I’m writing this on March 23rd, ten weeks after my cruise call to Hobart. How the world has changed! Then the news was dominated by bushfires, whilst millions of us enjoyed the carefree life of an ocean cruise. Now the ships are moored and idle, the crews who looked after us so well stood down. Ten days ago our railway museum was still open, Sunday a week ago I was in church (now livestreamed to our homes). On the Monday, UK relatives arrived, only to have to cut their Australia visit short and get on the next available flight to UK. But we were able to visit Sovereign Hill and eat at local restaurants – all now closed.
With this in mind, let me briefly return to happier times. After visiting Adelaide we were meant to have a day on Kangaroo Island, but due to the fires we had to give KI a miss and made straight for Hobart. As I’d visited Hobart before, I decided to go on the full day excursion to Port Arthur, named after George Arthur, the lieutenant governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).
Knowing a little of its history and reputation, I went with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension. I knew of Port Arthur’s reputation for brutality, and how the only access was guarded by a line of chained dogs. Perhaps not too surprising given that from 1833 until 1853, it was the destination for the hardest of convicted British criminals, those who were secondary offenders having reoffended after their arrival in Australia. Port Arthur’s use as a prison ended in 1877 after which the buildings were left to decay, before being resurrected as a tourist attraction.
After disembarking, and a 90-minute coach trip we were at the site. First a guided walking tour to get our bearings, then a boat cruise, and we free to explore at our leisure.
The most prominent structure is the remains of the penitentiary, built as a flour mill and granary in 1845, then converted into convict accommodation: 136 separate cells on the lower two floors and a dormitory for 348 on the top floor. The building was burnt out in 1897.
On the hill is the hospital, accommodating 80 patients, also burnt out in the 1890s.
Port Arthur’s regime was tough, but less so in the physical sense as compared to earlier prison regimes. The hard corporal punishment, such as whippings, used elsewhere was now thought to harden criminals, doing nothing to turn them from their immoral ways.
Instead in Port Arthur’s silent prison (1849) newer inmates were kept in complete and anonymous solitude and silence at all times. They were not to speak, sing, whistle or communicate in any way except when they needed to pass essential information to a guard or when singing in chapel. When outside their cells they wore masks to prevent recognition by other inmates.
Not too surprisingly, many prisoners lost their minds, thus the need for the next door asylum (1868), the last major penal structure to be constructed, now the restaurant and museum where we repaired to for a welcome lunch. Due to the age of the remaining convicts on site, the authorities were forced to employ building tradesmen to assist with the asylum’s construction.
After lunch, increasing rain prompted a hasty retreat to the gift shop but I did get to see the remains of one more burnt-out building, the church, built 1836-7 and destroyed 1884. It could accommodate 1,000 worshippers: convicts seated on benches whilst 200 free settlers had pews that had been produced by the Point Puer (boys prison) boys.
Then back to the ship for dinner and the homeward sail to Melbourne.