m to reach Darlington. Explore the Penitentiary complex. The former Coffee Palace is now a museum.

The ruins of 14 convict era buildings on Maria Island are recognized today as one of the most intact convict sites in Australia.

To get to the Painted Cliffs, walk or bike (about a 30 min walk) along the coast road through Darlington. The cliffs are 2.5km away from the ferry jetty.

The 2-hour loop walk passes historical buildings from the convict era, the Bernacchi era, and the cement plant era. Also, visit the cemetery.

The whole loop is about 4.5km long. There are hills and some sheer cliff edges.

The Reservoir Circuit walk takes about 1.5 hours to complete and is fairly easy, see historical ruins along the way.

The southern part of Maria Island. French’s farm is about a 3 hour walk one way, Point Lesueur is about 3.5 hours to walk.

There are only two choices of accommodation for an overnight stay on Maria Island: camping or staying in the old penitentiary.

Tasmania 1642 to 1772