Review: Port Arthur Historic Site is a fascinating window on the convict era
With one fifth of living Australians descended from convicts transported from Britain in the 18th century, our convict heritage remains an integral part of the Australian story. Tasmania's Port Arthur Historic Site brings that story to life.
A visit to the Port Arthur Historic Site on Tasmania’s Tasman Peninsula is a chance to delve into the lives of those who lived, worked and were imprisoned in this infamous 19th century convict settlement. Your ticket includes a 40-minute guided walking tour, a 25-minute harbour cruise and two consecutive days of access to the site. Duration: 1/2 days
Visiting the Port Arthur Historic Site is an educational but very emotional experience.
It’s a chance to step back in time to the period when an estimated 160,000 men, women and children were transported as convicts from England to the colonies in Australia for crimes ranging from stealing a handkerchief to cold blooded murder. At least 12,000 convicts did time at the Port Arthur Penal Settlement on Tasmania’s southern coast, which earned a reputation for being one of the harshest of such facilities on the planet. Established in the early 1830s as a timber cutting station, Port Arthur served as a convict settlement for a relatively short 50 years. The site was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 2010 and recognised as one of Australia’s most complete records of convict life.
It’s a warm summer’s day as we complete the 90-minute drive from Hobart to Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula. The passing scenery is picturesque and tranquil. Crossing the narrow isthmus at Eaglehawk Neck, we pass statues of two savage looking dogs guarding the bridge. They represent the ‘dog line’ that once blocked the one and only potential escape route from Port Arthur. Coming from England, most convicts couldn’t swim a stroke. An escape by land was the only option and the real dogs would have been sent in hot pursuit of any unfortunate inmate who attempted to make a break for freedom.
Welcome to The Big Bus tour and travel guide’s YouTube channel. In this video, we head to the fascinating Port Arthur Historic Site on the Tasman Peninsula i…
Upon arrival at the Port Arthur Historic Site, we enter the museum and receive a playing card which corresponds to one of 52 convicts whose stories are told across the site. The cards enable visitors to follow the progress of ‘their’ convict and learn more about their life at Port Arthur. My card — the four of hearts — matches the identity of 33-year-old Thomas Fleet. A blacksmith back in England, he was sentenced to life at Port Arthur for burglary in 1837.
Exiting the museum, we join the 40-minute guided walking tour of the site, which is included in the cost of your entry ticket. The tour sets a leisurely pace across 40 hectares of open, idyllic green space, which was once home not only to convicts, but also to officials, soldiers and their families. I suspect it may not have been quite so pretty back then.
Idle hands were certainly regarded as the devil’s tools in convict times. The main industries here at Port Arthur were timber logging and ship building. It would have been back-breaking work. I learn that Thomas Fleet was assigned to the timber gang.
As we tour some of the buildings dotted across the site, our guide recounts various convict tales — including some of the most notable escape attempts. The convicts were inventive in their efforts — like inmate Billy Hunt who thought he could pass himself off as a kangaroo. Yes, you read that right. His escape plan was flawed however, as taking pot-shots at kangaroos was a pastime favoured by soldiers.
The site has about 30 structures in total — some in ruins, some restored, and some in between. Our tour ends on Civil Row, where the houses of the magistrate, accountant, chaplain and medical officers were located. It’s here that you’ll find the parsonage — reputed to be one of the most haunted buildings in Australia. After dying in his upstairs bedroom, Reverend George Eastman was too tall for his body to be taken out via the stairs. As he was being lowered out the window, the rope snapped. It’s said that the Reverend can be heard moaning in the dead of night. As we walk through the house, there is a definite chill in the air.
We say goodbye to our guide and grab a light lunch from the museum coffee shop, located inside what was once the Asylum. Understandably, mental health issues were rife at Port Arthur. Today the Asylum also houses a study centre, which shares more stories about former inmates — including juvenile convicts as young as seven who were incarcerated at Port Arthur for stealing toys.
Continuing on to the fully restored Separate Prison, we visit the solitary confinement cells in which repeat offenders were locked for up to 23 hours at a time. In these tiny, cold, pitch black spaces, inmates were expected to sit and reflect on their crimes in the hope of being rehabilitated. We step inside a cell and the door closes behind us. The walls seem to close in around us as well. It’s just a taste of the claustrophobia the inmates must have experienced.
Our day concludes with a harbour cruise (also include in the ticket price) out towards the open sea, before returning past the Isle of the Dead. This small island is where most of those who perished at Port Arthur were buried, including both Thomas Fleet and Reverend Eastman.
All in all, the Port Arthur Historic Site is an absorbing barred window on one of the harshest chapters in our nation’s history.
Linda Botting is a freelance writer, photographer and travel blogger based in Adelaide, South Australia. Her work has appeared in Great Walks, SA Weekend and International Traveller. She has travelled extensively through Western Europe as well as the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australia. Linda has lived in London, trekked Peru, practised yoga in Bali, studied Italian in Italy and played polo in Argentina. She seeks to inspire like-minded independent and solo travellers to explore new cultures and learn more about our amazing planet.