Review: Port Arthur Historic Site is a fascinating window on our convict past, TAS
With one fifth of living Australians descended from convicts transported from Britain in the 18th century, our convict heritage remains an integral part of the Australian story. Tasmania's Port Arthur Historic Site brings that story to life for visitors.
Visiting the Port Arthur Historic Site is an educational but very emotional experience.
It’s a chance to step back in time to the period when an estimated 160,000 men, women and children were transported as convicts from England to the colonies in Australia for crimes ranging from stealing a handkerchief to cold blooded murder. At least 12,000 convicts did time at the Port Arthur Penal Settlement on Tasmania’s southern coast, which earned a reputation for being one of the harshest of such facilities on the planet. Established in the early 1830s as a timber cutting station, Port Arthur served as a convict settlement for a relatively short 50 years. The site was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 2010 and recognised as one of Australia’s most complete records of convict life.
It’s a crisp spring morning as we set off from Hobart for the 90-minute drive to Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula. There’s time for a photo stop at Eaglehawk Neck — the narrow isthmus that connects the mainland and peninsula. Statues of two savage looking chained dogs represent the ‘dog line’ that once blocked the one and only potential escape route from Port Arthur. Coming from England, most convicts couldn’t swim a stroke. An escape by land was the only option and the real dogs would have acted as a howling deterrent for any inmate attempting to make a break for freedom.
Upon arrival at the Port Arthur Historic Site, each guest receives a playing card corresponding to one of 52 convicts incarcerated here. The card enables you to follow the progress of ‘your’ convict and learn more about their life at Port Arthur. My card — the four of hearts — matches the identity of 33-year-old Thomas Fleet — a blacksmith back in England. He was sentenced to life at Port Arthur in 1837 for burglary.
Exiting the museum, we join the 40-minute guided walking tour of the site, which is included in the cost of your entry ticket. The tour sets a leisurely pace across 40 hectares of open, idyllic green space, which was once home not only to convicts, but also to officials, soldiers and their families. I suspect it may not have been quite so pretty back then.
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…
Idle hands were certainly regarded as the devil’s tools in convict times. The main industries here at Port Arthur were timber logging and ship building. It would have been back-breaking work. I learn that Thomas Fleet was assigned to the timber gang.
As we tour some of the buildings dotted across the site, our guide recounts various convict tales — including some of the most notable escape attempts. The convicts were inventive in their efforts — like inmate Billy Hunt who thought he could pass himself off as a kangaroo. Yes, you read that right. His escape plan was flawed however, as taking pot-shots at kangaroos was a pastime favoured by soldiers.
The site has about 30 structures in total — some in ruins, some restored, and some in between. Our tour ends on Civil Row, where the houses of the magistrate, accountant, chaplain and medical officers were located. It’s here that you’ll find the parsonage — reputed to be one of the most haunted buildings in Australia. After dying in his upstairs bedroom, Reverend George Eastman was too tall for his body to be taken out via the stairs. As he was being lowered out the window, the rope snapped. It’s said that the Reverend can be heard moaning in the dead of night.
We say goodbye to our guide and grab a light lunch from the museum coffee shop, located inside what was once the Asylum. Understandably, mental health issues were rife at Port Arthur. Today the Asylum also houses a study centre, which shares more stories about former inmates — including juvenile convicts as young as seven who were sent to Port Arthur for stealing toys.
Right next door to the Asylum is the fully restored Separate Prison, which housed a number of cells devoted to solitary confinement. Here, repeat offenders were locked up for up to 23 hours a day. In these tiny, cold, pitch black spaces, inmates were expected to sit and reflect on their crimes in the hope of being rehabilitated. I step inside a cell and the door closes behind me. The walls seem to close in as well. It’s just a taste of the claustrophobia the inmates must have experienced.
Our day concludes with a harbour cruise (also include in the ticket price), which passes the aptly named Isle of the Dead. This small island is where most of those who perished at Port Arthur were buried, including both Thomas Fleet and Reverend Eastman.
All in all, the Port Arthur Historic Site is an absorbing barred window on one of the harshest chapters in our nation’s history.
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Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Linda Botting is a freelance writer, photographer and travel blogger based in Adelaide, South Australia. Her work has appeared in Great Walks, SA Weekend and International Traveller. She has travelled extensively through Western Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australia. Linda has lived in London, trekked Peru, practised yoga in Bali, studied Italian in Italy and played polo in Argentina. She seeks to inspire like-minded independent and solo travellers to explore new cultures and learn more about our amazing planet.