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Getway with John Hagan
Convict Treasures
Port Arthur As Australia's Great Tourism Spot
Special Contribution
By John Hagan
The Penitentiary at Port Arthur Copyright Doris Hagan 2004

Readers of Conde Nast Traveler Magazine recently voted it "the world's friendliest island," yet Tasmania's background is somewhat at odds with such an accolade.

The southernmost Australian state, just an hour's flight across Bass Strait from Melbourne, was initially established as a British penal colony in 1803. Known then as Van Diemen's Land, and the English gulag of its day, it became "home" to over 70,000 British and Irish convicts, deported for various crimes and trifling misdemeanors.

While now offering a welcoming and relaxed lifestyle, Tasmania's "criminal" past is neither forgotten nor concealed. For Maureen Wheeler, co-founder of The Lonely Planet Guides, it's this background which appeals. "There's a sense of history, of continuity, which is absent elsewhere in Australia. I love the architecture and the mellow stone. Nearly every town on the island has a tale to tell of a convict past."

Convict church Copyright Doris Hagan 2004

Situated on the Tasman Penninsula, just a 90-minute drive from the State capital of Hobart, is where the island's convict background is strongest and at its most visible. Here, around a tranquil harbour, the Port Arthur Historic Site is the emblem of all the miseries, cruelty and horror which embodied the English prison system.

Established in 1830 as an isolated gaol for convicts requiring "severe discipline and hard labour," Port Arthur is now Tasmania's most visited tourist attraction.

A modern, world class Visitor Centre, containing gift shop, restaurants and interpretation gallery, welcomes the tourist. The entrance fee, valid for two consecutive days, includes an information booklet and a brief guided tour.

The Junior Medical Officer's house Copyright Doris Hagan 2004

Given that the Historic Site encompasses some 40 hectares (100 acres) and is divided up into 12 distinct precincts, the dedicated visitor may need the entire two days to thoroughly explore everything. However, 4-5 hours is generally enough to gain an appreciation of life (and death) in the penal settlement.

In 1848, prison authorities introduced the concept of ‘silent and solitary' confinement, (while still retaining corporal punishment), as another method of reforming the behaviour of the more deviant inmates. In the Separate Prison, (Convict Precinct) these unfortunates were isolated in single cells, kept in total silence and impenetrable darkness, for months.

It was surmised that this would afford them time to reflect on their misdeeds and eventually lead to their salvation. The warders never spoke to them, and patrolled the straw lined corridors in slippers to eliminate any noise. Even in the chapel, which was attended three to five times each week, prisoners were confined to individual stalls with high sides, so they were unable to converse with, or see, their fellow inmates.

The corridor through one wing of the seperate prison at Port Arthur. The seperate prison was an early exercise in solitary confinement.

Such an inhumane regime encouraged madness, resulting in the construction of an adjacent Asylum. The Separate Prison is one of the 30 original buildings, which have been carefully and authentically preserved and open for inspection.

Also found in the Convict Precinct, and the largest building on site, is the Penitentiary. Formerly a granary and flour mill, it was converted in 1857 to house 136 convicts, in separate cells, on the first two floors, and 348 in dormitory style accommodation on the fourth floor.

Reputedly the largest building in Australia when it was erected in 1844, the original mill was powered by a huge 24-man treadmill.

Unfortunately a bush fire in 1898 gutted the building, but visitors can stroll along extensive wooden gantries gaining an insight as to how the Penitentiary might have functioned.

A scene of Port Arthur

It is possible to stroll through the Civilian precinct, see the houses where the Chaplain, Accountant, Medical Officer and Parson lived, all the non-military personnel and their families who were, in a sense, just as much prisoners as the convicts around them.

On the higher ground to the north of the site is located the Military Precinct with its Officer's quarters, Guard Tower and administrative buildings.

The adjacent Commandant's House, with its many rooms, fine furniture, chattels and well-maintained garden, is in marked contrast to the conditions afforded to the tortured and tormented souls who toiled and suffered during their enforced sojourn.

Map of Tasmania Photo Courtesy Ausemade

Included in the price of admission is a 20-minute harbour cruise. This offers a stunning view of the complete site, passing the Dockyard Precinct (where boats were built and repaired), Point Puer (location of Britain's first juvenile prison) and the "Isle of the Dead."

Here, hundreds of convicts and ex-convict paupers were interred in mass graves, while the resting places of the 180 "free settlers" who died at Port Arthur are located on the upper part of the Island. Their elaborate headstones were often the work of convict stonemasons.

Much of the food for the settlement was grown on-site including vegetables, fruits, corn and hops. The beautiful ornamental gardens, thanks to the work of archaeologists and horticulturists, have been painstakingly and authentically recreated. Plant and flower species, replicating those from the 1850s are augmented by copies of the original garden ornaments and walkways.

Port ArthurThe view from the top of the penitentiary looking south towards the policeman's quarters and the Commandant's house. Port Arthur is near the southern end of the Tasman Peninsula on Tasmania's south eastern corner. Port Arthur is rich in history and is on the itinerary of most visitors to Tasmania.

No visit to Port Arthur would be complete without experiencing the famous 90-minute, lantern lit, knee-trembling "Ghost Tour." In the darkness, the site exudes a rather more intimate menace, as the guide recounts spine-chilling stories of apparitions, sightings of strange lights, unexplained disorientating noises, and the appearance and disappearance of various characters who formerly inhabited Civic precinct buildings.

In the dimly lit claustrophobic basement around the operating table in the Senior Surgeon's House stories of autopsies and operations (with props) are unnervingly described. Certainly a memorable finish to a day at the Settlement.

Other Articles by John Hagan
    Helsinki Highlights
    Nobel Prizwinner Seamus Heaney's Homeplace
    Paddock To Plate at Ballymaloe
    24 Hours in Belfast
    24 Hours In Dublin

John Hagan, who serves as a travel writer for The Seoul Times, is a freelance journalist based in Tasmania, Australia. Born in Ireland, and a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and the University of Wales, he emigrated to Australia in 1976 to take up a lecturing position. He contributes articles to a number of newspapers and magazines in South Africa, Canada, New Zealand, Israel, UK and Australia.






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