Port Arthur: A mill to grind rogues honest

Prisons, a contentious issue at the best of times are still to this day our main method of rehabilitating criminals and punishing them for their crimes. The means of imprisonment and punishment have changed over the centuries since the earliest form of legal codes was written up in 1750 BC but our current system has been in place for quite some time

Port Arthur began as a simple timber station in 1830 but began its now famous role as a penal colony shortly after in 1833. The people of Britain and the colonies were becoming disenchanted with the severity of punishments being carried out, particularly the death penalty for petty crimes. Banishment to Port Arthur was seen as a more “humane” alternative but as we’ll see, perhaps the death penalty would have been easier on the poor souls transported there.

Convicts were transported to Port Arthur from England and Ireland as well as from the burgeoning colonies within Australia. They were made to carry out hard labour, cutting down trees and preparing them for use in the timber industry. A shipyard was also built on the site and some of the better behaved convicts were put to work as shipmakers and carpenters, while others acquired the skills to become blacksmiths or shoemakers and went on to live successful lives after the end of their sentence.

It wasn’t all just education and labour though, this was a penal colony after all and that meant punishment and discipline as well as religious and moral instruction, classification and separation. Port Arthur’s Separate Prison was constructed in 1853 and based on Pentonville penitentiary in England. It was here that prison rules were strictly enforced. Convicts were locked up 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, forbidden from making any noise so that they could dwell on their crimes. When they were allowed out of their cells for mass or exercise they had to wear masks and stand in individual cubicles inside the chapel unable to see their fellow inmates. The guards communicated with sign language to ensure complete silence and only when they were locked in their cells could the convicts remove their masks.

This prolonged period of silence and darkness had the unexpected (at the time) consequence of making many of the convicts mentally and physically ill. Many were no longer able to carry out the hard labour and with an ageing prison population experiencing mental instability it was decided a mental asylum would need to be built on the site. The penal colony was closed in 1877, more than two decades after transportation to Van Diemen’s land ended. The site fell into disrepair and many of the buildings were damaged or destroyed by large bush fires at the end of the 19th Century.

In an attempt to remove the negative stigma associated with the site, the area was renamed Carnarvon, however a growing tourism trade saw great interest in the site and it was soon renamed Port Arthur and the foundations for the current exhibit space were laid.

Visiting Port Arthur today, the area has an air of calmness and serenity that is quite eerie considering its past. The polished houses, churches, municipal buildings and gardens of the staff and military personnel who resided on the site make for a quaint little village atmosphere but the eroded facades of the penitentiary are never far from view. As part of the entrance fee visitors get to take a ferry trip around the bay and the Isle of the Dead (I know, sounds like a cheesy zombie B-movie). It is here that over 1,100 people are buried including military and civil officers and their families as well as numerous convicts, although their graves remain unmarked. That sense of calm and tranquillity can also be felt emanating from the Isle of the Dead as you sail around it on the ferry trip, it’s really quite surreal.

Walking around the site you get a real sense of the divide between those living freely at Port Arthur, and those in chains. You can picture children playing on the grounds, while mere feet away convicts sat in utter silence, and complete darkness if they were being kept in the isolation cells. Having visited Alcatraz in America, that same sense of peace was prevalent there too. I don’t know if it’s the picturesque location (particularly in Port Arthur’s case) or that whatever horrors happened in those places have now ended but they all have this strange air that I just can’t explain. I remember being on Alcatraz and thinking how nice it would be as an entertainment venue out in the bay, a restaurant or hotel with wonderful views of San Francisco. Port Arthur makes for a lovely quaint little village where you could go out for a sail in a yacht from every weekend or just laze around by the waters edge.

Is it because I’ve only ever known freedom and very little hardship that I just can’t relate to the convict experience or get a feeling for what it was like? More than likely yes but that doesn’t mean a trip to Port Arthur is a wasted one. Far from it. It’s a fascinating journey back in time to the early days of Australia and Tasmania and something that shouldn’t be forgotten or paved over.

And now for some photos. I’ll be uploading a more comprehensive gallery on the Facebook page.

A model of the sight when it was in full swing greets you in the visitors centre.
A model of the site when it was in full swing greets you in the visitors centre.
This interesting display shows you the faces of the people who were detained here.
This interesting display shows you the faces of the people who were detained here.
The tiny cells had everything a convict could need, except a key of course.
The tiny cells had everything a convict could need, except a key of course.
The restored roof of the Separate Prison is quite light and airy, adding to that surreal atmosphere.
The restored roof of the Separate Prison is quite light and airy, adding to that surreal atmosphere.
The masks worn by the convicts were pretty creepy.
The masks worn by the convicts were pretty creepy.
The chapel where the convicts remained separated and silent.
The chapel where the convicts remained separated and silent.
One of the blocks has been left in a state of disrepair.
One of the blocks has been left in a state of disrepair.
A restored block serves as an example for what it was like in the mid 1800s.
A restored block serves as an example for what it was like in the mid 1800s.
An example of the jackets worn by the convicts.
An example of the jackets worn by the convicts.
Handcuffs on display in the museum inside the mental asylum building.
Handcuffs on display in the museum inside the mental asylum building.
....and a mill to grind minds into madness.
….and a mill to grind minds into madness.
Well what do you know, there I am :)
Well what do you know, there I am 🙂
There was an attempt to set up a mill on the rivulet but it was nothing short of a disaster.
There was an attempt to set up a mill on the rivulet but it was nothing short of a disaster.
Maybe it was the sunny weather between the rain that gave the place its enchanting atmosphere.
Maybe it was the sunny weather between the rain that gave the place its enchanting atmosphere.
A rather arty attempt at showing how the interior of the hospital used to look.
A rather arty attempt at showing how the interior of the hospital used to look.
The shell of the hospital building.
The shell of the hospital building.
A small dinghy sits in the harbour overlooking the site.
A small dinghy sits in the harbour overlooking the site.
A view back towards Port Arthur from the far side of the Isle of the Dead.
A view back towards Port Arthur from the far side of the Isle of the Dead.
You can see the gravestones of the military and civil burial sites from the water.
You can see the gravestones of the military and civil burial sites from the water.
An eerily tranquil place.
An eerily tranquil place.
Looking over at the site from near the ferry terminal.
Looking over at the site from near the ferry terminal.
The walls inside the granary cum penitentiary need to be supported as restoration works continue.
The walls inside the granary cum penitentiary need to be supported as restoration works continue.
A beam of sunlight shines into the shell of the building.
A beam of sunlight shines into the shell of the building.
As always, nature cares not for our constructions.
As always, nature cares not for our constructions.
The various staff houses around the site are tastefully restored and give an insight into life on the other side of the fence.
The various staff houses around the site are tastefully restored and give an insight into life on the other side of the fence.
It really is a lovely peaceful spot.
It really is a lovely peaceful spot.
Hmmm not sure about the floor and pink walls, whatever tickles your fancy I suppose.
Hmmm not sure about the floor and pink walls, whatever tickles your fancy I suppose.
Inside St. David's Church, the smaller of the two religious buildings on site.
Inside St. David’s Church, the smaller of the two religious buildings on site.
The main Church is now in ruins but must have been quite the sight back in the day.
The main Church is now in ruins but must have been quite the sight back in the day.
The ruins of the government cottage from the lovely gardens in front.
The ruins of the government cottage from the lovely gardens in front.
This exhibit inside the visitors centre was just too creepy to not add laser eyes in Photoshop. Like something out of a Doctor Who episode.
This exhibit inside the visitors centre was just too creepy to not add laser eyes in Photoshop. Like something out of a Doctor Who episode.
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4 thoughts on “Port Arthur: A mill to grind rogues honest

  1. Thank you for this fascinating virtual tour. I loved your photos — they’re so beautiful, and so evocative — but your description of the convicts’ treatment was chilling. How horrible that so many men were literally driven mad by the silence and social isolation! But as horrible as the history may be, I’m glad it’s been preserved for the education of future generations. Thank you again!

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