Port Arthur, Tasmania

While staying in Hobart, we visited Port Arthur, one of Australia’s most important heritage sites. Named after George Arthur, the Lieutenant Governor, it started in 1830 as a timber station, but became a convict settlement in 1833, taking the worst British and Irish criminals, and second offenders. Port Arthur stands on a peninsula, joining the mainland at Eaglehawk Neck. At barely 30 metres wide, Eaglehawk Neck was easily guarded by soldiers, man-traps and half-starved dogs. The regime and punishments for convicts at Port Arthur were harsh and cruel, and the hard-labour gruelling. Boys, some as young as nine, were also sent to Port Arthur, but kept separate from the men, on Point Puer. Hard-labour for the boys included stone cutting and building, but in addition they were given basic education and taught trade skills.

In 1850 the Separate or Model Prison was built. (see my blog ‘Lincoln Castle’, where I visited a similar prison in July 2012). There were four wings with solitary confinement cells in a cross shape. In each corner was an exercise yard, with a chapel and hall in the centre. Silence was enforced, and prisoners wore hoods when not in their cells. Luxuries like tea, sugar and tobacco rewarded good behaviour, but punishment was a diet of just bread and water. The Separate system changed physical to psychological punishment, and the prisoners were deprived of light, sound and human contact, with no hope of escape, many developed severe mental illnesses. In 1864 an Asylum was built adjacent to the Separate Prison! Those who died were buried on the Island of the Dead.

Transportation ended in 1853 but Port Arthur continued operating as a secondary penal station. In the 1850’s and 60’s, a steam-powered sawmill, blacksmith shop, forge and carpentry workshops were built. But by the 1870’s Port Arthur’s convict numbers were decreasing, with many aging and some insane. In 1877 the prison finally closed, and the name was changed to Carnarvon. Haunting stories about Port Arthur’s prisoners encouraged increasing numbers of tourists to visit the ruins, so eventually the name was changed back to Port Arthur. By the 1970’s the site had been taken over by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, and has since become Australia’s top tourist attraction.

We had a Bronze Pass, which included a 40 minute introductory walking tour, and 30 minute harbour cruise. We then spent the rest of the day visiting various historic buildings, ruins and reconstructed gardens. We walked around the Penitentiary ruins, originally built in 1843 as a flour mill and granary, and converted in 1857 to dormitories housing over 480 convicts. By the shore-line was the Ship-yard, where convict labourers built hundreds of whale-boats, brigantines, barques and buoys. Between 1834 and 1848, it was the busiest and most productive Ship-yard in Tasmania. (Sarah Island closed in 1833/4 – see previous post). We also saw restored and refurnished buildings such as the Doctor’s House, and visited the museum and research room where we found a possible convict ancestor!

I found Port Arthur historically very interesting, and the Bronze Pass was just right for us. The idea of the Separate prison was quite disturbing (as I had found at Lincoln Castle). And the convict life stories were sad and rather hopeless. Within such a crime and punishment system, what chance did any of them really have? 

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