The world heritage listed Port Arthur settlement in Tasmania was part of Australia’s extensive convict network. It was established in 1830 as a timber camp that used convict labour and in 1833 it began to be used as a punishment place for repeat offenders. It was an incredibly harsh environment with the land itself serving as a secondary prison layer. This post is going to explore the physical world of Port Arthur, as well as the story of the site over the years beyond its life a prison camp. I want to begin by acknowledging that when the colonisers moved in to establish Port Arthur, it was not unoccupied land and was the home of the Paredarerme indigenous Australians.
As you can see from the map above the Tasman Peninsula, which Port Arthur sits on, is a natural defence. As well as having to traverse a heavily forested unfamiliar landscape, without supplies, it is connected to the main land by two very thin isthmuses which were guarded. Eaglehawk Neck (the second isthmus) was guarded not only by human guards but by a line of dogs. A military barracks was established there in 1831 and and in 1832 the dog line was installed, and the number of dogs was increased after probation stations opened on the peninsula in 1840. The dogs were set up at intervals along the land with a shelter, a chain, and a lamp. The ground they stood on was shells so it would reflect the light of the lamp. The aim was that any convict that tried to sneak past would alert the dogs who would then start barking and alert the guards. They were also installed on platforms on the water. In 1837 the dogs were described by Harden S. Melville as “every four footed black fanged individual among them would have taken first prize in his own class for ugliness and ferocity at any show” . You can see a statue of what the dogs might have looked like, and a picture of Eaglehawk Neck below.
Port Arthur is not the only convict site on the Tasman Peninsula and it was part of a broader system throughout Van Dieman’s Land (now called Tasmania). Most convicts were sent to work for free settlers or the government to start off with. By 1840s a probation system was established where groups of roughly 200 men were stationed at government sites around the state to work. There were a number of these sites on the Tasman Peninsula, as well as Port Arthur. Female convicts coming into Hobart were processed at the Cascade Female Factory and usually sent out to work for free settlers. I will write in more detail about the Female Factory later, but you can see some photos of the remains below. For now it’s enough to say that the conditions were horrendous.
Port Arthur was used for convicts that had committed other offences in the colony, but the other site I wanted to talk about briefly is where the convicts who offended at Port Arthur were sometimes sent. The coal mines. They are on the Tasman Peninsula, but further north than Port Arthur.
They were operated between 1833 and 1877 (though they were in private hands from 1848) and deserve a post in their own right, something I hope to do at some point. At its peak in 1845 there with 576 convicts, 27 military personnel, 125 civilians (this included 14 women and 90 children) living at the station. 11 375 tons of coal were produced. The coal was sold but was said to be bad quality. You can see photos of the buildings that housed the convicts at the mines below.
The quality of the stonework is remarkable, but it was a hard life where punishment involved isolation cells, which you can see the passageway for on the bottom left. Convicts did try to escape from the mines, but most were recaptured or died in the hostile bush. Like the convicts at Port Arthur, the men who worked in the coal mines were mainly not, despite often popular myth, transported for what we would now consider trifles and they had reoffended. This is not to say that they necessarily deserved the often extremely harsh punishment meted out, but it is worth noting despite the harshness of the punishment the crimes committed were still serious. Which brings us nicely back to Port Arthur itself.
Ironically enough, Port Arthur is in a truly beautiful location (though I did have very good weather for my visit)
The natural harbour, which you can see above, was the major draw for setting up a logging camp. The site was named Port Arthur after Governor Arthur in 1828. From 1833 it became the repeat offender site and by 1840 it housed more than 2000 convicts, soldiers and civilian staff. They made everything from furniture, to ships. You can see the ship building area below.
Convict transportation to Van Dieman’s land ended in 1853, but there were still convicts at Port Arthur and it became an institution for the elderly and mentally and physically ill convicts. The site was closed in 1877 and a lot of the buildings were destroyed by two bushfires. It eventually became a small town, renamed Carnarvon, but it evolved to an open air museum by the 1920s with hotels and shops and the name returned to Port Arthur. It was listed as a world heritage site as part of the greater convict network in 2010 and occupies roughly 40 hectares. It is run by the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority.
Before I continue on to explore Port Arthur itself, I wanted to briefly discuss the Port Arthur Massacre. I don’t think the story of Port Arthur can be told without it, but I will not be naming the perpetrator as they should not be remembered. But the event can’t be forgotten as to do so denigrates the lives lost. In 1996 on the 28th of April a young man began firing on the crowds at Port Arthur. 35 people were killed and 21 injured. There is a truly beautiful memorial garden on the site of the Black Arrow Cafe, where most of the killings took place. It is still the worst mass shooting in Australian history and resulted in significantly stricter gun laws.
There is not way to elegantly move on from the above paragraph so I’m not going to try. It was a horrific event, but one that is woven into the past of Port Arthur, a past that has never been easy. So I thought I’d continue the story of Port Arthur by looking at some of the individual buildings and places. This is not going to be an exhaustive examination of every building and place in Port Arthur, but it will be a representative selection.
The building you can see above is the one most commonly brought to mind when most people think of Port Arthur. The penitentiary was capable of housing 657 men in seperate cells and dormitories. It also housed a bakehouse and cook house on the right which fed the men held in the penitentiary. It was originally constructed as a flour mill and granary in 1845, by 1857 it had been converted into accommodation for convicts. There were 136 seperate cells, a dining hall and a library with some 13000 volumes. When Port Arthur closed in 1877, the building was left. It was gutted by fire in 1897 and not long after many of the bricks were repurposed.
The guard tower was constructed in 1836 on the word of the Commandant Captain Charles O’Hara Booth. It was part of a much larger military complex but the remainder has been demolished. It survived the fires of the late 1800s because it has a lead roof.
Above you can see a replica of the semaphore tower. The original would have been much taller and was part of a line of sight semaphore system that stretch back to Hobart. The system ran from about 1811 to 1880 and in good weather a message, for example about an escaped convict, could reach Hobart in about twenty minutes.
The building above is the hospital. It was built in 1842, though there had been an earlier hospital on the site. It also housed the morgue.
There was also a pauper’s complex, but there aren’t any photos because after 1877 the mess hall was set aside for a school and the 1895 bushfire destroyed the rest of the buildings. It is worth mentioning, because it was part of the later use of Port Arthur. From the 1860s Port Arthur housed the men who had been in the convict system for years who has no chance of employment. In 1870 Marcus Clarke described these men as “poor scarecrows in cast off clothing”. The complex was closed in 1874 and remaining men shipped to Hobart. Part of this system was the insane asylum which is still standing in part.
The insane asylum was built in the late 1860s. The treatment was rudimentary at best, with ‘soothing’ activities like gardening. It was during the period of time when most of the prisoners in Port Arthur were becoming aged and infirm and industry at Port Arthur slowed significantly. The building was partly destroyed in the 1895 bushfires, and has been repurposed a number of times.
The seperate prison was opened in 1849 as part of a new method of punishment. It was a new style of prison system that kept prisoners completely seperate from each other. There were 50 cells measuring 6 ft by 9 ft by 11 ft as well as the truly horrifying isolation cells. By 1850 it was being used for the worst of the prisoners to bring their minds ‘to a more healthy condition’ . By 1884, after Port Arthur closed, it was purchased to be converted into a hotel, but it was gutted by fire in 1895 and ownership went back to the government in 1916. The aim of the seperate prison was the keep the men totally isolated, they were not allowed to speak unless they were addressed by an official, guards even used sign language amongst themselves. You can see the remarkable (and horrible) chapel in the photos below. The men were brought in hooded so they couldn’t see the other prisoners and the stalls were deliberately constructed so, once they were in, they could only see the priest.
The church at Port Arthur was opened in the 1830s and was capable of accommodating the majority of the prisoners. The 8 chime bells of the church were cast by an artisan- probably a convict- who has never been identified. When Port Arthur closed in 1877 the bells were stored at the New Norfolk Asylum, in 1897 seven of the bells when to the New Norfolk Municipal Council and they were hung in the tower of St Mathew’s Church, the 8th bell vanished. Over time seven bells have come back to Port Arthur, but the 8th is still missing.
Government Gardens and Government Cottage. The cottage was built in 1853 to house government officials who were visiting Port Arthur, from the beginning the cottage was surrounded by English style gardens that the officers’ wives and children used to walk in. The garden you can see today is a faithful reconstruction of the garden that would have originally existed.
The Governor’s House is a TARDIS like building with a really remarkable view.
It was the home of successive governors. It was built under Charles O’Hara Booth in the 1830s, but expanded extensively under successive governors. From the 1880s the building was repurposed as the Carnarvon Hotel and you can see one of the hotel murals in the photos above as well as the governor’s study and one of the bedrooms.
Point Puer was where the underage boys were housed. The first 60 boys were sent there in 1833. The aim was to train them in a useful trade and reform them so they would become useful citizens. It was not a hospitable place and it ended up being older convicts who were sent to the peninsula to teach the boys, which is just opposite the Port Arthur settlement itself, as they couldn’t get non convicts to undertake the job. By 1843 only boys under 15 were being sent there and in 1849 the remaining 162 boys were removed and sent to other stations. The buildings were cheaply built and subsequently crumbled.
I want to finish this post, I hope appropriately, with the Isle of the Dead. This was the cemetery for Port Arthur and is just off the tip of Point Puer.
The Isle of the Dead was originally called Opossum Island after the ship commanded by Captain Welsh who sheltered there in 1827. The first burial was in 1833 and it was of a 64 year old convict names John Hancock. Originally convicts didn’t get headstones, only a mound, but free settlers had headstones. This policy changed by the 1850s as there are some convict headstones from the later period. More than 10 000 convicts were buried on the Isle of the Dead between 1833 and 1877. For an island that has such a macabre purpose, it is actually very beautiful.
The Isle of the Dead seems to be a good spot to end this post. My next one will explore some of the people, convicts and soldiers, at Port Arthur. Like any site, the stories of Port Arthur is about more than the buildings.
Site visit August 2019
Click to access Port-Arthur-World-Heritage-Factsheet1.pdf
Margaret Peacock’s Isle of the Dead 958948909
The Isle of the Dead: Port Arthur’s unique island cemetery
Port Arthur’s Convict Days: An historic and pictorial review / Coultman Smith
Port Arthur: An historical survey
Prison Boys of Port Arthur / F.C Hooper
Penal Peninsula / Ian Brand 0909640084
The Media and The Massacre: Port Arthur 1996-2016 / Sonya Voumard 9780994395719
The Seperate Prison or Model Prison Port Arthur / Ian Brand
The Port Arthur Coal Mines 1833-1877 / Ian Brand
All the images are mine apart from the two maps which come from Google Maps.