Port Arthur, Tasmania

Port Arthur is a town and former convict settlement on the Tasman Peninsula, in Tasmania, Australia. It is located approximately 97 kilometres (60 mi) southeast of the state capital, Hobart.

Port Arthur, Tasmania
UNESCO World Heritage Site
View of Port Arthur, Tasmania, one of the 11 penal sites constituting the Australian Convict Sites
Part ofAustralian Convict Sites
CriteriaCultural: iv, vi
Inscription2010 (34th Session)
Area146 ha
Buffer zone1,216.51 ha
Port Arthur
Port Arthur
Coordinates43°09′0″S 147°51′0″E
Population251 (2016 census)[1]
LGA(s)Tasman Council
State electorate(s)Lyons
Federal division(s)Lyons
Mean max temp Mean min temp Annual rainfall
14.8 °C
59 °F
8.2 °C
47 °F
1,148.8 mm
45.2 in
Location of Port Arthur.

The site forms part of the Australian Convict Sites, a World Heritage property consisting of 11 remnant penal sites originally built within the British Empire during the 18th and 19th centuries on fertile Australian coastal strips. Collectively, these sites, including Port Arthur, are described 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."[2]

In 1996, the town was the scene of the Port Arthur Massacre, the worst instance of mass murder in post-colonial Australian history.


Port Arthur is located about 97 km (60 mi) southeast of the state capital, Hobart, on the Tasman Peninsula. The scenic drive from Hobart, via the Tasman Highway to Sorell and the Arthur Highway to Port Arthur, takes around 90 minutes. Transport from Hobart to the site is also available via bus or ferry, and various companies offer day tours from Hobart.

At the 2016 census, Port Arthur had a population of 251.[1] This was down from 499 in 2006.[3]


Penitentiary and Mount Arthur, Tasmania, ca. 1880, by Anson Brothers

Port Arthur was named after George Arthur, the lieutenant governor of Van Diemen's Land. The settlement started as a timber station in 1830, but it is best known for being a penal colony.

Penal colony

From 1833 until 1877, Port Arthur was the destination for those deemed the most hardened of convicted British criminals, those who were secondary offenders having reoffended after their arrival in Australia. Rebellious personalities from other convict stations were also sent there. In addition, Port Arthur had some of the strictest security measures of the British penal system.

Treatment of prisoners

Interior of Model Chapel, Port Arthur, Tasmania, ca. 1880, by Anson Brothers

Port Arthur was one example of the "Separate Prison Typology" (sometimes known as the model prison), which emerged from Jeremy Bentham's theories and his panopticon.[4] The prison was completed in 1853, but then extended in 1855. The layout of the prison was fairly symmetrical. It was 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.[5] From this surveillance hub, each wing could be clearly seen, although individual cells could not. This is how the Separate Prison at Port Arthur differed from the original theory of the panopticon.[4]

The Separate Prison System also signaled a shift from physical punishment to psychological punishment. The hard corporal punishment, such as whippings, used in other penal stations was thought to only serve to harden criminals, and did nothing to turn them from their immoral ways. For example, food was used to reward well-behaved prisoners and as punishment for troublemakers. As a reward, a prisoner could receive larger amounts of food or even luxury items such as tea, sugar, and tobacco. As punishment, the prisoners would receive the bare minimum of bread and water.[6] Under this system of punishment, the "Silent System" was implemented in the building. Here, prisoners were hooded and made to stay silent; this was supposed to allow time for the prisoner to reflect upon the actions which had brought him there. Many of the prisoners in the Separate Prison developed mental illness from the lack of light and sound. This was an unintended outcome, although the asylum was built right next to the Separate Prison. In many ways, Port Arthur was the model for many of the penal reform movements, despite the shipping, housing, and slave-labour use of convicts being as harsh, or worse, than other stations around the nation.

Activities of prisoners

Port Arthur was also the destination for juvenile convicts, receiving many boys, some as young as nine. The boys were separated from the main convict population and kept on Point Puer, the British Empire's second boys' prison.[7] Like the adults, the boys were used in hard labour such as stone cutting and construction. One of the buildings constructed was one of Australia's first nondenominational churches, built in a gothic style. Attendance of the weekly Sunday service was compulsory for the prison population. Critics of the new system noted that this and other measures seemed to have negligible impact on reformation.

The archaeology found in Port Arthur shows that people living there participated in the mundane, material necessities of life. Not only did the people living there help prepare food, but they also participated in recreational activities such as smoking and hunting.[8] Archaeological excavation of the Port Arthur workshops complex is overseen by the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority (PAHSMA). These workshops, situated on the original waterfront since 1830, housed the trades-focussed activities undertaken at the penal station including shoemakers, blacksmiths, tailors, turners and wheelwrights.[9] A journal of the ongoing excavation and conservation work at Port Arthur is documented online by Dr Richard Tuffin.[10]

A number of ongoing archaeology and historical research projects at Port Arthur include interactive webmapping of convict offences by the University of New England as part of their Convict Landscapes project,[11] and the Founders and Survivors project to digitise Tasmania's past.[12] The Landscapes of Production and Punishment: the Tasman Peninsula 1830-77 project funded by the Australian Research Council, in partnership with the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority, continues to examine the convict system from the perspective of convicts as workers. GIS mapping of location and offence data compiled by Dr Richard Tuffin uses the buildings, work sites, products and life outcomes to understand the convicts’ lives and labours whilst under sentence.[13]


The tidal portion of Radcliffe Creek

The peninsula on which Port Arthur is located is a naturally secure site by being surrounded by water (rumoured by the administration to be shark-infested). The 30-m-wide isthmus of Eaglehawk Neck that was the only connection to the mainland was fenced and guarded by soldiers, man traps, and half-starved dogs.

Shore-based and ship-based whaling was banned in the area to prevent convicts trying to escape in the boats. Officers at Port Arthur sometimes set out in their own boats and attempted to catch whales. This may have been more for sport than as a commercial activity.[14]

Smooth Island in Norfolk Bay was most likely used to grow fresh vegetables for the Port Arthur penal settlement.[15]

Radcliffe Creek drains the immediate area of Port Arthur into Carnarvon Bay.[16]


Contact between visiting seamen and prisoners was barred. Ships had to check in their sails and oars upon landing to prevent any escapes. However, many attempts were made, and some were successful. Boats were seized and rowed or sailed long distances to freedom.

Port Arthur was the birthplace of rail transport in Australia. In 1836, a tramway was established between Taranna and a jetty in Long Bay, north of Port Arthur. The sole propulsion was convicts.[17] One of the last remaining sections of the tramway can be viewed at the Federation Chocolate Factory at Taranna.

Reputation and perception

Port Arthur was sold as an inescapable prison, much like the later Alcatraz Island in the United States. Some prisoners were not discouraged by this, and tried to escape. Martin Cash successfully escaped along with two others. One of the most infamous incidents, simply for its bizarreness, was the escape attempt of one George "Billy" Hunt. Hunt disguised himself using a kangaroo hide and tried to flee across the Neck, but the half-starved guards on duty tried to shoot him to supplement their meagre rations. When he noticed them sighting him up, Hunt threw off his disguise and surrendered, receiving 150 lashes.

Despite its reputation as a pioneering institution for the new, enlightened view of imprisonment, Port Arthur was still in reality as harsh and brutal as other penal settlements. Some critics might even suggest that its use of psychological punishment, compounded with no hope of escape, made it one of the worst. Some tales suggest that prisoners committed murder (an offence punishable by death) just to escape the desolation of life at the camp. The Isle of the Dead was the destination for all who died inside the prison camps. Of the 1,646 graves recorded to exist there, only 180, those of prison staff and military personnel, are marked. The prison closed in 1877.

Tourism development

Before Port Arthur was abandoned as a prison in 1877, some people saw the potential tourist attraction. David Burn, who visited the prison in 1842, was awed by the peninsula's beauty and believed that many would come to visit it.[18] This opinion was not shared by all. For example, Anthony Trollope in 1872 declared that no man desired to see the "strange ruins" of Port Arthur.[18]

After the prison closed, much of the property was put up for auction. However, most of the property was not sold until 1889.[18] By this time, the area had become increasingly popular and the prison buildings were in decay. As the Hobart Mercury proclaimed, "the buildings themselves are fast going to decay, and in a few years will attract nobody; for they will be ruins without anything to make them worthy of respect, or even remembrance.[18]" The Model Prison was purchased by Anglican church minister and politician Joseph Woollnough, who operated tours and donated the proceeds to the church.[19][20]

The decay was seen as something positive, as the Tasmanian population wished to distance themselves from the dark image of Port Arthur. Those who bought Port Arthur property began tearing down the buildings,[18] the destruction was furthered by the fires of 1895 and 1897, which destroyed the old prison house, and earth tremors.[18] In place of the Prison Port Arthur, the town of Carnarvon was born. The town was named after the British Secretary of State and the population was said to be "refined and intellectual".[18] The town brought in many visitors as they encouraged boating, fishing, and shooting in the natural beauty of the peninsula. They again wished to remove the negative connotation attached to the area.[18]

Despite this wish, the haunting stories of Port Arthur prisoners and circulating ghost stories brought popularity to the remaining prison ruins. This was helped by the popular novels For the Term of His Natural Life (1874) by Marcus Clarke and The Broad Arrow (1859) by Caroline Leakey, which concerned themselves about convicts in Port Arthur.[18]

Port Arthur, Tasmania as a tourist place

In 1927, tourism had grown to the point where the area's name was reverted to Port Arthur. In 1916, the Scenery Preservation Board (SPB) was established to take the management of Port Arthur out of the hands of the locals. By the 1970s, the National Parks and Wildlife Service began managing the site.

In 1979, funding was received to preserve the site as a tourist destination, due to its historical significance. The "working" elements of the Port Arthur community, such as the post office and municipal offices, were moved to nearby Nubeena. Several sandstone structures, built by convicts working under hard labour conditions, were cleaned of ivy overgrowth and restored to a condition similar to their appearance in the 19th century. Buildings include the "Model Prison", the Guard Tower, the Church, and the remnants of the main penitentiary. The buildings are surrounded by lush, green parkland. The graves on the Isle of the Dead also attract visitors.[21]

Point Puer, across the harbour from the main settlement, was the site of the first boys' reformatory in the British Empire. Boys sent there were given some basic education, and taught trade skills.[22]

Conservation management

Since 1987, the site has been managed by the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority,[23] with conservation works funded by the Tasmanian government and the admission fees paid by visitors. Volunteer groups have been working at the building sites of Point Puer to help researchers gain a better understanding of the history of the boys' prison.

The World Heritage Committee of UNESCO inscribed the Port Arthur Historic Site and the Coal Mines Historic Site onto the World Heritage Register on 31 July 2010, as part of the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage property.[2] Port Arthur is one of Australia's most visited historical sites, receiving over 250,000 visitors each year.[24]

Port Arthur site


On 28 April 1996, the Port Arthur historic site was the location of a massacre. Martin Bryant murdered 35 people and wounded 23 more before being captured by the Special Operations Group. The killing spree led to a national restriction on high capacity semiautomatic shotguns and rifles. The 28-year-old perpetrator was subsequently convicted and is currently serving 35 life sentences plus 1,035 years without parole in the psychiatric wing of Risdon Prison in Hobart, Tasmania.[25]

See also


  1. Australian Bureau of Statistics (27 June 2017). "Port Arthur (Tas.) (State Suburb)". 2016 Census QuickStats. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  2. "Australian Convict Sites". World Heritage List. UNESCO. 2010. Retrieved 2 August 2010.
  3. Australian Bureau of Statistics (25 October 2007). "Port Arthur (State Suburb)". 2006 Census QuickStats.
  4. Hurst, Rachel (2010). "Port Arthur separate prison". Architecture Australia. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost. 99 (1): 79.
  5. The "Separate" or "Model" prison, Port Arthur – Ian Brand ISBN 0-949457-33-7
  6. Anderson, Margaret (2007)"'A Mill to Grind Rogues Honest.'." Australian Historical Studies 38, no. 129: 158.
  7. Gorton & Ramsland Carter's Barracks experience
  8. D'Gluyas, Caitlin; Gibbs, Martin; Hamilton, Chloe; Roe, David (2015). "Everyday artefacts: subsistence and quality of life at the Prisoner Barracks, Port Arthur, Tasmania". Archaeology in Oceania. 50 (3): 130–137. doi:10.1002/arco.5072. ISSN 1834-4453.
  9. "Port Arthur Convict Workshops Investigation". Australasian Society for Historical Archaeology. 17 January 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  10. Tuffin, Dr. Richard. "Profit and Punishment: Archaeological excavation of Port Arthur's workshops".
  11. "Landscapes of Production and Punishment". University of New England & Port Arthur Historic Site.
  12. Founder's & Survivors Research Project https://foundersandsurvivors.com/
  13. Tuffin, R.; Gibbs, M.; Roberts, D.A.; Maxwell-Stewart, H.; Roe, D.; Steele, J.; Hood, S. "Convict labour landscapes, Port Arthur 1830-1877".
  14. Katheryn Evans,Shore-based whaling in Tasmania historical research project, Volume 2; site histories, Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service, Hobart, 1993, p. 36.
  15. Warner, Georgia (2011). Living in History. ISBN 9781742694153.
  16. "Port Arthur Historic Site – Landscape Management Plan" (PDF). portarthur.org.au.
  17. "The Convict Tramway at Port Arthur" Eardley, Gifford Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin, April 1954 pp3740.
  18. Davidson, Jim (October,1995), "Port Arthur: A tourist history." Australian Historical Studies 26, no. 105, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed 23 September 2010).
  19. "Review of the year 1889". The Mercury. Vol. LV, no. 6, 197. Tasmania, Australia. 1 January 1890. p. 3. Retrieved 2 September 2021 via National Library of Australia.
  20. "Tasmanian social items". Illustrated Sydney News. Vol. XXVIII, no. 11. New South Wales, Australia. 23 May 1891. p. 15 (Edition 2). Retrieved 2 September 2021 via National Library of Australia.
  21. Ross, L. (1995). Death and burial at Port Arthur, 1830-1877 (honours thesis). University of Tasmania.
  22. Ross, L. (1995). Death and burial at Port Arthur, 1830-1877 (honours thesis). University of Tasmania.
  23. Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority Archived 15 September 2009 at the Wayback Machine, Port Arthur Historic Site
  24. Anderson, Margaret (2007). "A Mill to Grind Rogues Honest". Australian Historical Studies. 38 (129): 157.
  25. Wainwright, Robert; Totaro, Paola. "Born or Bred?". Behind Bars. p. 267.

Further reading

  • Barnard, Simon, A-Z of Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2014. ISBN 9781922079343
  • Brand, Ian, Penal Peninsula, Regal Press, Launceston, 1998. ISBN 9780909640088
  • Barrington R (n.d.) Convicts and Bushrangers, View Productions, Sydney
  • Kneale, Matthew, (2000) English passengers London: Hamish Hamilton. ISBN 0-241-14068-4
  • Smith R (1987) The Birth of a Nation: Australia's Historic Heritage – from Discovery to Nationhood, Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood, ISBN 0-670-90018-4
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