Port Arthur – Amazing Convict Settlement

Port Arthur is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site located 95 kms from Hobart. It is probably Australia’s most intact and powerful convict site. Port Arthur was named after George Arthur, the lieutenant governor of Van Diemen’s Land (as Tasmania was called at the time). There are more than 30 historic buildings and ruins to explore covering over 100 acres. One full day’s visit may not be enough, but that is what we did…

Dani behind bars. A familiar sight for regular readers…

The many buildings and ruins around the site manage to combine grim prison conditions with the neat home life of soldiers (guards) and free settlers. All in all a quite different experience from any of the (many) classic old gaols we have visited.

Geographically, this place really was at the end of the world for those unlucky enough, or deserving enough, to be sent there.

Really down-under. This convict site was genuinely at the end of the world.


The Port Arthur penal settlement was just a small timber station in 1830. But with the arrival of convicts from the other side of the world  it would soon become a very important site for convicts and shipbuilding. On the one hand large scale ship building was a way of providing selected convicts with a useful skill they could take with them once freed. Such prisoners would go on to build much of the newly evolving colony of course. But there is always a flip side. If you were a skilled carpenter (or similar trade) in the old country and got caught up in a petty crime it was quite possible that you would be seen as excellent cheap labour and shipped off to the new colony never to see your home land and family ever again.

Looking over to the Asylum and Separate Prison
Cells in the old four storey prison block were tiny.

Old Convict Church and (newer) St. Davids Anglican church

The old convict church was built by the convicts but never consecrated. Every Sunday up to 1100 people (both convict and free) worshipped at the old church. It was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1884.

In 1853 the transportation of convicts ceased but that did not stop the growth of Port Arthur. Other prisoners were moved to Port Arthur during the 1850s and 1860s. The prison was even expanded during the 1850s as second offenders and problematic prisoners in other convict sites around the colony were moved there.

Separate Prison and Asylum

Built in 1849 the “separate prison” was based on the Pentonville prison in Great Britain with four separate wings built around a central hub. Next door, the asylum was built in 1868 to house mentally unwell convicts. It later became a town hall and is now a museum.

The Separate Prison built in 1849 was based on Britain’s Pentonville prison
Cells seem much bigger than the old prison block

The prison was designed to keep prisoners “separate” and it is said that no talking was allowed. Even in the Separate Prison chapel convicts were kept in separate stalls and the only sound was that of the cleric. The whole experience was all about depersonalisation and instead of leading to reforming prisoners it led to high levels of insanity. It was clearly no accident that the asylum was built next door.

The chapel at the Separate Prison. At least prisoners were allowed to sing hymns here.
Two wings and chapel in the Separate Prison. Plus the Asylum

When Port Arthur ceased to be a prison in 1877 there was split opinion as to whether the area would attract tourists. Port Arthur was renamed Carnarvon and during the 1880s, land was sold to people wanting to take up residence in and around the old site. Those who bought Port Arthur property began tearing down the buildings. Fires caused further damage in 1895 and 1897 – which destroyed the old (4-storey) prison house.

However, the natural beauty of the area plus the haunting stories of old convict prison system drew people to the site. By 1927, tourism had grown to the point where the area’s name was reverted to Port Arthur.

Carnarvon settlement viewed from Isle of the Dead
Pat Jones’ Cottage

In and Around Eaglehawk Neck 

Close to Eaglehawk Neck you can see some of the stunning coastline. There’s also a large natural arch carved out by the sea known as  The Devil’s Kitchen.

Devil’s Kitchen

Here are some of the stunning views off the coast with close-ups zooming in on one or two features:

  Port Arthur was sold as an inescapable prison, much like Alcatraz Island in the USA. The peninsula on which Port Arthur is located is a naturally secure site being surrounded by water (back in those days few people were able to swim). The peninsula is only linked to the mainland by a 30 metre-wide strip of land known as Eaglehawk Neck. This thin strip of land was fenced and well guarded; by soldiers, man traps, and even half-starved dogs!

Inescapable! Savage coast and half-starved dogs

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