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10 things to see at Port Arthur, awesome places to visit

Port Arthur @Australian Luxury Escapes

Swaths of manicured lawn, a cultivated garden and sheer brick exterior walls with uniform small windows make a vivid first impression on the visitor. Gone is the timber frames, the convicts in their uniforms busy with the industry of supporting a sizable prison population. The stink and odour of eighteenth century lives is a distant memory. It does not feel right to make this site into an instagram moment as there is undoubtedly a sense of unease, of discomfort with a visit to a prison. Being banished to Port Arthur required a conviction for petty crime, juvenile delinquency, political unrest, violence and even fabricated offences thereby sentencing one to a life of hardship as penance. Hard labour was justified as a reforming spirit to see the error of your ways and it was considered appropriate that prisoners also contributed to their upkeep. Over 12,500 convicts served time in Port Arthur between 1830 to 1877.

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Why Port Arthur is so compelling, the site’s shadows

American has Alcatraz and Australia Port Arthur, both places where visitors contemplate life and reflect on society’s values both in the past and present.

The site’s shadows, the reflection of the stones in moonlight contribute to the atmospheric narration of personal stories of tragedy, heroism and gardens. It is well worth the effort and don’t worry any convict ghosts are firmly behind bars as it is nighttime after all. Originally cells grouped convicts in mass cells. By the 1840’s there was a movement to separate cells with a sense of separating prisoners into crime and punishment categories such as trusted prisoners who had some freedom of movement to solitary confinement. Look closely for the differences between the cells as well look for the iron hooks in the walls where hammocks were slung. There was no permanent bedding. Observe the very narrow ventilation slits for air. The size of the single cell is 135cm. A prisoner was kept in this tiny space for periods of up to 22 hours a day depending on the level of his punishment. The Penitentiary was considered a model for its time.

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Hospital

You can view the remains of the hospital with wards holding up to 70 patients. During busy periods the convict patients were segregated by religion with Catholics and Protestants in separate wards. Civilians were treated in their own homes. You were chained to a bed with both ankles in heavy iron brackets.

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Senior Military Officer’s Rose Cottage

A mustard coloured cottage was the home of the Senior Military Officer, a neat cottage with a verandah at the front, four rooms and a kitchen. The outhouse was at the rear. While the building has had a chequered history from occupation as a school, a chicken house, bushfires and deterioration due to lack of maintenance you have a sense of the life of the original occupants. Visitors are struck by the homely atmosphere and the contrasting single cells for prisoners.

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Commandant William Champ 1844-1848

The Commandant House Museum is fascinating. His imposing residence was marked by superb gardens replicated in the current plantings and the Wings were added to house the large family of who supervised the colony between 1844-48 and in 1851 an attractive stone gateway (still in evidence) was added. The building has been furnished in the style of the period with antiques and its magnificent view over the harbour. There is an extraordinary difference between the Commandant’s comfortable residence and that of his troops, Many of the serving military soldier’s were married and in some cases their families accompanied them to Port Arthur. Unless they were officers, the families all shared a room in the barracks.

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Artefacts, collections of pipes, shoes, clothes and buttons

Look closely at the excavated objects for they tell a story about the life of the guards. Prisoners were not allowed to smoke. Fragments of pipes are a common find, made of clay and stuffed with coarse tobacco leaves it would have been one of the pleasures a guard could have in the remote isolated area of Tasmania. Most of the guards did not volunteer for duty as guards, rather they were military personnel assigned as part of their regimental duties.

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Book and gift shop

There is an extensive collection of books, collectables and artisan goods in the gift shop as well as a restaurant and cafe. As your tickets are for two consecutive days you have ample time to enjoy the sweeping views of the Penitentiary, gardens and grounds. The 1830 restaurant makes for a great place to rendezvous with friends and family.

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Isle of the dead

Isle of the Dead is an interesting ferry trip as you are visiting the cemetery of Port Arthur. It became the burial place for Port Arthur in 1831 (only months after the establishment of the settlement) and almost immediately was divided into free settlers and convict burial grounds. At this time it was known simply as Dead Island. A guided tour will narrate the story of the people who are buried there as well the custodian who lived a solitary life as the cemetery sexton and gravedigger.

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The Church and Government Cottage

Another impressive building in the complex is the church which stands on the hill next to the Government Cottage looking down across Masons Cove towards the Isle of the Dead. This famous landmark was built around 1836-37. The building had enough room to hold 1000 convicts and 200 officials. The church continued to operate for some years until, in 1884, it was seriously damaged by fire. It is sobering to think that your longest period of time outdoors was the walk to the church.

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Convict's stories

William Riley, David Hoy, and Henry Singleton all have stories to narrate. On arrival the convicts were shaved of hair, allocated clothes that had to last six months comprising a jacket, waistcoat, trousers, shirt, boots, cap and a distinctive prisoner outer jacket. There is a replica of the uniform and think about how uncomfortable, hot in summer and freezing in winter. The solid shoes worn without socks would have caused severe discomfort. This is for prisoners who often had not worn much in the way of footwear at all.

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Trades, occupations and daily life

Many of the convicts were from urban areas.

The policy of the penitentiary system was it should be self sufficient economically and support the guards as well. Trades were taught as a method of ensuring skilled cheap labour as well as manufacturing goods for sale. Shoe making was one of the most profitable. Within a year of Port Arthur’s establishment, a shoemaker’s shop was built and in 1832 four hundred pairs of shoes and boots were sent out. “By 1835, the records show:“2,903 mens’ boots, 4 pairs of wellington boots, 200 pairs of boys’ boots, 2,130 pairs of womens’ and girls’ boots and 5,485 pairs of mens’ shoes ‘re-made’.”While most of the footwear was sent elsewhere in the colony, these particular shoes shown were what the convicts wore as they went about the duties. As the Port Arthur online resource notes, ‘How do you think you would go walking through the bush to collect fallen logs in these?”

Travel Pack Information

  • Planning my visit to Port Arthur is an informative resource. The convict stories
  • Convict and Guards , their stories William Riley, David Hoy, William Champ, Private Robert and Henry Singleton PDF (resource Port Arthur official visitor site)

PORT ARTHUR ONLINE RESOURCE ADVISES THE FOLLOWING

Port Arthur Historic Site is located on a beautiful harbour at the southern tip of the Tasman Peninsula, almost 100 km south-east of Hobart.

By car

Port Arthur Historic Site is a 90-minute drive from Hobart, and the journey offers some of the best sightseeing in Tasmania. The Arthur Highway winds through lush farmland and forest, inviting beaches and the Tasman Peninsula’s famously scenic coastline. Allow enough time to stop along the way and explore places like the Tessellated Pavement at Eaglehawk Neck, and dramatic geological features such as the Blowhole, Tasman Arch and Devil’s Kitchen.

Free parking is provided; however, during peak periods our carpark does fill up quickly.  We recommend you arrive early if you wish to secure a parking bay close to the entrance.  There are dedicated spaces for caravans, motorhomes and buses please look for the signs as you enter the site.

Driving tips

Fill your car with fuel before you begin your journey. Most service stations on the Peninsula close before 6:00pm. The closest petrol station to Port Arthur Historic Site is less than a km away however hours do vary throughout the year.

Check hire car restrictions.  Some car rental companies have limitations on where you can drive. The Arthur Highway is a sealed road, but many smaller roads on the Tasman Peninsula are unsealed or rough, so check your route, and your hire agreement, before you begin.

Watch for wildlife.  Native wildlife is abundant on the Tasman Peninsula, and most marsupial species are active at dawn and dusk. Take special care when driving at these times, when wildlife is often encountered along the roadside.

Need more information? Check the Discover Tasmania website for tips on self-drive touring, places to visit, and hire car information in Tasmania.

By coach

There are regular transport services between Hobart and Port Arthur.  A number of operators also offer tours in the Port Arthur region.

What to Bring

A few simple preparations before you visit will make sure your time at Port Arthur Historic Site is the best it can be.

The Port Arthur Historic Site covers more than 40 hectares (100 acres) of open land. While you will explore a number of intact buildings during your visit, many of our historic ruins are without roofs, and most of your visit will be spent outdoors.

The site’s coastal location means we can experience sudden weather changes, so make sure you’re prepared for sun, rain, wind, cold and warmth!

  • Dress in comfortable, layered clothing
  • Bring a raincoat (umbrellas are of limited use in the wind!)
  • Wear comfortable shoes, suitable for walking
  • Pack sunscreen and a hat
  • Check the weather forecast before your visit and dress for the conditions

All our tours take place in the open air, and are rarely cancelled because of the weather. While our guides will make you as comfortable as possible in all conditions, some locations, such the Isle of the Dead and Point Puer Boys Prison, have limited shelter, and so the right clothing and weather protection will help make your experience much more enjoyable.

Sunscreen, hats and wet-weather ponchos can also be purchased in our Gift Shop.

The journey is worth it.

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