Port Arthur, Tasmania

small town and former convict settlement on the Tasman Peninsula, in Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur is a small town on the Tasman Peninsula, in Tasmania, Australia. It is about 80 km south east of the state capital, Hobart. It was settled as a penal colony (a very large prison for convicts). Port Arthur is now one of Australia's most important historic areas. In 2010 it was included on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites as one of the Australian Convict Sites. It is officially Tasmania's top tourist attraction. In 1996 the worst mass murder in Australian history took place here.

Port Arthur, Tasmania
UNESCO World Heritage Site
View of Port Arthur, Tasmania, one of the 11 penal sites constituting the Australian Convict Sites
Part ofAustralian Convict Sites
CriteriaCultural: iv, vi
Inscription2010 (34th Session)
Area146 ha
Buffer zone1,216.51 ha
Port Arthur
Port Arthur is located in Tasmania
Port Arthur
Port Arthur
Coordinates43°09′0″S 147°51′0″E / 43.15000°S 147.85000°E / -43.15000; 147.85000
Population499 (2006 census)[1]
Elevation192 m (630 ft)[2]
LGA(s)Tasman Council
State electorate(s)Lyons
Federal division(s)Lyons
Mean max temp Mean min temp Annual rainfall
14.8 °C
59 °F
8.2 °C
47 °F
1,148.8 mm
45.2 in

At the 2006 census, Port Arthur and the local area had a population of 499.[1]



Australia's largest penal colony

Main prison area, Port Arthur

Port Arthur was named after Van Diemen's Land lieutenant governor George Arthur. It started as a place to cut down timber from the forests in 1830. It is best known for being a penal colony. From 1833, until 1853, criminals from United Kingdom and Ireland were sent to Port Arthur as convicts. The prisoners were kept busy ship with jobs including building the prison, shoemaking, smithing, timber and brick making.[3] In the 1840s there were more than 1100 prisoners.[3] In 1842 the prisoners built a hospital and a big flour mill and grain store. At the time it was built, it was the biggest building in Australia.[4] This was later turned into a cell block. After 1853 convicts from other prisons in Australia were sent to Port Arthur if they did more crimes, or would not behave properly.

In 1864 they started building the Asylum to hold the prisoners who had become insane. During the 1860s and 1870s the prisoners left at the prison were either too old, too sick, or insane to keep working. The prison closed in 1877.[3]

For many years, researchers could not work out whether or not the fossils discovered at Port Arthur were remnants of the dinosaur era.

The Separate Prison

Inside the separate prison, Port Arthur, Tasmania

Port Arthur has the best example of a "Separate Prison" system. This system was started at Pentonville prison in London. The Separate Prison (sometimes called the Model Prison) was started in 1848, finished in 1853 and made bigger in 1855.[3] It has 80 prison cells built in the shape of a cross. In the centre is a hall and a chapel. There are exercise yards built between the arms of the cross.[5] The Separate system was a change in the way that prisoners were treated. Instead of physical punishment the system used psychological (mind) punishment. It was thought that physical punishment, such as whippings, only made prisoners worse. It did not turn bad people into good people. In the Separate prison they used the "Silent System". Prisoners wore a hood over their heads. They were not allowed to talk or make any noise. The guards wore special shoes and walked on mats so they wouldn't make any noise.[6] Even in the chapel, each prisoner was kept in a separate wooden box where they could only see the altar. The prisoners were supposed to use the quiet time to think about the bad things they had done. Port Arthur was seen as the best prison in Australia.

An Inescapable Prison


Port Arthur was a natural prison. It is on the Tasman Peninsula which is almost completely surrounded by the sea. It is joined to the rest of Tasmania by a small narrow piece of land about 30 metres wide. This is called Eaglehawk Neck. The Neck had a fence, prison guards, and savage dogs to stop prisoners from leaving. There was no contact between visiting seamen and prisoners. Ships had to give the guards their sails and oars when they arrived to stop people leaving without permission. A semaphore message system was also set up between Port Arthur and Hobart. Messages could be sent in just 15 minutes.[7]

A postcard depicting a convict team ploughing a farm at Port Arthur. Dated 1926.

Escape from Port Arthur was said to be impossible, like Alcatraz Island in the United States. Some prisoners did try to escape. One prisoner, George "Billy" Hunt, covered himself with a kangaroo skin and tried to get across the Neck. The hungry guards on duty tried to shoot him to make an extra meal. When he saw them pointing their guns, Hunt gave himself up. He was whipped 150 times. Bushranger Martin Cash successfully escaped along with two others.

The Boys' Prison

Point Puer left, Isle of the Dead in centre, and main prison top left

The British Empire's first boys' prison was built on Point Puer, 3 km across Opossum Bay from Port Arthur. Puer is the Latin word for boy. It was for young boys, some as young as 9, like James Lynch, arrested for stealing toys.[8] The boys were kept away from the main convict area. About 3,500 boys were sent to Point Puer. Like the adults, the boys were given hard work such as stone cutting and building. There was also a school run by 2 ex-convicts.[8] One prisoner was James Gavagan. When he was 11 he stole some umbrellas. He was sent to Tasmania for 7 years. He arrived at Point Puer in 1835. When he turned 17, he was sent to the main prison at Port Arthur. He was released in March 1842.[8] There is only a few stones left to mark the site of the boys' prison. Point Puer Excavation Archived 2008-07-21 at the Wayback Machine

The Church

The church at Port Arthur

The convicts built one of Australia's first non-denominational churches, built in a gothic style. All prisoners had to go to the church every Sunday. People who did not like the new prison system said that this did not seem to make the prisoners into good people.

Isle of the Dead

Headstone on the Isle of the Dead

Port Arthur was seen as a much better prison, and would make the convicts better people. But life at Port Arthur was just as hard and brutal as other penal colonies. Some critics might even say that its use of psychological punishment, together with no hope of escape, made it one of the worst. Some stories say that prisoners would murder others to escape the prison. Murder would be punished by death. Isle of the Dead is a small island in the bay near Port Arthur. Everyone who died at the penal colony was buried on the island. There are 1646 graves on the island, but only 180, mainly those of prison staff, have a headstone.

Convict Railway


The first railway in Australia was a human powered railway at Port Arthur.[9] The railway was built in 1836. The line ran from the beach at Taranna, Tasmania for 7 kms to Port Arthur. It carried both people and supplies. It meant that ships from Hobart could unload in the calm water and not have to travel right around Cape Raoul to Port Arthur through rough seas. The carriage was pushed along the tracks by 4 convicts. Very little sign of the railway has survived.[10] The State Library of Victoria has a drawing of the convict railway. [1][permanent dead link]

Convicts to Tourists


When the penal colony closed in 1877 the area was renamed "Carnavon". During the 1880s the was sold and a small town was started. Many buildings were pulled down and the bricks sent to make new buildings in Hobart. Fires burned the area in 1895 and 1897 and ruined many of the old prison buildings.[11] Some buildings were changed for the new town to make a post office and town hall.

Tourism started as soon as the prison closed. This brought money into the new town. Some of the old convicts gave guided tours of the prison. In 1927 tourism had grown so much the area's name was changed back to Port Arthur.[11] 1916 saw the start of the Scenery Preservation Board (SPB) which looked after the Port Arthur site. By the 1970s the National Parks and Wildlife Service took over the site.

In 1979 the government gave money to protect the site as a tourist area, because of its historical importance. The post office and town hall of Port Arthur were moved to nearby Nubeena. Several grand sandstone buildings, built by convicts were cleaned up. These buildings include the Separate Prison, the Round Tower, the church, and the remains of the main prison building. The buildings are surrounded by green grass.

The mass graves on The Island of the Dead also attract visitors. The air about the small bush-covered island is described as being sad and peaceful by visitors.

Tourists can either walk around the area themselves, or go on a guided tours. There are also late night "ghost tours". There is a museum, with written records, tools, clothing and other interesting things from convict times.

Since 1987 the site has been managed by the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority, paid for by the Tasmanian Government.



On 28 April 1996, Martin Bryant killed 35 people and hurt 37 others at Port Arthur.[6] He was captured by the police. This is now called the Port Arthur massacre. This led to a national ban on semi-automatic shotguns and rifles. It also made a link between the Port Arthur and Dunblane, a Scottish town which also had a shooting that year.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Australian Bureau of Statistics (25 October 2007). "Port Arthur (State Suburb)". 2006 Census QuickStats. Retrieved 2007-11-11.
  2. Bureau of Meteorology. Retrieved 2007-11-11.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 "History - Convict Life". Port Arthur Historic Site. Archived from the original on 2008-07-19. Retrieved 2008-08-13.
  4. Lane, Jacqui (2001). The Great Australia Gazeteer. II O'Flahertie, Susan, III Elder, Bruce, IV Thoerning, Peter. Edgecliff NSW: Focus Publishing. ISBN 187535980X.
  5. The "Separate" or "Model" Prison, Port Arthur - Ian Brand ISBN 0-949457-33-7
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Inescapable Always". The Age Travel. 22 April 2006. Retrieved 2008-08-13.
  7. "Semaphore". Queensland Telecommunications Museum. Archived from the original on 2008-07-05. Retrieved 2008-08-13.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 "Crime and Punishment: Convicts and Port Arthur". National Centre for History Education. Retrieved 2008-08-13.
  9. "Taranna, Tasmania". Sydney Morning Herald Travel. 8 February 2004. Retrieved 2008-08-13.
  10. "Redefinition survey of a convict railway near Port Arthur, Tasmania". Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. Retrieved 2008-08-13.[permanent dead link]
  11. 11.0 11.1 "Inescapable always" (The Age Travel). 22 April 2006. Retrieved 2008-08-13.

Further reading

  • Barrington R (n.d.) Convicts and Bushrangers, View Productions, Sydney
  • Kneale, Matthew, (2000) English passengers London: Hamish Hamilton. ISBN 0-241-14068-4
  • Smith R (1987) The Birth of a Nation: Australia's Historic Heritage — from Discovery to Nationhood, Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood, ISBN 0-670-90018-4

Other websites