Lieutenant Governor George Arthur saw the Tasman Peninsula as an ideal site for his new gaol for secondary offenders, established at Port Arthur in 1830. Since it was almost entirely surrounded by water, the Peninsula, he claimed, was a 'natural penitentiary'. The only escape route for run-away convicts attempting to reach the Tasmanian mainland on foot lay across the narrow isthmus at Eaglehawk Neck.
Eaglehawk Neck from Cash’s Lookout
And here by 1831 a military guard was stationed, supported by a detachment of constables and equipped with a whale boat for patrolling the shores of Norfolk Bay. Then Ensign Peyton-Jones suggested adding a line of savage dogs, mostly mastiffs, chained at intervals across the narrow land bridge. Another innovation took the form of oil lamps which, shining down on a path of crushed shells, provided illumination at night.
The Military Barracks are no longer there, but the museum at the Officers’ Quarters is well worth a visit.
To prevent convicts wading or swimming through the sea on either side of the Neck, the number of dogs was later increased from 9 to 18, with some on platforms built out from the shore. At the same time, those in authority encouraged the belief that the waters near the isthmus were infested with enormous sharks. In the case of Pirates Bay, to the east, the stories were probably true. White pointers have often been sighted in the bay in recent times and one, found entangled in a net, proved so large that, when its head was cut off, two men standing shoulder to shoulder could look out through its tooth-rimmed jaws.
Thomas Lempriere, a commissary officer at Port Arthur, finally declared the Neck 'impassable'.
Governor Franklin inspects Eaglehawk Neck
Yet the future bushrangers Cash, Kavenagh and Jones managed to escape from the Peninsula in the early 1840s without apparently attracting the attention of the dogs, the double guard of sentries, the armed constables posted along the isthmus banks or the sharks. And another remarkable escapee, while he remained within the 'natural penitentiary', made a daring raid on the station at Eaglehawk Neck and lived for a time in freedom in the bush.
The story is told in the journal of John Evenden, a free constable and, later, one of the first guides to conduct tours of Port Arthur. According to Evenden, a convict named Cripps was employed at Eaglehawk Neck as a dog-handler but was returned to Port Arthur and put to work in a timber-getting gang when he was caught selling off some of the flour he was supposed to use in preparing dog food. Cripps absconded from the gang, made his way to Eaglehawk Neck and, possibly because he was known to the dog-line, managed to kidnap ‘two very fine kangaroo dogs belonging to the military officer stationed there’. These dogs, too were apparently pleased to see their old friend and followed him meekly to an isolated spot in the bush near present day Highcroft.
Here Cripps built a bark hut ‘of considerable dimensions’ and for more than 18 months lived by hunting game with his dogs and making occasional raids on Port Arthur where he helped himself to ‘flour, tea, sugar, salt, soap’ and possibly cabbages. Nobody bothered to look for him because it was assumed he had fallen foul of a shark while rashly trying to swim past Eaglehawk Neck.
He was discovered by chance when the officer whose dogs he had stolen went hunting with a new pair, and stumbled upon his hut. By this time Cripps had amassed more than 150 dozen kangaroo and wallaby skins, neatly tied in bundles. Having been returned to Port Arthur, Cripps received 100 lashes and an extended sentence but lived out his final years as a free man. His collection of skins was auctioned in Hobart ‘on behalf of the Imperial Government’.