The most famous landmark in Port Arthur is the Penitentiary building which was developed at one stage in its past to be a bakery and granary. Visiting this historic site was amazing and sad at the same time. To imagine what it was like in the middle of the 1800’s for either a convict or guard, is to imagine a life of misery with little hope.
The guards often had less room and worse conditions than the prisoners. We were amazed to discover that many of the convicts sent to Port Arthur were Canadian and American, and all were repeat offenders. The chances of someone stealing a loaf of bread and being deported was minimal at best, but get caught 4 times and they’d ship you out. Even children as young as 7 were sent here. This was a very poignant discussion, as we were standing there with 2 seven year olds.
This is a convict cell (centre). You can see the shelf on the left, and the window is at ceiling height. The beds hung on hooks at the end of the wall.
All these buildings were constructed by convicts, and the feeling of history here is tangible. Port Arthur was a thriving village community with houses, businesses, and many industries operating. Some of the best medical care was available, because if the convicts became ill, they reduced the workforce. The hospital is a large dominant structure at the top of the hill.
My favourite building was the church. The building was never consecrated, but there are two theories as to why. 1. There was a very diverse range of people here, and consecrating the church in the name of one religion was to offend people of other faiths. Theory 2. There was a convict murdered here during construction, and thus the church could never be regarded as The Lord’s House with blood in its soil. Seems like we have similar cultural conflicts today.
The first bells forged in Australia were a set of eight, that were built for this church. Seven remain today for us to see, the location of the eighth is unknown.
Just up the road is the Separate prison, so named because the prisoners were kept permanently in isolation from each other. They had individual cells, individual exercise yards, and even individual pews in the church, so they could not see each other in worship. Solitary confinement at its cruel worst. The most depressing cell of all was deep in the walls of the prison, with two large doors that allowed absolutely no light to enter the cell. Josie was the only child willing to try it, and she lasted about 60 seconds, before she wanted out.
By comparison to the prisoners quarters, the barracks was not much better. All the guards and their families were crammed in together into tiny rooms, because few houses were available.
The Governors' House and Gardens were complete luxury by anyone standards, and never before has the contrast between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ been more apparent. The house has been added to over the years, and it is fascinating to walk though and see the different architectural styles and additions that have been made.
We did try to lock up the children a few times, with little success, unfortunately the major bushfire that ravaged the ruins in 1895, burned most of the doors off, and they were able to escape. Even after locking them all up in chains.
On the tours around Port Arthur, the guides talk about “The Machine” which was the correctional system of the day. “The Machine” was designed to turn hardened criminals into useful citizens through hard work. Those that were put through the mill seemed to have become either that, or complete mental cases. They did build a mental hospital here also, which decades later housed the new city council offices as the new town emerged. Out with the old crazies, and in with the new ones!