Port Arthur Historic Convict Site: Part 1

port arthur lock  

We'd heard and read about Port Arthur. We'd seen pictures. Nothing, however, could have prepared us for our first views of this historic site as we made our way around the Isle of the Dead and headed towards Mason Cove. A picture-perfect expanse of golden, sandstone buildings lay before us on a green hillside surrounded by thick dense forest … an artist's pallet. Everything appeared so very beautiful, grand and pastoral from our vantage point … a castle or a huge mansion ... until you realized that this was once considered the harshest penal institution in the British Empire.


port arthur penitentiary


Originally founded in 1830 as a timber station, in 1833 Port Arthur, because of its isolated location, became the site of one of Australia's most shockingly cruel and brutal prisons. Now part of a World Heritage Site, this open air museum showcases the remains of the convict-built buildings which once served as their prison. In conjunction with interpretive guides, plays, museums and tours, the convicts' stories are told, providing distinctive personalities to the men and boys who served life sentences here.


port arthur convict cards lottery of life


“Transportation” was a common occurrence in England in the 19th century. Rather than hang, many prisoners were offered the option (or not) of being transported to Tasmania, among other fine localities to serve their sentences. A random playing card was provided with our admission ticket, each of which corresponded to the life of an actual prisoner who had been incarcerated at Port Arthur. We followed instructions which led us through The Convict Gallery interpretive center and allowed us to play “The Lottery of Life”. If we'd been sentenced to Port Arthur, David would have spent his life working in a blacksmith shop and I in the carpenter's shop, if I had been a male.


portarthur convict lottery


There are more than 30 historic buildings on this 300+ acre site. One of the most outstanding structures is the main penitentiary itself which housed 600+ inmates. This prison was envisaged as “a place of terror” by its builders. Now roofless and windowless with reinforced brick walls, it's easy to conjure up images of leg irons, cat-o-nine tails, inhuman treatment and hopelessness as you wander through. Most of the inmates were repeat offenders, sent here as incorrigibles from other Australian sites. However political prisoners such as Irish activist, William Smith O'Brien, were also incarcerated here.


port arthur penitentiary


The gothic-style non-denominational Church embodied the importance of religion in the attempt to reform the convicts. Capable of holding up to 1100 people, attendance and participation was compulsory. For some, it was the only social interaction with another human during the week. Much of the creative carving and stonework was done by the boys.


 port arthur church


The ruins of the hospital sits on the top of the hill and reminded us of a movie set … all facade and no depth.


port arthur separate prison


Though corporal punishment in the form of flogging was the norm here, a new theory of psychological punishment was also carried out on the worst prisoners in the “Separate Prison”.


port arthur separate prison cells


Here men were kept in solitary confinement in small, dark cells. Total silence was observed at all times, even by the jailers. Involuntary coughing or sneezing brought more punishment. Bread and water were the only rations. Prisoners were required to wear a hood over their heads. Next door to the Separate Prison was the Asylum...no comments necessary as to the results of sensory deprivation.

Port Arthur: Part 2 tomorrow.


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