Back in 2012 we holidayed in Tasmania for the first time, spending 8 days travelling from top to bottom and seeing some of the main attractions. One of the places we knew we wanted to see when booking Tasmania was the Port Arthur Historic Site.
Port Arthur Historic Site is situated approximately 90 minutes from Hobart, Tasmania’s capital, at the southern end of the Tasman Peninsular, and happens to be home to some of Australia’s most interesting (and tragic) history. Most famous of the sites is the Port Arthur Penitentiary, which was also sadly the site of one of Australia’s worst crimes, the 1996 massacre that took place on the grounds, claiming many innocent lives.
The Historic Site is also home to a dockyard, convict church, museum houses, a hospital, coal mines, and expansive gardens, all formed as part of the greater prison community. The site is heritage listed, with the opportunity to learn so much about this piece of Australian history.
For me, prison tours are always a little more interesting than they may be for some, as my background is in the prison system as a psychologist. This is a career I left only mid 2014 after close to a decade of working in the field so I love hearing the comparison between historic prisons and their modern counterparts. You will actually be surprised in some cases how many similarities still exist, and Port Arthur is certainly no exception.
The Port Arthur Penitentiary was originally constructed in 1843 as a flour mill and granary before converting in 1857. It was originally capable of housing close to 500 convicts overall. It had a Watchmen’s Quarters, a meals mess, library, chapel, workshops and ablutions complex on the grounds, however the building was destroyed by fire back in 1987. The remains of the original penitentiary stand today, with the conservation project commencing in the 1960s to maintain what was left of the historic site. More recently, a project has been in place to ensure conservation of the prison remains for future generations.
During a visit to Port Arthur, you are able to walk through the remains of the penitentiary safely, which gives you an idea of how impressive the structure once was. There are lots of historic notes around the site, to give you an idea of how each of the areas was utilised, and other significant events that took place.
We joined a guided tour during our visit, with a fantastic and engaging tour guide who had such incredible knowledge of the site. He spoke of the importance of work or education for the convicts, how these were mandatory to ensure released convicts had skills to help them if they returned to society. This especially has such a parallel with modern corrections.
A separate prison was constructed back in 1950, which formed what we know these days as the solitary confinement area. Single cells, isolated from other convicts and only given an hour a day of exercise in the adjoining exercise yard. Not unlike many of Australia’s maximum security facilities now.
This area of the site is still in good condition since it was unaffected by the fire that destroyed the main prison area.
Another impressive structure on the Port Arthur Historic Site is the convict church. While also destroyed by fire, the church has undergone several rebuilds over time and is worth a visit on its own, with its impressive high walls and large space to accommodate convicts and staff all at once.
There are several houses located nearby the prison and church grounds that were home to many of the important individuals involved in the prison management over the years. Many are now restored and able to be viewed during your visit and some are said to be haunted. Eeeek!
Between the houses and the prison sites are some lovely expansive gardens, filled with colourful flowers and greenery. There is also the every so important Commandant’s garden, planted back in 1950 and maintained since, along with the Commandant’s well preserved residence.
Overall, Port Arthur Historic Site is an interesting attraction, well worth the visit. It will particularly appeal if you are a fan of history… or prisons. There is enough to fill a couple of hours easily during the visit, with extra seasonal activities such as a cruise. There is also a restaurant on site that serves great food and plenty of variety to suit all tastes.
PORT ARTHUR HISTORIC SITE
There is an entry fee associated with Port Arthur Historic Site, with basic adult entry from $35 AU, or $80 for a family of four. Our entry was inclusive of a Tasman Island Cruise which we did prior to entering Port Arthur and booked through Tasman Island Cruises instead. However there are several other entry options included on the Port Arthur Historic Site website, including the ghost tours if you are feeling brave.
Port Arthur Historic Site has plenty to see and is suitable for children, however younger children may become bored during guided tours, depending on their interest level.
There are plenty of bus services and tours available to transport you to Port Arthur from the surrounding cities and from Hobart city.
We had a hire car and took the self-drive option. If you choose to travel to Port Arthur via private transport, be mindful of the windy roads and wildlife. It is the one downfall to the beautiful natural scenery along the way.
Do you have an interest in historic prison sites and stories?