Port Arthur, TAS

Port Arthur a Pretty Site for Punishment

19th-century Australian penal colony retains its charms and horrors

Ruins of Port Arthur penitentiary in Tasmania

The ruins of the penitentiary, at Tasmania’s Port Arthur Historic Site, are among 30 buildings, some still intact, remaining at this 19th-century convict site.

PETER NEVILLE-HADLEY/Meridian Writers’ Group

“IT WAS LIKE a small town,” wrote one 19th-century visitor to what is now Port Arthur Historic Site, “beautifully situated in a verdant valley among trees and shrubs, and the surrounding hills covered with forest.”

Today the seaside site, on the tip of a peninsula 90 minutes’ drive south-east of Hobart, still appears idyllic, with more than 30 intact buildings and picturesque brick ruins dotting the hillside. They are in fact the remains of a convict punishment station.

Nineteenth-century Australia was the far end of the earth for Britain, which used it as a dumping ground for convicted criminals—a sentence called “transportation.” Tasmania, the large island off Australia’s southern coast, was even more isolated.

The point of Port Arthur was to reform aspects of its inmates’ character. Prisoners were taught stonemasonry, joinery, brick-making and more, with the aim that they should eventually become productive members of society.

Convicts worked on reclaiming the broad green stretches of land by the water, which were covered after 1840 with wooden workshops as the prison became a busy industrial site, even turning a profit. Its products were exported via a substantial dockyard, which also built hundreds of ships and smaller vessels.

The inmates built the brick structures that remain, including the four storeys of the penitentiary. This has now been partially restored to show visitors the conditions under which convicts lived and worked. Its frontage looks from a distance like that of a ruined English country house.

The convicts also built a now-roofless but still atmospheric church, assorted cottages for officers, an asylum and more, among extensive gardens.

The worst offenders were treated according to theories originally devised by Quakers. A man left in solitary confinement and with no distractions for 23 hours a day would have no choice but to turn in on himself, consider his sins and repent. Breaking any of 114 different rules might lead to 30 days on bread and water in a pitch-dark punishment cell that may be visited.

While stories are often told of men transported to the other side of the world, never to see their homes and families again, merely for stealing a loaf of bread to feed starving children, they were more commonly hardened repeat offenders.

Cards are given out with the names of convicts, whose background may be researched at the site’s excellent Gallery, with its photographs and records of inmates and lives spent in manacles and leg irons.

The prison’s commandant lived a contrastingly comfortable life, albeit in a house of haphazard plan with extension added to extension, its interiors now restored with furniture of the period and its original wallpapers recreated.

Britain ended transportation in 1853, and the Port Arthur penal colony was closed in 1877. In the 1890s bush fires caused much damage, including to buildings that had briefly opened as hotels, but the pretty site remained popular with visitors, as it is today. There are various guided tours and a night-time ghost walk that tells the stories of assorted inmate deaths.



For more information on the Port Arthur Historic Site visit its website at

For information on visiting Tasmania go to the Tourism Tasmania website at