Most people know that convicts were sent to Australia…but how much do you really know? Here’s our guide to Port Arthur – the penitentiary where the very worst of male convicts ended their days.
Where is Port Arthur?
Port Arthur is on the island of Tasmania, off the south east coast of Australia. As if that wasn’t remote enough, it is situated on the south east corner of the island, about 75km from Hobart.
When Port Arthur was built, Tasmania was still called “Van Diemen’s Land”. The first European to explore Tasmania was a Dutchman called Abel Tasman. He called the island Anthoonif van Diemens land to honour Anthony Van Diemen who was the Governor General of the Dutch East Indies. It was Van Diemen who sponsored Tasman’s voyage of exploration in 1642.
In 1803, the British colonised Van Diemen’s Land as a penal colony which became part of New South Wales. In 1842 the island became a stand-alone colony. It was given responsibility for its’ own government in 1856 and the name, Tasmania – after the man who discovered it.
Brief History of ‘Transportation
Van Diemen’s Land was the main penal colony in Australia from the 1830’s to 1853. The sending of convicts to these colonies was called ‘penal transportation’, most commonly shortened to ‘transportation’. It ended in 1853 because so many Victorians complained about convicts who had served their term, been released and then went on to re-offend, mainly in Victoria and Melbourne.
The settler population was mostly made up of by convicts and their descendants until huge numbers of people flooded into Australia during the Gold Rushes of the 1850’s.
When transportation to New South Wales was stopped in 1840, all convicts went to Van Diemen’s Land. 40% of all convicts sent to Australia ended up there. That translates to over 75,000 convicts!
Men and women were separated. There were five workhouse prisons for women, known as ‘factories’. Women who were lucky enough to avoid this were given jobs in ordinary households.
Men were given jobs in hard labor, working in supervised gangs. The worst of them – about one in every five – were sent to Port Arthur.
When was it built?
Port Arthur was built in 1830 on the site of a timber station. It was named after the Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, George Arthur.
As well as the most rebellious of predominantly English and Irish prisoners, it housed those who had served their time and then re-offended. As a result, it employed some of the strictest security measures. It also housed boys as young as nine – many of them had been arrested for stealing bread or a toy. Today, it seems unthinkable that these children should be in the same area as hardened criminals. They were kept at the first boys’ prison of the British Empire, called Port Puer and were put to hard labor including stone cutting and construction. They helped to build the Gothic church at Port Arthur.
Port Arthur was ideally situated for a prison, being on a peninsula surrounded by (reputedly) shark infested waters. The only connection to the mainland was a 30 meter wide strip of land which was fenced and guarded by soldiers and dogs that were all kept half starved.
Most Bizarre Escape Attempt…
Nevertheless, there were rare escapes and many attempted escapes. The most bizarre attempt had to be by George Hunt, who disguised himself in a kangaroo skin and tried to hop across the narrow neck of the peninsula. The starving guards tried to shoot the tasty ‘kangaroo’. Hunt threw off the animal skin and gave himself up – receiving 150 lashes as punishment.
Desperate Prison…to Tourist Attraction
The site ceased to be used as a Prison in 1877. The old prison buildings were destroyed by fires in 1895 and 1897 and the land was sold off to the public. A new community called ‘Carnarvon’ was established.
Tourism was embraced almost immediately, to bring a welcome income to Carnarvon. By 1927, this was so successful that the area reverted to the original name of Port Arthur. In 1916, the site began to be managed by the Scenery Preservation Board. By the 1970’s, the National Parks and Wildlife Service took over. Funding was given to preserve the site because of its’ history. Several of the magnificent buildings erected by convicts were covered in ivy and overgrown. These were cleaned and restored to how they would have looked when first built.
Since 1987, the site has been managed by the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority which is funded by the Tasmanian Government.
What can I see there?
The site has more than thirty buildings, restored period homes and ruins, set in a 90 acre (40 hectare) site of beautifully landscaped grounds. You can eat a family meal (with childrens’ menu) or dinner, featuring fresh local produce and local wines at the aptly named Felon’s Bistro or Port Café in the Visitor’s Centre. There is also a gift shop and the Centre hires out wheelchairs and strollers. You can also store backpacks there while you visit. The Museum Coffee Shop in the Asylum building offers light meals and snacks.
Here’s a guide to some of the highlights of Port Arthur.
This was built as a flour mill in 1843 and was converted in 1857 into a dormitory that housed over 480 convicts. The building also contains a mess room, library and Catholic chapel. Alongside it, were the Watchmens’ Quarters, workshops and a complex for the men to wash in.
Separate (or Model) Prison – In 1848, the Victorians decided that punishment of the mind was more devastating than punishment of the body. Flogging was replaced by solitary confinement. This prison had 80 cells and was built in the shape of a cross with exercise yards around a chapel and central hall. The “Silent System” of punishment was used where prisoners were hooded and made to stay silent. The idea was for them to have time to reflect on their actions although in reality, many of them suffered horribly from sensory deprivation.
Officers’ Row – This consists of five buildings constructed during the 1840’s. These were for the most important officials of Port Arthur. The five are:
- The Junior Medical Officer’s House built in 1848.
- The Parsonage, built in 1842.
- The Accountant’s House built in 1842.
- The Magistrate and Surgeon’s House, built in 1847 and
- The Roman Catholic Chaplain’s House built in 1843.
Of these five, the first two are furnished as they would have been originally and are open to visitors.
The Commandant was top man at Port Arthur. The house started as a wooden cottage in 1833 but evolved into a multi-roomed home in ornate gardens. It was separated from the rest of the colony by high stone walls. When Port Arthur closed, it became the Carnarvon Hotel and then a guest house up unitl the 1930’s.
From 1834 to 1848, Port Arthur was a place of shipbuilding. Over seventy convicts sawed timber and labored to build fifteen large wooden boats and over one hundred and forty smaller ones. The dockyards housed a blacksmith’s forge, sawpits, steamers to bend timber, a shed for rigging and many other workshops. This is also the site of the Master Shipwright’s Residence, built in 1834.
Built from wood and stone in 1836 – 1837 by convicts, the Church could hold over 1,000 people. It was never consecrated because so many denominations used it. The authorities believed they could reform the prisoners through religion but this was largely a failure. The Church was gutted by fire in 1884 and has had intense conservation work.
This was the third hospital built at Port Arthur, in 1841 – 1842. Accidents were common due to the dangerous labor undertaken by the convicts. The staff consisted of one Doctor and several untrained convicts who worked as assistants.
Historical Walking Tour
This is the best way to start your visit to Port Arthur. An expert guide will tell you about the site and its’ history. Tours leave from the Visitors’ Center.
Take a single player or share with a friend and tour the 25 stops at your own speed. This atmospheric tour will let you hear how Port Arthur would have sounded. It also includes history, readings from contemporary books and diaries and music. Hear the stories and sounds of Port Arthur where they happened.
Isle of the Dead Cemetery Tour
This is a small island in the harbor where all those who died between 1833 and 1877 ended up. 1,646 graves are known to exist but only 180 of them are marked – not surprisingly, those of prison staff and members of the militia. Join the 30 minute guided tour and enjoythe short ferry crossing, giving you a different view of Port Arthur. Comfortable clothing (that is suitable for the weather) and shoes are recommended.
Point Puer Boys’ Prison Tour
Between 1834 and 1849, over 3,000 boys passed through this prison. The tour includes a short ferry ride to Point Puer and a walking tour with an expert guide.
This highly popular tour almost merits its’ own article but here are the main points:
- Tours last 90 minutes and start at the Visitors’ Centre.
- There are several tours each evening (twice in winter and four times in summer) and run every night except December 25th.
- The tours are never cancelled due to bad weather – it adds to the atmosphere!
- There are no special effects but the stories and atmosphere create their own scary experience…
- Wear warm, comfortable clothing and footwear – no high heels! Umbrellas are not allowed (so that you don’t jab someone with it by accident in the dark!) so if it’s wet, bear this in mind.
- The tour is popular with older children but if your child is prone to nightmares, give it a miss.
- If your child is disruptive during the tour, you will be asked to leave.
- Booking in advance is essential as this tour is so popular and each tour has a maximum of 30 people. Call 1 800 659 101
- If your mobility is poor or you are in a wheelchair, please be aware that only a third of the tour is suitable for wheelchairs. Roughly 2 kms of walking are involved, often in poor light, on uneven ground and many steps.
- Still cameras may be used but only with a flash when the guide permits.
- Video cameras are not allowed.
- Smoking, alcohol and other substances are not permitted.
To book tickets for Port Arthur tours, click here.
Was Your Ancestor a Convict?
Through an ongoing Research Project, a database is being worked on which names those who came through Port Arthur. This includes male convicts and also females who worked as servants or had some association with the colony.
Records will include details of
- The original place of trial
- The offence resulting in transportation
- Place of origin
- Age on arrival
- Any offences committed after arriving in the colony
- Freedoms gained and locations incarcerated
Port Arthur offers an online enquiry service, with a limited research and transcription service for anyone researching convicts in Tasmania – regardless of whether they were at Port Arthur or not.
Visitors to Port Arthur can visit the Convict Study Centre in the Asylum. The Visitors’ Centre also has many useful books on Convicts, Convict Records and Ships that sailed to the colony.
Tragedy at Port Arthur
On 28th April 1996, Martin Bryant aged 28 went on a deadly shooting spree at Port Arthur which claimed the lives of 35 people and injured 21 others. He is now serving 35 life sentences with no possibility of parole. This was Australia’s most awful killing spree and one of the worst, worldwide.
The Port Arthur website respectfully asks visitors not to question staff about that day, as many had relatives or friends who were killed or injured. There is a memorial center for those who died.