Melbourne-based writer and journalist. Purveyor of finally crafted radio plays. A Muppet of a man.
It’s rare to get decent structural ruins in Australia of the kind you find on other continents. Most early settler structures have long since been reused, built over or demolished in the intervening 200 years.
This is why Port Arthur comes as a bit of a surprise. It’s a site of a historic convict settlement, perched on the east coast of Tasmania a long way from anywhere. This isolation seems to have helped it, and while the 150 year old buildings are mostly ruins, some are in surprisingly good condition.
In the 1800’s this was the place where the trouble convicts were sent, the repeat offenders who were deemed to be in need of some particularly hard labour. Kept away from prying eyes, the convicts at Port Arthur had a harsh and brutal life.
Nowadays it’s a bustling tourist attraction, covering a substantial tract of land with extensive gardens, manicured lawns, and peaceful coastal views. Given it’s handy proximity to Hobart (it takes an hour and a half to drive there and you make a day of it) it’s a popular stop for tour buses full of people ready to wander through a gift shop and be charged a noticable entry fee ($32 per person when we were there for standard entry). It’s a bit difficult to imagine the harsh, remote lifestyle that convicts would have led in these surroundings.
The main penitentiary building, an imposing stone structure, stands quite near the water’s edge. It was built in 1843 as a flour mill and granary, and was later adapted and extended to accommodate prisoners. Much of it no longer exists, as it originally stood four stories tall. As well as housing the prisoners, it also had a library and at one point a giant hamster-like mill wheel to keep the prisoners busy. The building was adapted to best suit the needs of the settlement – after the prison closed down it was occasionally used as a dance hall until it was gutted by fire in 1897.
Towards the far end of the site is the solitary confinement area. The building is in much better condition, the cells foreboding and sparsely furnished, but surprisingly the prisoners were still given enough to keep them productive. Prisoners were let out for one hour a day, day or night, to walk around in silence. The small chapel has an ingenious, cruel design which keeps each prisoner isolated – a small closed off box provides a prisoner the view of the priest and nothing else.
Overlooking these and various administrative buildings is the shell of a grand old church, built by the convicts. These days it consists of nothing but bare stone and the roof is missing. It held regular services of both Church of England and Catholic faiths, and as a result it was never consecrated.
Across the water is Point Puer, which had the distinction of being the first prison exclusively for young boys in the British Empire. The boys there were as young as nine, and like the adults they were used for hard labour – many of the bricks and fixtures used in the Port Arthur convict buildings were made there. Between Point Puer and the mainland is a rocky outcrop sticking out of the water, The Island of the Dead, used as the graveyard. There are around 1500 unmarked convict graves on the island, and a few marked graves of soldiers and prison staff.
The human stories were what bought the place to life though – scrawlings on the first pages of hymn books, prisoner records, the tokens that they handed around. One particular convict that comes to mind was Henry Singleton, who was deported for fourteen years for stealing shirts and spent his life in and out of the prison system. At one point he was entrusted with the keys by warders in case they were too drunk to let themselves in. He made a copy of the keys but couldn’t take the next step and escape. He ended up handing in his copies and the warders were fired.
Another escape attempt by George ‘Billy’ Hunt involved disguising himself as a kangaroo and hopping across Eaglehawk Neck, past the dog line to the mainland. He must have made a fairly convincing kangaroo, as he was only caught when a soldier lined him up in the rifle sights to shoot him for target practice, forcing the convict to give himself up.
There were many other examples of escape attempts, and stories of harsh treatment of convicts at the hands of the guards. It seems that if you weren’t an evil bastard before you were sent to Port Arthur, you were by the time you left. The fact that there were now tourists having picnics on the grounds where prisoners were routinely whipped as punishment shows that a lot can change in a hundred and fifty years.
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