Sunday 7th December
Today I was heading back to Port Arthur, but with a stop or two along the way.
When I first arrived at the convict site yesterday it was my intention to only spend the day, even though the entry price did cover for two. However, there is far too much to see so a second visit was essential. On my way from the hotel in New Norfolk I had passed through the small town of Richmond, but with a final destination very much in mind I didn’t stop; today was my opportunity to have a look around.
As you drive into Richmond the old colonial buildings are everywhere to see; it was these that had caught my eye. You get a real feeling of stepping back in time.
I only intended to have a walk along the main street to take a closer look at the various houses and shops, but on pulling into a space in the public car park I noticed a sign for the town jail which seemed too interesting to ignore.
Richmond Goal was built in 1825 to house the convict labour which was being brought to the area to build the roads and bridges needed to help colonise the lands in the surrounding countryside.
This small jail housed both men and women prisoners as well as their guards. Originally everybody was in a single building but as the needs of the area grew so did the prison eventually having buildings on all fours sides on the central court yard.
Richmond Goal is a wonderfully preserved group of building which provide a real sense of times past. The entrance in particular provided that passageway from now back in time.
There are many stories of the people who spent time here including Ikey Solomon who it is said was the inspiration behind the Charles Dickens character Fagin in Oliver Twist. Ikey, it seems, was also happy to “pick a pocket or two” resulting in him ending up in Tasmania.
As you drive out of town you cross this magnificent stone bridge. A small sign fixed to the side, which I had seen during my earlier walk, says …..
“This fine example of early colonial bridge engineering was built to provide a reliable all weather crossing of the River Coal. It was constructed by convict labour between December 1823 and January 1825. It is the oldest bridge in Australia“
From Richmond it was back to Port Arthur and the opportunity to explore the remaining buildings on the site.
As you enter the historic site of Port Arthur your eye is immediately drawn to the main penitentiary building which is straight ahead across the large expanse of lawn. Behind are the Separate Prison, Asylum, William Smith O’Brien’s cottage and various barrack buildings which housed the guards. Off to the left are the open waters of the bay and the Island of the Dead. But today I was heading left up to the little row of cottages which originally housed the more senior administrative staff, later being purchased by private individuals as part of the Carnarvon settlement.
The buildings had a number of uses as homes, boarding houses, shops and the communities Post Office, undergoing modifications as their use changed and the environment took its toll. Port Arthur suffered a number of devastating bush fires which resulted in at least one of the houses shrinking from two stories to one.
One of the houses became the settlements Post Office and telephone exchange, a slot in the base of a front window was used as a post box for letters to be collected and sent far and wide. A notice under the slot warns the user not to post letters containing valuable items but instead to hand them directly to the Post Master so they can be registered.
Right of the houses is a magnificent church ruin. This church had been used for many years by convicts and free men alike, but was not consecrated as it was used by all denominations, at first all together. That was until one protestant clergyman decided all that was wrong in the world was as a result of the Roman Catholic Church and proceeded to preach against it. The catholic prisoners subsequently refused to leave their cells for the mandatory church services, but rather than force them out they were allowed to remain as long as the time was spent in prayer, reflection and where possible bible reading. After a short time a catholic priest was employed to administer to their needs allowing separate services to take place in the church. A sign of the importance with which religion was held; the new priest received a salary higher than that of the colonies governor!
Further to the right of the church are the ruins of Government Cottage with the restored gardens stretching out in front. This building was only used occasionally to house very important visitors to Port Arthur.
The church ruins and gardens reminded me so much of the English landscape due to the design of the building and the trees and plants which are in abundance. The oak trees in particular are truly magnificent. It was certainly easy to imagine looking down from the cottages and watching men playing cricket on the village green below.
From Port Arthur I headed to the Coal Mines Historic Site, another of the World Heritage Convict Sites.
Various buildings are still visible as you follow the path through the trees, from the barrack blocks to the enormous hole in the ground which was once the main mine shaft. Although the mines are no longer open, having long since collapsed or flooded, there is enough above ground to give a real sense of the convicts lives and what they would have had to endure in their struggle to stay alive. There are also signs of the coal that brought them here scattered across the paths.
I have mentioned a number of times about the solitary confinement cells which were used as a punishment against prisoners, but at the Coal Mines they managed to add an extra element of fear and terror to the already terrible experience; the cells were under ground!! So not only was there no light, sound or fresh air, there was the added terror of knowing you had actually been buried alive.