Port Arthur ruins

Crime and Punishment in Port Arthur

November 3, 2011

in history, road trip, tasmania, vacation

He was dead. And I felt a bit upset, even though I didn’t know him.

The prisoner depicted on the playing card given to me as I entered the “Lottery of Life” exhibit at the Port Arthur Historic Site tried to escape his fate. He was caught and forced to return to the prison, but he died young while carrying out his labor-intensive sentence. Depending on your suit and number on the card, you followed the exhibit to certain points to learn about your specific prisoner: where he’d come from, what he’d done to get in prison; his sentence; and his fate upon release.

Port Arthur convict ruins
Me in chains at Port Arthur convict ruins

It was a smart move on the part of the museum designers. Acquainting visitors with examples of some of the people, mostly British convicts, who served time at Port Arthur lent a human aspect to a throw-away population. These weren’t the greatest citizens, but they were people, with stories and troubles of their own.

The museum, about a 90-minute-drive from Hobart, opens onto the grounds of the prison, built in 1830. About 40 or so different buildings, some in ruins and some restored, sit scattered about the World Heritage site. The crumbling ones were more interesting; the red-bricked foundation looked in places like a stack of uneven Tetris squares. Birds had built nests in the ceiling beams and remnants of prison bed frames still appeared in the architecture. Aside from the prison buildings themselves, restored lodging quarters for employees and their families, several churches and gardens make up what remains of the Port Arthur settlement.

Port Arthur convict ruins

Port Arthur ruins

Near the middle of the grounds is the Separate Prison, built in 1850. Stepping in, I immediately thought of Eastern State Penitentiary, another prison from the 1800s located in Philadelphia. Lo and behold, we came to a room that compared the harsh isolation treatment given to the prisoners at Port Arthur with the Quaker system used at Eastern State. In addition to the tiny cells and an old log book with the names of actual prisoners scrawled in the lines, the separate building had a church. It plays recorded sounds of a sermon and congregants responding when you walk in. So realistic do they sound that I actually thought a mass was underway before we entered the building.  The pews were separated into tiny boxes for each prisoner, who would be locked in behind a tiny door for the sermon.

Port Arthur convict ruins

Brendan being scary at Port Arthur ruins

You have several different ticket options when visiting the Port Arthur Historic Site, and we chose the most basic, the Bronze Pass, for $30, since Brendan and I were heading up to Bicheno later that day. This one-day option also included a short ferry ride and a guided tour, neither of which we took. The visitor information clerk suggested we spend the whole afternoon roaming the grounds, but the two hours we took was enough. Visit the Port Arthur site for more information about other ticket options and to plan your visit.

5 Comments - Add Yours!

  1. Chris

    Port Arthur has got to be one of the most intriguing places in Australian history. Not only is there the long history as a prison, but the awful events of the Massacre have permanently stained the place as well. It’s probably as close as Australian comes to one of those ‘dark places’ that people visit in Europe and Asia such as Chernobyl/Hiroshima etc.

    And no, it doesn’t really match up on the same scale, I know.

    1. Lauren Post author

      It’s weird, but it didn’t seem that dark to me. Maybe it’s because I am not Australian and don’t have as much of a tie to the history, but I guess I saw some of the “light” of the place. a beautiful place, regardless.

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