Port Arthur is one of Tasmania's best known tourist attractions and historical sites. Situated on the south-eastern coast of Australia's Apple Isle it is a peaceful landscape of local stone buildings and ruins surrounded by rolling green lawns. The gentle scenery belies the blood and horror that Port Arthur was built on from the moment the first load of convicts arrived in 1830.
The Tasman peninsula was a desolate area in 1830 when 150 male convicts were sent there to set up a timber sawing station. They erected their own huts to form the first stage of settlement that would become the Port Arthur penal colony. Eventually 12 500 convicts would pass through the settlement named after the first Lieutenant-Governor Arthur.
Coal was discovered and Port Arthur grew in importance as a penal settlement as the value of its output increased combined with its location. Separated from Tasmania by a thin strip of land, Eaglehawk Neck, patrolled by savage half-mad dogs, Port Arthur was an ideal place for a full-scale settlement. The rough, shark-infested, arctic seas surrounding the desolate, cold and dismal outpost made for an almost escape-proof prison.
There were, however, a number of successful attempts. By 1833 it was a fully functional penal settlement. The hardest and meanest criminals spent time in the harshness of Port Arthur’s embrace, earning its name “Hell on Earth”. Harsh punishments such as flogging and solitary confinement were used to keep the population in control.
To die there did not mean escape as the dead were buried on an island not far away called “Isle of the Dead”. There are about 1769 convicts buried there as well as 180 free persons who passed away whilst employed at Port Arthur. (Buried far from the convicts’ mainly unmarked graves, of course.)
The prisoners built their own prison brick by brick. Their thumb-prints are visible in the bricks today. The settlement could accommodate 1200 prisoners plus all the staff and their families. The settlement strove for self-sustainability setting up manufacturing workshops such as shipbuilding, timber production, smithing, shoemaking and brick making. So large was the community at one point that a flour mill and granary were built. Beginning in 1848, it was later converted to the penitentiary.
1848 also saw the beginning of the building of the Separate Prison. An experiment in the new philosophy of prisoner management, moving from physical punishment to mental subjugation.
Prisoners were locked in their cells for long periods and were hooded when out of their cells for short periods of exercise. They lived in almost complete silence and isolation. Even going to chapel, they were corralled into tiny cubicles where you could see only the celebrant. This was really the only outlet for many of the prisoners as they could raise their voices in song. It is not surprising that there was also an asylum built adjoining the separate or silent prison as the silence took its toll on some convicts’ sanity.
Even though transportation from England was halted in 1853 Port Arthur was still used as a secondary punishment station. Receiving a large proportion of colonially sentenced men as well as transportees from other settlements it remained a viable community, building and expanding as the source of labour dried up.
The bubble burst around 1870 as the number of convicts lessened and those remaining were old, sick, mad or all three. The final convict left in 1877.
Post convict Port Arthur
Once the final departed Port Arthur was renamed Carnarvon and people began to settle the area and build up a community.
Even the devastating fires
of 1895 and 1897 failed to dissuade the new inhabitants. There were new building works such as a post office and community buildings and the convict constructed buildings that survived the fires were converted for other functions.
started almost as soon as the last convict was shipped out. There was a morbid fascination with this place where
so many had suffered at the hands of the penal system. The influx of visitors provided income for the fledgling community and the original jetty was extended to cope with the influx. By the 1930s there were a number of hotels and museums to cater for the tourists.
The name Port Arthur was reinstated in 1927. In recognition of its heritage value it was managed by a number of Government bodies,
the current being National Parks and Wildlife Service. It is no longer a working community, some of the Canarvon buildings having been moved to nearby Nubeena in the early 1980’s.
Port Arthur today
Today, Port Arthur is Tasmania’s most popular tourist destination. There are many things to see and do and it is worthwhile putting aside a whole day to explore this area. There are guided tours of the various buildings and large amounts of information about the various buildings that remain in ruins. There are ferry
rides out to the Isle of the Dead and Point Peur, the site of the boys’ prison. For the game there are also ghost
tours taken in the dark cold nights.
There is also a memorial garden set aside for the victims of the Port Arthur Massacre on the site of the Broad Arrow Café.
Although a Tourist Park, Port Arthur still has an eerie quality for all its neatly manicured lawns, professional tour guides and bus loads of tourists. If you visit this piece of history in the serene beauty of Tasmania you will not regret it.