Experience our colonial past at Tasmania’s Woolmers Estate

Ever since I was young, I have loved visiting historic homes. There is something that hits me when I think about the people who have lived inside the walls across generations – and wonder at the lives they led.

In Australia, despite the beauty and opulence many of these homes display even today, there is no doubt that life would not have been easy – particularly for those young families colonising a new country.

I also think it is important for children to learn about the past and I hope my children will develop a love of history. So, on a recent trip to Tasmania, we made the detour to visit Woolmers Estate.

The beautiful villa at Woolmers Estate

The beautiful Italianate villa at Woolmers Estate

This beautiful colonial pastoral property is not important just for its buildings. It is significant because it was built using assigned convict labour.

I had not realised that most convicts sent to Australia were actually assigned to provide labour to settlers in exchange for food and clothes.

Established around 1817 by Thomas Archer, Woolmers Estate is located just outside Longford in northern Tasmania (about 10 minutes from Launceston Airport).

This building was a water pumping station, powered by draught horses, allowing for water to be pumped from the Macquarie River.

This building was a water pumping station, powered by draught horses, allowing for water to be pumped from the Macquarie River.

Featuring a grand residence and formal gardens, as well as a woolshed, blacksmith’s shop, stables and coach house, it really is a country estate that incredibly remained in the hands of the Archer family until 1994.

In what I personally thought was a fairly sad ending to the story, Thomas Archer VI did not marry and died a childless bachelor in 1994. He left the property to the Archer Historical Foundation and the next year, the site was opened to the public.

Today Woolmers Estate is a World-Heritage listed convict site where you can see, eat and even stay. It is also home to the National Rose Garden.

Woolmers Estate is home to the National Rose Garden.

Woolmers Estate is home to the National Rose Garden.

We opted to pay a bit extra for the guided homestead tour, which allows you to see inside part of the homestead, including the exquisite dining room. The tour, led by a descendent of another branch of the Archer family, was passionate in his story-telling.

Like the fact the original Thomas Archer, who was a large man, had his bedroom window enlarged before he died so his coffin, which could not have fitted through the narrow doorways, could be easily removed from the room.

Built and extended upon over 6 generations, including the Italianate front added in the 1840s means the main house is full of beautiful furniture and interesting artefacts.

The dining setting features the Archer family crest & leaves one wondering how nerve-wracking washing up must have been for the servants. No hiding a broken dish here.

And this is not just look-at history, as my two children found out when they were allowed to sit on a very strange-looking buffalo horn chair.

With the escorted tour now over, we were free to wander through the out-buildings, including what is believed to be the oldest operating woolshed in Australia.

The woolshed is the oldest operating woolshed in Australia.

The woolshed is the oldest operating woolshed in Australia.

We also enjoyed a scrumptious rustic lunch on site at the Servant’s Kitchen (the kitchen is open from 10am-3pm). Highly recommended.

Today Woolmers Estate is one of 5 convict sites given World Heritage status as part of the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Property. The other properties you can visit are:

Brickendon Estate

Brickendon Estate is just down the road from Woolmers Estate.

Brickendon Estate is just down the road from Woolmers Estate.

Cascades Female Factory

Coal Mines Historic Site

Darlington Probation Station

Darlington Probation Station on Maria Island

Darlington Probation Station on Maria Island

Port Arthur Historic Site

More information on Woolmers Estate, including family friendly accommodation.

Family friendly ghost tour impresses younger visitors

Despite her bravado just a couple of hours before arriving, Miss 8 dug in her heels and refused to enter the cottage to hear of the haunting tales being told within.

“No mummy, no mummy, no mummy,” she said as she clung to my hand, before turning and running along the veranda, back to relative safety outside the property fence, where she could once again be brave.

We were at Port Arthur on one of the new summer attractions – the family friendly ghost tour. Now, don’t let the name fool you. Despite being held in early evening, when the sun continues to light the grounds, you will still hear tales of convict era murder and death – and their related hauntings.

However, for older children, it is a perfect combination of history and horror that will intrigue. In fact, Mr 11 was in his element and almost overwhelmed with excitement and bravery. And for many younger children on our tour, what they were hearing went over their head.

Port Arthur, Australia’s best preserved convict era penal settlement, is about a one and a half hour drive from Hobart. The ghost tour is icing on the cake for this must-visit tourist attraction.

With her soft, dare I say haunting lilt, our guide, Bridie, was the perfect person to lead our tour. She started by asking for volunteer lantern bearers to take up positions in the start, middle and end of the group.

With Mr 11 unable to do this role (over 18 years only), Hubby bravely volunteered and ended up in the middle position – ably assisted by Mr 11. First stop was the iconic church. I won’t give away the tales told, but you WILL start expecting to hear or see something.


The church at Port Arthur – beautiful by day, hauntingly beautiful at night.

Next was the parsonage (the third most haunted building in Australia), where the front female lantern bearer refused to enter the house by herself to check that all was okay for us to follow. So, hubby & Mr 11 volunteered to do the honours and went in ahead.

“When I opened the door, I had a sense of dread and nervousness. I did not want to go in there by myself, ” Hubby said.

“It was hair-raising – I couldn’t look at the house because of the stories they’d said about seeing ghosts in the window,” Mr 11 added.

Miss 8 (right) and her cousin were too scared to enter the parsonage.

Miss 8 (right) and her cousin were too scared to enter the parsonage.

Staying outside with Miss 8 and her cousin, who got caught up in Miss 8’s fears, I am once again blown away by the beauty and majesty of a site that has seen so much violence and heart-ache.

On this tour, we learn about the hard lives that not only convicts lived, but those who serviced them (and their families) – and how those hardships may have led to the many hauntings experienced on site.


Walking through Port Arthur on the family friendly ghost tour

Next at the junior medical officer’s house, we learn about the playful child ghosts and the sad woman who searches for her stillborn child, who she was not buried with because the baby had not been. Such brutal times they were.

We then walk down to the basement, where we hear a haunting tale that also turns out to be one of the funniest stories of the night.

Our last stop is the model, or separate, prison. This place is the most oppressive of the tour. Here convicts were imprisoned in total silence and never referred to by name. Many went crazy.

It is a fitting place to end the tour, as we make our way back past the imposing penitentiary ruin to the visitor’s centre where more people wait to take part in the later ghost tours, that will take place in darkness.

The family friendly ghost tour runs at 7.30pm until 26 January.  And in true convict-era family friendly fashion (thank-you Port Arthur Management), a family ticket ($65) consists of 2 adults and up to 6 children aged under 17 years.

P.S Miss 8 was not scarred by her experiences on the ghost tour. However, she did sleep with me that night. Not that she needs much of an excuse to want to do that anyway!

Learn more about the family friendly ghost tour and other summer activities and make a booking.

If you are planning to stay the night, check out family friendly accommodation or Port Arthur Accommodation.