Port Arthur, Tasmania

The highlight of our time in Tasmania has to be Port Arthur, a former convict settlement on the Tasman Peninsula, some 60 km from Hobart. It is one of Australia's most significant heritage areas and an enormous open air museum. The site forms part of the Australian Convict Sites, a World Heritage property consisting of eleven remnant penal sites (they include Woolmers Estate and the Cascades Female Factory which we also saw in Tasmania) . Collectively, these sites, including Port Arthur, now represent, "...the best surviving examples of large-scale convict transportation and the colonial expansion of European powers through the presence and labour of convicts." Port Arthur is officially Tasmania's top tourist attraction.

In 1996 it was the scene of the worst mass murder event in post-colonial Australian history. The subsequently convicted killer murdered 35 people and wounded 23 more before being captured by the Special Operations Group of the Tasmania Police. The killing spree led to a national ban on semi-automatic shotguns and rifles. The murderer, Martin Bryant, is currently serving 35 life sentences plus 1,035 years without parole in the psychiatric wing of Risdon Prison in Hobart, Tasmania

Port Arthur was named after George Arthur, the Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen's Land. The settlement started as a timber station in 1830, but soon went on to become a penal colony. From 1833 until 1853 it was the destination for the hardest of convicted British criminals, those who were secondary offenders having re-offended after their arrival in Australia. Port Arthur had some of the strictest security measures of anywhere in the British penal system. The peninsula on which Port Arthur is located is a naturally secure site by being surrounded by water. The 30m wide isthmus of Eaglehawk Neck was the only connection to the mainland and was fenced and guarded by soldiers, man traps and half-starved dogs.

For the really bad cases there was "a prison within a prison" - The Separate Prison. This also 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. Here food was used to reward well-behaved prisoners and as punishment for troublemakers. As a reward, a prisoner could receive larger amounts of food or even luxury items such as tea, sugar and tobacco. As punishment, the prisoners would receive the bare minimum of bread and water. 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. Many of the prisoners in the Separate Prison developed mental illness from the lack of light and sound. This was an unintended outcome of this type of punishment, although an asylum was conveniently built right next to the Separate Prison!

When Port Arthur was abandoned as a Prison in 1877, few people foresaw its potential as a tourist attraction: the principle goal was rather to erase it from history. After the Prison closed much of the property was auctioned off. However, most of the property was not sold until 1889. By this time, the area had become increasing popular and the prison buildings were in decay. As the Hobart Mercury proclaimed,"the buildings themselves are fast going to decay, and in a few years will attract nobody; for they will be ruins without anything to make them worthy of respect, or even remembrance." The decay was seen as something positive as the Tasmanian population wished to distance themselves from the dark image of Port Arthur. Those who bought Port Arthur property began tearing down the buildings, and the destruction was furthered both by earth tremors and by the fires of 1895 and 1897 which destroyed the old prison house..

However the haunting stories of Port Arthur prisoners brought popularity to the remaining prison ruins. This was helped by the popular novels For the Term of His Natural Life (1874) by Marcus Clarke and The Broad Arrow (1859) by Caroline Leakey, which concerned themselves about convicts in Port Arthur. By the 1970s the National Parks and Wildlife Service began managing the site.

The entry ticket gives you a boat trip round the harbour as well as entry to the buildings. The harbour cruise took us past the mass graves on The Isle of the Dead where thousands of prisoners were buried in unmarked graves. And past Point Puer, across the harbour from the main settlement, which was the site of the first boys' reformatory in the British Empire. Boys sent there were given some basic education, and taught trade skills. There is also a museum, containing written records, tools, clothing and other curiosities from convict times, a Convict Gallery with displays of the various trades and work undertaken by convicts, and a research room where you can can check up on any convict ancestors that might have been exiled here.

We spent many interesting hours on both Christmas Eve, and Christmas morning (oddly for a government site and providentially for us , it was open on Christmas Day.)

We stayed at Storm Bay guest house on Christmas Eve. It is only 10 km from Port Arthur and I could not recommend this property highly enough - it was wonderful. You would not call it luxurious - we stayed in the self catering cottage, but it it large and has wonderful views out to the sea. Happily we did not encounter any of the eponymous storms during our stay. The cottage is very well kitted out, there is a wood fire for colder days. It was very good value for money, and perfect for visiting Port Arthur a few minutes up the road. The only slight problem was that there were very few places in easy reach for evening meals , but we were doing our own cooking anyway. The owners were charming and helpful, and made time for a chat. So if you are visiting Port Arthur, then this is the place to stay.

On to Hobart

Australia 2013/2014