Launceston's forgotten convicts | photos

There are an estimated 320 convicts buried on a parcel of land that overlooks South Launceston.

The convicts – two-parts men and one-part women – were buried over the course of 30 years from 1846.

Today, it does not look like a cemetery.

In fact, there is little to suggest that it is one.

There are no headstones, no tombstones, and no grave markings visible to the untrained eye.

There is one small sign that points to the site from neighbouring Westbury Road, and one that marks the site at the bottom of the gravel road.

A stone path is lined with a handful of bricks that were set in the late 1990s, inscribed by Glen Dhu Primary School pupils with the names and details of a handful of convicts.

But the bricks represent just one-tenth of the convicts buried here.

When Launceston woman Kris Gatenby stumbled across the cemetery, she said it, and the untold tales of those buried there, resonated with her.

Miss Gatenby said she always held an affinity for the “downtrodden”.

Genealogy research led her to the cemetery, which is also referred to as Rose Lane.

She said while modern society seemed to be in the midst of a “genealogy obsession”, there were some ancestors who were forgotten.

“No one claims [these convicts],” Miss Gatenby said.

“No one’s looking for them. These people are part of the convict stain.”

From there, she became determined to tell their stories.

“You feel great compassion for them,” she said.

“You can’t help but feel great anger. It really took me through a roller coaster of emotions.”

At one stage, the cemetery did hold those token items of headstones and plaques.

After its closure in 1874, it was still maintained, mostly by prison gangs and probationers. Rose bushes (hence the name Rose Lane) and rosemary, for remembrance, were planted.

But by the 1890s, upkeep dropped. Fences fell, and cattle began to graze on the land. The Launceston council then ordered that the headstones be taken down, the site razed and the land ploughed.

The land would go on to be used as brickworks. At one stage, ownership of the land fell into the hands of Samuel Hutton, who, while excavating the site for his brickworks, stumbled across human remains from the cemetery, forcing him to abandon the project.

From the 1920s, it moved into the hands of council, was redeveloped as a reserve, and land adjacent went onto to become a rubbish tip, until the 1950s.

Miss Gatenby pored over old newspaper records to find out as much as she could about the stories behind the names.

Not all of the souls buried at the cemetery were buried as convicts – many had obtained their tickets of leave.

However, because of their convict past, they were not able to be buried in consecrated, church cemeteries.

Just as in life, in death they were hidden from everyday society.

They had no official funerals, and they were lucky to get a coffin.

“Their mates would be them [the deceased convict] into some sort of make-shift coffin,” Miss Gatenby said.

“They’d be lucky to get a sack.

“They’d be taken there at dusk or after dark.

“They were put in pits that were five or six-feet deep, and at least two-bodies wide.”

Miss Gatenby uncovered stories where, despite serving their transportation time, obtaining tickets of leave, and essentially turning their lives around, people were not able to shake their convict pasts.

“Edward was 20, and he went to work for [Dr William Russ Pugh, well-known Launceston doctor and surgeon],” Miss Gatenby said.

“He was complaining about back and head aches, and Mrs Pugh was concerned, she kept checking on him.

“[Such was his pain that] he found some arsenic, took it into his room, takes it, and died a horrible death 24 hours later.

“Now, he wanted a Catholic burial. 

“He left some money for that, a bloke owed him money, so he thought that this bloke could make his coffin and ‘I’ll be buried in a Catholic cemetery’.

“But the Catholics wouldn’t have him. He was buried at Rose Lane.

“In his obituary, Mrs Pugh said ‘He will be missed’, so I at least thought that was quite nice.”

While many of the convicts had reformed themselves, there are those who died as they lived – criminals.

One, which Miss Gatenby discovered, was Matthew Burns, who was transported to Van Diemen’s Land in the mid 1840s, at the age of 23.

His crime? Stealing an old shirt.

“The surgeon stated that he had a ‘weak intellect’; he was a brush maker, sallow complexion, large head, slightly pock pitted face, brown hair and whiskers, bushy eyebrows, dark brown eyes, long thin nose, medium mouth and broad chin,” Miss Gatenby said.

Despite the length of his rap sheet, Miss Gatenby found, he was given his ticket of leave in 1851.

However, his ultimate ending was execution.

He was hung on August 5, 1858, for a rape at Fingal.

It was a dual hanging. Beside him in the gallows was murderer George Young.

His death, Miss Gatenby uncovered, was a messy one.

“ the creak of the dreadful bolt fell upon the ear of Burns, he gave convulsive struggle, the rope yarn with which his arms were pinioned stretched, or gave way, so far as to enable him to grasp the rope at his neck; in consequence of this he did not fall with the trap, nor until the executioner went round the scaffold and compelled the wretched being to release his hold of the rope. Then he fell, but not with sufficient force to bring his sufferings soon to an end, and he struggled violently for some minutes,” she quoted from old news reports.

Miss Gatenby said it became apparent that many of the convicts who were transported to Van Diemen’s land in fact chose such a path.

“You would read their records, and it would be for stealing a hankie,” she said.

“You think.. Did they do that on purpose, for the chance of a better life? Most of them were just between a rock and a hard place.”

Miss Gatenby has channeled her research into print, and self-published a book that she says lets “them speak through their own words”.

She launched Death or Liberty at the cemetery at the start of April.

“[All the stories] end in the same place...a pit with hundreds of others buried nearby,” she said.

Above all, it was a quest to share their stories, and to show that they were more than just convicts.