The trip from Hobart to Port Arthur is an interesting journey given that there are a lot of waterways that have to be crossed. First of all, the motorist has to cross the famous Tasman Bridge over the River Derwent. It is famous because 11 years after it was built, a bulk ore carrier hit the bridge, knocking down two pylons and 3 sections of concrete from the bridge decking, sinking the ship. The next river to cross is the mouth of the Coal River where McGee’s Bridge takes traffic across Pitt Water to Sorell. The journey then takes a right hand turn heading towards Dunalley and the next major landmass, Forestier Peninsula. Unfortunately a canal across the land connection to this peninsula was dug in the early 20th century to allow boats to take short cuts without going all the way around Tasman Peninsula. There is now a hydraulic swing bridge to get Port Arthur traffic across the Denison Canal. The next major crossing is via Eaglehawk neck over onto the Tasman Peninsula and from here it is full steam ahead through mountainous country to Port Arthur.
Port Arthur was the convict gaol that replaced the inconveniently distant Sarah Island (1822-1833) penal settlement. Port Arthur functioned as such for another twenty years and stopped receiving convicts in 1853 but continued to function in other ways for some years after.
I had taken this trip by bus in 1973 but my memories of both the trip and the Port Arthur site were fairly vague. A lot of time had passed since then and both Port Arthur and myself had changed greatly since the early 1970s. Port Arthur itself has changed since that time becoming a major name in the psyche of all Australians who experienced the media aftermath of the April 1996 mass shooting there. 35 people were killed and 25 wounded in the worst massacre committed by a single person in modern Australia.
The tourist infrastructure of the Port Arthur site has also changed significantly since 1996. The Broad Arrow cafe, the major site of the massacre, is now part of a memorial garden on the site. Access to the convict settlement site is now only through a large visitor centre which contains the site administration, café and restaurant and other facilities. Tourists are grouped on arrival and are met by a guide who leads them into the settlement and after an introductory talk, takes the group through the main Penitentiary building. The visitors can then choose their own path through the rest of the old convict settlement.
The Penitentiary is the most prominent building on site. It has four levels with 136 separate cells on the bottom floor for ‘prisoners of bad character under heavy sentence.’ The third floor was a dining hall, a library and a chapel. The topmost floor was a dormitory for 348 better behaved men. The settlement was closed in 1877 and this building was gutted by fire 20 years later. Bricks from the penitentiary were then pilfered, sold off or used for repairs on site.
After we had finished our guided tour of the lower section of the Penitentiary building, we were taken across to the lawn in front of Mason Cove to be given final planning information for the rest of our day inspecting Port Arthur. One option was to stroll to the ferry terminal and take the cruise out to the Isle of the Dead and Point Puer where transported boys were once kept separately from the adult convicts on the ‘mainland’. Given time constraints, we decided we would skip the cruise and head up the hill to the building marked on the map as the Asylum, Study Centre and Museum.
Having already visited the forerunner of Port Arthur on Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour, it was interesting to note the change in philosophy in the design of convict settlements in the colonies. No longer were recalcitrant convicts flogged within inches of their life for breaking rules…we discovered in the penitentiary building that reoffending convicts would be placed in dark isolation. On Sarah Island, floggings were preferred. Dark isolation drives people mad. The repercussions for the mental health of those convicts who had passed through Port Arthur continued on well past the closure of the site so in 1868, an asylum was built to house ‘lunatics’ from all over the peninsula as well as the broader south east Tasmania. In 1895, bush fires swept through the area and the asylum was burnt down. It was rebuilt but the B&W photos above show that it was a smaller building that replaced it which went on to become the Town Hall of the developing local shire.
From the Asylum we walked towards the ruins of the old hospital that was built on the highest point of the settlement in the early 1840s. It could hold 80 convict patients and was staffed by one doctor who was assisted by only untrained orderlies. I suspect there was a direct line between the hospital and the boat that took the bodies to the Isle of the Dead. The hospital was abandoned after 1877 and it was purchased by the Catholic Church and converted into a boys home. It was burnt down in the 1895 fires, rebuilt and again burnt down in 1897. It was building not destined for a long, useful life.
From the remains of the hospital our trail led us along the street into the area where the soldiers resided, whose job it was to keep the Penal Settlement operational. One of the most well-preserved buildings on site is the Officers’ Quarters that sits with a grand view out over the settlement and the bay.
Up behind this building was a re-creation of a semaphore signal that was a vital part of the settlement’s security. A chain of these stations was built around the peninsula on top of tree trunks, often 25m off the ground. These stations were operated by well-behaved convicts who lived in huts beneath their semaphore tree; a lonely life no doubt waiting for the next signal to Hobart Town or Eaglehawk Neck. The original semaphore station at Port Arthur was mounted at the top of a tree 70 feet from the ground and like so many other structures at Port Arthur, burnt to the ground in the bush fires after the settlement was closed.
One of the main destinations for semaphore signals from Port Arthur was to Eaglehawk Neck where there was a narrow connection between the two peninsulas. This was the only escape route from Port Arthur unless you managed to steal a boat. Stories of shark infested water around this area was one rumour encouraged by the guards. The other deterrent was that a small guard station was set up here in 1831 to wait for the arrival of escapees whose escape would have been quickly signalled by the semaphore behind the officers’ quarters back at Port Arthur. Given that silent, escaping convicts could sneak through the shallow water around the Neck at night, hearing their movements in the dark was difficult for the guards. Solution…a line of dogs on platforms who could detect aromatic convicts wading through the water, thus alerting the guards. These dogs, whose life was spent isolated on small platforms in the waters of Eaglehawk Neck, at least have a memorial statue dedicated to their efforts at the Neck today.
The last house in this street above the settlement is the Commandant’s House which is also in impressive condition. Heading back down the slope towards the centre of Port Arthur the visitor passes the Guard Tower that was built in 1835 to provide greater security for the military barracks above it on the slope. Presumably there was a soldier on duty here that had a great view out over the settlement and the neighbouring bay. It also contained beneath it a storeroom and cells for minor offenders from any of the levels of society in Port Arthur. The image below shows the Guard Tower in the centre, the semaphore up to the left and the Officers’ Quarters on the right.
Our trail from the Guard Tower took us down the road above the Penitentiary and we were able to have another look at this building from this higher vantage point. Although the floors of the upper storeys were gone, there were transparent boardwalks built at the level of the old second floor giving us an opportunity to see the layout of the upper levels of the penitentiary.
From here our walk led us to that section of Port Arthur that could be described as the civilian workforce area. The small street reminded us of an English village; it was no doubt designed to remind the original administrators who lived in these cottages of their home country. They were used by people such as the Magistrate, the Surgeon, the Chaplain, the Accountant and the Junior Medical Officer. The last house on this street on the left is the Parsonage of the Anglican Church community and across the road is a lovely wooden Church that was built as late as 1927 for the use of the Anglican Parish. St David’s Church is still in use today.
Further along is the Convict Church that was constructed mainly by a convict workforce. The stonework was prepared by the boys at Point Puer and the building itself was put together by the main body of convicts. The first service occurred in 1837, just four years after the Penal Colony had opened for the incarceration business.
Of course you couldn’t have convicts mixing with free, genteel citizens, particularly the wives of the administrators of the gaol. The area of seating for the convicts, for whose prospects of eternal life the church was built, was screened off. Only the free worshippers had ornate pews to sit on which were made by the boys over on Point Puer who of course had to sit on basic benches during their time in Church.
The other unusual thing about the convict church was the 8 bells installed there, not only to call folk to Church but they were also used to signal the start of the work-day. Bell casting is a highly complex process demanding an understanding of Mathematics, mixing of metals and the basics of music. There were 8 bells made on site and installed in the Convict Church in 1847. History has not recorded the name of this convict who designed and produced these bells. The Port Arthur bells are considered to be the oldest chime of bells in Australia and the first to be cast in this country. When Port Arthur closed, seven bells were given away to another local council. One of the 8 bells has disappeared. The largest of these bells was returned in 1928. Since then, six bells have been returned to Port Arthur but one is still missing…perhaps the family of a resourceful convict has it in their garden.
On the other side of the Convict Church is the Government Cottage (image on right above). It was built in 1853 to accommodate government officials visiting the penal settlement. It never had a permanent resident and was burnt down in the 1895 bush fires.
As maps used earlier reveal, our last walk out of the complex was to be one of the more beautiful paths at Port Arthur. It takes visitors from the Government Cottage through the Government Gardens. These gardens were developed in 1846-7 and were meant to provide free residents with a garden where the could “take the air” free from the disturbing presence of convicts. The garden was designed on the principles of symmetry and topiary to provide an appropriate example of neatness and control as demanded in a military settlement.
We walked through the Government Gardens through to the edge of Mason Cove for one last look across at the ruined buildings of the Port Arthur complex. It was a very interesting day but it was getting late and time for our journey back to Hobart Town.