Port Arthur, TAS, Australia

The United Kingdom created thousands of penal colonies in Australia from 1788 until the mid-19th century. Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula is the most notorious of the eleven Australian Convict Sites that have been preserved and designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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1 Transportation to Port Arthur, Australia

Port Arthur is located in southeastern Tasmania on the Tasman Peninsula. There are many ways to reach this historic penitentiary. If arriving by cruise ship, it will anchor in Carnarvon Bay, a quiet harbor formed by Cape Pillar. You will then tender into the ferry dock at Mason Cove near the Visitor Centre. If arriving by car, the distance from Hobart is 62 miles and takes about 1.5 hours. The closer you get, the narrower the roads but also the more scenic. If you prefer sleeping versus driving, then sightseeing buses are available from Hobart.

Carnarvon Bay, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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2 History of British Penal Colony at Port Arthur, Australia

The British liked sending their prisoners as far away as possible. During the early 17th century, they transported convicts to the American Colonies. After the outbreak of the American Revolution, they began shipping convicts to today’s Sydney aboard the First Fleet in 1788. Soon other prison colonies were established in Australia. One of them was at Sullivan’s Cove (today’s Hobart) in 1804. In 1820, the Macquarie Harbour penitentiary was founded in western Tasmania. Just as the exporting of prisoners peaked in 1830, a site was needed for the worst criminals. That year, Port Arthur was created at a small timber station. It replaced Macquarie Harbour and received the hardest criminals from the United Kingdom until 1877. By the time the British stopped transferring criminals in 1868, over 166,000 prisoners had been sent to Australia.

Port Arthur Jetty, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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3 Introduction to Port Arthur, Australia

For nearly fifty years, Port Arthur confined, punished, tortured and subjected to hard labor over 12,700 of the British Empire’s hardened criminals. Named after Sir George Arthur – the Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land from 1824 to 1836 – this bayside, 100 acre property was supposed to be an exemplary reformatory based on the Separate Prison Typology theory. Instead, the penal site evolved into one of Australia’s cruelest prisons. Most of the original 30 buildings are gone or in various state of ruins. These hallowed shells among groomed paths and blooming gardens only add to the haunting atrocities that occurred within their crumbled walls.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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4 Origin of The Penitentiary at Port Arthur, Australia

Port Arthur’s most prominent building has an interesting origin. When the penal colony was founded in 1830, it was expected to become self-sufficient. Its timbering was initially successful. Farming produced potatoes and cabbage but livestock were not added until the 1850s. A grand plan was devised in 1839 to build a flour mill and granary to help feed the growing prisoner population. Engineer Alexander Clark started the project in 1842. When the construction of this grandiose mill was complete in 1845, it was a disaster. Water needed to supply the grinding wheels and machinery could not be controlled. After nine years of frustration, the mill was abandoned and the building was repurposed as The Penitentiary.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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5 Transformation of The Penitentiary at Port Arthur, Australia

It required over three years – from 1854 until 1857 – to convert the failed flour mill into The Penitentiary. When it was finished, this 246 foot long structure had two floors of prison cells for hardened criminals while the third level contained a dormitory for nearly 500 model prisoners. The building also had a dining hall, a library and a chapel. This wing was added to provide rooms for a kitchen, bakery and storage.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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6 History of Tourism at Port Arthur, Australia

Tasmania was understandably not proud of Port Arthur’s sordid past. After the prison closed in 1877, the government renamed the site Carnarvon and tried auctioning the structures within the local community. Some tourists were attracted before it was ravished by a series of fires in the late 19th century, leaving most buildings in ruins. At the start of the 20th century, tourism groups and government boards attempted to preserve its cultural history. They were marginally successful. What launched an influx of visitors was the 1926 silent film For the Term of His Natural Life. The town immediately assumed its old Port Arthur name. Popularity slumped during WWII. After the war, the Scenery Preservation Board repurchased the historic buildings and actively promoted tourism. Today, Port Arthur is Tasmania’s number one attraction and welcomes over 250,000 people annually. Shown is a section of The Penitentiary and, in the background, the remains of The Hospital.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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7 Police Station at Port Arthur, Australia

Located behind The Penitentiary on Champ Street – named after Port Arthur’s commandant from 1844 – 1853 – is the Police Station. This house was not part of the penal colony. During the 19th century, the police headquartered in the Law Courts building which burned down in 1897. In 1936, this home was built for Trooper Roy Langford. It remained an active station for the Tasman Peninsula police force until 1973. For about ten years, it operated as Langford’s Tearooms.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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8 Massacre at Port Arthur, Australia

Something in the human psyche draws us to historic sites with a macabre past, especially when they are in partial ruins. We never expect something tragic to occur while exploring places like The Asylum and Separate Prison shown here. But in April of 1996, Port Arthur was the scene of Australia’s worst mass shooting when 28 year-old Martin Brant open fired with a semi-automatic rifle. By the end of the melee at the former penal colony, 33 people were dead and 19 were injured at the café, gift shop, parking lot and access road. There were other victims before and after. This sparked a national outrage, leading to a legislative ban against automatic and semi-automatic rifles in Australia. By 1997, a buyback program collected 700,000 weapons. Around the Broad Arrow Café is the Memorial Garden to commemorate the event.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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9 The Hospital at Port Arthur, Australia

This is all that remains of the third hospital built at Port Arthur in 1842. The two-tier, sandstone structure featured an arcade, open balcony and busts of Hippocrates and Saint Luke atop the corner gables. It could accommodate about 70 patients for inflictions ranging from scurvy to on-the-job injuries. Separate wards were maintained for prisoners versus soldiers. One wing was reserved for Catholics and the other for Protestants. After The Hospital was abandoned in 1877, the Catholic church converted it into a juvenile home. When it was ravished by a fire in 1895 and again two years later, it was left in ruins.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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10 Smith O’Brien’s Cottage at Port Arthur, Australia

William Smith O’Brien was an Irish politician, Member of Parliament and leader of the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848. When the social movement for nationalism failed, O’Brien was condemned to death for treason. Public support helped get his sentence commuted to imprisonment. After a short incarceration at Maria Island in Tasmania, he was transferred to Port Arthur. He was treated far better than most convicts. Authorities converted this 1845 stable into O’Brien’s Cottage. Within a year, he was released and exiled in Brussels before getting a pardon in 1856.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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11 The Officers’ Quarters at Port Arthur, Australia

There used to be a large Military Barracks at Port Arthur to house over 200 soldiers from the 63rd Regiment. Only remnants of the once over-crowded structure remain. What can be visited is The Officers’ Quarters. Also called Tower Cottage, it was reserved for junior officers with families. This modest yet functional brick structure had two rooms on the first floor and two more in the attic. After suffering in the 1897 fire, it has been renovated twice.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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12 Senior Military Officer’s Quarters at Port Arthur, Australia

Within three years after Port Arthur was established, this residence was built for the leader of the military assigned to the convict settlement. The comfortable wooden abode had four rooms and plenty of space to accommodate the senior officer’s family. It also had a balcony plus a flower garden along the side, giving it the nickname Rose Cottage. After Port Arthur closed, it served as two different schools.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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13 Guard Tower at Port Arthur, Australia

This embattled round tower is in the center of the Military District where Port Arthur’s commandant and officers lived. It is also situated on a hill overlooking the bay and prison yard. While standing on the inner walkway atop its lead roof, a sentry could vigilantly watch for suspicious activity. The cut-stone fortification was ordered by Commandant Charles O’Hara Booth and constructed in 1836 by teenage convicts from Point Puer Boy’s Prison. The Guard Tower was also used as an armory plus had three holding cells for soldiers and “free staff” who committed minor infractions.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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14 Law Courts at Port Arthur, Australia

Imagine being born in a British slum, struggling through poverty, being arrested for a petty offense, tried in an English court, being sentenced to a penal colony over 11,000 miles away and then shuffled onto a transport ship for the five month voyage to Port Arthur. Assuming you survived, you were immediately ordered to stand at the Law Court and listen while the commandant explained the miserable life you would endure while making you an “honest man.” Such was the fate of Port Arthur convicts. Any infraction earned you a return trip to the Law Courts for sentences of excruciating punishment, assignment to harder labor or solitary confinement. This judicial building was constructed in 1848, expanded in 1854 and destroyed by a bushfire in 1897. Imagine how thrilled prisoners would have been to witness its demise.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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15 The Asylum at Port Arthur, Australia

Physical punishment at Port Arthur was harsh, including hard labor, leg irons and flogging on the bare back with a cat-o-nine tails (called the lash). Worse yet was psychological torture including solitary confinement. No wonder so many convicts went insane. In 1868, The Asylum was built, the last major structure at Port Arthur. This was an ugly place for the mentally ill (disparagingly referred to as lunatics). In 1889, the structure was given to the Carnarvon Town Board as a town hall. After a devastating fire in 1895, it was rebuilt including the tower. The township was renamed Port Arthur in 1927. After the council left in 1973, The Asylum was converted into a museum and café.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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16 Separate Prison at Port Arthur, Australia

The worst offenders at Port Arthur were subjected to the worst punishment: total solitary confinement. After the Separate Prison was built in 1849 – originally called the Model Prison – inmates were issued a number and then locked in a cell. Absolute silence was maintained at all times. They were only allowed isolated exercise for one hour a day and restrained in a cubicle at chapel when they attended services four times a week. While being transported, they wore a hood. If they caused trouble, it only got worse. They were subjected to a cramped, completely dark cell for up to 30 days.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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17 Civil Officers’ Row at Port Arthur, Australia

At the eastern edge of Port Arthur are three houses known collectively as Civil Officers’ Row. The first home (not shown) was constructed in 1847 for the Visiting Magistrate. This judge heard convict cases in the Law Court. At times, it also served as the residence for the Senior Medical Officer. Its neighbor – this Roman Catholic Chaplain’s House – was built three years prior. It is a bit surprising to learn a Catholic priest was welcome at Port Arthur given Britain’s predominate Anglican faith. But the chaplain was allowed to conduct mass in the back of his home for Catholic prisoners and later inside The Penitentiary’s chapel. The last and youngest of the triad became the Junior Medical Officer’s House (not shown) when it was finished in 1848.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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18 Accountant’s House at Port Arthur, Australia

Two additional homes can be visited closer to The Church. This surprisingly modern house was initially intended for the Medical Officer when it was finished in 1843. After the doctor and surgeon moved into his upgraded home in Civil Officer’s Row, this became the residence for the Accountant. He managed the Commissariat Stores which had been located on the waterfront since 1830. After the penal colony closed, this became a school and is now the Education Centre.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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19 Parsonage at Port Arthur, Australia

Parsonage is an English word for the residence of a clergy member. Three successive reverends and their families lived here from 1843 until Port Arthur closed in 1877. One of them, Reverend Eastman, died upstairs in 1870. Ever since, his spirit has haunted this house. His frequent apparitions from beyond his grave at the Isle of the Dead is only one of many spooky tales and paranormal activities that will tingle your spine during a nighttime, 90 minute Port Arthur Ghost Tour. Follow the guide’s lantern if you dare. During the early 20th century, this refurbished building was used by the Carnarvon Post Office.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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20 The Church at Port Arthur, Australia

The buildings at Port Arthur lacked aesthetic appeal with one exception: The Church. Construction of this Neo-gothic design by convict architect Henry Laing began in 1835 with inmate labor and by juveniles incarcerated at Point Puer. It was finished in 1837 but never consecrated by a religious denomination. All 1,000 plus prisoners were required to attend Sunday services. The Church was gutted by fire in 1884. However, the lancet windows and spectacular tower with conical spires attest to its former beauty. During construction, William Riley murdered fellow inmate Joseph Shuttleworth with a pickaxe. Their ghosts are said to still haunt The Church.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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21 Government Cottage at Port Arthur, Australia

Next to The Church and at the head of the gardens is the brick shell of the Government Cottage. The quaint structure was built on an elevated platform in 1853. This abode was the temporary residence for visiting government officials, especially the head of the convict department (Comptroller General). Government Cottage has been in ruins since it was destroyed in 1895 by a fire.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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22 Government Gardens at Port Arthur, Australia

Soon after Port Arthur was established as a penal colony in 1830, large plots were created for farming produce and growing hops for brewing beer. Officers and their families were also allowed to have small flower beds. By the mid-19th century, the appreciation for old English gardens evolved dramatically into the Government Gardens. Flanking shaded pathways were sculpted trees, manicured lawns plus abundant plants and flowers. They were neglected after Port Arthur closed in 1877 but were revitalized during the 1990s. Now you can enjoy the garden pathways once reserved for officers and their wives. Before entering, find the placards near the Government House. They provide an illustrated description of all the plants and flowers.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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23 Government Gardens’ Horticulturist at Port Arthur, Australia

Although ornamental gardens were planted and cultivated at Port Arthur during its initial years, they were not a priority until William Champ became the penal colony’s commandant in 1844. Developing the Government Gardens was his passion. Countless flower seeds and bulbs were imported from the United Kingdom and other countries. A variety of trees were planted, including a willow cutting from near Napoleon’s grave. Walkways were created. In the center, Champ installed this fountain and a canal to source the water. In 1849, he became a founding member of the Royal Society of Tasmania for Horticulture and Botany. By the time he left in 1853 and later became the 1st Premier of Tasmania in 1856, the gardens had become an oasis of tranquility. His successor, James Boyd, continued manicuring the gardens while Commandant of Port Arthur through 1871.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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24 Canadian Cottage at Port Arthur, Australia

Adjacent to the Visitor Centre and steps away from the ferry wharf is this late 19th century wooden house encircled with a garden and picket fence. It was originally called Port Lookout Cottage. However, because it was pre-fabricated in Canada, it became known as Canadian Cottage when it was moved to Port Arthur in 1900. It was never part of the penal colony. Instead, it was a home for shopkeepers who catered to the influx of tourists.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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25 Enormous Mountain Ash at Port Arthur, Australia

Port Arthur’s historic ruins get all of the attention. Often overlooked and underappreciated are the groves of enormous trees, especially near the pathway to The Dockyard. These are mountain ash, indigenous to Tasmania and parts of Victoria. Also called Tasmanian oak, these giants typically grow over 275 feet. This qualifies the eucalyptus regnans as the world’s second tallest species. If not logged, these straight, gray-barked beauties can live for hundreds of years.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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26 Cove Overlook in The Dockyard at Port Arthur, Australia

When visiting Port Arthur, it is easy to miss seeing The Dockyard located southwest of the ferry landing. Venturing down the waterfront trail is worth it for the scenery and history. This shipyard began in 1834 under the command of John Watson, the first Master Shipwright. Up to 70 prisoners were tasked with building and repairing vessels. Unlike other places in the prison, Watson treated the men and boys with respect while teaching them a useful trade. This approach was continued by his successor, David Hoy (1836 – 1848). This woman is standing in front of The Limekiln. The fire pit was used for twenty years starting in 1854 to help produce mortar, plaster and fertilizer.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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27 Skeletal Ship Sculpture in The Dockyard at Port Arthur, Australia

This 82 foot, skeletal ship sculpture sits in a former slip. It demonstrates the size of craft once produced by The Dockyard. The shipyard is credited with producing 16 large vessels, including schooners, cutters and whaleboats. They also built about 150 smaller boats in addition to repairing ships arriving from the United Kingdom.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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28 Clerk of Works’ House in The Dockyard at Port Arthur, Australia

A complex of structures supported The Dockyard while it was operational from 1834 until 1848. These included a blacksmith shop, two saw pits, a boatshed, tool store and steamers for bending lumber plus various outbuildings. This is the Clerk of Works’ House. It was constructed in the mid-19th century. You can also see the original Master Shipwright’s House built in 1834.

6973 Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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29 Historic Sites in Carnarvon Bay at Port Arthur, Australia

Two historic sites are in Carnarvon Bay across from Port Arthur. On the left is Point Puer Boys’ Prison. From 1834 until 1849, this headland incarcerated up to 3,000 teenage boys. Juveniles were forced to build the makeshift brick structures atop the 60 foot cliff. The gaol’s mission was to isolate the children from adult criminals while educating them. In reality, it was a despicable place characterized by cruel physical punishments, routine violence and hard labor. On the right is the Isle of the Dead. Before it became a cemetery in 1833, it was called Opossum Island. By the time it ceased operations in 1877, over 1,000 people had been buried here. Only 180 of the graves were marked on the north part of the islet, typically for officers, soldiers and their families. It was mostly forbidden to provide tombstones for prisoners buried on the south side.

Carnarvon Bay, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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30 Harbour Cruise at Port Arthur, Australia

Every admission ticket to Port Arthur includes a harbour cruise aboard a catamaran. The type of sightseeing adventure depends on the package you purchase. At the minimum, you will enjoy a 25 minute ferry ride around Mason Cove and Carnarvon Bay. A Silver Pass includes a walking tour of either Point Puer Boys’ Prison or the Isle of the Dead shown here. The two-day pass lets you explore both plus have meals and afternoon tea.

Isle of the Dead, Port Arthur, TAS 7182, Australia
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Dolerite Columns at Cape Raoul near Port Arthur, Australia

If you leave Port Arthur by ship, stay on deck with a cocktail in one hand and your camera in the other. As you sail around the southwestern tip of Tasman Peninsula, marvel at Cape Raoul’s dolerite columns. This incredible seascape was born during explosive volcanic activity in the Jurassic Period 185 million years ago. Molten cooling formed symmetrical cracks and then huge vertical columns. Some of these colossal, hexagonal pillars soar nearly 1,000 feet. If you are exploring Tasmania by car, consider driving to this tip of Cape Raoul – part of Tasman National Park – and hiking along the incredible coastal trails.

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