Exploring the convict past

Port Arthur penal colony

This is the Penitentiary at Port Arthur Penal Colony, a major tourist destination in Tasmania.

The convict past of Australia started here in 1830 as a timber-getting camp using convict labour to produce sawn logs for government projects. In 1833 it became a punishment station for hardened and repeat offenders from around other States. The conditions for convicts were harsh.

I’d heard the stories of Port Arthur. The cramped conditions, the horrific punishments given for any misdemeanour, on a treadmill for 8 hours, 100 lashes of the cat o’ nine tails, solitary confinement in total darkness. I was expecting a grim, dingy collection of dusty overwhelming relics and dilapidated ruins. A harsh and unforgiving atmosphere. A feeling of despair.

In reality the place was strangely beautiful. Maybe the sun created a happiness I hadn’t expected. The extensive lawns sweeping between the buildings a vibrant green backdrop for the impressively large buildings, the warm, subtle golden hue of the sandstone showing the scratches and pock-marks from the picks and tools of the convict builders and every where the magnificent trees clothed in the colours of autumn, oaks, elms, poplars reminiscent of England, the Mother country to many of the convicts.

The start of the Port Arthur experience is a 40 minute orientation walk with Jamie. The stories and details he tells give a different picture, taking us back to the 1800’s and how life was then for the people here, both the convicts, the soldiers and the free citizens working and living here. Another side of this colony he put forward was that being here could be better than back in England, yes it was harsh and the work was hard but, they had 3 meals a day, their clothing was supplied and they had a roof over their head and were taught a trade that would be useful once they earn their freedom.

Many convicts did serve their sentence to be given their ticket of leave and then become free citizens. Many Australians can trace their ancestry back to these early convicts. In the early 1900’s it was considered a skeleton in the cupboard to be hidden and not talked about, but now it is a badge of pride to have this in your history. A sign of being a “fair dinkum Aussie”.

Could this be what has shaped the larrikin character and the  “she’ll be right mate” attitude of the Australian?

A building befitting the rank and position of commandant was built in 1833

A building befitting the rank and position of commandant was built in 1833

The Commandant’s house was built on a hill overlooking the harbour and between this house and the convict’s area a very solid guard-house was built. The soldier’s quarters were in this building and the towers were manned 24 hours a day.

Guard tower built between the commandants house and the convict buildings

Guard tower built between the commandant’s house and the convict buildings, I think it has a Roman garrison look about it.

The main prison block, the Penitentiary is the photo at the top of this post. It was a 4 story building. The bottom 2 levels housed convicts of bad character in 136 cells, the top floor had 480 better behaved convicts and they had bunks to sleep in. The third floor was an industrial area for training convicts in various trades. This building had been destroyed by fire and has been left as a ruin.

The building in the photo below has been partially restored and is the “separate prison, asylum and church”  Convicts were sent here as punishment. They were kept in total isolation and no sound was allowed, the warders even wore rags on their boots so they could not be heard coming. When they went to church on Sundays they wore masks and had to look at the floor all the time. For further punishment they would be put into cells with no light, no bed, no blankets and only bread and water and not let out for up to 3 weeks. I stepped inside one of these claustrophobic cells with absolutely no light, complete and enfolding blackness, and could feel the horror that would engulf me as the door was closed.  Many prisoners were broken in both mind and spirit in here and so they went to the asylum to spend the rest of their days.

When I walked around this building I could feel the horror of the system that until then I had not felt.

The asylum, church and separate prison for solitary confinement

The asylum, church and separate prison for solitary confinement

The policy of grinding rogues into honest men

The policy of grinding rogues into honest men

In stark contrast to the convict areas and well away from them a cluster of cottages housed the military and free men and their families. Parties, regattas and literary evenings were common. Beautiful gardens were created and children played and attended school within the settlement. What a place of contrasts and contradictions, but this is the start of Australia.

Cottage of a free man

Cottage of a free man

Gardens in the free community

Gardens in the free community

Ruins of the Catholic church

Impressive ruins of the Catholic church situated near the free community cottages.

Beautiful oak trees

Beautiful oak trees

The beauty of autumn foliage

The beauty of autumn foliage

Many prisoners died here the primary cause being industrial accidents and respiratory diseases. A small island called the Isle of the Dead in the harbour was used as a cemetery and between 1833 and 1877  around 1100 people were buried here. They also included military and civil officers and their families. The convicts were not given any head stones or acknowledgment of their final resting place.

Isle of the dead

Isle of the dead

The Penal Colony closed in 1877 and many of its buildings were dismantled or destroyed by bush fires, others were sold. The area gradually became the centre of a small town and it was renamed Carnarvon in an attempt to erase the hated convict stain.

By the 1920’s the draw of the Penal Colony as a tourist attraction had been recognized and the town was renamed Port Arthur and the tourism encouraged.

It was an amazing day, a real eye opener into the history of the convicts. So many stories I could not put them all in this post. We spent 6-7 hours totally absorbed in this amazing place and it only cost $27 for a pension pass, this included the 40 minute interpretation walk and a 20 minute cruise to the Isle of the Dead, and this would also enable us to go back for a second day. Great value.

Categories: Australia, photos, Port Arthur, Tasmania | Tags: , , , | 24 Comments

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24 thoughts on “Exploring the convict past

  1. Those cells look horrific, Pauline. I couldn’t cope with seeing ’12 years a slave’ either. The site is quite a contrast! 🙂


    • It must have been a terrifying experience and for some it was only because they stole a loaf of bread to feed their family or some equally trivial thing.


  2. Thank you for a wonderful, beautifully written, thoughtful post, and for reminders of my own visit there, where, like you, I saw both beauty and horror. I think the thing that stayed with me most were the cubicles I n the church to prevent any communication. I didn’t know about the masks. I have two first fleet convict ancestors, drawn out from the shadows and shame by my wonderful family-historian aunt.

    Your photos are stunning.


    • Thank you Meg for a lovely comment. It is the sort of place that will always be remembered. Jack stood in one of those church cubicles and he said it was an eerie feeling. It is only recently that convicts have been accepted as part of peoples back ground. A large majority of them had only committed very minor offences.


  3. An interesting and moving place to visit, full of ghosts I imagine.


  4. The cruelty of the past is so shocking isn’t it? I saw the film “12 years a slave” last year and could hardly bear to watch some of the scenes. I so wish that man could lose whatever it is that causes some people to be so inhumane. A great post PP. Your photos and commentary are brilliant as usual.Thank you for reblogging this.


    • I saw the trailer of that film Jude and couldn’t go to see it. I even find reading books about that era is harrowing. The penal system was very harsh and when I read of some of the paltry things they were deported for it makes todays laws a travesty.


  5. We had a fascinating day here about 20 years ago when our girls were small. It was a sunny summer’s day but I couldn’t help thinking about the horrendous conditions faced by the convicts and what a god forsaken place it must be in the winter. Great post and photos Pauline! 🙂


  6. This is a beautiful location. You have a good eye, Pomme!


  7. Reblogged this on Memories are made of this and commented:

    Unlike the Aboriginal history which is known to go back 40,000 or more years, Australians do not have a very long European history. Some of the earliest traces of the past European history is to be found in the penal settlement at Port Arthur in Tasmania.
    In June 2013 I spent a day exploring this strangely beautiful but haunting place and this is the post I wrote back then…
    I am linking this to Paula’s Thursday special challenge which this week is “Traces of the past”


  8. Joan and Terry Watson

    A lovely haunting place, sadly I was there a day before the shootings, why oh why do we have people like that. Loved the photos though.


  9. Another place I’d love to see! I really like the Welsh dresser; I’ve yearned for one for ages (but of course have no place to keep it). Thanks for the tour . . .


    • Loved having you along on my tour Linne. That old furniture is so beautiful especially in the original heritage homes


  10. Fascinating post & excellent photos. I love the desk and the dishes. Wish we had toured this~


  11. poppytump

    Gosh thanks for that fascinating read PP . They really knew how to mete out punishment didn’t they . Rags over the tops of shoes for the warders so they couldn’t be heard coming in solitary confinement …….


    • The treadmill was the worst as if they fell or stopped walking they would be pulled into the grinders that was grinding the wheat to flour, would certainly give the bread a different flavour… 😦


  12. Thanks for some wonderful photos and interesting commentary!


  13. We’ve certainly come a long way, haven’t we?


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