Day 137: Tassie Explorer Part 4 – Port Arthur and Prison History


Another day, another pick up, with another guide and a different group of people joining us.

We were back up to almost full tour size of almost 20 people though were were a mish-mash of different Under Down Under Tour options.

Hobart and Launceston, Pub Quiz Fans, were actually the second and third cities in Australia, respectively after Sydney. Once the gold rush started in Victoria, people began flocking to the upstart Melbourne and development in Tasmania paused.

I’ve seen old tourism posters highlighting Tasmania is a place to cool off and escape the Australian Summer heat. So, I was curious as to why Tasmania wasn’t more developed bearing in mind the upper class loathing of the climate in Melbourne.

The gold boom explained that puzzle.

Hobart is a lovely place with a harbour filled with memorials to Antarctic exploration, featuring Huskies, penguins and the first Australian to Winter on the frozen continent.

My favourite was ‘Louis and Joe’. This is Tasmanian, Louis Bernacchi, the first Australian to Winter in Antarctica.

He first went in 1898 and joined Scott’s Discovery Expedition from 1901 until 1904. He took his favourite husky, Joe with him.

Two poignant monuments were for the women and children who were transported to Van Diemen’s Land.

13,000 convict women were transported to between 1803 and 1853, bringing 2,000 children with them.

This monument lists some of their names and some of their crimes, along with the ships they were transported on – numbers onboard and names of vessels.

The crimes ranged from stealing a handkerchief to murder. There was no threshold to trigger transportation – all and any crime would result in being sent to the opposite side of the world.

This is Descendent. He stands on a plaque filled with the names of children (and their ages) who attended the Orphan Schools on arrival in Hobart between 1834 and 1853. Most seemed to be over the age of 10 with a couple being 18, but some were as young as 2.

Day 4’s guide was Trent who was tasked with taking us all down to Port Arthur.

He highlighted that smoke from the bushfires in New South Wales had blown over to Tasmania, which I wasn’t surprised by, having seen smoke in New Zealand.

As we approached the vast Tasman Bridge spanning the River Derwent the opposite shore was wreathed in smoky haze, making visibility very poor.

Our first stop, in a packed itinerary, was Richmond. The town is 18 miles outside Hobart and the hills on either side of the farmland and vineyards that we drove through, were shrouded in pale grey smoke.

There was far more smoke than we had seen from any of the Tasmanian fires.

Richmond was established in 1824. It’s a pretty little town, though nothing like the one back in Yorkshire… though the bridge might be similar.

The bridge is a popular spot for feeding the ducks and legend has it that it is haunted by the ghost of a cruel overseer.

The bridge was built by convicts, as many of the early buildings on Tasmania were.

One day, the overseer pushed the men too far and they turned on him, beating him and throwing his body into the river below.

The town has retained much of it’s original structures making it a very pleasant stop en route to Port Arthur.

As we continued out journey, the smoke haze showed no sign of lifting. While I couldn’t smell or taste it as I strolled around Richmond, it was very much affecting the visibility across the rolling hills.

The sky around and above us became grey.

Australia’s bushfires are not only Australia’s problem. I talked about the smoke being visible in New Zealand and actually darkening the sky in Auckland.

This is an issue for the whole planet.

The carbon dumped into the atmosphere from this disaster is going to contribute, probably significantly, to global temperature increase.


Ecological history story for the pub quiz fans… the thylacine (AKA Tasmanian Tiger) was once found all over Australia but it went extinct on the mainland around a thousand years ago.

This is thought to be a result of the introduction of the dingo.

Nope, dingos are not native to Australia – they were brought over seveRalph thousand years ago by traders from Indonesia arriving to do business with the Aboriginal peoples.

The thylacine continued to survive on Tasmania until around the 1930s when the last one died in Hobart Zoo.

People claim to have seen them in the bush, but can never provide evidence.

A recent ‘sighting’ turned out to be a pademelon.


Port Arthur, opened in 1833, was a reform prison, for those that committed another crime, after arrival in Van Diemen’s Land.

If those transported were not working as directed as per their punishment, they’d also be sent to Port Arthur. Here they would be taught to read and write, forced to follow a religion and learn a skill so that they could serve a useful role in society when released.

A fairly progressive approach for the 1830s… though harsh capital punishment was still used and, to be fair, if people weren’t going back to England, it was in the settlers’ interests to try to create a society where people weren’t obliged to steal to survive.

The crime of many of those transported had been the theft of bread and food.

One of the cruellest punishments was the silent prison.

Physical capital punishment wasn’t working in terms of breaking spirits, so psychological punishment was introduced: the silent prison.

Speaking was forbidden, human contact was forbidden and the men were kept in darkness. In their one hour per day of solitary exercise, they were taken from their cells wearing hoods so that they never saw eachother, by guards who communicated with each other in sign language.

Once broken, the men often needed help provided by the asylum built next door – a light and airy place, the opposite of the silent prison.

An ironic approach.

The main prison had originally been built as a granary but when it was realised there wasn’t sufficient water supply to run the function, the building was converted.

Why Port Arthur?

The site was discovered by accident when a ship transporting prisoners was caught in a storm. The captain sought shelter in an opening in the cliffs.

This gave entry to a vast natural harbour.

The captain saw an opportunity here. The land was forested. This could be a penal camp and a logging site.

Port Arthur opened in 1833, built by convict labour. There was no escape – the sea one side, the bush on the other, with the one road out heavily guarded.

The prisoners weren’t the only ones confined here. The soldiers and the officers were as trapped here as the men.

Transportation ended in 1853 but Port Arthur continued until 1877 as an institution for the ageing, ill and convicts with mental health issues.

Many of the buildings were destroyed and others sold. The site became a small town known as Carnarvon in an attempt to erase the past… but tourism began almost immediately.

Curiosity was piqued by the publication of a novel: ‘For the Term of his Natural Life’.

Port Arthur is now a World Heritage Site and it is a fascinating place to visit. Guided tours (on foot and by boat) are included as part of the ticket price – tours given by enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides – providing a very helpful overview to the site.

There’s also an interactive approach, for example a playing card provided with every ticket. On each is a character and you can follow the story of each to find out about their history and which buildings on the site they would have frequented.

My playing card featured Thimas Day, 24, born in Jamaica whose ‘crime’ was attempting to escape slavery.

You can also check out your family history to establish whether there are any of your relatives may have ended up in Van Diemen’s Land.

While there were several Reynolds transported, I don’t think any of these were mine. Wrong parts of the UK to be part of my family history.

Leaving Port Arthur we headed on the way to the Tasman National Park because, oh yes, our day continued, we passed through the settlement of Doo Town.

Named because someone put a sign saying ‘Doo Me’ on their house and their neighbours followed suit. As a result, we passed houses named: Much A Doo, Digeri Doo, Love Me Doo, Doo Drop In, This’ll Doo Me and Doo N Time.

We headed up to two natural features the Devil’s Cauldron and Tasman’s Arch.

These are the highest cliffs in Australia and the view down the drop was slightly stomach churning.

And then down to an underwhelming blowhole but a fabulous view of the waves smashing off the rocks.

Finally, after an absolutely packed, engaging and fascinating day, it was back to Hobart.

Categories: Air Pollution, Australia, Tasmania, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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