World recognition sought for reminders of our convict past

PRISONS aren’t the obvious thing that comes to mind when the term ”world heritage” is mentioned.Robben Island, perhaps, home to Nelson Mandela for 27 years? The gulag where Alexander Solzhenitsyn lived One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich? The Bastille, if it hadn’t been demolished in 1789 by property developers one step behind the French revolutionaries?But 11 of Australia’s best preserved convict heritage sites are being reviewed this week by a UNESCO meeting in Brazil to determine whether they deserve World Heritage listing. The decision is expected to come on Saturday morning.NSW sites include Hyde Park Barracks, Cockatoo Island and the Old Great North Road around Wisemans Ferry.The federal government’s 2008 submission said the 11 properties represent ”an extraordinary example of global ideas … associated with the punishment and reform of the criminal elements … during the Age of Enlightenment”.But it is Paramatta’s Old Government House and Domain which yielded the most recent evidence of why our convict past merits international acclaim. In May, workmen renovating the drainage system uncovered the footings of outbuildings which date to 1793, when Australia’s first governor, Arthur Phillip, was using convict labour to create the newest administrative centre of the British Empire.”It was like joining the dots of a building,” says Michael Ellis, of the National Trust of NSW, which now takes care of Old Government House. ”A very exciting time.”The footings are significant finds. They match the Phillip-era bricks in the house itself. The mortar doesn’t have any lime in it. At that early stage, they obviously didn’t have the facilities to burn shells to make lime.”On conservation advice, the old footings have been reburied, but Mr Ellis says the shape of the outbuildings will be reflected in the new sandstone paving.But not all historians are entirely happy with the focus on the 11 sites. David Roberts, senior lecturer in Australian history at the University of New England, says, ”There’s a lot of rhetoric about what makes something worth of World Heritage significance. But essentially, it has to be something that is large, physical and imposing.”In a recent paper, Dr Roberts argued that the chosen sites did not reflect the common experience of convicts, most of whom led lonely and blameless lives far away from the emerging cities.Granting World Heritage status for the 11 might mean less obvious, but no less deserving, convict sites were effectively categorised as second class, simply because nothing much remains.THE CONTENDERSOur 11 convict sites nominated for world heritage listing:Old Government House and Domain (NSW)Hyde Park Barracks (NSW)Cockatoo Island (NSW)Old Great North Road (NSW)Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area (Norfolk Island)Brickendon-Woolmers Estates (Tas)Darlington Probation Station (Tas)Cascades Female Factory (Tas)Port Arthur Historic Site (Tas)Coal Mines Historic Site (Tas)Fremantle Prison (WA)
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