Visiting Port Arthur in Tasmania, an Eerie Experience

Updated on November 25, 2019
Nan Hewitt profile image

Nan spent two months exploring Tasmania with nothing but her car and a teardrop caravan.

Port Arthur Penitentiary
Port Arthur Penitentiary

Port Arthur: A Penal Colony

Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula in Tasmania, Australia, was opened as a penal colony in 1830. Prior to this time, it was a timber settlement. With the closure of the penal colony at Sarah Island, the reigning British government sought a new location for transportees.

Port Arthur was considered ideal due to its proximity to Hobart and the geographical nature of the area; preventing escape was always a key consideration when establishing penal settlements. Port Arthur is located on a peninsula with a narrow strip of land connecting it to the Tasmanian mainland. Any escaped convict would need to cross this narrow passage if escaping by land, and the peninsula was easily guarded.

Remains of Buildings at Port Arthur
Remains of Buildings at Port Arthur

Inhabitants of Port Arthur

The penal settlement at Port Arthur housed as many as 1100 convicts at times. The convicts were mostly transportees from Britain, most convicted of petty crimes, such as stealing minor items. However, the policy of the time dictated that criminals convicted of two or more crimes were to be transported.

Most convicts were male, with about 20% women, and some children. Transportees who had served their time in the new colony but then reoffended were also sent to Port Arthur, while previously they had been housed on Sarah Island.

A Prison Built by Its Prisoners

Convicts were treated as a free workforce in building the new colony, and the first task awaiting early prisoners at Port Arthur was building the prison in which they were to be housed. This included making the bricks, felling trees used for timber, and then constructing the prison building.

The prison included solitary isolation cells which were used to punish bad behaviour. By this time, it was well known that solitary confinement caused the convicts to lose their sanity, but the practice still prevailed.

Irish Convicts

Some of Port Arthur’s resident convicts were Irishmen who had been involved in revolutionary uprisings in Ireland. The renowned William Smith O’Brien, a member of British parliament and leader of the Young Ireland movement was among them. He was arrested after leading an armed rebellion in 1848.

Originally, O'Brien was given the death penalty, but this was later changed to transportation for life. He was housed separately from the other convicts at Port Arthur after spending some time on Maria Island. He told the authorities that he could not promise to attempt escape from the prison. If housed with the other convicts, he did his best to stir up further rebellions. He was eventually released and returned to Ireland where he continued to speak publicly about the self-government of Ireland.

During its time as a penal settlement, Port Arthur was a village. The Governor’s house was located on the hill, high above the settlement, with views of the water. The settlement also had its own church, and convicts were encouraged to practice religion. There was also a large and beautiful garden established, very much in the English tradition. It was used by the Governor and other staff and their wives and families.

Many of the original buildings were severely damaged by bushfires, as was the garden. The garden has been restored, along with some of the buildings. Restoration and archaeological work is still in progress.

Smith O'Brien's cottage
Smith O'Brien's cottage

The Isle of the Dead

The Isle of the Dead, a short boat ride from the settlement, is home to the many convicts who died during their incarceration at Port Arthur. The most common cause of death was respiratory ailments—probably pneumonia and bronchitis. Illness was due, at least in part, to the poor diet and cold conditions in which the convicts lived and worked.

More than 1000 were buried on the island. The convict graves were unmarked, although memorial stones were later erected on some sites. Military and civil graves, of which there are about 180, were on higher ground on the north-west corner of the island. These graves were marked with headstones.

The Isle of the Dead
The Isle of the Dead

Point Puer

A separate penitentiary was built at Point Puer by and for child convicts. This was a first; prior to this, child convicts were housed along with the adults. The child convicts were generally unsuited to employment due to long-term lack of adequate nutrition which meant they were small and weak.

George Arthur, the administrator of Port Arthur, and O’Hara Booth, the commandant of the prison, were concerned that the young boys were to be housed with the worst of the criminals. As a result, they devised a scheme to house them separately with the intention of teaching them skills which would enable them to participate in active work.

Building remains at Point Puer
Building remains at Point Puer

Port Arthur Shipyard and Closure

Port Arthur, like Sarah Island beforehand, became a successful shipyard. Convicts were set to work building boats. Some were employed carting timber while the more cooperative were taught a trade. During its years as a shipyard, 15 large vessels and over 150 smaller, open boats were built at Port Arthur. Vessels were also brought in for repair. The dockyard employed up to 70 convicts.

As the colony developed, private boat building enterprises resented competition with a government shipyard which could offer lower prices since their labour was free. They petitioned for closure of the Port Arthur dockyard, which ceased most of its operations in 1848.

Port Arthur was closed as a convict settlement in 1877. Transportation of convicts had dwindled, and the last transportation ship departed Britain in 1867. The convicts still housed at Port Arthur were ageing and no longer able to undertake hard work. Most of the useful timber in the area had been harvested. And a population of free Australians had either arrived or been born in the new colony. Its time as a penal colony was coming to an end.

Recent History: The Port Arthur Massacre

In 1996, Martin Bryant drove to Port Arthur after killing two people. After going through the toll booth, he ate lunch on the deck at the Broad Arrow restaurant and then walked inside, pulled a high-powered gun from a bag and began shooting diners at point-blank range. People were stunned and initially thought it was a re-enactment, but soon realized the deadly truth.

He then moved into the Gift Shop where he continued to shoot and reloaded his weapon. He went into the car park, continuing to fire indiscriminately. He moved on toward the toll booth, passing Nanette Mikac and her two young daughters Madeleine aged 3 and Alannah aged 6. He shot Nanette in the temple after telling her to get down on her knees. He then shot Madeleine twice, once in the shoulder and then through the chest.

He fired at Alannah but missed, she ran to hide behind some bushes, and he walked up to her and shot her through the neck at point-blank range. He then hijacked a vehicle after killing the occupants and taking a hostage who he later killed. He also killed a service station attendant as he drove away toward Seascape.

In total, 35 people were killed, and a further 20 injured, some seriously. The restaurant in which most of the shootings took place has been decommissioned, and the area turned into a remembrance garden. A new entrance to the Port Arthur site has been built and is now operational.

News of the Port Arthur Massacre was received with shock and horror by the Australian people. In the aftermath, the then Prime Minister, John Howard, acted quickly to institute gun reforms. Restrictions were placed on self-automatic guns and rifles, and pump-action rifles. A mandatory buyback scheme, where owners surrendered their weapons for payment was also instituted.

Martyn Bryant has been sentenced to 35 consecutive life sentences which he is serving in solitary confinement. He is never to be released.

Apparently, Port Arthur has always been an eerie place to visit. Now, it is even more so.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Nan Hewitt

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      • Nan Hewitt profile imageAUTHOR

        Nan Hewitt 

        8 days ago from Albany, Western Australia

        There may be some ill-will felt towards the British, but I think most people have consigned that to history. In the early days, there was a certain amount of stigma associated with being of convict descent, but that is no longer the case. My great-great-grandfather was sent out as as a teenager (from Ireland) which seems very harsh. He was the eldest of six children with only a mother (I have no information regarding the whereabouts of the father). He had committed only minor crimes of stealing - probably to help the family survive. He served his time as a farm labourer and was granted a ticket of leave. He married a widow with a young child and went on to have several more children with her. It would be wrong to blame those who are alive today for decisions made by their ancestors.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        8 days ago from UK

        I was very interested to hear of the pride that Australians take in having a convict on their family tree. I expected there to be a bit of ill-feeling for the British shipping them out to Australia.

      • Nan Hewitt profile imageAUTHOR

        Nan Hewitt 

        2 weeks ago from Albany, Western Australia

        Thank you Liz. Yes, Australia's early history of convicts and their treatment and conditions is full of brutality. I think transportation was in keeping with ideas at the time which were very different from today. These days Australians are proud if they have a convict in their family tree - one of my ancestors was a convict. There are still numerous convict-built bridges and buildings standing. Not surprisingly, areas and buildings that formerly housed convicts are said to be haunted.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        2 weeks ago from UK

        This is a very interesting article. Transportation is not a part of UK history that I approve of. The later massacre was tragic and incredibly sad.

      • Nan Hewitt profile imageAUTHOR

        Nan Hewitt 

        2 weeks ago from Albany, Western Australia

        Thank you, Bill and Lorna, for reading this article. I was very aware of the sense of sadness when visiting.

      • bdegiulio profile image

        Bill De Giulio 

        2 weeks ago from Massachusetts

        Hi Nan. What a fascinating hub. I had heard of Port Arthur, but was not familiar with its history. The recent mass shooting there is so sad.

      • Lorna Lamon profile image

        Lorna Lamon 

        2 weeks ago

        This is such an interesting and well structured article which brought back fond memories of my own visit to Port Arthur. It is an eerie place to visit, however, there was a sense of sadness and the reality of how harsh life was in those days. A great read and thank you for sharing Nan.

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