An Essential Guide to Port Arthur Tours from Hobart

An Essential Guide to Port Arthur Tours from Hobart

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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.

Port Arthur is a penal colony in Tasmania
Port Arthur – Tasmania

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, as well as the Old Melbourne Gaol.

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.

The Guard Tower overlooks the Penitentiary at Port Arthur
Guard Tower – Port Arthur

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.

This is the view from the top of the hill behind the Penitentiary
The Penitentiary – Port Arthur

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 on AirBnb.

Visitor’s Centre

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.

Introductory Tour

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!

Port Arthur tours from Hobart will show you the Penitentiary
The Penitentiary – Port Arthur

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.

The Penitentiary

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.

The Penitentiary in Port Arthur is a grand yet damaged building
The Penitentiary – Port Arthur

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.

The cells in the Penitentiary at Port Arthur used to house the most difficult convicts
The Penitentiary – Port Arthur

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. 

The inside of the Penitentiary at Port Arthur is quite interesting
The Penitentiary – Port Arthur

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”.

The Separate Prison is an ominous building in Port Arthur
The Separate Prison – Port Arthur

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 in Port Arthur  has been renovated
The Separate Prison – Port Arthur

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 atmosphere in the Separate Prison at Port Arthur is quite dark and ominous
The Separate Prison – Port Arthur

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…

The chapel within the Separate Prison has individual booths for convicts to attend mass
Chapel in the the Separate Prison

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 Convict Church in Port Arthur  was a source of solace for the prisoners
The Convict Church – Port Arthur

The Hospital

The sky was a bit grey for Tasmania photos but that’s often the case in these latitudes…

Not much remains of the hospital at Port Arthur
The Hospital – Port Arthur

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.

The Lunacy Asylum in Port Arthur now houses a very interesting museum
The Lunacy Asylum

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.

The Dockyard

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 dockyard and its cottages is a nice sight at Port Arthur
The Dockyard – Port Arthur

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.

The Isle of the Dead is the cemetery at Port Arthur
Isle of the Dead – Port Arthur

Point Puer

Juveniles as young as nine were sent to Point Puer and made to work. Few places in Tasmania would have such a sad significance…

Point Puer is an island at Port Arthur where young offenders worked
Point Puer – Port Arthur

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 Commandant's House is a cosy home on the grounds of Port Arthur
The Commandant’s House – Port Arthur

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.

The Commandant's House became a hotel and has a large kitchen
Kitchen in the Commandant’s House

Government Gardens

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.

Have you visited Port Arthur? Tell me about it in the comments below!

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Port Arthur tours from Hobart is a great way to discover the penal colony
You can visit the Port Arthur Historic Site with a tour from Hobart
Port Arthur in Tasmania can be visited on a tour from Hobart

14 Comments

  1. molly

    June 29, 2020 at 12:41 pm

    Great post! I’d like to check out the gardens and the Commandant’s house for sure!

    1. Delphine Mignon

      July 1, 2020 at 11:55 am

      The Commandant’s House was a great discovery on my last visit, it’s such a contrast with the conditions in which the convicts lived… I can’t say I was completely comfortable with it though… Next time, I’d like to spend more time in the Hospital and the Church.

  2. Jamie I

    June 30, 2020 at 12:42 am

    If I get to visit Tasmania I would definitely want to experience the local history by visiting a penal colony. What a cool experience.

    1. Delphine Mignon

      July 1, 2020 at 11:54 am

      I wouldn’t describe Port Arthur as a “cool experience” but it’s interesting and educational. Tasmania is really beautiful and not limited to its wildlife and beautiful scenery…

  3. Rhonda

    June 30, 2020 at 2:16 pm

    Port Arthur seems like an experiment on how to transform convicts. Not only were the convicts shipped off from far away, but they underwent physical and mental abuse that did not seem to accomplish their goal. I must agree that it was a dark and sad place.

    1. Delphine Mignon

      July 1, 2020 at 11:53 am

      Hi Rhonda, I think it’s fair to say the “experiment” failed in many ways. Corporal punishment hardened the criminals and the psychological torture of isolation and silence drove them to insanity… No wonder Port Arthur operated for only twenty years. Nineteeth century society has a lot to answer for in terms of forging cruel societies, I don’t think we’re completely rid of that legacy today…

  4. Nic

    July 1, 2020 at 2:43 am

    We’ve not managed to get over to Tassie yet but it’s a priority for next time we’re back in Aus. I have to admit when I hear Port Arthur I instantly think of the massacre and associate it with that. But there is of course so much more to it and aside from remembering the victims it’s nice to know more about it beyond that tragedy and know more about the history which is really interesting.

    1. Delphine Mignon

      July 1, 2020 at 11:50 am

      How weird that such a dark place became the site of a massacre in modern times? I remember this event from before I moved to Australia, what a horrible story. There is a memorial in the gardens but the focus of the visit is very much on convict history.

  5. Suzanne

    July 3, 2020 at 5:06 am

    This looks like a fascinating day out. I wouldn’t usually think to visit a penal colony but as well as the history this looks like a pretty to spot to visit.

    1. Delphine Mignon

      July 3, 2020 at 8:40 am

      Visiting a penal colony feels a bit weird but it’s a big part of history in Tasmania and Australia… You can’t deny the historical value, especially since my husband is descended from convicts…

  6. Krista

    July 4, 2020 at 10:46 am

    I had no idea about this place, but it was interesting to read about its history.

    1. Delphine Mignon

      July 4, 2020 at 6:37 pm

      Hi Krista, the history of Port Arthur is essential if you want to understand how Australia came to be as a modern country. It’s not an easy history but it needs to be told.

  7. Suvarna

    July 4, 2020 at 1:12 pm

    This is a great guide. I have been to Tasmania but due to time restrictions, I couldn’t visit here.

    1. Delphine Mignon

      July 4, 2020 at 6:36 pm

      Suvarna, there is always next time! For a first time in Tasmania, I would definitely visit the scenic beaches, the wilderness and see the wildlife. The history at Port Arthur is fairly sad and unless you are firmly interested in convict history, it’s ok to do a second time around. My first destination in Tasmania was the East Coast for a relaxing weekend and I fell in love with the place, there and then!

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