Horsing around in Port Arthur

We spend the day at Port Arthur. It is the site of Tasmania’s most well known and significant penal station which operated between 1830 and 1876, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It is also Tasmania’s busiest tourist attraction.  Big groups follow guides around the site for introductory tours.  Ours tells an anecdote: recently, he says, a woman visiting Port Arthur from Ireland was angry, very angry in fact, that the British had transported one of her ancestors to Australia for seven years, and he had ended up at Port Arthur, all for stealing a length of rope.  Too harsh, she protested, too harsh.  So, our guide tells us, staff looked into the records on her behalf, and yes her ancestor had indeed been transported for stealing a length of rope.  However, attached to one end of it had been a racehorse …


The story gets a good laugh. It sounds apocryphal rather than strictly true, but illustrates the point that nothing is as straightforward as it seems at first glance.  Applying this lesson to Port Arthur we can say that, despite its reputation, it was not a place of unthinking brutality.  Yes, there was brutality by the bucketful but it was far from thoughtless, and it evolved and changed over time in response to external pressures.  In particular, flogging was abandoned in favour of more subtle forms of control based on English prison reformer Jeremy Bentham’s notion of using psychological methods rather than brute force.

In the Separate Prison there was no physical punishment. Each prisoner was confined to his cell, alone, for 23 hours each day where he was required to work.  The cells are arranged in long corridors, at the centre of which sat a guard at a desk.

tasmania-tasman-peninsula-port-arthur-53For one hour the prisoner was allowed to exercise, also alone.  Speaking was forbidden, not only between prisoners but also between prisoners and guards who had to communicate in sign language.  All prisoners also had to attend church, but each had his own private box pew which was so designed that he could see the preacher but not the convict standing next to him.  The photograph above shows the view from the pulpit: the preacher could see all the convicts but they could see only him:

Thus, through these psychological methods, was it intended to break the spirit and the resistance of the convicts.

The most famous view of the Port Arthur site is this one, showing the Penitentiary at the front right, which was converted from a flour mill in 1857 to enable Port Arthur to absorb more convicts. The bottom two floors comprised 136 single cells for “prisoners of bad character,” while the top floor could accommodate 480 better behaved prisoners in a dormitory with bunk beds.


The Port Arthur site succeeds as a tourist attraction in part because it recognises that the real story is not about the buildings, whether they be in ruins or still intact, but about the people who lived there: hearing something of their stories is a key part of the overall visitor experience.

It is also possible to consult a database of the names of convicts to search for one’s own ancestors.  Julie and I both do this eagerly but draw a blank, in Julie’s case no doubt because she comes from a law abiding family, whereas I suspect my lot were simply smart enough to get away with stuff.

Port Arthur is a fascinating place to visit. British students studying nineteenth century history tend to think of transportation as being the end of the story.  However from the Australian perspective this is simply the start of a different, but equally compelling tale.

[16 November]

Author: Platypus Man

"Platypus" is a red herring: I'm English, although my blogging career began in my record of a 2016 road trip to Tasmania. Other blogs followed covering road trips in Newfoundland (2017), the Yellowstone area of the USA (2018) and New Zealand (2019). My current project is "Now I'm 64" , a weekly blog covering UK travel and wildlife, along with bits of history, social commentary and moans about the injustice of aging. I can guarantee a few laughs, and also the occasional rant. Some of it's even quite well written!

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