Port Arthur, Tasmania

Of all the convict related historic sites around Australia, none so graphically tell the story of Australia's convict past that the ruins of the convict settlement at Port Arthur. The place is a window into modern Australia's beginnings, and paints a vivid picture of the lives and times of those poor wretches who were transported to Australia from Britain to start a new life on the other side of the world.

Where Is it?: Port Arthur is 95 km south east of Hobart. From Hobart, take the A3 to Sorell and then the Arthur Highway (A9) to Port Arthur.

After entering the Historic Site, visitors can either survey the site for themselves, or participate in guided tours of the Site, a harbour cruise, tours to the Isle of the Dead and Point Puer and evening Historic Ghost Tours. There is also a museum, containing written records, tools, clothing and other curiosities from convict times, a Convict Gallery with displays of the various trades and work undertaken by convicts, and a research room where visitors can check up on any convict ancestors. Visitor facilities include two cafes, a bistro that operates each evening, gift shop, and other facilities.

The penal settlement of Port Arthur, built on the shores of Masons Cove, was named after Van Diemen's Land lieutenant governor George Arthur, under whose governorship the settlement started as a timber station in 1830, and grew into the largest penal colony in the British Empire. From 1833, until the 1850s, it was the destination for the hardest of convicted British and Irish criminals, those who were secondary offenders having re-offended after their arrival in Australia. Rebellious personalities from other convict stations were also sent here, a quite undesirable punishment. In addition Port Arthur had some of the strictest security measures of the British penal system.

The peninsula on which Port Arthur is located is a naturally secure site by being surrounded by water (rumoured by the administration to be shark-infested). The 30m wide isthmus of Eaglehawk Neck that was the only connection to the mainland was fenced and guarded by soldiers and half-starved dogs.

Port Arthur's reputation was that of an inescapable prison, much like the later Alcatraz Island in the United States. Some prisoners were not discouraged by this, and tried to escape. Martin Cash successfully escaped along with two others. One of the most infamous incidents, simply for its bizarreness, was the escape attempt of one George 'Billy' Hunt. Hunt disguised himself using a kangaroo hide and tried to flee across the Neck, but the half-starved guards on duty tried to shoot him to supplement their meagre rations. When he noticed them sighting him up, Hunt threw off his disguise and surrendered, receiving 150 lashes.

Point Puer ruins

Port Arthur was also the destination for juvenile convicts, receiving many boys, some as young as nine arrested for stealing toys. The boys were separated from the main convict population and kept on Point Puer, the British Empire's first boys' prison. Like the adults, the boys were used in hard labour such as stone cutting and construction. One of the buildings constructed was one of Australia's first non-denominational churches, built in a gothic style. Attendance of the weekly Sunday service was compulsory for the prison population. Critics of the new system noted that this and other measures seemed to have negligible impact on reformation.

Despite its reputation as a pioneering institution for the new, enlightened view of imprisonment, Port Arthur was still in reality as harsh and brutal as other penal settlements. Some critics might even suggest that its use of psychological punishment, compounded with no hope of escape, made it one of the worst. Some tales suggest that prisoners committed murder (an offence punishable by death) just to escape the desolation of life at the camp. The Island of the Dead was the destination for all who died inside the prison camps. Of the 1646 graves recorded to exist there, only 180, those of prison staff and military personnel, are marked. The prison closed in 1877.

Several magnificent sandstone structures, built by convicts working under hard labour conditions, have been cleaned of ivy over growth and restored to a condition similar to their appearance in the 19th century. Buildings include the Model Prison, the Guard Tower, the Church, and the remnants of the main penitentiary. The buildings, now open for inspection by visitors to Port Arthur, are surrounded by lush green parkland.

Carnarvon All Saints Church ruins, Port Arthur

The ruins of the church and the Commandant's House stand on the highest ground at either end of the Port Arthur penal settlement, as if to express the absolute authority of God and the State, and the belief that religion played a vital role in the process of reform. Lieutenant-Governor Arthur laid the foundation stone of the ‘convict church’ on April 25, 1836. A convict named 'Mason' was credited with having designed the church but research has revealed that is in fact the work of colonial architect, (and convict forger) James Blackburn. The church was constructed using convict labour and built with stonework that had been prepared at the boys’ prison at Point Puer.

Australia's first non-denominational church, it housed up to 1,000 worshippers every Sunday; the convicts sat on the stone-flagged floor of the main body of the building, watched over by armed guards, while the free people sat on raised wooden pews to the left and right, behind a curtain, so they did not have to look upon the convicts.

It was a free church - Anglicans and Catholics worshipped together - until 1843 when the newly appointed chaplain, a Church of Ireland clergyman, vented his hatred of Catholics from the pulpit, which led to Catholics refusing to attend his services and eventually getting their own services in a makeshift chapel on the 2nd floor of the penitentiary building..

It is said that the church was never consecrated so Catholics could also use it, but others believe it was because an inmate, one Joseph Shuttleworth, was murdered with an axe by William Riley, as they were digging the foundations of the church in 1835. The church's wooden spire blew down in 1876 and the building was gutted in a bushfire in 1884. Sections of the church have been rebuilt and stabalised throughout the 20th century.

A 50 ft wooden spire, made of pine and painted to resemble stone with crushed sandstone sprinkled on it, stood above the belfry. The belfry contained a set of 8 bells that had been cast on site at Port Arthur in 1847. The highly skilled artisan who cast the chime of bells has never been identified. He was probably a convict working in the blacksmith’s shop and foundry. Bell casting is a complex process so it is more than likely that he would have worked as a bell founder prior to being transported.


Isle of The Dead

Next time you visit the ruins of the Port Arthur Penal Settlement, be sure to include a boat trip out to the Island of the Dead if you haven't already been there. The cruise to this small island includes a guided tour, which presents Port Arthur's history from a totally different point of view to that which is normally told. The tour highlights the human side of the Port Arthur story by offering an insight into the lives of the people who lived and died there.

The Isle of the Dead is a small island located in the harbour off Point Puer adjacent to the Port Arthur Historic Site, Tasmania. It is a small, picturesque island roughly the size of Sydney's Fort Denison, and lies in the bay between the prison and the open ocean. Originally called Opossum Island, it was selected as a burial place by the Rev. John Manton in 1833. Between 1833 and 1877, about 1,000 burials took place on the island; The majority were convicts and ex-convict paupers who were buried mostly in unmarked graves on the lower part of the island.

Port Arthur Historic Site

After the closure of the penal colony the site was renamed Carnarvon. During the 1880s the land in and around the site was sold off to the public and a community was established. Devastating fires tore through the area in 1895 and 1897 gutting the old prison buildings, leading to the establishment of the new town, with post office and other facilities.

Port Arthur Cafe ruins

Tourism started up almost as soon as the last convicts had left, supplying the new residents with a source of income, part of it undoubtedly due to its unsavoury past, and the ghost stories that accompany it. In 1927 tourism had grown to the point where the area's name was reverted to Port Arthur.

By the 1970s the National Parks and Wildlife Service began managing the site. In 1979 funding was received to preserve the site as a tourist destination, due to its historical significance. The working  elements of the Port Arthur community such as the post office and municipal offices were moved to nearby Nubeena. Since 1987, the site has been managed by the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority, with conservation works funded by the Tasmanian Government and the admission fees paid by visitors.