Port Arthur – Honouring our convict origins

Port Arthur looms large in the Aussie psyche. Maybe it is our convict heritage that keeps the connection strong or maybe our white-Australia history is so new and fresh, that we grab every opportunity that screams ‘history’ with both hands.

Port Arthur is the site of one of Australia’s most notorious penal colonies. Located 101km (by road) south-east of Hobart, on the Tasman peninsula, it was established as a ‘home away from home’ for some of Australia’s most committed criminals. Perhaps that should be changed to England’s most committed criminals, as the majority of the penitentiary’s residents were fully imported from the Mother Country.

Old advertising for Port Arthur
A piece of historic tourism advertising. Source: pinterest

Port Arthur is one of those historic sites that is automatically included on every travel itinerary to Tasmania. I do not mean this voyeuristically i.e. to ogle at, and be amused by, the severity of the place. To me it is about remembering and recognising those who had to suffer such hardship, often unfairly and unjustly. As we stood in the grounds of Port Arthur on a glorious Autumn day, it was hard to imagine the site could be the source of so much cruelty and desperation on the part of both the guards, and inmates.

Port Arthur was established as a penal settlement in 1830. Over the next 23 years it grew to cover an area of 40ha and became a mini-town in itself. The particular location, on the Tasman peninsula was chosen because of its distance from the ‘civilisation’ of Hobart town, and the fact that it could be easily secured. A line of vicious dogs, and equally vicious guards, was strung across the narrowest section of the peninsula, making it almost impossible for inmates to escape the jail and back to their families and cronies.

At its height, the jail housed 2 000 inmates, guards and their families. The jail site included extensive vegetable gardens, pleasure gardens, sporting fields and schools, but naturally, many of these were only accessible by the free citizens. The inmates must battle on their own.

Port Arthur, Tasmania
Hard to believe that these are the grounds of a jail. Port Arthur.

The convicts were expected to work hard at farming and other industries producing goods to support themselves and other free settlers on the site.

Based on the radical ‘new’ penitentiary at Pentonville in England, Port Arthur was designed as ‘a machine for grinding rogues into honest men’. The cogs of the machine included discipline and punishment, religious and moral instruction, classification and separation, and training and education. (Source: Port Arthur Visitor Guide)

The modern day Port Arthur site is a pristine and perfect collection of rolling green hills, paved paths and atmospheric buildings. A selection of the original buildings have been full restored or the shell of the structure left standing to show the size and scale of its former grandeur.

Port Arthur, Tasmania
Our guide spins a yarn with the Hospital in the background.

Knowing the popularity of the place, The Brave Man* and I arrived early to secure our tickets and to join the short introductory tour. We are great fans of walking tours to try to understand the backstory of a place and orient ourselves in the geography. As is often the case, the guide was a ‘dinkum’ Aussie character who hammed it up for the foreign tourists, but also revealed a strong passion and deep knowledge of the site.

Unfortunately the sadness of Port Arthur is not only historic. In 1996, a deranged gunman rampaged through the site, killing 35 innocent people and injuring many more. History repeats….

As I walked through the hushed, manicured gardens and along the raked paths under brilliant blue skies, I tried to imagine the sounds, and picture the daily bustle, that would have been common when Port Arthur was a fully operational prison. The clink and jangle of chains and manacles, the crack and thud of hewing stone, the ring of wood chopping and boat construction would have echoed across the both valley and bay.

Regrettably, a handful of the original buildings were dismantled and scavenged for materials when the jail finally closed in 1877. In addition, the region has been subject to frequent bush fires, also reducing the number of original structures, or only leaving the outline of each building’s skeleton. However, there is still plenty to see with excellent interpretative information.

Port Arthur, Tasmania
The starkness of the Separate Prison, Port Arthur

The Separate Prison was particularly sobering. Convicts were locked up for 23 hours each day in single cells. Here they ate, slept and worked. The rules of this prison banned all sound. The thick, impenetrable walls muffled any noise, speaking was prohibited and prisoners were referred to by numbers, not names. How soul-destroying would that be? Church on Sunday was allowed, but even that was solitary with towering partitions blocking any view of any human being, other than the pastor. For one who loves a chat, I certainly couldn’t have handled it.

The Entrance Ticket includes a 20 minute boat cruise out to the Boys Prison and the Isle of the Dead. Point Puer Boys Prison was the first purpose-built prison for young boys in the British Empire. It was renowned for its harsh discipline and punishment, but at least they received a basic education. Make sure you are on time for your cruise, your seat is pre-booked and the boat will leave without you if you fail to be punctual.

Port Arhtur, Tasmania
Burnt remains of the Church (1837), Port Arthur.

Port Arthur is so history-rich, there is not enough space in this blog post to cover all the interesting buildings and the characters they housed. While such a place could be considered a tad morbid, I like to think on the progress that has been made since those days.

I acknowledge this dark time in our nation’s history and I recognise those who survived, and contributed to what Australia is today.

Can history be too sad? Are there places you wouldn’t go?

March 2011

The Basics

What: Entry tickets cost $39.00 for adults and $17.00 for children. Family and concession tickets are also available. Entry passes are valid for two consecutive days and include a guided Introductory Walking Tour and Harbour Cruise.

Where: Port Arthur is located at 6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, Tasmania, 7182.

When: Both the Site and the Visitor Centre open at 900am. The various historic buildings on the site are open from 1000am.

Remains of the Penitentiary, Port Arthur
Remains of the Penitentiary, Port Arthur

Why: To absorb and acknowledge a fascinating part of Australia’s early history and settlement.

How: Port Arthur is an easy drive from Hobart on a sealed road. The public bus service, Tassielink, provides a bus service to the Tasman Peninsula operating six days a week during school terms, and four days a week during school holidays.

Who: Myself and The Brave Man* and a few other fascinated Aussies.

Related Posts: Tassie is not just all mouldy, old history. Fr a watery view of Tassie, have a look at my post about cruising around Bruny Island.

Related Blogs: For an interesting range of photos covering the buildings in and around Port Arthur, have a look at: http://ontheconvicttrail.blogspot.com.au/search/label/Port%20Arthur

*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!

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