World Heritage listed Port Arthur Historic Site is located on the Tasman Peninsula, a 90 minute drive south east from Tasmania’s capital city, Hobart. It is the best-preserved convict settlement in Australia and among the most significant convict era sites in the world.
Port Arthur began its European history as a timber-getting station in 1830. By 1833 the station grew to become a place of secondary punishment – a prison settlement for men who had reoffended within the Australian colony. Its geographical location made it almost inescapable, and its reputation was designed to discourage convicts from misbehaving. This was an industrial prison and an experiment in prison reform, with a population of over 2000 people at its peak. Discipline was harsh, hours of work were long and food was basic, but the convicts turned out ships, clothing, shoes, bricks, timber and plenty of other products for export.
Misdemeanors were greeted with tough consequences; at first with the lash and heavy leg irons, and later with the introduction of separate, silent treatment.
Furthering the experiment, Point Puer Boys’ Prison was established across the bay as the first separate boys’ prison in the British Empire. Operating from 1834-49, it would receive boys as young as 9 years old, but was plagued with operational problems and closed down after just 15 years.
Transportation ended in 1853, signaling a swing in attitudes towards convictism and the growth of a new, free society. Port Arthur began to see a change in demographic among its inmates as the men began to age and their health failed. Port Arthur’s prison chapter finally shuddered to a halt in 1877, after 47 years of operation and roughly 12500 sentences served.
Australia entered a period of deliberate amnesia regarding transportation and its human price. Port Arthur was renamed Carnarvon, buildings were sold and in some cases torn down, and bushfires tore through the heart of the settlement in 1895 and 1897. Yet a level of curiosity remained, and from the moment the prison closed it blossomed into the beginnings of Port Arthur’s appeal as a major Tasmanian tourist attraction. With no roads to the area, initial visitation came by steamship, and visitors flocked to the bustling little township whose history had been immortalized in Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of his Natural Life.
Today, the Port Arthur Historic Site can best be described as an open-air museum, with 100 acres of gardens and grounds, and including more than 30 buildings and ruins. Offering guided tours, cruises and a myriad of cultural experiences, Port Arthur is the highest awarded major tourist attraction in Australia.