Port Arthur, Tasmania: Travel guide and things to do

If there is one place in Tasmania which should be visited by every Australian it is Port Arthur. This magnificently preserved penal colony is a powerful reminder of Australia's early history. For just a moment forget the beautiful English trees, the neat paths and the manicured lawns and try to imagine what it must have been like to have lived in the teeming slums of London's East End, to have stolen a bolt of cotton, or some foodstuffs or been involved in some petty crime and, having been sentenced to seven years transportation, to have found yourself at the other end of the world in this god-forsaken institution. The scale of the punishment seems so out of proportion to the crimes which were committed. It is extraordinary to contemplate that 12 500 convicts served their time at Port Arthur between 1830 and 1877.

So here, 100 km from Hobart and isolated from the rest of the island by that narrow sliver of land known as Eaglehawk Neck, the hardened criminals, the recidivists, were sent. Port Arthur was established in 1830 by Lieutenant-Governor Arthur (after whom it was named) to deal with secondary criminals. And, just to compound the misery in the area, from 1834 - 1849, a special prison for juveniles was established across the bay at Port Puer.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Port Arthur is that it reflects the changing attitudes to prisons and transportation. In the 47 years that it operated British notions of justice and equality went through radical changes. Port Arthur reflects those changes. In 1830 it was accepted that prisoners could be thrown together in mass cells. By the 1840s there was a movement towards separate cells and by the 1850s there was even a sense of dividing the prisoners according to a number of criteria - trustworthiness, health, sanity, and age. The exciting thing about Port Arthur is that the astute and careful observer can see the way treatment of prisoners improved and evolved in the mid nineteenth century. Here is a lonely and isolated penal colony with a hospital for the sick, with single cells, with dormitory accommodation, and with an asylum for the insane.

The convicts built simple wooden huts to protect themselves and their guards against the harsh, wet weather on the Peninsula. There are no remains of this early settlement. During these early years the convicts worked under appalling conditions. Their main tasks were to cut timber and to establish brick making and stone quarrying facilities.

By 1833 the convicts had completed a barracks on the hill behind where the Guard Tower and Tower Cottage now stand. This site has been excavated in recent times and large numbers of clay pipes, fragments of slate pencils and old slates (presumably from some kind of convict school) have been uncovered.

This ruin is the oldest of the buildings at Port Arthur. The major prison, known as the Penitentiary, which is located on the waterfront directly across from the car park, was reputedly the largest building in Australia when it was completed in 1844. It was originally built as a huge granary and flour mill but, after a decade, was converted to house prisoners transferred from Norfolk Island. The original construction of the building was completed by tradesmen convicts who were supervised by the Royal Engineers and directed by the millwright Alexander Clark. The mill was originally powered by a huge 24 man treadmill - surely one of the most demeaning and arduous forms of punishment ever invented.

The conversion to a Penitentiary reflected the current thinking (see the section on the Model Prison below) on penal institutions. This huge building, which is 75 m long and 4 storeys high, had the two lower storeys converted into 136 single cells. There were also dormitories which housed 513 prisoners.

When the penal colony was closed down in 1877 the Penitentiary became one of Port Arthur's major tourist attractions however it became neglected and a bushfire in 1897 destroyed all the timber in the building. Today the walkways in the building offer a fascinating insight into the lifestyle of the convicts. It is still possible to see the iron hooks in the walls where the hammocks were slung each night and the narrow ventilation ducts which were the only source of air. It is hard not to marvel at the inhumanity which would incarcerate a man in a cell which is only 135 cm across. It is interesting that official visitors in the 1850s and 1860s were shown the Penitentiary as a model of the colony's modernity.

Things to see

The Model Prison
Across Settlement Creek and next to the Asylum is the building known as the Model Prison which was built in 1848 and reflects the thinking about penal institutions at the time. In the early 1840s a sense of radicalism had entered the building of gaols in England and famous institutions like Pentonville had been built with exercise yards and separate cells. There was a fashionable philosophy which basically argued that isolation and separation would produce reflectiveness. This, in turn, it was argued, would lead the prisoner to think about his crime and become repentant. There was also a component which said that a person unable to communicate to other human beings will be broken far more quickly by silence than by any other form of punishment.


The Model Prison, which was designed by the Royal Engineers and built with convict labour, is based on the model of Pentonville Gaol in London. The thinking behind the building is that of William Crawford and Joshua Jebb who argued that prisoners should be given separate cells, that they should be called by number and not by name, that total silence should be maintained, that head masks should be worn in the exercise yards and that when in church they should be separated by individual boxes. It is said that even the warders wore slippers and communicated by hand signals.

The Church and Government Cottage
Another impressive building in the complex is the church which stands on the hill next to the Government Cottage looking down across Masons Cove towards the Isle of the Dead. This famous landmark was built around 1836-37 and was probably based on a design by the Deputy Commissariat Officer, Thomas Lempriere, and the convict architect, Henry Laing. It was never named nor consecrated. By the 1840s it was an elaborate building with a wooden spire (reputedly painted to look like stones), stone spinarets, sandstone and timber fittings, a peal of eight bells, and enough room to hold 1000 convicts and 200 officials. The wooden spire was blown down the year before the colony was closed. The church continued to operate for some years until, in 1884, it was seriously damaged by fire. The State Government took it over in 1913 and since then the ruins have been partially rebuilt and stabilised.

Today we can only guess at the opulence which characterised this section of the colony. We know from old drawings that the gardens which stretched down the hill in front of the Government Cottage were elaborate, laid out with rococo precision, and tended by convict gardeners.

Soon after the establishment of Port Arthur the convicts built a 'neat little cottage' for the Commandant, Charles O'Hara Booth. Over the years, due to pressures resulting from the size of the families of the various Commandants, the building has been greatly modified. Wings were added to house the large family of Commandant William Champ who supervised the colony between 1844-48 and in 1851 an attractive stone gateway (still in evidence) was added. The 'cottage', with its superb gardens, its interesting antiques and its magnificent view over the harbour is a stark reminder of the differences which existed between the prisoners and their guards.

Guard Tower and Military Complex
Next to the Commandant's House is the Guard Tower and Military Complex, perhaps the most architecturally sophisticated building at Port Arthur. This building, now in ruins, was the third military complex built at the colony. The first, a timber building, was replaced in 1841 by a brick structure which, in turn, was replaced by this two storey barracks which was completed in 1847. The most prominent remnant of a building is the Guard Tower which was built in 1836 with stones specially shaped by the teenage convicts at Point Puer.

Tower Cottage and Smith O'Brien's Cottage
On the hill behind the Guard Tower is Tower Cottage and nearby is Smith O'Brien's Cottage, a converted stable which takes its name from the fact that for three months in 1850 the Irish rebel, William Smith O'Brien, who had been transported for rebelling against British rule, was housed here. It is a comment on the politics of the time that Smith O'Brien, although sentenced and transported, was recognised as a 'special case' and separated from the other convicts. He was released as a ticket of leave man later in 1850 and lived in Tasmania until 1856 when, granted a free pardon, he returned to Ireland.

On the hill below Smith O'Brien's cottage are the substantial ruins of the colony's Hospital which was built in 1842 and once housed up to 80 ill convicts. It is a reminder that Port Arthur was, for a time, at the forefront of what was regarded as 'humane' treatment of prisoners.

The Hospital and the Asylum
From the walls of the Hospital (there are a number of walkways around the building) the handsome Asylum building (1867) can be seen below. It was the last major building at Port Arthur and as such is radically different from the buildings constructed in the 1830s and 1840s. It is more 'modern' than the hospital and was capable of housing 100 mentally ill patients at a time. It has been converted to the major museum on the site and has displays which provide the visitor with additional information on the penal colony and its inhabitants.

The great challenge for the visitor to Port Arthur is to try and conceptualise what the settlement was like in the 1850s and 1860s. Anthony Trollope has left us a rather glowing description of a place which has 'the appearance of a large, well-built, clean village, with various factories, breweries, and the like'. This is not an over-romanticised view. There is a photograph of the settlement which dates from 1860 and shows an extensive wharf in front of the Penitentiary and the hill where now only the ruins of the old Hospital, Smith O'Brien's Cottage and Commandant's House stand, is as densely housed as Battery Point in Hobart. It is also hard to imagine that by the 1850s Port Arthur was a remarkably self-sufficient settlement and that the convicts were involved in industries as diverse as ship building, growing vegetables, making shoes and boots, manufacturing clothing, making bricks and cutting and processing timber. It is easy to forget that this was one of the largest convict colonies in Australia and that, as such, it provided all the facilities of a large village.

For more information on these sites check out: http://www.portarthur.org.au/

Isle of the Dead
Most visitors to Port Arthur include the ferry trip across to the Isle of the Dead as part of their itinerary. The island was originally name Opossum Island after a vessel, the Opossum, sought shelter near the island in 1827. It became the burial place for Port Arthur in 1831 (only months after the establishment of the settlement) and almost immediately was divided into free settler and convict burial grounds. At this time it was known simply as Dead Island.

The first detailed record of the island and its history was published in 1845 by the Rev John Manton. Titled The Isle of the Dead: or the Burial-Place at Port Arthur the pamphlet recalls how Manton chose and named the place.

'It fell to my lot to be the first Minister of the Gospel appointed to preach the word of life to these degraded outcasts. With what success that word has been declared by the Ministers of the Wesleyan Connexion, who have laboured among them from year to year, the great day alone will unfold. Disease and death soon made their inroads among us; so it was necessary some suitable spot should be selected, where to deposit the earthly remains of the departed. In the spacious bay, on the verge of which the settlement is situated, at the distance of a mile, stands a lovely little island, about half a mile in circumference at the water's edge. This, it appeared to me, would be a secure and undisturbed resting-place, where the departed prisoners might lie together until the morning of the resurrection. It was accordingly fixed upon, and called, 'The Isle of the Dead'.'

Over the years a total of 1769 convicts and 180 free persons (most of them military personnel) were buried on the island. There was a plan to leave the convicts graves unmarked but by 1854 there were headstones on some of the convict graves.

There is a superb book on the island and its history titled The Isle of the Dead, Port Arthur by Richard Lord. It details all the graves on the island and Lord's assiduous research has provided marvellous pen portraits of the people who ended their days at Port Arthur and were buried on the island.

Perhaps the most interesting story recounted in this fascinating book (it is available from the main shop at Port Arthur) is that of John Barron, who was the island's grave digger for nearly twenty years. He would be almost forgotten had he not met the noted English novelist Anthony Trollope in 1873. In his book Australia and New Zealand Trollope recounts the meeting.

'But of all the men the most singular in his fate was another Irishman, one Barron, who lived in a little island all alone; and of all the modes of life into which such a man might fall, surely his was the most wonderful. To the extent of the island he was no prisoner at all, but might wander whither he liked, might go to bed when he pleased, and get up when he pleased, might bathe and catch fish or cultivate his little flower garden - and was in very truth monarch of all he surveyed. Twice a week his rations were brought to him, and in his disposal of them no one interfered with him. He surveyed nothing but graves. All who died at Port Arthur, whether convicts or free, are buried there, and he had the task of burying them. He digs his graves, not fitfully and by hurried task-work, but with thoughtful precision - having one always made for a Roman Catholic, and one for a Protestant inmate.'

A visit to the Isle of the Dead is an important part of any detailed visit to Port Arthur.

Remarkable Cave
A less essential, but no less fascinating, part of a visit to Port Arthur is a visit to Remarkable Cave which lies 6 km beyond the historic site.

Apart from the interest of Remarkable Cave the journey out to the cave offers views across some of the most dramatic coastal scenery in Tasmania. The view from Safety Cove across Port Arthur to Budge Head, Resolution Point, Yankee Rock, Cape Pillar and Tasman Island (with its lonely lighthouse) is simply breathtaking.

Remarkable Cave itself is not really a cave. It is actually more like a huge tub which has been formed by the collapse of the walls of the cliffs which has produced a situation where the cave including its sandy floor have been trapped. The view from Remarkable Cave along the rugged coastline to Cape Raoul is also spectacular and dramatic.

Tourist information

Port Arthur Historic Site Visitor Information Centre
Port Arthur Historic Site
Port Arthur TAS 7182
Telephone: (03) 6250 2363