An ex-prison for the most hardened criminals; not what comes to mind for your typical day trip. But as one of the most historic sites in Tasmania, Port Arthur is well up there with the best attractions in the state.
Here’s a quick summary of background history for those of you who haven’t heard of Port Arthur:
- A penal colony for hardened British criminals between 1830 and 1877
- Prisoners worked as ship builders, timber makers and smiths
- From 1853 a ‘Separate prison’ was built which switched the ethos to one of more psychological punishment. This included food rewards for good behaviour and ‘Silent System’ where prisoners had to stay silent and wear hoods. Many prisoners here became mentally ill and so Port Arthur’s reputation is one of being harsher than the other stations around the country
- The remote location also contributed to the idea of ‘no escape’
Surprisingly, one of the first things that struck me was the beauty of Port Arthur. As a whole, Tasmania is a stunning country but the words ‘convict site’ don’t exactly conjure up images of azure waters and lush rolling hills. Which, incidentally, are exactly what we found.
It’s hard to imagine arriving here on a ship from England for a life of imprisonment when it looks like this!
The complimentary ferry trip included in your ticket would ordinarily give a gorgeous view of the surroundings. However, as soon as we boarded, the heavens opened and a grey mist descended over the water! Usually, you can take an additional tour to Point Puer – a separate prison for juvenile boys as young as nine – and the Island of the Dead which contains only 180 marked graves out of over 1600 supposed burials. These tours sounded fascinating but were sadly called off due to bad weather.
Thankfully, it didn’t last long and left us able to explore the grounds of the former prison further. The image below shows the half ruined penitentiary, capable of housing around 480 convicts.
Port Arthur is also surprisingly huge, housing over With a hospital, asylum, cottages for the officers (plus the grand Commandant’s House overlooking the water) and a church, it could almost be the ruins of a fully formed village. We wandered slowly to the Commandant’s House where you can really take a look back into history.
The each room is interestingly decorated as they were through different points in history. This reflects the extensions that each Commander made to the house as well as its use as a B&B! This was one of my favourite parts of the Port Arthur experience.
However, as well as its history as a convict site, that isn’t all there is to Port Arthur.
In 1996, it was also the site of one of the worst mass shootings in the world. A lone gunman rampaged around the area killing a total of 35 people and wounding countless others – 31 of them at the Port Arthur Historic Site. We visited the memorial garden to learn about the tragedy and were really shaken up by it.
Despite the weather that was conspiring against us, Port Arthur is well worth a visit. We loved the convict story where you are given a card matching up to a real person. You then find the corresponding card and learn about their story! Plus, the gorgeous 50 minute drive from Hobart gave us our first glimpse of the Tasmanian countryside.
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