Port Arthur is one of most tangible relics of the convict system in Australia and it is a piece of the nation’s history which is not to be missed if you have reached as far as Hobart.
One-day tours from Hobart are available from a variety of companies, or, if you wish to make your own way, TassieLink operates a bus from Hobart to here every weekday afternoon. In addition, there are services on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings in summer.
Port Arthur itself is near the southern tip of the Tasman Peninsula. Named after Lieutenant-Governor Arthur, it began life in 1830 as a timber station. In 1833 it became a secondary punishment male prison settlement.
Port Arthur had become almost self-sufficient by the 1840s, but when transportation lost favour, and new young convicts ceased to arrive in the 1850s and 1860s, that self-sufficiency was gradually lost. In 1877 the prison was closed. Thereafter buildings such as the church and penitentiary were destroyed by fire and by vandalism, and other constructions suffered from those seeking building materials. The settlement was renamed Carnarvon, but in 1927 it reverted to Port Arthur. In 1979, the state and federal governments decided to spend $9 million on restoration and development work, since when it has won many awards.
Entry is now through the Visitor Centre, newly constructed in 1999 at a cost of a further $4.5 million, although access can also be gained at some other points around the forty-hectare enclosed site.
Passing through the Visitor Centre, one finds oneself in the role of a nineteenth-century criminal, being sentenced to transportation and then entering the ship and emerging in Port Arthur. One is given a prisoner identity card, relating to the circumstances of an actual past prisoner, and invited to trace his history and discover what became of him. Within the grounds are approximately thirty buildings, some restored and some just ruins, some prison buildings and some the homes of those operating the prison, or just ordinary civilians residing in the area. There is also the separate prison, for those who not only were transported convicts who had committed further offences in Australia, but had then re-offended in Port Arthur. Their punishment was a life of silence and solitary confinement. Even in church, where they were allowed to sing and pray audibly, in the hope of some propitious result, they were segregated from their fellow prisoners in individual stalls.
There is a beautifully built church, and a hospital, where, in fact, patients were well tended. There is an avenue of trees forming a memorial for those lost in the Great War. There is a Post Office and a Policeman’s Residence reminding us that this was a living community after its convict days, and even during them.
The admission ticket is valid for two days and includes a harbour cruise, except during July and August. The cruise lasts for twenty minutes and shows the shipbuilding industry here, the former boys’ prison at the aptly named Point Puer and, from a distance, the Isle of the Dead, the cemetery for this prison community. A detailed tour of the Isle of the Dead is offered for an additional charge.
In recent years, Port Arthur made history again, as most visitors know. On 28th April 1996, a man with a semi-automatic rifle opened fire in the cafeteria, and later elsewhere, killing 35 people and wounding a further eighteen. A mentally impaired 28-year-old from Hobart, who for months protested his innocence, was eventually tried for the murders and convicted. The 35 innocent victims are remembered in a Memorial Garden near the Visitor Centre.
There is, of course, plenty of accommodation in the vicinity of Port Arthur, since it is a tourist spot rapidly gaining in popularity. Options include a youth hostel in a beautiful former guest house built in 1890 and just outside the back entrance to the Port Arthur enclosure, but this is an option which is frequently rather crowded. There is also a Caravan Park offering a bunkroom for backpackers.
There are other sights to see in the vicinity of Port Arthur. These include Remarkable Cave, five kilometres south, and various other convict sites. Of the latter the most interesting is the Coal Mines, in the north-west of the peninsula. Coal was discovered here in 1833 and, although it was relatively low-grade coal, it gave Tasmania a degree of independence from New South Wales, from where all supplies had previously been imported. A contingent of the most refractory prisoners was sent to work these mines, in very harsh conditions, and another prisoner, one Joseph Lacey, convicted for robbery, appointed as overseer, since he had experience of mining. He proved so capable in this position that he eventually became the lessee of another colliery following his release. There are also the remains of convict ‘probation stations’ (outstations) at Nubeena, Premaydena, Saltwater River, Koonya and Taranna.
Click here for a Port Arthur map