A Day at the Port Arthur Heritage Site

I’m taking the Escape Hatch on its first decent drive. Two friends and I set off from Hobart on the 1.5hr drive to the Port Arthur Heritage Site on a wet Saturday morning in July.

What is the Port Arthur Historic Site?

Port Arthur was established as a timber mill in 1830 and then in 1833 developed in to a penitentiary for secondary offenders in the colony of Van Diemen’s Land. Now known as Tasmania. It was named after the Lieutenant Governor George Arthur of Van Diemen’s Land. The name Port Arthur became synonymous with the harshness of convict life at ‘Hell on Earth’. A place where no one wanted to go.

It operated between 1833 to 1877.

We ventured down the often-winding single lane roads through towns like Sorell, Copping and Dunalley.

By reaching the Port Arthur Historic Site at 10.45am we had been successful in beating the passenger laden tourist buses. This is a very good thing. The Port Arthur Historic Site is the number one tourist activity in Tasmania and visitors can swarm the place in the afternoon.

Upon reaching the reception desk, we’re told that walking tours take place every 15 minutes and go for about 40 minutes.

The ordinary weather meant that the harbour cruises were not stopping at Isle of the Dead or Point Puer Juvenile Prison today. Which frankly, sucked. These are highlights and should be part of your Port Arthur Historic Site experience.

As far as I was concerned, this defeated the reason for taking the cruise. So we didn’t.

With tickets and convict card in hand (more on the convict card later), and before descending to the visitor centre, coffee was in order.

The Visitors Centre has been redesigned and refurbished since I was here two years ago when I walked the Three Capes Track.

The “kiosks” offer coffee, other drinks, and an assortment of hot pies, cakes and desserts.

The place looks colder. Less inviting. Maybe it just the weather.

The gift shop comes across as too commercial with almost a full A-Z of items emblazoned with “Port Arthur Historic Site” on them. Hardly befitting the place in my opinion.

After the necessary caffeine hit, the first stop was downstairs to the interactive visitor centre..

The Visitor Centre

First impression of the opened and expanded centre is impressive. It looks coordinated and spacious.

There is information, artefacts, interactive displays, including ankle chains. All well set out and straight forward. Good for children’s interactions and education too.

Check out how you’d go with the chains on. The chains are not light.

The convict card provided with the ticket is matched up with a drawer which has the name, background, and convict life of the convict. I found it very interesting to read the backgrounds of these individuals and how they ended up in Van Diemen’s Land.

“My” convict card was a poor bugger of a fellow named Thomas Fleet. He was sentenced to transportation for life, for the crime of horse stealing. He was subsequently sent to Port Arthur for stealing a watch and other articles from a house.

Fleet also attempted escape from Port Arthur and was captured and received 75 lashes for his unsuccessful escape.  Fleet later struck his overseer and was sent to Hobart for attempted murder. Damn fool. Fleet wasn’t very good at Choose Your Own Adventure games.

He was executed. No more Thomas Fleet.

Walking Tour with Robert

The walking tour was beginning so my interactive time was cut short.

The tour does not take you inside any of the buildings, but rather the guide will tell you the Port Arthur story to give you a sense and feeling of life for the convicts, the soldiers and the community.

Outside in the rain we sheltered for Robert’s introductory chat.

Robert has been a guide here for over 10 years. He knows his stuff.

He talks through the beginnings of transportation, the situation in Great Britain, of post industrialisation and the effects upon its people. The gaols in Great Britain were terrible and overcrowded. Due to law reform execution was no longer an easy option as a penalty.

Port Arthur was an extension of the new reformative prison system from England.

From Robert’s talk, Port Arthur convicts were better off in terms of penal conditions than their counterparts in Great Britain and Ireland.

Port Arthur was the last chance saloon for a convict in Australia. Port Arthur was not for first time offenders. Convicts were not sent here directly from Britain. If you committed a crime at Port Arthur, you were sent to Hobart for further trial.

There were up to 2000 people in the Port Arthur community. Making it the third largest settlement in Van Diemen’s Land! This site was more than a prison. It housed families, schools, dances, regattas and church services. All those things that entertained in the 1800’s.

For a time, the Granary was the biggest standing structure in Australia. It’s hard to fathom, given that so much of the building has gone, but the restoration is working wonders.

A Mill to Grind Rogues Honest

Robert listed the four cogs of Governor General Arthur’s metho of reform at Port Arthur:

Discipline and punishment

Religious and moral instruction

Classification and separation

Training and education

Port Arthur was designed as ‘…a mill to grind rogues honest’.


How was life for a convict at Port Arthur?

Robert tells us that the convicts received three meals a day. They received religious teachings to help guide their soul, even had mandated break times during their day!  Convicts who adhered to the rules and demonstrated hard work and good behaviour received training, were able to gain valuable skills in a colony that was bereft, but in need of such trade skills including ship building, blacksmithing, carpentry and shoemaking.

I feel that these facts on their own make Port Arthur seem not such a bad place. Yet I can’t help but feel there was a sinister element that nullified these as positives… Lashings from a cat-o-nine tails and solitary cells could be the answer.

The convicts and their skills were part of a machine. The post industrialisation prison reform machine. Reform combined with work skills production – Port Arthur was a mass-produced government joinery. Everything was made here, and profit was number one.

The main task of the convicts in the early years of operation was to operate in tree-felling caterpillar gangs, clearing and carrying logs from the bushland to the site. As many as 90 convicts were required per tree. The best logs were chosen for shipbuilding. At peak production, three vessels left Port Arthur every week. THREE!!!

Tough labour such as this broke many men.

Side point – Did you know, at the time Hobart Town was the largest whaling port in the southern hemisphere? Lots of whaling required lots of boats.

Parting Questions

Robert closed the tour with the following questions:

Is the modern day understanding of Port Arthur accurate?

  • When did the story of Port Arthur penitentiary become a story of such sadness, cruelty and hardship?
  • When did this perception begin?
  • Was it what the public wanted to hear? A marketing ploy?

Have you been to or researched Port Arthur? What are your thoughts?

We were free to explore at our leisure with those questions in our mind.

To my mind, what the convicts did face was an overwhelming sense of isolation. They believed they were trapped in a far away place (they were), incarnated as Hell on Earth, many days hike from anywhere (also true), surrounded by water filled with sharks (yeah, nah) and dangerous natives (myth), and were watched by hundreds of guards (myth). The convicts were also alone. No family or real friends and never likely to see them again.

It may be hard to see on a wet day like today, but Port Arthur Heritage Site is a beautiful and serene location, with lush green hills and gardens.

The Museum & Study Centre

The rain has subsided and the sky above is now quite pleasant as we walk up the hill toward the Solitary Prison. We first stopped in to the Museum and Study Centre. Formerly the site of the Asylum.

The museum provides a fascinating insight into the entire life at Port Arthur.

It displays convict uniforms, hats, boots, possessions, tools and other effects. Along with soldiers’ weapons, uniforms and possessions.

A convicts basic meal each day.
Convict uniform
Port Arthur soldier tools
Tools of a soldiers trade. Handcuffs and a “life preserver”.

There is also information and newspaper articles with the history of the site during the convict transportation era, the short-lived renaming of the settlement to Carnarvon, and it’s beginnings as a tourist attraction in the 1900’s.

The Separate Prison

In my estimation the most solemn place on the entire Port Arthur Heritage Site is the Separate Prison.

The luckless souls who were forced to spend any time in the Separate Prison endured the most torment and mental disintegration through a misguided experimental method of punishment.

The convicts lost their identity as they were only referred to as a number once they entered the prison. They wore capped masks outside of their cell so other convicts could not identify them. After all, they were nothing but a number. I wonder how many of the men forgot their own name?

You are nobody but a number, you prisoner scum.

The Separate Prison was part of a new form of punishment, designed for isolation and contemplation. With the isolation, came complete silence. Even religious teachings were done in singular booths.

Port Arthur Separate Prison
The Separate Prison hallway
Port Arthur Separate Prison silence
It was always “Quiet Time” at the Separate Prison

Guards communicated via sign language within the prison. Deathly silence. Perhaps apart from the short bursts of convict screaming before they were silenced.

Within the Separate Prison there are storyboards for numerous convicts and some famous visitors to the prison.

Port Arthur storyboard
James Harrison – a Point Puer boy
Port Arthur storyboard
George White – the unsuccessful escapee
Port Arthur storyboard
John Howard – the prison’s mastermind
Port Arthur storyboard
James Boyd – The Commandant 1833-1844
















You can look inside some of the cells as they would have been when the prison was in operation (except they didn’t have windows as they do now).

Port Arthur Separate Prison cell
A Separate Prison cell
Port Arthur Separate Church
Church on a Sunday meant separate singular booths

The convicts were held in solitude for 23 hours each day, and allowed one hour of exercise in a small and high walled yard. Alone. Imagine that. It would be no life at all. Left with only your daily tasks and lots of time to think. No conversation and barely any interaction with other humans. Like working in a call centre.

John Quigley’s Cage

John Quiqley was branded a lunatic before his arrival at Port Arthur .

Quigley had stints at Norfolk Island and Maria Island before being convicted of attempted armed robbery and murder. He was labelled a “dangerous lunatic” and sent to Port Arthur and held in a padded cell in the Separate Prison.

The “cage” was Quigley’s separate enclosed exercise yard. It was also used for similar “lunatics” after his departure.

Port Arthur Quigley's Cage
The remnants of Quigley’s Cage

There is no obvious conclusion to the John Quigley story.

We continued wandering the picturesque grounds.

We inspected resplendid looking brick houses, including the Chaplain’s House, the Accountants House and the Post Office. Each building contains their own history. The Post Office has early drawings and even photographs of the site which I found fascinating.

The Church

Religious instruction was heavily Protestant, but not labelled as such due to the “freedom of religious belief” was required to be seen to be upheld.

The grand church of no denomination (it was never consecrated) other than it was all but a  Protestant Church and not a church for Catholics. So much so, that Richard Jones, a Catholic convict protested and campaigned for a Catholic priest.

Port Arthur Catholic
Richard Jones the Catholic objector

Much of the church stands strong, except it has no roof and seven of its church bells are on display in a glass case in its foyer. The eighth bell has not been recovered.

Convict labour constructed the buildings and it is interesting to note the improvement of the workmanship from building to building.

The Commandant’s House

The Commandants house, the first house constructed on the site in 1833, nestles nicely in its own grounds to the right of the Guard Tower, with views of the bay.

Funnily enough, the Commandant’s house, as one of the first built, is noticeably uneven in parts and shonky in others.

Commandants made their own additions or alterations to the house. The workmanship improves from the original building.

The Penitentiary

The building stands at the base of the hill and across the reclaimed land/cricket field. It’s been steadily restored in recent years and externally it is looking much like it would have done in the mid 1800’s.

When Port Arthur closed in 1877, the community tried to erase the evidence and history of the place, by renaming it Carnarvon. The site was sold and much of the sandstone from the penitentiary was used for buildings in Hobart and surrounding areas.

Internally, you can walk within the building and get a feel for the size of cells on the ground level.

Port Arthur site visit ends

The Port Arthur Historic Site is a lot to take in with one visit, with or without the harbour cruise and visits to Point Puer and The Isle of The Dead.

On this visit, I missed several buildings, including the guard tower, the officers’ quarters and the entire dockyard plus the harbour cruise with the Isle of the Dead and Point Puer. It is a big day to visit everything on the site and to take in the information available about the people and events here.

The visitors pass gets you back to back days’ entry, perfect for making a weekender of the Tasman peninsula.

Because of this, I highly recommend planning for a two stop visit if you can afford the time.

Alternatively, you may choose to purchase a Ticket of Leave, which allows you two-year pass with as many entries as you like. This option is great for Tasmanian’s who get visitors and want to show them Port Arthur.

For more information check portarthur.org.au/visit

2 Replies to “Port Arthur Penitentiary – Machine and Prison”

  1. Hi, one of my ancestors Lucius Forsyth was punished by being put in the “squirrel cage”. Could you tell me what this was.

    Many thanks.

    1. Hi Jason

      Port Arthur specialised in a few types of punishment.
      Solitary confinement, flogging, chain gangs and timber-felling parties. The other type of punishment was grinding wheat on the treadmill.
      Port Arthur was a machine. It produced goods for the colony.

      This treadmill was also known as the “squirrel cage”, much like the hamster wheel. Used as a group punishment, often for insolence, several of these poor convicts, such as your ancestor Lucius Forsyth, would walk on the treadmill for a large portion of the day. 40 minutes on. 20 minutes break, grinding wheat into flour.

      Now, there was a kicker to this seemingly boring, arduous punishment. The “steps” of the treadmill were the blades that ground the wheat.
      One misstep… the convicts foot or leg would get sliced. Move too slowly and the convict would receive a flogging.

      I hope that helps Jason.



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