Day two at Port Arthur began on a sour note: rain, of course. Though by the time we arrived at the settlement, it had stopped, leaving behind only a dark, overcast sky. For the next few hours, the four of us wandered around the grounds, visiting each building and reading about how the colony was run.
Port Arthur was founded as a prison around the mid-nineteenth century, where only the worst-of-the-worst prisoners or repeat offenders were sent. Although there were bars in each cell and the men who worked in chain gangs were shackled, there was no outer fence or wall holding them within the limits of Port Arthur. The idea was that since Port Arthur is at the tip of the Tasman Peninsula, surrounded by water and dense jungles, guarded at the narrowest point by the Dog Line, there wouldn’t be a need for any other security measures. Indeed, no prisoner ever successfully escaped from Port Arthur (many made it back to the mainland, but were eventually caught and returned). Civilians, such as the constables and their families, tradesmen, and other prision workers and officials lived in houses near the convict barracks.
Bushfires in the late 1800s destroyed many of the buildings, including the penitentiary, some police barracks and the workshops, but many of the houses had either survived or been well restored. The grounds were quite nice to walk around and you still got a feel for how everything was laid out. The old asylum, which housed the elderly and mentally-inflicted prisoners, had been turned into a museum and displayed some period clothing, books, and personal effects.
By the 1870s, transportation of convicts from England had ceased, and the only convicts remaining at Port Arthur were the old and infeeble ones. Interestingly, many of them were actually free men, but because they had no family, no usable skills and in need of care, they stayed, and were still required to live the life of prisoners. Finally, when the colony shut down, they were transferred to welfare centers in Hobart, and Port Arthur became a civilian town, renamed Carnarvon to distance itself from its sinister origins. In the first quarter of the 20th century, the tourism industry was increasing so much in Port Arthur, the town actually embraced the dark past which it had tried so hard to forget.
Some other interesting bits of info:
Similar to construction projects around the entire state, such as the Ross and Campbell Town bridges, many of Port Arthurs buildings were designed and built by convicts, such as the asylum and church.
One of the commandants of the prison colony was a big fan of psychological punishment measures (read: borderline torture) and instituted a form of solitary confinement that would give anyone the heebie jeebies. Prisoners were put in a small room with no windows and only a slat in the door through which their food was delivered. The hallway outside was lined with felt and the guards wore covers over their shoes so as to not make any noise when patrolling the hall. The walls between the cells were meteres thick, so the only sounds prisoners heard were the ones they made themselves. For 1 hour a day, a mask with two eyelets was put over their heads and they were taken to the yard for exercise. The masks prevented any one prisoner from recognizing another. Prisoners lived this life of intense quiet for weeks and sometimes months at a time. And though they weren’t allowed to speak, they were permitted to sing.
After Port Arthur, we drove to the Remarkable Cave, which was hardly that. On the northern side of the of the peninsula was an abandoned coal mine, now turned into kind of outdoor museum. True to Tassie form, the clouds had started to break up while we were still at PA and the sun peaked through. The drive to the coal mines was quite nice, and it was even warm enough to change into shorts before setting of on some of the walks in the area. Almost on cue, 5 minutes after we put on our shorts and the guys slathered on sun tan lotion, the clouds returned and dumped rain on us. Disappointed with the walks at the coal mines, we decided to make our way out of the peninsula. We stopped at the Dog Line at Eaglehawk Neck to get some pictures of a bronze dog statue marking the area.
By the time we reached Hobart, it was pouring. We checked into a rather nice hostel called Allports (the only one that had rooms available on a few hours notice) and headed down the street to find a grocer’s. After dinner we hung about the hostel, watching TV, talking with other backpackers and reading.
Stay tuned for a beautiful drive across the southern coast, more cold camping nights, and small town called Ouse, where we were treated to a night none of us would ever stop talking about.
And soon I’m going to find another internet connection that will let me post my pictures, don’t worry.