Knowing what I knew about Port Arthur before arriving, I truly wasn’t expecting it to be such a beautiful place. I knew that it had once been a convict settlement, that it was full of jailhouse ruins, and that it was the site of a tragic killing spree in the 1990s. None of these things say “beauty”. But honestly, considering the trees, the landscaping, and the gorgeous view over the lake you would almost believe that it was a luxury resort hotel or private royal garden.
The bus ride from Hobart was a little bit long, but the trip was definitely worth it. Our guide’s name was James and he met us at the visitor’s center before leading us through the beautiful gardens telling us the fascinating history of the place. For almost 40 years in the mid-1800s, the site was a full-fledged penal colony, home to some of Britain’s worst criminals as well as many second offenders and others who had been booted from other such settlements. The prisoners were forced through hard manual labor, including building structures, logging efforts, sawmill work, and shipbuilding. However, punishment here was more psychological than corporal.
Eventually, new prisoners stopped arriving at Port Arthur, and the men that were there aged beyond the work that was supposed to be done. The need for such a convict settlement was slowly waning, and by 1877 there were no more prisoners living there. The land was sold to people who immediately began tearing down, in hopes that this sordid bit of history could be kept in the past. They established a small township but meanwhile, the prospect of a tourism site came up. What buildings remained after the teardowns and a few fires were spruced up, and they drew large numbers of tourists to the area which in turn actually offered the township an economic boost.
Before long, the Port Arthur Historic Sites, which encompassed the penitentiary, the dock yard, the church, and the gardens, among other things, were booming examples of Tasmania tourism. Some actually believe it is the most visited tourist area in the whole state. We were able to see quite a bit of it after our fantastic history talk with James.
We started where he left us, at the Penitentiary. This structure was originally constructed as a granary but was later converted to dormitory style accommodation for the prisoners. It was gutted in a fire during the site’s period of transition, but now stands as one of the most striking buildings on the property. There are ramps, railings, and stairways built around it in such a way that guests have access to many parts of it and, as such, can see quite a bit of it. In addition to living quarters it also housed a small chapel, library, and various working rooms. There were some signs out with more detailed information, and we tried to read them quickly. We had a lot of ground to cover!
The Guard Tower
A quick stroll led us to the guard tower, where we spent a large piece of our short time there admiring the gorgeous views. It was a great vantage point to see the pretty lake and the Penitentiary from above. We were very lucky to have gorgeous weather that day too, sunny and bright but not too hot- which made it even more difficult to imagine this place as the dark, constricting, tense place it once was. Behind the tower sat ruins of living quarters where some of the guards and their families took up residence during the convict era of Port Arthur.
The Separate Prison
At the Separate Prison, we were able to see the cells where the establishment’s most notorious prisoners lived and learn about the controversial methods used to punish and control these prisoners. It was believe that quiet reflection, with no outside distractions, was the best way to rehabilitate a criminal, and so solitary confinement was used fairly often. During our visit we were able to go inside one of the punishment cells. It was a very small cell with no windows and one doorway, with a series four different doors that led to it down the narrow hallway, so that when guards brought in food they would only open one door at a time, closing it before they opened the next, allowing not even the tiniest bit of light through. They also brought the food at very random intervals, and sometimes not at all for long stretches, so that the prisoner would not be able to use the standard timing of three meals per day to figure out how long he had been in there. We went in and shut the doors, and the darkness was startling. There is actually a tiny red light that blinks every few seconds right above the door to remind curious tourists like us how to get out!
In addition to those somewhat unsettling punishment cells, we saw many standard cells as well as the very well enclosed exercise yards. Though these had very high walls and sturdy, secure doors, they did not have roofs. When the prisoners were exercising here, they were able to actually see the sky and feel the fresh air, but the yards were designed for use by one person at a time so they still weren’t allowed to interact with other prisoners. In fact, the men here were so isolated that they had to wear hoods over their faces so that they wouldn’t become unfocused thanks to any guards or other prisoners passing by. It later came out that many of these prisoners were suffering from mental illnesses brought on by this intense isolation.
The Convict Church
Around 1837, convicts at the site build the church out of stone and timber. All prisoners were expected to attend service weekly at the church, which was never consecrated so that prisoners of all faiths could go there together. It sits on a high point of the property overlooking the rest of the settlement. Eventually it was marred by a fire and all that exists of it today are exterior walls. It was very strange to walk into a church with no ceiling and a grassy floor, but it is a truly beautiful space.
What We Missed
One of the tough parts about depending on someone else for your transport is that you never seem to have enough time. After James’s talk we hit all the highlights that he suggested before it was time to get back on the bus. I’m confident that we made the most of the time we were given, but we didn’t get to adequately explore the hospital, the Isle of the Dead, Point Puer Boys’ Prison, the 1996 tragedy memorial garden, or the water supply trail. We’ll have to hit those first if we ever go back!