Saturday 6th December
As I said before, this trip was primarily about visiting Port Arthur, the world heritage convict site. I have seen the site on the television and read some articles but nothing was to prepare me for the magnificence of the place. Stuck out on a peninsular of its own, when you look at the location on a map it is easy to see why it was chosen, but think back 150 years when roads didn’t exist and it becomes clear just how remote it was.
Thanks to the owner of the motel where I was staying I had a more scenic route than I would probably have taken had I simply looked at a map, which took me out through Brighton and the vine yards, through the historic town of Richmond , Sorell and then a further 70 km to Port Arthur.
My first impressions of Port Arthur was the peace and tranquility of the place. Surrounded on three sides by hills, which in their prime would have been thick with trees, and on the fourth by water. The large open grass lawns with the imposing stone penitentiary building to one side reminded me very much of the abandoned and derelict monastery buildings you find in the UK, places such as Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire.
As with the Abbeys of years gone by, the Port Arthur site was chosen because of what the landscape would offer the settlers. In this case it was initially the abundance of timber in the surrounding forests, but also the safe harbour for shipping and the security the location would provide. Convicts were shipped from Hobart to harvest the trees and to work in the timber yard, only later was the site primarily a prison.
It is not my intention to write a history of Port Arthur, there are far better places to look for that, I want to just give my impression of the place and a few of my specific experiences.
There are many buildings on the site in varying conditions from ruins to complete, fully restored structures. The first two I explored were the Separate Prison and the new Asylum.
Map of the Port Arthur historic site.
These are amazing structures that were constructed for very different reasons. The Separate Prison was based on the state of the art design of Pentonville Prison in London. It has a central atrium with three cell blocks and the chapel extending out from it like the spokes of a wheel. Between the wings were the exercise yard and punishment yards. As it’s name suggests, this building was separate from the main penitentiary housing the prisoners in solitary confinement. These were considered the worst of the convicts; those who had persistently re-offended, committed the worst of crimes or repeatedly tried to escape. Both men and women could be held, although generally in separate wings. Prisoners were held in solitary confinement.
Solitary confinement meant exactly that. You would be held in a single cell, in complete silence and often in complete darkness. Any time you left your cell, for exercise or chapel, you would have to ware a cap which had a peak and a flap of cloth that came down and covered your face. By this means your were anonymous and permanently alone.
The chapel pews also ensured confinement, with each prisoner seated in his own screened area. A cleaver combinations of panels and doors meant that prisoners could come and go without seeing anybody and also take off their masks during the service and only see the priest and two guards who would be standing at the front. As always silence, with the exception of the sermon.
The Asylum was constructed as the number of inmates with mental health issues continued to grow. As stated during the tour, it was unclear whether the numbers were just a natural event or as a result of the punishments handed out within the penal system. It certainly seemed ironic that the harsh Separate Prison was built so close the the hospital needed to treat some of it’s former inmates. After Port Arthur ceased to be a prison many of the residence of the asylum remained as they simply had nowhere else to go having become completely institutionalised.
Later after Port Arthur became the settlement of Carnarvon, the Asylum was used as the council offices as well as the local school.
Out in the bay is a small island called the Island of the Dead, between 1833 and 1877 this was Port Arthur’s cemetery.
A 20 minute boat trip around the harbour is included within the entry fee to the historic site. There are two stops on this tour, one is to Point Puer Boy’s Prison, the worlds very first prison dedicated to the incarceration and punishment of boys, and the other is the Island of the Dead. Walking tours of these locations are available at additional fees, which is the only way you get to visit them. I took the Island of the Dead tour which I would highly recommend.
It was identified very early on in the history of Port Arthur that a site was needed for the interment of the settlements dead. The island was selected as it was well protected and remote. It was probably also chosen as it had no other use and meant that the dead would never be disturbed by the activities on the main land. Convicts, military and freemen were all buried on the island. Convicts were interned on the low ground with no grave markers while the free were on the higher ground often with headstone or other monuments to record and commemoration their lives.
The actual number of people buried on the island is unknown, it is thought to be in the region of 1100, the names of many will never be known where as the stories of others have been documented and passed down through history.
Dotted around the historic site are a series of incredibly well preserved buildings which give a clear insight into the lives of those that ran the colony and later made the settlement their homes. Many of the building are open to the public so that you can step over the threshold and back through history.
Having spent the day exploring Port Arthur it had become clear that a single day simply wasn’t going to be enough. Entry allows for a two day visit and so I decided to head out and take a slow drive back to the hotel stopping to enjoy the views on the way and then come back for a second visit tomorrow.
Previously I described how Port Arthur had been built on a peninsular with natural boundaries being used to ensure that convicts didn’t escape. Their choice was to swim, which most couldn’t, or take their chances out in the forests where the snakes, spiders and other predators would ensure that their fortunes would be limited.
If you did manage to get away from the prison there is only a very narrow stretch of land which connects the peninsular to the main land of Tasmania at Eaglehawk Neck and so the authorities devised a method to ensure that no prisoners could get past; The Dog Line. A series of posts were erected in a line across the land, several were also placed in the water at each end on small man made islands, to which were chained ferocious half staved dogs which at very least would make such a noise if approached that the guards would be alerted to the threat, at worst they would attack any body who got too close.