Port Arthur in Tasmania

Monday, 15 August 2022 - 11:00 am (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: General, Museums, Exhibitions, UNESCO World Heritage
Reading Time:  9 minutes

Port Arthur Prison Colony site © Mdhowe

Port Arthur Prison Colony site © Mdhowe

Port Arthur is a town and former convict settlement on the Tasman Peninsula, in Tasmania, Australia. It is located approximately 97 kilometres (60 mi) southeast of the state capital, Hobart. The site forms part of the Australian Convict Sites, a World Heritage property consisting of 11 remnant penal sites originally built within the British Empire during the 18th and 19th centuries on fertile Australian coastal strips. Collectively, these sites, including Port Arthur, are described by UNESCO as “… the best surviving examples of large-scale convict transportation and the colonial expansion of European powers through the presence and labour of convicts.” Port Arthur is located about 97 km (60 mi) southeast of the state capital, Hobart, on the Tasman Peninsula. The scenic drive from Hobart, via the Tasman Highway to Sorell and the Arthur Highway to Port Arthur, takes around 90 minutes. Transport from Hobart to the site is also available via bus or ferry, and various companies offer day tours from Hobart. At the 2016 census, Port Arthur had a population of 251. This was down from 499 in 2006. Port Arthur was named after George Arthur, the lieutenant governor of Van Diemen’s Land. The settlement started as a timber station in 1830, but it is best known for being a penal colony.

The peninsula on which Port Arthur is located is a naturally secure site by being surrounded by water (rumoured by the administration to be shark-infested). The 30-m-wide isthmus of Eaglehawk Neck that was the only connection to the mainland was fenced and guarded by soldiers, man traps, and half-starved dogs. Shore-based and ship-based whaling was banned in the area to prevent convicts trying to escape in the boats. Officers at Port Arthur sometimes set out in their own boats and attempted to catch whales. This may have been more for sport than as a commercial activity. Smooth Island in Norfolk Bay was most likely used to grow fresh vegetables for the Port Arthur penal settlement.

Port Arthur was sold as an inescapable prison, much like the later Alcatraz Island in the United States. Some prisoners were not discouraged by this, and tried to escape. Martin Cash successfully escaped along with two others. One of the most infamous incidents, simply for its bizarreness, was the escape attempt of one George “Billy” Hunt. Hunt disguised himself using a kangaroo hide and tried to flee across the Neck, but the half-starved guards on duty tried to shoot him to supplement their meagre rations. When he noticed them sighting him up, Hunt threw off his disguise and surrendered, receiving 150 lashes. Despite its reputation as a pioneering institution for the new, enlightened view of imprisonment, Port Arthur was still in reality as harsh and brutal as other penal settlements. Some critics might even suggest that its use of psychological punishment, compounded with no hope of escape, made it one of the worst. Some tales suggest that prisoners committed murder (an offence punishable by death) just to escape the desolation of life at the camp. The Isle of the Dead was the destination for all who died inside the prison camps. Of the 1,646 graves recorded to exist there, only 180, those of prison staff and military personnel, are marked. The prison closed in 1877.

© EurovisionNim/cc-by-4.0 Isle of the Dead © Martin Pot/cc-by-sa-3.0 Accountant's House and Parsonage © Jane6592/cc-by-sa-4.0 Government Gardens © Jane6592/cc-by-sa-4.0 Guard Tower © Jane6592/cc-by-sa-4.0 Port Arthur Prison Colony site © Mdhowe
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Accountant's House and Parsonage © Jane6592/cc-by-sa-4.0
Before Port Arthur was abandoned as a prison in 1877, some people saw the potential tourist attraction. David Burn, who visited the prison in 1842, was awed by the peninsula’s beauty and believed that many would come to visit it. This opinion was not shared by all. For example, Anthony Trollope in 1872 declared that no man desired to see the “strange ruins” of Port Arthur. After the prison closed, much of the property was put up for auction. However, most of the property was not sold until 1889. By this time, the area had become increasingly popular and the prison buildings were in decay. As the Hobart Mercury proclaimed, “the buildings themselves are fast going to decay, and in a few years will attract nobody; for they will be ruins without anything to make them worthy of respect, or even remembrance.” The Model Prison was purchased by Anglican church minister and politician Joseph Woollnough, who operated tours and donated the proceeds to the church. The decay was seen as something positive, as the Tasmanian population wished to distance themselves from the dark image of Port Arthur. Those who bought Port Arthur property began tearing down the buildings, the destruction was furthered by the fires of 1895 and 1897, which destroyed the old prison house, and earth tremors. In place of the Prison Port Arthur, the town of Carnarvon was born. The town was named after the British Secretary of State and the population was said to be “refined and intellectual”. The town brought in many visitors as they encouraged boating, fishing, and shooting in the natural beauty of the peninsula. They again wished to remove the negative connotation attached to the area. Despite this wish, the haunting stories of Port Arthur prisoners and circulating ghost stories brought popularity to the remaining prison ruins. This was helped by the popular novels For the Term of His Natural Life (1874) by Marcus Clarke and The Broad Arrow (1859) by Caroline Leakey, which concerned themselves about convicts in Port Arthur. In 1927, tourism had grown to the point where the area’s name was reverted to Port Arthur. In 1916, the Scenery Preservation Board (SPB) was established to take the management of Port Arthur out of the hands of the locals. By the 1970s, the National Parks and Wildlife Service began managing the site. In 1979, funding was received to preserve the site as a tourist destination, due to its historical significance. The “working” elements of the Port Arthur community, such as the post office and municipal offices, were moved to nearby Nubeena. Several sandstone structures, built by convicts working under hard labour conditions, were cleaned of ivy overgrowth and restored to a condition similar to their appearance in the 19th century. Buildings include the “Model Prison”, the Guard Tower, the Church, and the remnants of the main penitentiary. The buildings are surrounded by lush, green parkland. The graves on the Isle of the Dead also attract visitors. Point Puer, across the harbour from the main settlement, was the site of the first boys’ reformatory in the British Empire. Boys sent there were given some basic education, and taught trade skills.

Since 1987, the site has been managed by the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority, with conservation works funded by the Tasmanian government and the admission fees paid by visitors. Volunteer groups have been working at the building sites of Point Puer to help researchers gain a better understanding of the history of the boys’ prison. The World Heritage Committee of UNESCO inscribed the Port Arthur Historic Site and the Coal Mines Historic Site onto the World Heritage Register on 31 July 2010, as part of the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage property. Port Arthur is one of Australia’s most visited historical sites, receiving over 250,000 visitors each year.

Read more on Port Arthur Historic Site, tasmania.com – Port Arthur, DiscoverTasmania.com.au – Guide to Port Arthur, Wikivoyage Port Arthur and Wikipedia Port Arthur (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State - Weather report by weather.com - Johns Hopkins University & Medicine - Coronavirus Resource Center - Global Passport Power Rank - Democracy Index - GDP according to IMF, UN, and World Bank - Global Competitiveness Report - Corruption Perceptions Index - Press Freedom Index - World Justice Project - Rule of Law Index - UN Human Development Index - Global Peace Index - Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.




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