Imagine a story with “daring, humour, adventure, pirates, romance, betrayal and a fantastic twist in the tale”.
Set in the most inhospitable place imaginable, this is the real-life and little-known tale of the Frederick, a ship built and stolen by the runaway convicts of Sarah Island, on the remote west coast of Tasmania.
Sarah Island was a penal colony for the worst of the worst - convicts who had reoffended after being transported to Australia. Located off the western shore of Macquarie Harbour, the island had no fresh water and was incapable of producing food. Yet it was briefly Australia’s largest shipbuilding operation. Under harsh conditions, convicts built 113 ships in 11 years - 80 of them in just four years.
The heist began in 1834, just before the colony was closed, when a group of 10 convict shipwrights managed to steal the Frederick, the last ship built, as it was about to set sail for Port Arthur. They set course for Chile and, incredibly, they arrived six weeks later.
The escape artists enjoyed their freedom for two years before being caught by the British Navy and returned to Hobart. Back in Van Diemen’s Land, the convicts successfully argued in court that the ship had never been completed, had never been officially launched and had no official paperwork. They proved, in fact, it wasn’t really a ship at all.
This fascinating episode in Australia’s convict history has become The Ship That Never Was, a classic pantomime-style production (“I said those were pants of mine!”) performed by the Round Earth Company in Strahan. The company, founded by the late Richard Davey, has performed the play continuously for 28 years, making it Australia’s longest-running play.
“My father, Richard Davey, was asked if he would write a play for a large cast to be performed by young actors to give them a taste of working with professionals on a professional production,” says Kiah Davey, the manager and director of the Round Earth Company.
“He had just finished reading a novel by Richard Butler, The Men That God Forgot, about the escape of 10 convicts from Sarah Island to Chile. Intrigued, he realised this was based on a true story and started researching, discovering an original account of the escape by one of the convicts, James Porter.”
Since the play’s debut in 1985, more than 100 actors have appeared. Many of them have also conducted guided tours of Sarah Island, and many of them have also been guides on Sarah Island.
Every performance is slightly different - audience members play minor characters and bring their own energy. Davey says her favourite character is James Porter. “It’s his story that we tell, and it was the role my father used to play,” she says. “So when I perform as James Porter, I feel especially close to my Dad.”
Need to know
There are daily performances at 5.30pm from September to May at the Richard Davey Amphitheatre in Strahan. The venue is outdoors and undercover, so dress warmly. Tickets can be bought at the box office. The Round Earth Company’s guided tours of Sarah Island are included in full-day cruises on the Gordon River.