Thursday 11th February 2016
World Heritage-listed Port Arthur Historic Site is spread out over a large area, and so we were pleased to find that our entrance tickets gave us two days to explore. We signed up for a trip across the water to the Isle of the Dead today, and tomorrow another to the boys’ prison at Point Puer. We also signed up for an after-hours visit tomorrow evening which includes dinner at the on-site restaurant followed by a ghost tour by torchlight around the site. With all that organised, we joined the group waiting outside for the next guided walking tour.
Port Arthur began life in 1830 as a small timber station, and from 1833 until the 1850’s some of the colony’s most hardened criminals were taken there to work. Its location on the Tasman Peninsula made it a very secure prison, as there is only one way off the peninsula, via a very narrow isthmus which was very easy to guard. Any escapees could be easily seen, captured and returned to the prison. Our guide told the tale of one bright chap who thought to fool the guards by disguising himself in a kangaroo skin. It seems he fared even worse as the guards saw him and started shooting at their next tasty meal!
The main penitentiary building.
The guardhouse tower...looking down onto the penitentiary.
Some buildings are in a natural state of decay. Others have been restored.
The first decade of settlement at Port Arthur saw a penal station hacked out of the bush and the establishment of manufacturing – shipbuilding, shoemaking, smithing, timber and brickmaking. The 1840’s saw its consolidation as a penal and industrial settlement, and its convict population reached over 1100.
In 1849-50 the Separate Prison was built, modelled closely on Pentonville Prison. Harsh, physical punishment of the convicts was replaced with punishment of the mind. The building was cruciform shaped, and each of the four wings comprised a central corridor lined with solitary confinement cells. Separated by thick sandstone walls, it was hoped that the convicts would benefit from contemplative silence and separation. This regime was designed to achieve the most intense social isolation and control. Inside their cells for 23 hours a day, they were made to wear masks when outside to prevent communication. It is little wonder that another building was subsequently added – an asylum.
The Separate Prison.
After lunch we took a trip across the water to the Isle of the Dead. Between 1833 and 1877 over 1000 people – convict and free – were buried on this tiny cemetery island. It has two distinct burial sections, with convicts buried in largely unmarked graves on the low southern end, and the free and military burials marked by headstones, some of them very ornate, up on the high northern end. It appears there was to be no equality, even in death.
Graves of military and free men and their families on the higher northern end of the Isle of the Dead.
Henry Savery, born Somerset, England. Novelist and forger. This headstone one of several carved by convict T. Pickering.
It was interesting to hear the personal stories of some of those buried here, including convicts transported halfway around the world, soldiers who gave their lives to guard the prison, men in positions of responsibility and the families who followed them to this far-flung corner of the world.