Port Arthur, Tasmania

Port Arthur, Tasmania

Infobox Australian Place | type = town
name = Port Arthur
state = tas

caption = The iconic view of the penitentiary originally built as a flour mill, across the water.
lga = Tasman Council
postcode = 7182
est = 1830
pop = 499
elevation= 192
elevation_footnotes= [ [http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/averages/tables/cw_094157.shtml Bureau of Meteorology] . Retrieved 2007-11-11.]
maxtemp = 14.8
mintemp = 8.2
rainfall = 1148.8
stategov = Lyons
fedgov = Lyons
dist1 = 95
dir1 = SE
location1= Hobart
dist2 = 19
dir2 = S
location2= Eaglehawk Neck

Port Arthur is a small town and former convict settlement on the Tasman Peninsula, in Tasmania, Australia. Port Arthur is one of Australia's most significant heritage areas and the open air museum is officially Tasmania's top tourist attraction. Known for its harsh conditions, dark history and stark beauty, it is located approximately 60 km south east of the state capital, Hobart. In 1996 it was the scene of the worst mass murder event in Australian history.


Port Arthur is located approximately 80 km south east 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 and covers approximately 100 km. Transport from Hobart to the site is also available via ferry or sea plane.

At the 2006 census, Port Arthur and the surrounding area had a population of 499.Census 2006 AUS
id=SSC65951|name=Port Arthur (State Suburb)|accessdate=2007-11-11|quick=on


Australia's largest penal station

Port Arthur was named after Van Diemen's Land lieutenant governor George Arthur. The settlement started as a timber station in 1830, but it is best known for being a penal colony.

From 1833, until the 1850s, it was a destination for the hardest of convicted British and Irish criminals, those who were secondary offenders having re-offended after their arrival in Australia. Rebellious personalities from other convict stations were also sent here, a quite undesirable punishment. It contains one of the best examples of a "Separate Prison" system based on that at Pentonville prison in London, The Separate Prison (or sometimes known as The Model Prison) was completed in 1853 and extended in 1855. The 80 cell prison was built in the shape of a cross with radial exercise yards around a central hall and chapel. [The "Separate" or "Model" Prison , Port Arthur - Ian Brand ISBN 0-949457-33-7] It signalled a shift from physical punishment to psychological punishment. It was thought that the hard corporal punishment, such as whippings, used in other penal stations only served to harden criminals, and did nothing to turn them from their immoral ways. Under this system of punishment the "Silent System" was implemented in the building. Here prisoners were hooded and made to stay silent, this was supposed to allow time for the prisoner to reflect upon the actions which had brought him there. In many ways Port Arthur was the pin-up for many of the penal reform movement, despite shipping, housing and slave-labour use of convicts being as harsh, or worse, than others stations around the nation.

In addition Port Arthur had some of the newest and strictest security measures of the Australian penal system. Port Arthur was secured naturally by shark-infested waters on three sides and the 30m wide isthmus of Eaglehawk Neck that connected it to the mainland was crossed by fences and guarded by prison guards and dogs. Contact between visiting seamen and prisoners was barred. Ships had to check in their sails and oars upon landing to prevent any unnotified leavings.

In 1836, a tramway was established between Taranna and a jetty in Long Bay, north of Port Arthur. The sole propulsion was convicts ["The Convict Tramway at Port Arthur" Eardley, GiffordAustralian Railway Historical Society Bulletin, April, 1954 pp3740] .

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 meager rations. When he noticed them sighting him up, Hunt threw off his disguise and surrendered, receiving 150 lashes.

Port Arthur was also the destination for juvenile convicts, receiving many boys, some as young as nine arrested for stealing toys. The boys were separated from the main convict population and kept on Point Puer, the British Empire's first boys' prison. Like the adults, the boys were used in hard labour such as stone cutting and construction. One of the buildings constructed was one of Australia's first non-denominational churches, built in a gothic style. Attendance of the weekly Sunday service was compulsory for the prison population, critics of the new system noted that this and other measures seemed to have negligible impact on reformation.

Despite its badge as a pioneer in the new nicer age of imprisonment, Port Arthur was still 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 Island of the Dead was the destination for all who died inside the prison camps. Of the 1646 graves recorded to exist there, only 180, those of prison staff and military personnel, are marked. The prison closed in 1877.

Today Port Arthur is home to many reputed cases of haunting and ghosts - particularly of convict origin. These include cases of cells with ghostly screams and empty rocking chairs that move.

From hellhole to haven: tourism development

After the closure of the penal colony the site was renamed to "Carnavon". During the 1880s the land in and around the site was sold off to the public and a community was established. Devastating fires tore through the area in 1895 and 1897 gutting the old prison buildings, leading to the establishment of the new town, with post office and other facilities.

Tourism started up almost as soon as the last convicts had left, supplying the new residents with a source of income, part of its undoubtedly due to its unsavoury past, and the ghost stories that accompany it. In 1927 tourism had grown to the point where the area's name was reverted back to Port Arthur. 1916 saw the establishment of the Scenery Preservation Board (SPB) which took 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 magnificent 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 Round Tower, the church, and the remnants of the main penitentiary. The buildings are surrounded by lush green parkland.

The mass graves on The Island of the Dead also attract visitors. The air about the small bush-covered island being described as possessing "melancholic" and "tranquil" qualities by visitors.

Tourists can either survey the site for themselves, or participate in guided tours, including late night "ghost tours". There is also a museum, containing written records, tools, clothing and other curiosities from convict times.

Since 1987 the site has been managed by the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority, funded by the Tasmanian Government.


On 28 April 1996, Martin Bryant went on a killing spree at Port Arthur, murdering 35 people and wounding 37 more before being captured by Special Operatives Police. This led to a national ban on semi-automatic shotguns and rifles. It also forged a relationship between the town and Dunblane, a Scottish town which suffered a similar incident earlier that year.


Further reading

* Barrington R (n.d.) "Convicts and Bushrangers", View Productions, Sydney
* Kneale, Matthew, (2000) "English passengers" London: Hamish Hamilton. ISBN 0241140684
* Smith R (1987) "The Birth of a Nation: Australia's Historic Heritage — from Discovery to Nationhood", Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood, ISBN 0-670-90018-4

External links

* [http://www.portarthur.org.au/ Official Port Arthur website]
* [http://www.tourtasmania.com/content.php?id=portarthur The Interactive Tour of Tasmania website]

ee also

*"For the Term of his Natural Life" by Marcus Clarke, a novel about a Port Arthur convict.
* Convicts on the West Coast of Tasmania
* Convictism in Australia

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