Port Arthur | Attraction Guides | History Hit

Port Arthur

Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia

History Hit

24 Nov 2020

About 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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