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Port Arthur Historic Site

Home > Hobart > Escape the City | Family | Historic Houses | Walks
Published August 19th 2012
You won't regret delving into Australia's convict past

The name Port Arthur is synonymous with the dark vestiges of Australia's convict past. It's also a World Heritage Listed site and one that is quite famous and well worth a visit – and not just for history buffs. I did a tour with Grayline because I don't have my own means of transport. We stopped at Tasmans Arch and Devils Kitchen on the way there and at a lookout to see some lovely rugged coastline.

Tasmans Arch is the remains of the roof of a sea cave. It's the result of water, compressed air, sand and stone grinding down on the joints of the rock. This erosion process is continuing today, and one day Tasmans Arch will become another Devils Kitchen.

Devils Kitchen is the result of waves and silt grinding down the rocks over many years. Like Tasmans Arch, Devils Kitchen is continuously changing with new sea caves and gulches (like a chasm in the rock-face) being created by the constant erosion.

The view from the lookout was pretty spectacular. The coastline is certainly rugged and beautiful and it really drives home the notion that you're at land's end.

Then it was on to Port Arthur. On arrival you are given a playing card and you play the game of life. Basically, your card connects you to a convict who was at Port Arthur and decides whether you've been naughty or nice. Mine was a villainous rogue – I won't tell you what card I had or who it was as I don't want to spoil it for anyone.

Then, there are three levels of pass you can get for your visit to Port Arthur. I got the bronze pass included in my tour price but wish I had paid the little bit extra for the silver. This is because with the Bronze pass I got a forty minute introduction tour and was then left to roam. The tour was very informative and the gentleman who gave it knowledgeable and entertaining but standing still and listening it was freezing.

Port Arthur Historic Site
Charming sentiments from Mr Bentham...

With the Silver Pass you don't need the tour because you get an audio guide and so you can wander around and get all the same information when you want it and keep a bit warmer. In the Bronze pass you do get a harbour cruise, but not included is the tour of the Isle of the Dead, which is included in the Silver pass. Everyone who went on this tour said it was really good. I could have added it on but I hadn't covered as much ground as those with a silver pass when I took the boat cruise and so decided not to in order to maximise my time at the site. The other pass option is Gold which is the works. See the website for more information on all three passes.

One of those with the Silver Pass loaned me his audio guide while he was doing the Isle of the Dead tour though and I really liked having it and wandering about. It gave everything more meaning when I could hear about it while looking instead of just wandering around somewhat aimlessly on my own. The dollar amount difference between the two passes is a bit but you do get food included in the Silver Pass too. I wish I had known before hand that the Silver would be a much better option than the Bronze, although I guess that depends how interested you are. If you just want to have a bit of a wander and say you've been there the bronze is probably fine. I just hate to feel like I'm missing out on things and I know that I did miss things from only having the bronze pass.

Port Arthur Historic Site
The harbour where you cruise really is beautiful

I started with a visit to the Insane Asylum and the Separate Prison. The Asylum was built for those who were either not quite stable before being transported or who were driven insane by life as a convict. The Separate Prison was a place where sensory deprivation techniques were used to punish or rehabilitate, depending on your view. The prisoners were kept separate from one another and silent at all times apart from at church. The floors were padded and the guards wore felt shoes so not even the sound of a footstep outside a cell would be heard. The prisoners were allowed out for exercise daily in separate yards and with a hood over their face to protect their anonymity. While at exercise they had to move constantly at a brisk pace. Any attempt to communicate with another prisoner would lead to punishment.

Exercise Cell at the Separate Prison Port Arthur
Gee, that looks inviting for a stroll around and around and around for an hour

Even in the chapel when they went to Church hoods were worn and the stalls constructed so that no prisoner could see any other – wooden blockades block the view from the sides and below – you can only gaze down to where the sermon would be delivered. This was the only time the prisoners were permitted to use their voices – to sing hymns. There are reports that some tried to communicate during service.

Chapel in the Separate Prison
Here you were still cut off from everyone else

I had lunch on the go getting the tomato and veg soup on offer to take-away so I could eat and explore at the same time. It was also lovely to warm up a bit. If you wanted though you could definitely bring your own food. The coffee at the café when you first arrive isn't too bad either.

Next I went to the Pauper's Complex where those who had become thoroughly institutionalised and didn't function in the free world anymore could find refuge. Then up to the cottage where Irish Political Rebel William Smith O'Brien was detained after refusing to give his word he wouldn't attempt to abscond from Hobart, and indeed, attempting to abscond from Maria Island before being sent to Port Arthur. He didn't mind it there and said that the cottage was light and airy and in a good position.

William Smith O'Brien's Cottage
Ol' Willie didn't mind living here

Then it was on to the Commandant's House briefly before I had to run down to board my cruise, which I only just made. I do think that if you can spare the time spreading your visit over a longer period or even two days could be good, again depending on how interested in a full experience you are. I ran around like a blue-bottomed fly desperate to fit it all in, although perhaps a little unnecessarily as I did have some time at the end.

Commandant's House Port Arthur
The Commandant's retreat away from it all

During the cruise you get some info about ship building at Port Arthur, Point Puer the Boys' Prison and the Isle of the Dead all while cruising around and then back to the dock for some more exploring.

Port Arthur Historic Site
Walking to get the cruise

After the cruise I headed to where the gardens were and up to the church with the spires that were ordered to be built by Lady Jane Franklin – they did not feature in the convict architect Lang's original designs.

The Church at Port Arthur
The Church was never consecrated - most likely due to the number of different faiths that people worshiped there

Then I popped over to the Visiting Magistrate's House, the Roman Catholic Chaplain's House and the Junior Medical Officer's House. I then had to return my illicit audio-guide to its rightful owner, sadly for me.

Junior Medical Officer's House Port Arthur
Inside the Junior Medical Officer's House

Afterwards, I went to the penitentiary that was once four stories tall and began its life as a flour mill and granary. Then I continued up through the officer's buildings, the guard tower, law courts and finally around to the Archaeology display. I found this really interesting as it helps gain a little bit of understand to how they know what they know about what went on in each of the buildings. There was also a letter from a man who had taken a rock from the site but returned it as he'd been plagued with bad luck since his visit and theft, and had thus learnt his lesson.

Port Arthur Historic Site
The Guard Tower

Then it was back to the start for another coffee and some 'broad arrow' shaped gingerbread. The broad arrow was worn by convicts and was also sometimes called the Magpie.

Gingerbread Broad-Arrows Port Arthur
The convicts obviously weren't as fast as gingerbread men, otherwise they wouldn't have been caught.

All in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience that I would recommend to everyone, even if you aren't that interested in the history. It's amazing to think that our nation came from these beginnings. Whether you think that it was a brutal punishment ground or a place to attempt to rehabilitate recidivists there is certainly much to see and do at Port Arthur. Like I said earlier, I would go with at least a Silver Pass and I'd choose the Isle of the Dead rather than the Point Puer tour with it. I upgraded my ticket to a 'Ticket of Leave' which means I can return for free in the next two years when I will add on a tour of the Isle of the Dead and maybe even a ghost tour if I'm feeling brave because I think it would be seriously spooky at night.

Port Arthur Historic Site
The Penitentiary Building was once four storeys high

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Why? Interesting history, lovely scenery, and a good bit of exercise
When: Book on website
Phone: 1800 659 101 (from within Australia) or 61 (0)3 6251 2310
Where: Port Arthur Historic Site Arthur Highway Port Arthur TASMANIA 7182 Australia
Cost: Varies depending on Pass level and how you get there and back
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