We were both excited to visit Port Arthur and what better way to spend our 5th wedding anniversary!
The story of the Port Arthur Historic Site is a story of many people, places and moments. It wasn’t only a prison for convicts, over the years it was also home to military personal and free settlers.
It’s had a very long history and one of many hardships, but to be able to walk in a place with so much history and so many stories is a privilege. It’s a testament to the amazing people who protect and restore our heritage like this for us to enjoy.
Britain started transporting convicts to Australia from about 1788. Most were sent here for very minor crimes by today’s standards, and these included many woman and children as well. It was very rare that any returned home after their sentence.
The Pydairrerme people were the traditional owners of the land that we now know as Port Arthur. The Port Arthur penal settlement began life as a small timber station in 1830, using convict labour to produce sawn logs for government projects.
By 1840 more than 2000 convicts and soldiers lived at Port Arthur and it was now a major industrial settlement producing many things, predominately boats and ships.
The last convicts left and Port Arthur closed in 1877. From then the site was renamed Carnarvon and land was divided up with people taking up residence in and around the old site.
Severe fires in 1895 and 1897 destroyed many of the old buildings and gutted the Penitentiary, Separate Prison and Hospital, but the new residents were determined to create a livable township for themselves. Subsequently they built more buildings and amenities such as a post office, cricket club and lawn tennis club.
With the settlement’s later closure came the first tourists. By the 1920’s the Port Arthur area had three hotels, two museums and guides, they were definitely starting to cater for the many tourists, nothing has changed to this day.
Ship Building at Port Arthur
One of the greatest problems facing the authorities of Port Arthur was balancing the need to punish the convicts against needing to make the station a profitable enterprise. Convicts could not simply spend their days getting flogged and rotting in a cell, they needed to be reformed through a combination of religion, education and trade-training.
Ship building was introduced on a large-scale to Port Arthur in 1834 as a way of providing selected convicts with a useful skill they could take with them once freed. Only those convicts deemed well-behaved and receptive to training were allowed to work at the dockyard. Up to 70 convicts were employed at the yard at its height, with the majority engaged in the menial task of cutting and carrying timber. The remaining convicts were the carpenters, blacksmiths, caulkers, coopers and shipwrights who actually built the vessels.
Fifteen large ships and over 140 smaller vessels (from whale boats, to rowboats and punts) were launched from the two slipways. These ships were known for their craftsmanship and durability, with one, the 270-ton Lady Franklin, enjoying over 40 years of service. The hull for a steamer, the Derwent, was even constructed at the Port Arthur dockyards. The yard was also used as a regular servicing lay-by for ships plying the busy east coast route, vessels often hauling in for refit and repair.
Though successful, the ship building operations at Port Arthur ceased on a large-scale in 1848. A growing colonial economy, recovering after a severe depression in the early 1840s, meant that private ship builders did not want to compete against a government yard producing ships at a cheaper rate and lobbied for its closure.
Today the site of the dockyards is a short walk from the main settlement. The original Master Shipwright’s residence still stands, as does one of the original slipways. A later building, the Clerk of Works’ residence, also stands on the location of one of the original dockyard sawpits and a later blacksmith.
Source: This section was taken from https://portarthur.org.au/history/history-timeline/
Isle of the Dead Cemetery Tour
We chose to do this optional tour as, well when has Shelly ever turned down the opportunity to visit a cemetery!
A short ferry ride and you arrive on this small island which was the final resting place of more than 1000 convicts, soldiers and civilians who were buried there between 1833 and 1877. This is a guided tour and you get a great insight into the life and death of some of Port Arthur’s residents.
Once on the island you realise that there are two very distinct burial sections. The convicts were buried in unmarked graves on the low southern end, while the military personnel and free civilians were buried in marked graves with quite elaborate headstones. These are all located on the top of the island, on the high northern end. The story is that convicts were the lowest of the low and looked down on in life so it was only fitting that they were looked down on in death. I’m guessing the only positive thing from this is that after 1850, some of the convicts were allowed to have headstones. We really do have a very sad history.
It was a very quiet place and quite haunting in many ways as you hear the stories of these poor people who were buried in unmarked graves without a future thought. The fact that there were so many graves on the island meant that we would have actually been walking over the top of people’s graves. Very interesting tour and highly recommended, but a very somber tour as well.
Unfortunately one of the first things many people think about when you hear Port Arthur is not the tortured past, but the more recent horrific massacre and Australia’s worst mass murder that occurred there on Sunday 28th April 1996. The events from that day will forever remain in our memories as we think of the many lives that were lost. Within the grounds they have a small plaque mentioning the names of the people who lost their lives. This sits discretely within the Memorial Garden to honour these people and the tragic events that unfolded that day.
Port Arthur is one of eleven historical places that form the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Property. These sites are spread throughout Australia and together they tell the story of Australia’s convict heritage.
Attraction Information: Your entry ticket includes entry to the site for 2 consecutive days, a short walking tour, a harbour cruise and access to over 30 buildings across the 100 acres of grounds. You can also purchase separate optional tours such as the Isle of the Dead Cemetery Tour, Point Puer Boys’ Prison Tour or Ghost Tour.
Port Arthur is open 7 days a week.
Telephone: 1800 659 101
The good thing is that proceeds from your entry fees contribute to the ongoing conservation and development of the Port Arthur sites.
When you purchase your tickets you are given a playing card. You can then go and find your matching card to read the story about one of the convicts.
I think everyone will take something different from their visit to Port Arthur. As you hear about and feel the stories of the convicts, soldiers and free people you can’t help but immerse yourself into their history and situation. They say that Port Arthur’s tale is told in many ways and it will stay with you long after you leave, and that’s definitely true.
We are George & Shelly, a married couple from Sydney, Australia, who love 4WDing, camping and travelling this great country of ours. We love sharing our adventures and hope to inspire others to travel as well. Join us on our journeys around Australia!
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