Port Arthur - History and Facts | History Hit

Port Arthur

Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula in Tasmania grew from a small timber station in 1830 into Australia’s most brutal penal settlements until it closed in 1877. Today it’s ‘Australia's most intact and evocative convict site’ and a must-see on any visit to Tasmania.

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.

History of Port Arthur

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. Between 1853 and 1855, it was extended and swivelled to focus on Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon philosophy, designed as something known as a ‘Separate Prison’. 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. In 1996, the site also saw a massacre by a lone gunman: over 35 people were killed and 23 more injured.

Port Arthur today

The site is open daily for visitors: admission covers a 40 minute tour and 25 minute harbour tour, and it’s worth walking around the extensive grounds too.

For fans of the macabre, night-time ghost tours are a spooky highlight, and for an additional cost, 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.

Getting to Port Arthur

Port Arthur is on the south eastern tip of Tasmania: it’s about 1 hour 20 minutes from Hobart via the A9, or a two hour bus journey on route 734.

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