Port Arthur Historic Site, Australia

Tasmania's most visited tourist site.

The Port Arthur Historic Site can be found about 90 minutes from Hobart, it's possible to drive there from Hobart or take an organised tour. I had been there once before, it was October and I naively thought that as it was spring it would be fairly warm. It wasn't! There was a freezing wind coming off the Southern Ocean and it was miserable, but the weather did provide a real life experience of the conditions the prisoners lived in. This time I visited on a beautiful sunny summer's day, not so atmospheric but the conditions were far nicer to look around.

I was reasonably organised for this trip and had bought my ticket and prebooked the walking and the boat tour while still in Hobart. My timing was quite good and I basically walked in, showed my ticket, got my lanyard (tourists all have to walk around with them on) and caught up with my 10.30am tour group.

The guide was informative and kept everyone's attention, what I found most interesting was that a much broader view of the whole Port Arthur site was part of the tour. My knowledge of the site had centred on the whole "unescapable prison for the worst of the worst prisoners" part of its history. I had assumed it was first set up as a prison camp, infact it was a timber camp, sourcing timber for Hobart and the main workforce were convicts. Three years after the timber camp was established that the prison was set up. (In 1833)

The original housing for the convicts were canvas tents and then wooden huts, none of these survive. One of the oldest buildings on the site is the church, it's nondenominational and it was compulsory for all prisoners to attend each Sunday. After a very anti-Catholic protestant minister was in charge of the church catholic prisoners lobbied for a catholic chaplain and one was appointed. They went to mass in a chapel by the penitentiary. The church was burnt down long after the convict settlement closed and the convict built walls are what's left.

The penitentiary, originally built as a flour mill, but that didn't last long and so it was then used to house prisoners. There were workshops as well so the prisoners had the opportunity to learn skills to earn a living once they were back in society. The ideas behind Port Arthur were quite modern for their time, prison wasn't just to lock people up but also to try and prepare them for a life outside. Behind the penitentiary on the hill are the ruins of the hospital. The penitentiary was destroyed in the two major bushfires of 1895 and 1897, parts have been stabilised and rebuilt for tourists to be able to wander around. The centre section was rebuilt to the first storey, it had all been destroyed to the ground.

An old photo on display showing the size of part of the Port Arthur complex, with the penitentiary and the guard tower up on the hill. (The guard tower dating back to 1836 is perhaps the oldest surviving stone building from the convict era)

The Silent Prison and the Asylum. By the mid 1800's punishments in prison had changed from physical (flogging) to the mental. In the Silent Prison the prisoners were locked up for 23 hours and when they were moved around they were hooded. They weren't allowed to speak and no-one spoke to them, apparently there's only one recorded case of a prisoner having a complete mental breakdown. I'm sure they were others!
The Asylum building next door were for those prisoners who were mentally ill.

The Government Gardens, it was lovely and my favourite part of the site. But the gardens (which have been recreated as the original one didn't survive) show the total disconnect between the civilian population and their genteel living with the incarceration of convicts in not so wonderful conditions.

The gardens were a small part of England in the middle of a prison.

Past the gardens up on a small hill was the area where the non military residents (and non convict!) lived in their little cottages.

The Parsonage, built for the protestant minister, in 1840.

Next to the parsonage is the Accountant's house. He was responsible for the finances and ordering of material for the prison. This cottage also dates back to 1842, now used as the education centre and there was traditional school type activities out on the lawn.

The Junior Medical Officer's cottage, dating back to 1848.

A recreated front parlour.

Catholic Chaplain's house, once a catholic priest was appointed he was given this cottage and lived there with two of his sisters.

A long walk away from these cottages on a slight outcrop, was the camp Commandant's house. The original cottage was a four room house and then extended by each new occupant. The house has a lovely view out into the bay.

Some of the interior rooms have been recreated. During the early 1900s when Port Arthur first became a tourist area, the Commandant's House was used as a hotel.

A bedroom with an animal skin rug, it gets cold in Tasmania!

The guide talked about the site's history since the transportation era. Transportation toTasmania  (Van Diemen's Land) ended in 1853 the convicts that were imprisoned there began to age. Some upon being released, reoffended just to be imprisoned again as that was the only life they knew. A Pauper's Depot was established to house these 'gentlemen' until the whole site was shut down in 1877.

The area was opened up and a village called Carnarvon was established and there are buildings from that era as well.

Wooden cottage belonging to the Trentham family, built in 1898 and was lived in until the 1920s.

St. David's Church, built in 1927 for the village and still used today.

Tourism started at Port Arthur right from when the prison was shut down. Day-trippers would come by boat from Hobart, they were curious to see a site previously closed off to them. Some of the first guides were old inmates! Hotels and guest houses were opened, by the 1920s the Port Arthur name was reclaimed.

The Port Arthur Historic Site is now a World Heritage Site and fabulous to visit (especially on a nice day!) The whole site is well maintained, the Carnarvon era wooden police house was being painted the day I was there so didn't go inside. There were gardeners working in different cottage gardens. A new Visitor's Centre has just opened and it's huge, with a large restaurant area to grab something to eat.

I liked the philosophy how the site is run, there are no actors wandering around dressed in convict or period costumes. The view being it belittles what happened at the site and it's not an amusement park. (My paraphrasing!) The church has not be reconstructed, they've left the ruins alone, it's obvious it's a church. The Government Gardens however have been reconstructed to show what was there as the original gardens didn't exist anymore.

Starting off with a guide is an excellent way to get a quick overview of the site, then the boat cruise around the bay gives another view and extra information about Port Puer and the Isle of the Dead. That then leaves the rest of the time for your own exploration as to what part of the site interests you. It's a terrific day out!