Australia has a shocking history of human rights abuses that are well documented. In 1788 the British arrived and simultaneously decimated the indigenous population while subjecting their own to a life of misery in shackles. These events seem impossible to comprehend in our modern world, but must be remembered to serve as a stark reminder to us all to do better; today and every day. Port Arthur Tasmania was reserved for the worst of the worst. This once barren, inhospitable island between the mainland and Antarctica was ideal to contain those found guilty of the most heinous crimes. If you are doing it right, a visit to the Port Arthur Historic Site is a soul-shuddering reflection on the past. Read on for all the details …
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Port Arthur Historic Site
Port Arthur Historic Site is just over an hour’s drive from The Grand Chancellor Hotel Hobart where we stayed while in town. Hiring a car is the easiest way to get around and we got a great deal from Airport Rentals. Car parking is plentiful and a shuttle is available from the far reaches for those with mobility concerns. A visit to Port Arthur is a sobering experience. The tales of human suffering were hard to digest in contrast to my relatively comfortable existence. It is thought provoking and it is meant to be. To get the most out of your visit, I highly recommend joining the free guided walking tour before setting out on your own. Our guide Charlie started with an acknowledgement to country by recognising the indigenous owners of the land before showing us the highlights and pointing out areas we may visit later. Port Arthur Historic Site was converted to a convict punishment centre in 1833. At the time, Port Arthur was particularly difficult to reach. With no road, everyone and everything coming in or out had to make the arduous eight-hour boat trip from Hobart. As a result of this isolation, the prison had no walls or fences and relied on natural barriers to prevent escapes. While many attempts were made, none were successful. Port Arthur housed the worst of Australia’s criminal population and most were repeat offenders. It was officially closed in 1877 when the remaining prisoners moved to Hobart and Launceston gaols. In 2012 Port Arthur Historic Site secured World Heritage Status to preserve it for generations to come. If you are lucky, your visit might coincide with the semi-regular talks which provide unique insights. Grab your tickets online before you hit the road.
From a distance the Penitentiary cuts an imposing figure on the landscape. The yellow hued sandstone ruin has been painstakingly restored to give visitors a glimpse of what it would have looked like in its heyday. The Penitentiary has survived a number of fires but looting by the locals was perhaps the largest threat. It is said that many of the houses in the surrounding areas have a brick or two pilfered from The Penitentiary. Once inside you get a real feel for the cramped conditions in which the earliest inhabitants lived. Some of the cells are still intact but perhaps the starkest evidence is the grid marking long gone cells laid out in the centre.
The Separate Prison
Punishment in Port Arthur was initially metered out by the lash of the cat of nine tails and floggings occurred daily. A shift in mindset occurred to inflict mental rather than physical punishment with the introduction of the Separate Prison in 1850. The focus in the Separate Prison was on solitary confinement and sensory deprivation. For a taste of just how bleak the conditions were, I challenge you to completely close the door on the punishment cell for a few minutes and contemplate just what it would have been like to spend days on end in there.
Entry to Port Arthur Historic Site comes with a cruise of the bay. OK, cruise is probably a little generous in terms of describing the experience. Essentially the boat transfers visitors taking tours of The Isle of The Dead and Point Puer Boys Prison to and fro and the rest of us are invited along for the ride. Make sure you let them know which cruise you wish to take on entry as numbers are limited. Our guide Mel kept up an informative commentary throughout our time on board and perhaps the most heartbreaking were the tales of Point Puer. Point Puer was the British Empire’s first prison catering solely to boys. Over the 15 years it was open, more than 3,000 boys went through the system. The brutal British regime imposed sentences of transportation to Australia on boys as young as nine for crimes committed in England. Can you imagine the terror these children felt on learning their fate? Having two boys of my own, I cannot image how a 9yo would have coped and my heart aches for them. 80 of Port Arthur’s youngest inhabitants from Point Puer died during their incarceration and were buried on the Isle of the Dead. Even in death, those buried on The Isle Of The Dead could not escape their standing in life. The cemetery has two sections; one for convicts and one for others. Convicts graves contain no headstones and even those in the ‘others’ section were laid to rest according to their social standing, with the most important people occupying the privileged positions on the hilltop.
Of course those that worked at Port Arthur needed somewhere to live and a number of these historic residences are still intact. Take the time to explore them all. One home that illustrated just how easy we have it these days was the home assigned to a junior officer. The whole house was not a lot larger than my family room and he raised eight children in the compact space with his wife. And I’m pretty sure it would have been without the luxury of an iPad to keep them amused. While you are here, make sure you match the card you were given on entry with your prisoner. I drew Thomas Dickinson; the ace of clubs. Thomas was originally transported for life for stealing £130, a crime that would never even make the inside of a court room today. He found himself in Port Arthur as a result of his proclivity for escaping and made it all the way back to England on one notable attempt.
Most visitors to Port Arthur Historic Site will spend a good few hours on site to get the whole experience which means rumbling tummies will need satisfying. The café at the entrance serves a typical menu and most will find something to appeal. It’s not gourmet, but it provides sufficient sustenance to get through the day.
The beautiful grounds and gardens at Port Arthur Historic Site date back to the 1850’s and are well established. Take the time to explore the winding paths and enjoy the shade of the green canopy. Comprehensive plant guides are available for those who like to get into the detail and green thumbs can even purchase seeds to take home.
It would be remiss of me to talk about Port Arthur without mentioning the Massacre. 2016 marked the 20th Anniversary of Australia’s deadliest mass shooting. In April 1996 a lone gunman opened fire at the Port Arthur Historic Site killing 35 and wounding a further 23 in an event that shook Australia to its very core. That deadly day was the catalyst for reforms to Australian law and the gun control restrictions that are still in place today. There is a memorial on site in the ruins of The Broad Arrow Cafe for those that wish to pay their respects but visitors are respectfully requested not to pose questions about the massacre to the staff, many of whom lost friends and colleagues that dreadful day.
The Final Word
I’m so glad we included a visit to Port Arthur Historic site on our Tasmanian road trip. While the tales are harrowing, they are important and need to be heard. The staff are knowledgeable and do a fabulous job bringing individual stories to life for those that have lost the ability to do it themselves. I’m all about travelling on a budget and that starts with getting there as cheaply as possible. Our flights from Sydney were only $55 return! If you want a similar deal check out all my hints and tips for securing a bargain flight. You can stay close to the site but the short drive from Hobart means a day trip is just as easy. If you have the time, stop at a couple of the cellar doors in Richmond on the way back to the city and grab a bottle (or two!) to enjoy with dinner.
Are you planning a trip to Tasmania? I would love to hear what’s on your itinerary in the comments below.
Until Next Time …
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Disclaimer: This post is not sponsored. We paid for our entry to Port Arthur Historic Site in full and as always, all opinions are my own.