A convict journey
It really seems like we were on our very own ‘Convict Journey’ as we visited Darlington Probation Station on Maria Island, Port Arthur Historic Site, the Coal Mines and later in our trip, Sarah Island over on the West Coast.
How’s this for a great list of names?
Eagle Hawk Neck, Dog line, Coal Mines, Remarkable Cave, Devil’s Kitchen, Tasman Arch, Isle of the Dead, Point Puer Boys’ Prison, Port Arthur Historic Site –
amazing places which can all be found on the Tasman Peninsula, on Tasmania’s East Coast.
After we left Maria Island,we drove though the dark evening to Stewart’s Bay Lodge just next door to the Port Arthur Historic Site. The drive was made quite hard due to the oncoming traffic and headlights of visitors who were on their way home from a day out at Port Arthur. Our cabin key had been left in the safe for us to collect and we managed to find our cabin without too much trouble.
When you’ve been travelling for a few days you tend to get excited about finding not only a washing machine, but also a dryer, in your accommodation (well at least I get excited!). It was bliss to be able to get all our clothes washed and dried in a short space of time!
We woke the next morning to overcast skies and a water view through the trees, neither of which were expected. The cabin was well setup and very private set amongst the gum trees.
Port Arthur Historic Site – one of Tasmania’s World Heritage Convict Sites
Port Arthur was a penal settlement between 1830-77, built on the shores of Mason Cove with dense forests surrounding the area. It was a beautiful place but wild and remote at the same time. I can only imagine how it would have felt back in the day, probably like the end of the earth.
The site covers 135 hectares and has more than 30 historic buildings and ruins. Despite being a beautiful, peaceful site today, it was once a brutal place. Given my previous occupation as an Educator in the prison system, I was pleased to hear of the reforms, education and training that were undertaken in ‘this place of terror’.
We arrived at the Port Arthur Historic Site in time to join the first walking tour of the day with a very interesting guide. Our entrance ticket included a guided 45 minute walking tour and a boat trip on the harbour with a guide giving commentary as we went along. We learnt about the Point Puer Boys’ Prison which operated between 1834-1849 and was the first purpose-built juvenile reformatory in the British Empire. We were horrified to learn that young boys were transported from England and usually housed with adult prisoners. Point Puer catered for boys aged 14-17 and was known for its stern discipline, harsh punishment but again, the fact that education and trade training was made available to all boys, made me feel a bit better, knowing they were given a chance to learn a trade to help them survive after release. Between 1833 and 1877 about 1100 people, from all walks of life, were buried on the Isle of the Dead.
The grounds and buildings are beautifully maintained, the history is available on story boards and you can really get a sense of how the site has evolved over the years. The conservation of the buildings is to be applauded. There’s the Dockyards to visit, the houses, the Penitentiary, the welfare area including the hospital, the convict water supply trail, the Church, the Civil Officers’ Row of well preserved cottages and the ruins.
We spent a full day walking and enjoying the history lessons and went in again the next morning for a further look around. There are cafes, visitor information, gift shops and toilets spread around the site for convenience. The entry ticket includes two days entry, the walking tour and boat cruise. You can add on extras like the nightly ghost tour, paranormal Investigation Experience, visit the Point Puer Boys’ Prison and Isle of the Dead and an audio tour.
The Separate Prison
A separate prison was designed to deliver a different form of punishment, through isolation and contemplation. Inmates were locked up for 23 hours in single, narrow cells and didn’t get to talk to anyone. The only time they exercised their vocal chords was at church services where they were hooded and locked into individual booths so they could not see or talk with anyone else. Apparently their singing was loud but not very tuneful. I stood in the isolated booth and felt very cut off as they were high enough to only allow a limited view of the church. The whole separate prison was very unsettling and eerie but given my experience I can relate to the whole setup in some ways.
You can’t visit Port Arthur without thinking of the tragedy that unfolded on 28 April 1996 when a gunman took the lives of 35 people and wounded 19 others. It was an awful event but the Memorial Garden has been done with respect and a sense of peace transcends the horror with a reflection pool, shrubs, flowers, plaques and some of the history. I felt better once I’d visited the garden but the enormity of what the families must still be suffering as a result of the tragic events on that day, stayed with me.
The Coal Mines
The Coal Mines Historic Site is a 25 minute drive from Port Arthur and is also well worth a visit. I had no idea about them until our visit. This was an area where the ‘worst of the worst’ convicts were sent for punishment. According to the visitor brochure the Coal Mines attempted to combine the convict discipline with industrial productivity but the experiment was destined to be short lived. By the late 1830s with 600 prisoners on site, the majority of coal used in Van Dieman’s Land was produced there. After 15 years the operation was handed to private enterprise and mining was eventually abandoned in 1901. It was another beautiful, peaceful area on a sunny winter’s morning but the life of those underground, mining the coal, would have been much different to ours!
Port Arthur is a World Heritage site and one of its aims was ‘to grind rogues into honest men’. It’s been described as a bold experiment and groundbreaking attempt at reform and rehabilitation of the convicts of the colony of Van Dieman’s Land. Port Arthur was a key part if the colonial system of convict discipline. Remote, harsh, with no chance of escape, these were the perfect destinations for hardened, repeat offenders.
There is so much more I could tell you about these amazing places but you’ll just have to go and visit for yourself.
This is another segment of our Tour de Tassie – you can find the other posts here:
Travel safely. Until next time!
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