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Port Arthur, TAS

Australia's most significant and well preserved convict ruins

Everyone interested in the history of Australia's era as a penal colony should visit Port Arthur. It is the most impressive, albeit not entirely typical, centrepiece of convict history and when accompanied by visits to Eaglehawk Neck, Saltwater River and Kooya - all of which are on the Tasman Peninsula - it ensures that careful and thoughtful visitors will have a good understanding of the hardships and the travails of these unwilling immigrants.

The masterstroke is the way the experience is structured. This is history in the microcosm rather than history writ large. Visitors are given a card with the name of a prisoner on it and they follow the life of this single individual through the ruins. They see where the prisoner lived, learn about his or her daily chores, if he died at the prison they see his grave on the Isle of the Dead, and they learn about the larger context of his family. The visitor actually engages in a meaningful way with convict life.  It is a World Heritage-listed site.

It is easy to forget that the convicts who came to Port Arthur - there were 12,500 who arrived between 1830 and 1877 - ranged from Irish political prisoners to vagabonds from the teeming slums of London's East End, to aristocrats who had killed a man in a duel through to highwaymen from the Midlands and the North of England and architects who had honed their forgery skills only to be caught and transported. These "convicts" were sentenced to seven years, fourteen years or life for crimes we would consider little more than misdemeanors today. As the modern visitor walks across the neat paths, the manicured lawns, and admires the beautiful English trees, it is worth remembering that the inhabitants of this huge prison had spent three months travelling to the end of the world. This is a rare opportunity to experience part of their lives and to learn about the hardships and suffering of being a convict living and working thousands of miles from home.


Historic Port Arthur is located on the Tasman Peninsula 95 km south-east of Hobart via the A9.


Origin of Name

Port Arthur, which was established in 1830 by Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur, was named after its founder.


Things to See and Do

The Port Arthur Experience
When the visitor enters the Port Arthur Historic Site they are given a card with the history of a single convict or government employee and they follow the life of that person during his or her time at Port Arthur. You can work out who you want to follow by downloading the stories of David Hoy (the Scottish shipbuilder), Henry Singleton (a true and unrepentant recidivist), William Riley (a convict who murdered and who is recalled every night on the Ghost Tour), William Champ (the gardening Commandant), William Thompson (who worked underground at the horrific Saltwater River coal mines), Margaret Dalziel (a Scottish highwaywoman) and Mark Jeffrey (who fought against the injustice of the convict system).

By following a series of signs you can follow the life of specific convicts. Thus, if you get the ten of clubs, a card about Charles Dormer, you learn amongst other things:

“Charles Dormer was employed as a top dog at Port Arthur. At first all went well. Because he was a skilled worker, he was given an extra ration of tea and sugar. He was also allowed to smoke his pipe when off duty. His troubles started when he broke a two foot ruler. Dormer did not report the accident because he was terrified that he would be punished. This only made things worse. He was charged with destroying Government property and sent to work in the chain gang for three months. To find out what life in the Chain Gang was like for Charles Dormer, move through the door marked ‘Demotion’.” And so the person with Dormer’s card explores Port Arthur through the eyes of a convict.

The Penitentiary
The most impressive building at Port Arthur is The Penitentiary which was built as a flour mill and granary in 1843. In 1857 it was converted into a penitentiary which could hold 480 convicts. The building contains a Watchman's Quarters, a mess room, a library, a Catholic chapel, and workshops. It was destroyed by fire in 1897. However since the 1960s, and as recently as 2014, it has undergone a series of careful acts of conservation designed to ensure that the ruins can be visited by future generations.

Life in the Cells
There is a report of a Select Committee which inspected the cells in the Penitentiary in 1860. It offers a view of the life in the cells: "The cells are about 8 feet by 6, lofty, clean and well-ventilated. At night they are lighted up with a solar lamp, so that the Warders can see what the inmates are doing at any minute. In each door is placed a small piece of glass the size of a shilling, covered with an iron slide. On pushing the slide aside a view is obtained of the inside of the cell. Nearly every cell was examined by the committee, through the glass, and the sight was harrowing in the extreme. In some the inmates were pacing up and down with an aspect of the most determined ferocity - in others they were walking and indulging in a hideous grinning - some were standing in an attitude of mute despair, and others were reading or writing or passing the time away from cyphering , and one was on his knees apparently praying. The punishment inflicted here is said to be of the most unendurable kind. The isolation, the silence, the total separation from all human fellowship and communion, the monotony of he bare white-washed walls makes confinement in the model prison a horrible torture to all confined in it."

This report, written in 1860, is an insight into the changing nature of the prison. In its 47 years of operation Port Arthur saw radical changes in the way the British perceived prisons. In 1830 when Port Arthur was established it was accepted that prisoners should be housed in mass cells. By the 1840s there was a movement towards separate cells and by the 1850s there was a sense of dividing the prisoners according to a number of criteria - trustworthiness, health, sanity, and age. By the 1860s the prisoners were in separate cells and a Select Committee could be appalled by the conditions. One wonders what they would have thought of the bark huts in 1830.

Separate Prison
The Separate Prison was built in 1848 and reflects the radical thinking about penal institutions at the time. The technique was based on isolation. As the brochure on the Separate Prison explains: "In this new kind of prison, solitary confinement replaced physical punishment. In isolation from others, prisoners would be forced to look inwards and repent their crimes. Thick walls and doors ensured complete separation and silence between prisoners."

In the early 1840s institutions like Pentonville Gaol (built 1840-1842) were built with exercise yards and separate cells. There was a component of the philosophy which said that a person unable to communicate to other human beings will be broken far more quickly by silence than by any other form of punishment.

The Separate Prison, which was designed by the Royal Engineers and built with convict labour, is based on the model of Pentonville. The thinking behind the building is that of William Crawford and Joshua Jebb who argued that prisoners should be given separate cells, that they should be called by number and not by name, that total silence should be maintained, that head masks should be worn in the exercise yards and that when in church they should be separated by individual boxes. It is said that even the warders wore slippers and communicated by hand signals. See http://www.portarthur.org.au/file.aspx?id=7157 for much greater detail.

Convicts were expected to work at Port Arthur. Between 1834-1848 there was a shipyard which produced whaleboats, ship's buoys, brigantines, schooners, cutters and barques which were sold to private owners and used by the government. Today there is nothing left of the dockyard but two local artists, Ben Booth and Colin Langridge, have created a 25-metre long ship sculpture which has been located on one of the dockyard's slips. Steel outlines of the eleven buildings - the boat sheds, sawpit, the docks, the Master Shipwright's house, the blacksmith's shop, a lime kiln, the Clerk of Works house - have been placed so the visitor can imagine what the area must have been like when over 80 convicts worked on the site. The dockyard at Port Arthur was one of only three dockyards in Australia to use convict labour. For more information there is a downloadable guide at http://www.portarthur.org.au/file.aspx?id=16511 which provides detailed information on all the buildings.

Convict Church
The unnamed church at Port Arthur stands on the hill looking down to Masons Cove and across to the Isle of the Dead. This building was constructed around 1836-37 and was probably based on a design by the Deputy Commissariat Officer, Thomas Lempriere, and the convict architect, Henry Laing. It was never named nor consecrated in part because it served for all convicts and therefore was non-denominational. By the 1840s it was a handsome building with a wooden spire, stone spinarets, sandstone and timber fittings, a peal of eight bells (there are now only seven left), and enough room to hold religious services for 1,000 convicts and 200 officials. The wooden spire was blown down 1876, the year before the colony was closed. The church continued to operate until, in 1884, it was seriously damaged by fire. The State Government took it over in 1913 and since then the ruins have been partially rebuilt, stabilised and undergone a number of periods of conservation. There is a genuinely interesting, and downloadable, Fact Sheet titled The Port Arthur Bells - http://www.portarthur.org.au/file.aspx?id=9943 - which recounts the history and manufacture of the church bells - probably the first in Australia.

Commandant's House
In 1833 the convicts built a 'neat little cottage' for the Commandant, Charles O'Hara Booth. It was originally built as a modest timber cottage. Over the years, due to pressures resulting from the size of the families of the various Commandants, the building was modified. Wings were added to house the large family of Commandant William Champ who supervised the colony between 1844-48 and in 1851 an attractive stone gateway was added. The 'cottage', with its superb gardens, became the Carnarvon Hotel (1885) and then a guest house which continued to operate until the 1930s. Old drawings indicate that the gardens in front of the Commandant's House were laid out with rococo precision and tended by convict gardeners. There are talks at the house at 10.30 am, 12.30 pm and 2.30 pm. Check out http://www.portarthur.org.au/index.aspx?base=1483 for more details.

Isle of the Dead
It is an essential part of the total experience of Port Arthur to take a ferry trip to the Isle of the Dead. The island was originally name Opossum Island after a vessel, the Opossum, which sought shelter near the island in 1827. It became the burial place for Port Arthur in 1831 and was divided into free settler and convict burial grounds. At this time it was known simply as Dead Island.

The first detailed record of the island and its history was published in 1845 by the Rev John Manton. Titled The Isle of the Dead: or the Burial-Place at Port Arthur the pamphlet recalls how Manton chose and named the place. "It fell to my lot to be the first Minister of the Gospel appointed to preach the word of life to these degraded outcasts. With what success that word has been declared by the Ministers of the Wesleyan Connexion, who have laboured among them from year to year, the great day alone will unfold. Disease and death soon made their inroads among us; so it was necessary some suitable spot should be selected, where to deposit the earthly remains of the departed. In the spacious bay, on the verge of which the settlement is situated, at the distance of a mile, stands a lovely little island, about half a mile in circumference at the water's edge. This, it appeared to me, would be a secure and undisturbed resting-place, where the departed prisoners might lie together until the morning of the resurrection. It was accordingly fixed upon, and called, 'The Isle of the Dead'."

Over the years a total of 1,769 convicts and 180 free persons (most of them military personnel) were buried on the island. There was a plan to leave the convicts graves unmarked but by 1854 there were headstones on some of the convict graves.

Each grave has its own amazing story of a convict life. The life story of John Barron, the island's grave digger for nearly twenty years, would have been forgotten had he not met the English novelist and travel writer Anthony Trollope who, in 1873 in his travel book Australia and New Zealand, wrote: "But of all the men the most singular in his fate was another Irishman, one Barron, who lived in a little island all alone; and of all the modes of life into which such a man might fall, surely his was the most wonderful. To the extent of the island he was no prisoner at all, but might wander whither he liked, might go to bed when he pleased, and get up when he pleased, might bathe and catch fish or cultivate his little flower garden - and was in very truth monarch of all he surveyed. Twice a week his rations were brought to him, and in his disposal of them no one interfered with him. He surveyed nothing but graves. All who died at Port Arthur, whether convicts or free, are buried there, and he had the task of burying them. He digs his graves, not fitfully and by hurried task-work, but with thoughtful precision - having one always made for a Roman Catholic, and one for a Protestant inmate." Conducted tours of Isle of the Dead provide an excellent insight into the daily life (and death) of the inhabitants of Port Arthur.

Remembering the Port Arthur Massacre
In keeping with the idea that mass murderers should not be glorified the memorial to the 35 people killed by Martin Bryant are remembered in a simple site with the following, wonderfully understated, signage: "What happened here? On Sunday 28 April 1996, the Port Arthur Historic Site was the site of a devastating violent crime. In this area and at other locations nearby, a single gunman killed 35 people and injured dozens more. Staff from the Historic Site were among the victims. Twenty people died inside this building.
"Immediately after the shootings, there were many acts of bravery and compassion around the site, as rescuers tended the injured, not knowing whether the gunman was still in the area.
"The man was captured next day, not far from the Port Arthur Historic Site. He was tried, found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment for life with no eligibility for parole.
"The crime, which was reported around the world, caused widespread shock, outrage and grief. Many people will suffer as a result of the events of 28 April 1996.
"It was agreed that a memorial garden, incorporating the shell of the Broad Arrow Cafe, would be established as a place of quiet beauty and calm reflection. Open to the wind, rain and sky, this peaceful garden and these bare wall are touchstones for people's thoughts about what happened here."
It is a memorial to the dead, the injured and the traumatised without a mention of the perpetrator.


Other Attractions in the Area

Coal Mines Historic Site - Saltwater River
What was it like for the convicts? In 1870 the novelist Marcus Clarke, having visited Saltwater River, wrote: "Westward from Eaglehawk Neck and Woody Island lay the dreaded Coal Mines. Sixty of the 'marked men' were stationed here under a strong guard. At the Coal Mines was the northernmost of those ingenious series of semaphores which rendered escape almost impossible." Today the site, known as the Coal Mine Historic Site, is located 23 km from Port Arthur and, because it is rarely visited (both times I have explored the site there have been no other visitors) it has a sense of desolation and isolation which makes it a particularly harsh reminder of the true nature of convict life. See Aussie Towns separate entry at https://www.aussietowns.com.au/town/saltwater-river-tas.

In the early 19th century the Tasman Peninsula - Saltwater River, Port Arthur, Koonya, Eaglehawk Neck and Taranna - was a sophisticated penal colony. Koonya, which at the time was a convict outstation called Cascades, is now a reminder of those convict origins. Its main attraction is a superbly restored penitentiary comprising a hospital, officer's quarters, workshops, chapel, stone quarries, cell blocks and overseer's quarters set. Many of these buildings are now part of Cascades Colonial Accommodation which offers accommodation for visitors wanting to experience life in a nineteenth century penal institution circa 1841. See Aussie Towns separate entry at https://www.aussietowns.com.au/town/koonya-tas.

Taranna is a tiny settlement on the road to Port Arthur. Today its central attractions are the excellent and genuinely interesting Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park and the Federation Chocolate factory. Historically Taranna's main claim is that it was the terminus for the infamous human railway which ran between Port Arthur to the jetty at Little Norfolk Bay. This railway carried passengers and supplies from Port Arthur to Norfolk Bay and it was powered by four convicts pushing the carriages along the 7 km track. It had the questionable distinction of being the first railway in Australia. Remnants of the tracks can still be seen in the area. For more information check out Aussie Towns site - https://www.aussietowns.com.au/town/taranna-tas.

Eaglehawk Neck
Historically Eaglehawk Neck was a fascinating attempt to contain escaping convicts by creating a natural prison. It joins the Tasman Peninsula to the Forestier Peninsula by a narrow sandbar which is less than 100 m wide and, as such, was capable of being turned into a kind of natural prison gates by placing savage dogs across the sandbar to dissuade convicts attempting to cross. It is now a series of tiny holiday retreats around a series of remarkable natural wonders. Eaglehawk Neck itself is a tie bar made of sand carried by currents and waves from the floors of Pirate's Bay to the east and Norfolk Bay to the west. For something that is nothing more than a narrow bar of sand the "Neck" can hold the visitors attention with a number of historic and natural attractions including the Tessellated Pavement, the Devil's Kitchen and Tasman's Arch (each a remarkable geological formation) and the Dogline, the memorial to the bushranger Martin Cash and the Officers Quarters which are now a museum. For more information check out Aussie Towns site - https://www.aussietowns.com.au/town/eaglehawk-neck-tas.

Remarkable Cave
Remarkable Cave lies 6 km beyond Port Arthur. The journey to the cave traverses coastline with some of the most dramatic scenery in Tasmania. The view from Safety Cove across Port Arthur to Budge Head, Resolution Point, Yankee Rock, Cape Pillar and Tasman Island (with its lonely lighthouse) is breathtaking. Remarkable Cave itself is not really a cave. It is a huge swirling cauldron which has been formed by the collapse of the walls of the cliffs. The view from Remarkable Cave to Cape Raoul is spectacular.



* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the Tasman Peninsula was occupied by the Paredarerme Aboriginal people of the Oyster Bay tribe. Their territory was what is now known as the Tasman and Forestier Peninsulas.

* There is no recorded evidence of any remaining Paredarerme people on the Tasman Peninsula after the 1830s.

* Port Arthur was established in 1830 by Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur to deal with secondary criminals.

* The first convicts to arrive at the site built simple wooden huts to protect themselves and their guards against Van Diemen's Land's harsh, wet weather. There are no remains of this early settlement.

* By 1833 the convicts had completed a barracks on the hill behind where the Guard Tower and Tower Cottage now stand. This site has been excavated in recent times and large numbers of clay pipes, fragments of slate pencils and old slates have been uncovered.

* From 1834 - 1849 a special prison for juveniles was established across the bay at Port Puer.

* The major prison, known as the Penitentiary, was reputedly the largest building in Australia when it was completed in 1844. It was originally built as a huge granary and flour mill but, after a decade, was converted to house prisoners transferred from Norfolk Island.

* Port Arthur was closed down in 1877 and the Penitentiary became a tourist attraction.

* The site became neglected and a bushfire in 1897 destroyed many of the buildings.

* On 28 April 1996 the Port Arthur Massacre occurred with the loss of 35 lives. It is remembered by a simple shrine which has no mention of the gunman.


Visitor Information

Visitor information and advice is available at the Port Arthur Historic Sites Visitor Centre, Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, tel: (03) 6251 2310.


Useful Websites

There is an excellent official site. Check out http://www.portarthur.org.au. It has details of entry fees, different entry passes, the main attractions and the research and heritage management of the site.

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