Review: Travel back in time to the convict era on a Port Arthur day tour from Hobart inner banner

Review: Travel back in time to the convict era on a Port Arthur day tour from Hobart

UNESCO World Heritage-listed Port Arthur is one of Australia's most complete records of convict life. Thoughts of escape were deemed foolhardy but never abandoned, as you'll discover on this day tour from the Tasmanian capital. Review: Jane Dempster-Smith
Port Arthur day tour from Hobart
Port Arthur day tour from Hobart
Review: Port Arthur Day Tour from Hobart

From 1830 to 1877, Port Arthur was renowned as one of Australia’s harshest and all-but-escape-proof prison settlements.

British and Irish secondary offenders — many of whom came from Spike Island in Ireland’s Cork — were transported to Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula, 97 kilometres south-east from Hobart Town. Port Arthur was remote, surrounded by treacherous waters, and connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. Known as Eaglehawk Neck, and just 30 metres wide, it was the only way in or out by land.

In other words, this was the perfect location for a penal settlement — and one that would put as much distance as humanly possible between prisoners and their families on the other side of the world.

Watch our video of this experience:

Explore the Port Arthur Historic Site in Tasmania | Video Tour – The Big Bus

Welcome to The Big Bus tour and travel guide’s YouTube channel. In this video, we head to the fascinating Port Arthur Historic Site on the Tasman Peninsula i…

To deter convicts who might attempt to swim for freedom, officers actively promoted the rumour that the waters around Port Arthur were shark-infested. Was the shark story a myth? Sharks have been spotted close by in Pirates Bay, but sightings around Eaglehawk Neck are reportedly very rare.

Eaglehawk Neck was guarded by 18 bull mastiffs, chained at certain intervals along the isthmus. If this didn’t dissuade potential escapees, more dogs chained up on rafts on either side would have.

Port Arthur day tour from Hobart
Port Arthur day tour from Hobart: Eaglehawk Neck. Image: Luke Tscharke

We learn all this and more during a Port Arthur day tour from Hobart with Gray Line Tasmania. Their daily tour is a convenient way for visitors without a car to make the journey to the Port Arthur Historic Site. Entry is included, along with commentary on points of interest during the trip.

Despite all the perils, prisoners’ minds were probably never far from planning a bid for freedom. One convict, George ‘Billy’ Hunt, wrapped himself in a kangaroo hide and attempted to escape along the isthmus. The guards, noticing the kangaroo, took aim to supplement their measly food rations. Hunt threw off the skin, surrendered, and received 150 lashes for his trouble.

Parts of Port Arthur were designated silent and those convicts who broke the rule received 150 lashes. As a consequence, communication was very limited and planning to escape as a group would have been extremely difficult. Inmates in the infamous Separate Prison were kept in their cells for up to 23 hours and allowed out for one hour of exercise a day. They were masked during this time to avoid them making contact with other prisoners.

Port Arthur day tour from Hobart
Separate Prison, Port Arthur. Image: Tourism Tasmania/Kathryn Leahy

Originally convicted for housebreaking in Ireland, Martin Cash was known for twice attempting to escape from Port Arthur. In his first attempt he managed to swim across the reputedly shark-infested waters, but was caught and sent back (with a further 18 months added to his sentence).

This did not deter Cash from a second attempt. In 1842, he and two others — George Jones and Lawrence Kavenagh — escaped by swimming across the Neck with their clothes in bundles on their heads. Naked (having lost their possessions during the swim), they robbed a local hut for clothes and food. The trio became known as the ‘Cash and Co’ bushrangers, and for the next 20 months robbed mail coaches, inns and homesteads.

Upon entering the Port Arthur Historic Site, you’ll be dealt a playing card from a special deck created by Hobart artist Tom Samek. Each card features a prisoner who did time at Port Arthur. You take your card to the gallery, find the wooden box that relates to it, and learn more about the prisoner — including his name, place of birth, trade, length of sentence, and reason for sentencing.

Port Arthur day tour from Hobart
Port Arthur day tour from Hobart. Image: Alastair Bett

As an example, 18-year-old Patrick Murphy from Liverpool, England was convicted in July 1828 for stealing a picture. He was sentenced to seven years transportation and sent to Port Arthur for absconding from the No 2 chain gang in Hobart Town. Well-behaved, Murphy soon found himself back in Hobart, but it wasn’t long before he was in trouble again. He was charged with insubordination, assaulting his overseer and abusing a medical attendant. He was returned to Port Arthur, where he worked in irons for the next two years.

A day at Port Arthur is one filled with terrible and tragic tales, but also stories of redemption. Even Martin Cash would go on to earn his freedom after recapture; one of few convicted bushrangers to do so.

The writer travelled on this tour as a paying guest.

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Additional images: Bigstock

Jane Dempster-Smith

About the writer

Jane Dempster-Smith is co-founder of To Travel Too, and has had a long career in retail and corporate travel in Australia and the United Kingdom. In 2013, Jane and her husband Duncan sold everything and left Australia to see more of the world. They challenged themselves to travel on the Australian Age Pension of AUD $36,000 per year and with just a carry-on bag each. To Travel Too was launched to document their adventures. Having returned to Australia due to the pandemic, they recently launched Staycation Australia and are busy planning future travels.





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