10 of the Best Historic Sites in Australia | Historical Landmarks | History Hit

10 of the Best Historic Sites in Australia

History Hit

24 Nov 2020

There’s a host of top Historic Sites in Australia to visit and among the very best are Hyde Park Barracks, the National Museum of Australia and Bennelong Point. Other popular sites tend to include Darwin Military Museum, Fort Scratchley and Maitland Gaol.

We’ve put together an experts guide to Australian Cultural Places, Landmarks and Monuments with our top ten places to visit as well as a full list of Historic Sites in Australia, which shouldn’t be ignored if you have the time.

What are the best Historic Sites in Australia?

1. Port Arthur

Port Arthur is one of eleven Australian Convict Sites, noted by UNESCO as ‘the best surviving examples of large-scale convict transportation and the colonial expansion of European powers through the presence and labour of convicts’ and is Tasmania’s premier tourist attraction.

Built in the 1830s from a small timber station in south-eastern Tasmania, the Port Arthur complex is a place of real contradiction. The stunning landscapes and vistas of one of the world’s last remaining wild frontiers gives way to a dark history of the brutal punishment of the most hardened of British convicts who landed here in the mid-19th century.

Originally a hard labour camp staying true to its timber station roots, convicts were forced to cut trees but in 1848, the focus shifted to more psychological punishment. Food was used as a reward and as a punishment and prisoners were kept hooded and silent so they could reflect silently on their crimes. This psychological torture coupled with the fact that there was very little hope of escape drove some inmates to kill other prisoners just to receive the death penalty.

Called the ‘inescapable prison’ since the surrounding waters were reputed to be shark-infested, escape attempts were rare but on occasion, successful and you’ll hear the amazing stories of Martin Cash who escaped in 1842 and George ‘Billy’ Hunt who attempted to flee dressed in a kangaroo hide but was shot as the starving guards tried to supplement their meagre rations.

The prison’s population dwindled and by the 1870s, the inmates that remained were too old, ill or insane to be of any use as an effective labour force and the prison closed its doors in 1877.

The buildings eventually fell into decay but in the 1970s, the government funded the site’s preservation and today you can see over 30 buildings in 40 hectares of landscaped grounds. There are guided tours of the prison buildings, the museum, the Convict Study Centre, Interpretation Gallery and the site of the Dockyard. For the more macabre among you, night-time ghost tours are a spooky highlight.

For additional costs, you can also see the 1,646 graves on the Isle of the Dead where everyone who died in prison was buried and you can take a trip to Point Puer Boys Prison where close to three thousand 9-16 year-old boys were disciplined in the sternest possible ways.

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2. Melbourne Royal Exhibition Building

The Melbourne Royal Exhibition Building was constructed at a time of a great international exhibition movement following the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in 1851. Designed specifically to house the Melbourne International Exhibition, it was completed in 1880 and the exhibition held the same year. It would hold another such fair in 1888.

The architect of the Melbourne Royal Exhibition Building was Joseph Reed, its builder David Mitchell and the structure was inspired by various styles, from Byzantine to Italian Renaissance.

The Melbourne Royal Exhibition Building is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Today, it hosts various exhibitions and events.

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3. Old Melbourne Gaol

The imposing bluestone structure of Old Melbourne Gaol opened in 1845 and in the 79 years of its operation, some of Australia’s most dangerous criminals passed through its doors, some never to emerge. Australia’s most famous citizen Ned Kelly – occupier of cell 113 – was convicted of murder and executed by hanging here in November 1880 and other infamous inmates included serial killer Frederick Bailey Deeming – suspected by some to be Jack the Ripper – and vicious gangster Squizzy Taylor.

In total, over 130 people were hanged at Old Melbourne Gaol and the list of inmates, even by 19th century standards, was decidedly odd. Of course the usual rabble of murderers, rapists, arsonists and thieves were ever-present but it also housed children. Some stayed with a convicted parent but in 1857, three year-old Michael Crimmins was sentenced to six months for the crime of being idle and disorderly!

The prison didn’t last long by modern standards and by 1870, plans were afoot to slowly decommission the gaol and relocate prisoners to more suitable locations and it was slowly demolished, closing its doors finally in 1924.

Parts of the structure were incorporated into the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in the 1970s and today, the three story museum offers visitors a fascinating insight in to the antipodean penal system including the cells filled with letters, memorabilia, personal effects and the gruesome death masks of condemned men and women.

See the chilling gallows and regular dramatisations of Ned Kelly’s story and get yourself arrested at the adjacent City Police Watch House complete with a padded cell.

Candlelit ghost tours are run throughout the year with some paranormal enthusiasts claiming to have heard female voices – one claimed to have recorded ‘a ghostly figure with a grotesque visage standing in a doorway’ but evidence is unsurprisingly lacking.

Old Melbourne Gaol is one of the city’s oldest surviving historical buildings and is a must see on any trip to Melbourne.

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4. National Museum of Australia

The National Museum of Australia is a museum of the history, culture and heritage of Australia. Using a mix of multimedia displays, information, objects and artefacts, the National Museum of Australia explores a variety of events, themes and issues.

One of the main permanent exhibits at the National Museum of Australia relates to the story and heritage of the nation’s indigenous people, looking at 50,000 years of history. It also explores at Australia’s connections with the world as well as settlement in the country from 1788, Federation and social and political development right up to modern day.

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5. Hyde Park Barracks

Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney were built in the first half of the nineteenth century as a place to house male convicts. Before this, convicts were responsible for finding their own lodgings.

A British colony, New South Wales had long been a place where Britain had transported convicts, a practice which escalated in the early nineteenth century. In fact, by 1820, convicts made up almost 80% of the country’s population.

In addition to providing them with shelter, Hyde Park Barracks were a form of control – an unofficial prison of sorts – where convicts could be carefully monitored. It was the first of its kind and as designed to hold up to 600 convicts. The architect of Hyde Park Barracks, Francis Greenway, was himself a transported convict who was later granted a pardon.

In the 1830’s Hyde Park Barracks took on a more openly punitive role as a court. Over 8,000 convicts had passed through Hyde Park arracks by the time it was closed in 1848.

Today, Hyde Park Barracks is open to the public as a museum about Australia’s history of convict transportation. It also houses other historical and cultural exhibits.

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6. Fremantle Prison

Just south of Perth, Fremantle Prison on Western Australia’s Indian Ocean coast is Australia’s (and one of the world’s) largest and best-preserved convict-built prison. It is also the state’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Built by convicts between 1852 and 1859 from limestone quarried from the hill on which it is built, the prison was originally intended for imperial convicts but by 1886, only about 60 were left in a jail built to house a thousand. When Perth Gaol closed in 1888 and the local population grew with the gold rush of the 1890s, Fremantle Prison got busy again.

Prison life was highly regulated with meals being eaten in cells and up until about 1911 prisoner labour was used for much of the city of Fremantle’s infrastructure. Punishment ranged from flogging, time spent in irons, lengthening of sentences, deprivation of visits or what passed for entertainment all the way up to hanging. Forty-four (43 men, one woman) were put to death at Fremantle between 1888 and 1964 – Western Australia’s only lawful place of execution. The last man led to the noose was serial killer Eric Edgar ‘Night Caller’ Cooke, convicted of eight murders and 14 attempted murders.

The decision to decommission the prison was reached in 1983 but it remained in operation until 30th November 1991 when all remaining inmates were transferred to a maximum-security prison at Casuarina, 30km south of Fremantle.

Today, Fremantle Prison is one of Australia’s most popular tourist attractions and while entry to the gatehouse is free and includes the Convict Café, gift shop, prison gallery and an interactive visitor centre, there are a number of fascinating, interactive tours.

The Tunnel Tour which takes you on a subterranean boat ride through convict-built tunnels; the Doing Time Tour includes the solitary confinement cells, men’s cell block and kitchens; the Great Escape Tour includes fascinating tales of famous inmates, stories of escape, intrigue and the 1988 riot designed to highlight the inhumane conditions in which the prisoners were kept which led to the prison’s closure and the Torchlight Tour which focuses on the more macabre elements of prison life at Fremantle.

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7. Bennelong Point

Bennelong Point in Sydney is an area with a rich history stretching back the earliest days of colonial Australia and is now the site of the iconic Sydney Opera House.

Though the area had several uses during early colonial times, it is best known as the site of the hut of Bennelong, an aboriginal man captured by the British and used as an early liaison between the settlers and the local population.

Today the site has become famous for being the home of the Sydney Opera House and the construction of this well-known building has left little trace of the earlier incarnations of Bennelong Point.

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8. Darwin Military Museum

The Darwin Military Museum, located in the East Point Military Museum complex of Darwin, houses exhibits and artefacts detailing the role of the city during WWII.

Darwin, the capital city of Australia’s Northern Territory played a crucial role in the country’s WWII involvement. At the start of the war 10,000 allied troops were sent to the city to defend the nation’s northern coastline from Japanese air attacks, this would increase to a record of 110,000 by 1943. In 1942 Japanese warplanes bombed Darwin, killing at least 243 people, and the Northern Territory was subjected to a further 62 air attacks before 1944.

The new and improved Defence of Darwin Experience is an interactive, multimedia exhibition that details Darwin’s history and its role in World War II. Originally created as an artillery museum, the exhibition features vehicles, uniforms, firearms, images and paintings alongside artillery pieces. As well as the exhibitions, it is possible to explore the bunkers that were used by personnel in WWII and also to see military vehicles left in their original positions. As the forefront of Australia’s homeland military action, Darwin was also the base for American forces attempting to free Manila and defend Guinea from Japanese forces.

The museum itself is housed in the original 1940s gun emplacements that were built to defend the city against attack by sea or air, these guns are still in situ and visitors can encircle them as they stroll through the exhibition. A small but rapidly expanding and improving museum, the Darwin Military Museum gives the most detailed and personal introduction to the impact of WWII on the Australian mainland. Although focused on WWII, the museum also holds information and articles relating to the entire military history of the Northern Territory.

Contributed by Isabelle Moore

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9. Fort Scratchley

Fort Scratchley in Newcastle is a 19th century coastal defence battery and the only coastal battery in Australia to have opened fire on the enemy during World War Two.

The site upon which Fort Scratchley stands was originally an early coal mine and indeed one of the earliest such mines in Australia, being in operation from around 1801. The first defensive battery to be constructed here was an earthern battery named Fort Battlesticks, which was in place by 1928. However, the need for more robust coastal defence led to the construction of far more permanent fortifications, including Fort Scratchley, from 1876 to 1886. The fort was named for the British officer who oversaw the build, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Scratchley.

Over several decades the fort was upgraded and renovated several times, to ensure it was militarily viable. However, the fort would only open fire in aggression once, on the night of 7-8 June 1942, when the fort’s six-inch guns fired two salvoes at a Japanese submarine which had bombarded Newcastle. After the war the fort operated for several more years before being decommissioned in 1962 and closed ten years later. It now operates as a museum.

Today visitors to Fort Scratchley can explore the history of this coastal fortification as well as taking in the spectacular views on offer from this commanding position. Visitors can explore at their own pace or join one of the guided tours which go deeper into the facility.

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10. Maitland Gaol

Maitland Gaol in New South Wales was Australia’s longest continuously operating prison before being closed and reinvented as a museum and tourist attraction.

First opened in 1848, Maitland was finally shut in 1998 as part of a general upgrade to Australia’s prison system. Today, visitors to Maitland Gaol can learn about its vibrant history, which spanned more than 150 years and saw the jail house some of the country’s most notorious felons. As well as exploring the prison itself, there’s information on the jail’s history, past inmates and key events such as protests, riots and attempted escapes.

A self-guided audio tour is available, along with a number of guided tour options.

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