Australia has a dark and sad history, but no less fascinating. Few places express Australia’s harsh colonial past like Port Arthur in Tasmania. I needed to return to the Port Arthur Historic Site on my last Tasmania road trip to understand more about the place and it is an essential place to visit in Australia for its cultural and historical significance. This is an essential guide to Port Arthur tours from Hobart.
An Essential Guide to Port Arthur Tours from Hobart
The distance from Hobart to Port Arthur is 97km. It is one of eleven Australian Convict Sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List, which includes Maria Island and is one of the busiest Tasmania tourist attractions. Visiting a penal colony may not sound like fun, and I don’t think it is but you can’t take away the appeal of Port Arthur as a place of historical significance.
Australia’s modern history is based on the establishment of penal colonies by Great Britain and to help visitors understand Australia and some of its past history, most Tasmania tours include a visit to Port Arthur. Maria Island also has some significant colonial history.
Port Arthur History
Port Arthur in Australia is on a naturally secure site that connects to the mainland by the isthmus of Eaglehawk Neck. The site initially began as a timber settlement in 1830 and for a time, was only accessible by sea. Due to the remoteness of the area, the site was chosen for a penal colony in 1833. It was named after George Arthur, Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was initially called.
For the next twenty years, Port Arthur housed the hardest of British convicted criminals. The “secondary criminals” were those who had reoffended. Port Arthur had some of the strictest security measures of the British Penal System and was presented as an inescapable prison. Still, some prisoners did manage to escape. In a famous and bizarre incident, George “Bully” Hunt disguised himself with a kangaroo hide and tried to make his way across the isthmus. However, he was spotted by guards who tried to shoot the animal for food. He then threw off his disguise and surrendered, and was given 150 lashes as punishment.
Even though the prison used pioneering concepts, it was a harsh and brutal place, probably one of the worst penal settlements, especially due to its use of of psychological punishment. This sentiment still prevails within the walls of the different buildings. The atmosphere at Port Arthur feels as though the sadness and dread never left, even after all these years…
Transportation ceased in 1853 and the prison officially closed in 1877. In 2010, Port Arthur was listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, as part of the Australian Convict Sites List.
Today, it is one of the biggest attractions in Tasmania. Thankfully, not all historic places worth visiting on your Tasmania holidays are as dark as this one. If you are not considering a tour, you can get a Port Arthur entry ticket.
Port Arthur Accommodation
There is accommodation at Port Arthur Tasmania, if you are taking a day trip, I recommend staying in Hobart, which has plenty of choice.
Your visit to Port Arthur from Hobart starts at the visitor’s centre. There is an interesting bookshop to visit at the end however you can pick up an audio guide and your Port Arthur tickets include a card with the identity of a historical character, convict or otherwise.
A Port Arthur map is essential to your visit. Typically, Port Arthur opening hours are from 9.30am to 6.30pm with seasonal variations. It’s worth checking ahead of your visit.
Port Arthur tours include an introduction by a guide, who will take you around the gardens, in view of the Penitentiary and will give you an overview of one of the most intriguing Tasmania destinations in a 40-minute presentation. After that, you are welcome to visit the different buildings at your own pace. This is a great way to start your learning about Port Arthur and get your bearings before starting your visit. Even with a full day, you may need to be selective about what you want to see, there are so many buildings to explore!
A visit to Port Arthur requires a fair bit of walking, as there is some distance between buildings. Expect to climb stairs and walk through sometimes difficult terrain. I recommend wearing sturdy shoes and a few layers, the weather can change quickly. Tasmania being so far south, in the Roaring Forties, the sky is often cloudy and storms never seem far.
After the introductory tour, the guide will leave you in view of the Penitentiary. This is the most iconic building at Port Arthur Historic Site but it is also quite damaged. In 1845, it was first built as a flour mill and granary. In 1857, it was converted into a penitentiary.
There are 136 separate cells on the bottom floors for the worst prisoners, or “lions”, with the most difficult behaviour. On the middle floor is a dining hall, a library and a Catholic chapel. On the top floor was a dormitory for 480 better-behaved men.
There is also a kitchen, a bakery and an ablutions yard. Once the grandest building of the penal colony, it was neglected after 1877 and gutted by fire in 1897. The visit is assisted by plaques with photographs and internal boardwalks.
It’s a shame the building is so damaged but there are enough remnants to give you an idea of the layout and the different sections. Even with so much damage, the Penitentiary is one of the best places to see in Tasmania to understand the convict penal system. My Tasmania highlights normally involve a pristine beach but I have to say that this was very interesting!
The Separate Prison
During the course of its commission as a penal colony, Port Arthur moved from the concept of corporal punishment to a more psychological form of punishment. The theories of Jeremy Bentham and panopticon were adapted at Port Arthur. It was called the “separate prison typology” or “model prison”.
Corporal punishment (whippings) was abandoned as it was thought to harden criminals and not reform them. Psychological punishment used food as part of a reward and punishment system. A “silent system” was also applied. Prisoners were hooded and made to stay silent, and prevented from laying eyes on each other.
The Separate Prison was built on a cross shape with exercise yards at each corner. The prisoner wings were each connected to the surveillance core of the prison, as well as the Chapel in the centre hall.
The Separate Prison has been renovated and shows the experiment of psychological punishment. One cell is completely dark and was used to punish criminals. The Church room is also quite peculiar. It is split in two sections, with individual cubicles so that convicts could attend the church service but not see each other. Several prisoners developed mental illness as a result of the lack of light and sound. This wasn’t the expected outcome of this system of punishment but you can’t help but wonder how people survived this treatment and how it was expected to “reform” them…
I only discovered the Separate Prison on my second visit to Port Arthur and it really highlighted the harshness of the regime and how this place gained its ominous reputation… With such hardship between its wall, no wonder the Separate Prison features in the Port Arthur Ghost Tour…
The Convict Church
The sky was a bit grey for Tasmania photos but that’s often the case in these latitudes…
The Lunacy Asylum
This building is quite different from all the others and much better preserved. It was built after the end of transportation in 1853, not by convict labour. The asylum housed the lunatics and elderly convicts. The oldest convict died at the age of 92.
Today, it houses the museum and a café. The museum is really interesting, with uniforms, leg irons and various objects on display. The weather in Port Arthur, Tasmania, was a little average that day, so it was nice to have a break at the café.
You can get a good view of the Port Arthur dockyard from the cruise. The dockyard was in operation from 1834 to 1848. During that period, 16 large vessels and 150 small boats were built. Many adult convicts and boys were trained in the boat building trade to get them out of their criminal ways…
The slipway is still there, with a metal structure representing a ship, and there are several renovated cottages in that area. From a distance, it looks quite pretty and harmless, a little like a postcard…
The Harbour Cruise
The cruise on the Manara takes about 20 minutes and will take you around the Isle of the Dead and Point Puer. There are some good views of Port Arthur from the water.
The Isle of the Dead
The Isle of the Dead is Port Arthur’s cemetery. There are 1646 graves, of which only 180 are actually marked.
Juveniles as young as nine were sent to Point Puer and made to work. Few places in Tasmania would have such a sad significance…
The Commandant’s House
The Commandant’s House is in stark contrast with the living conditions of the convicts. I had missed it on previous Tasmania getaways and it only brought the harshness of life at Port Arthur to a more vivid reality. The rooms are cosy and the kitchen is well equipped.
The house was turned into a hotel after the prison closure and the inside feels quite cosy. It’s a bit of a rabbit warren with lots of different rooms, kitchens and dining rooms added at the back.
This is an ornamental garden built around 1846-1847 for the enjoyment of visitors and resident families. It served as a model of order and proper behaviour, and was reconstructed after 1991 from old pictures.
There is also a memorial garden dedicated to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre.
Tasmania top attractions
Is seems odd that one of the best places of interest in Tasmania feels so harsh and sad, and it’s easy to struggle with this form of tourism… But as a country, Australia is quite brave in looking at its past history dead in the face. In a way, the people who lived and suffered through that period, especially the convicts, are not forgotten. In spite of a certain shudder you can’t help but feel, Port Arthur remains one of the most fascinating places to visit in Tasmania.
Thankfully, there are many happy and beautiful things to see in Tasmania, such as Bruny Island, Cradle Mountain and East Coast Tasmania. We visited the lavender estate on the way back from Port Arthur to Hobart.
Tasmania Road Trip
Maria Island Day Trip
Things to do on Bruny Island, Tasmania
Have you visited Port Arthur? Tell me about it in the comments below!
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